Thursday, January 25, 2018

"Making Love" in Shakespeare's Day: A Quick Note on I.i.107 of Midsummer Night's Dream

Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night's Dream. Ed. Harold F. Brooks. Arden Shakespeare. London: Methuen, 1979.

A speech in Act I, scene i of Midsummer Night’s Dream often misleads modern readers. In that scene, we’re just learning that Lysander and Demetrius are both in love with Hermia, and then Lysander tells us this interesting bit of information:
Demetrius, I’ll avouch it to his head,

Made love to Nedar’s daughter, Helena,

And won her soul; and she, sweet lady, dotes,
Devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry,
Upon this spotted and inconstant man. (I.i.108-12)
The potentially-misleading phrase is in line 109. What does Lysander mean when he says that Demetrius “made love” to Helena?

He doesn’t mean what the phrase now euphemistically means: to sleep with (or, more embarrassingly but less euphemistically, to have sex with). He does mean what the phrase used to mean: to woo.

How do we know which meaning Lysander has in mind? The OED will help us immensely here.

Midsummer Night’s Dream was written around 1595. To figure out what Lysander’s talking about, we need to see how the phrase “make love” was used at that time.

When we look up “love” in the OED, we find “to make love” defined as a phrase (def. P3 a). Starting in 1567, the phrase meant “To pay amorous attention; to court, woo.” The OED gives several examples of the phrase used in that way, including Shakespeare’s use of the quote in this very speech.

Next, the OED, noting that the origin of this meaning of the phrase comes from the U.S., provides this definition of the phrase in def. P3 b: “To engage in sexual intercourse, esp. considered as an act of love.” The first use of the phrase in that sense appears in 1927.

Therefore, when Shakespeare has Lysander say that Demetrius “made love” to Helena, it means that Demetrius wooed or courted Helena.

Since the meaning has changed over time, it’s very easy to be misled by that phrase into thinking something more happened between Demetrius and Helena than actually happened, and that can give readers a mistaken impression about both characters.

The OED is a marvelous tool for helping us avoid misinterpretation (or, as the OED might put it, misacceptation, misprision, or wresting). Use it wisely and well and frequently!

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Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
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