(Max Reinhardt's “A Midsummer Night's Dream”, one of my favourite movies ever)
I can't help thinking the notion of "romantic love" and marriage was as foreign to 16th century folks as Shakespeare's language is to us. I'm not a historian of that period so can't speak authoritatively, but I believe most marriages back then were arranged for economic or political advantage (among the higher classes) and mere convenience among the lower class. Since 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' is a comedy, maybe the idea of a marriage based on love and/or romance was part of what was funny to the people of Shakespeare's day. What, marry for love? How impractical is that? You might as well believe in fairies...
As for the play being some kind of celebration of machismo, I think the opposite is what the Bard was going for. He shows us very plainly how ridiculous the men are for the way they behave. A father condemning his daughter to death or a life of celibacy, a ruler who brags on winning his future wife by injury and young men who seemingly with little thought profess love doesn't paint a flattering picture of these men. Shakespeare is telling us that these guys aren't all they're cracked up to be.
Shakespeare's sentiments on men and their worth is summed up succinctly early in Act I when Hermia says,
“By all the vows that ever men have broke
In number more than ever women spoke…”
And because the women do not speak up for themselves, Shakespeare lets us know that they are at fault in a different kind of way. To me it says that much silliness is attached to the idea of romantic love, as these characters are displaying it. Are they really "in love" or are they fooled by the notion of it?
'Love' is probably the most fickle of all emotions. We, humans, fall in love as easily as we fall out of love. Be it 'Romeo' or 'Demetrius', Shakespeare has time and again placed a mirror to our society through his plays like 'Romeo and Juliet' or 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Why do we crave love? Why do we obsess over something or someone? Why are we infatuated by things that are out of our reach?
It is rightly written by the master craftsman "The course of true love never did run smooth". This true love could be unrequited love or reciprocated love. Each faces its own demons. Each tackles its own difficulties. Indeed, "Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind". And it is this very mind that desires what it knows it cannot attain; it seeks that which it knows it will not find.
So beware, tread carefully, REMEMBER "therefore is Love said to be a child, because in choice he is so oft beguiled".
And yet Shakespeare turns the tables on gender stereotypes when Helena, Lysander, Hermia, and Demetrius enter the woods. Women are as often portrayed as fickle and inconstant, yet it's the men who behave this way in the woods.