A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The initial setting of the play’s scenes is Athens under the reign of Theses and Hippolyta, who are themselves characters from ancient Greek mythology. But it must be understood that the “Athens” of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is neither that of ancient Greece nor of its Renaissance counterpart, but an amalgamation of the former with the folk culture of Elizabethan England. After Act I, the play shifts to the “fairyland woods” and remains there through Acts II, III, and IV, returning to “Athens” in Act V for the concluding weddings and the performance of “Pyramus and Thisbe” by the uncouth, unskilled, but irrepressible company of Bottom and his fellow mechanicals.

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Act I

Scene i: The play opens in the Athenian court of Theseus as he looks forward to wedding his bride, the former Queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta, some four days hence at the summer Solstice. The “blocking” character of the play arrives in the form of the aged Egeus, the father of Hermia. He wants his daughter Hermia to marry Demetrius and he is vexed by her love for another Athenian youth, Lysander. Hermia refuses her father’s demand, while both Lysander and Demetrius press their suits to Theseus. The wise Athenian ruler upholds the law as it stands: he first rules that Hermia must either follow her father’s preference for Demetrius or remain unwed forever. But Theseus also gives Hermia and Lysander some time to accommodate themselves to his decision and then calls Egeus into a private, off-stage consultation. All the players leave save Lysander and Hermia, with the former uttering the famous sentiment that, “The course of true love never did run smooth” (I,i., l.134). Another Athenian maid, Helena arrives. She is both a (former) friend of Hermia and a rival for the affections of Demetrius, whom Hermia spurns but Helena loves. Hermia tries to assuage her friend’s jealousy by revealing to Helena that she and Lysander plan to run away into the woods near Athens, leaving Demetrius free for Helena to pursue. Left alone on stage, Hermia tells us that she will attempt to gain Demetrius’ favor by telling him about Hermia’s plans and then following him into the woods. Thus, Lysander and Hermia are in love; Demetrius loves Hermia and rejects Helena; Helena nonetheless loves Demetrius and is jealous of her childhood friend, Hermia. This somewhat confusing arrangement is the premise for the play’s comic proceedings in which the love of all four characters will be “redirected” by the magic of Puck at the behest of the Fairy King Oberon. (Jump to the text of Act I, scene i)
Scene ii: With the premises of the main plot out of the way, the play shifts to another, humbler section of Athens, the house of the carpenter Peter Quince. Along with several other tradesmen (Snug the joiner, Flute the bellow mender and, most comical of all, Bottom the weaver), these unschooled amateurs intend to stage a performance of the tragic love story Pyramus and Thisbe at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta, with Bottom assigned the role of Pyramus. In an extremely funny scene in which the cast’s inadequacies as playwrights/actors are acutely evident (Bottom wants to play Pyramus, Thisbe, and a lion to boot), the group agrees to rehearse their “surprise” play in the woods to which Lysander and Hermia have fled. (Jump to the text of Act I, scene ii)

Act II

Scene i: The setting now shifts to the woods outside of Athens and stays there through Act IV. Here we encounter the character of Puck, a mischievous spirit who has the power to cast spells and to fly at lightening speed. Also known as Robin Goodfellow (an impish spirit figure common in medieval English folk-lore), Puck speaks with one of the enchanted forest’s myriad fairies before their king, Oberon (whom he serves), and their queen, Titania (whom the “lighter” fairies serve) arrive in the midst of an argument about a changeling boy whom Titania has taken but whom Oberon wants. She refuses to give the boy (who does not appear as a character) to her husband, and when she departs with her train of woodland fairies, Oberon devises a scheme to punish her through a joke. He instructs Puck to obtain a magic flower extract, which he will then apply to Titania’s eyes as she sleeps. This particular drug has the power to make Titania (or anyone else) fall in love with the first warm-bloodied creature she (or he) sees upon awakening. While Puck goes on this errand , Demetrius enters, followed by the lovesick Helena. After watching Demetrius cruelly reject Helena, Oberon tells the returned Puck to use some of the same love potion on the “young Athenian” and to arrange for Helena to be the first thing he sees and falls madly in love with. (Jump to the text of Act II, scene i)
Scene ii: In another part of the woods, after Titania’s fairy train sings her to sleep, Oberon arrives silently and doses his wife’s eyes with the love potion. The eloped lovers, Lysander and Hermia then appear, exhausted from their journey, and fall asleep. Puck enters and seeing the young Athenian Lysander alongside Hermia, mistakes them for Demetrius and Helena. Given his instructions and his error, Puck doses the eyelids of Lysander. When Helena appears in her pursuit of Demetrius, Lysander awakes, sees her, and falls in love with her, spurning Hermia. But it is not Lysander whom Helena wants, and she berates him for the fickleness of his love toward Hermia. Helena leaves in a huff, the love-stricken Lysander now chases after her, and Hermia is shocked to find him gone when she awakens. (Jump to the text of Act II, scene ii)

Act III

Scene i: Nearby in these magical woods, Quince, Bottom, and the other amateurs begin their rehearsal of Pyramus and Thisbe, and more hilarity is generated as they display their abysmal ignorance of stagecraft again. When Puck comes across these “hempen home-spuns,” he transforms Bottom’s head into that of a jackass. Although Bottom is unaware of the change, the other rude mechanicals are frightened by it and flee. Bottom consoles himself by singing a song that rouses the sleeping Titania. She sees Bottom, donkey head and all, and falls madly in love with him. The Fairy Queen takes this ludicrous figure as her paramour, commanding her troupe to serve his wishes and whims. (Jump to the text of Act III, scene i)
Scene ii: Having witnessed these proceedings, Puck reports to Oberon that their joke on Titania has been even more successful than they had hoped. But Demetrius enters followed by Hermia and he continues to spurn her. Seeing this, Oberon realizes that Puck has “dosed” the wrong Athenian youth (Lysander). Oberon tries to rectify the mix-up, by applying the love juice to a (conveniently) sleeping Demetrius, ordering Puck to lure Helena to the spot so that he will see her when he wakes up. Helena does appear, with still-bewitched Lysander pleading his love for her. Demetrius then awakens to see Helena, and now both he and Lysander are again madly in love with the same girl, but this time it is with Helena. As both profess their affections toward her, Helena interprets their love to be a jest, a conspiracy meant to mock her. When an equally confused Hermia appears in search of Lysander, Helena thinks that Hermia too is involved in a conspiracy to embarrass her. The two young women argue with and insult each other; Lysander and Demetrius do the same and stalk off to fight for Helena’s hand. In a farcically complicated series of events, Oberon sees the tangle that remains and uses an antidote to straighten it out. With Puck’s aid, he arranges for Lysander and Hermia to be in mutual love again and for Demetrius to remain in love with Helena. (Jump to the text of Act III, scene ii)

Act IV

Scene i: As Oberon watches in amused delight, Titania arrives with her ass-headed paramour Bottom. Blind to both his supernatural and his natural faults, Titania welcomes him to her flowery bed, where he is pampered by the members of the fairy train but develops an inexplicable hunger for hay. Oberon tells Puck that Titania has relented on the issue of the changeling boy and that he plans to release her from the spell that has caused her to become enamored of Bottom. Puck relieves Bottom of the donkey head (that the weaver has never been aware of himself). Oberon applies a love potion antidote to Titania’s eyes; when she awakes, she can only remember a “dream” in which she was in love with an ass. Titania’s fairy train casts a spell of sleep upon Lysander & Hermia, Demetrius & Helena, and all of the tradesmen so that they will think that the fantastic events of the night are merely dreams. Theseus, Hippolyta, and Egeus enter in their hunt for Lysander and Hermia. Although Egeus demands that Lysander be executed, because Demetrius now loves and wants to marry Helena, the good Theseus dismisses the charges. Both of the “right” couples will be wed along with Theseus and Hippolyta. They all depart for Athens and the marriage festivities, all the tradesmen also leave except for Bottom, who then rises from his slumber and speak of a strange dream that he can only half remember. He decides to dismiss it all, concluding that “Man is but an ass” if he speaks of his dreams. (Jump to the text of Act IV, scene i)
Scene ii: The other mechanicals worry about Bottom’s absence and consider how it will affect their performance of “Pyramus and Thisbe” before Theseus and his bridal court. A befuddled Bottom enters and proclaims that the show will now go on. (Jump to the text of Act IV, scene ii)

Act V

Scene i: The sole scene of the play’s concluding act is given over to Bottom, his cohorts, and their production of “Pyramus and Thisbe.” Although warned in advance by his counselor Philostrate that he has heard their sketch and found it to be “nothing,” Theseus insists upon letting these locals entertain him, his bride, and the paired Athenian couples. “The Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe” is a complete farce: Bottom mispronounces the name of his beloved as “Thisne,” the play has a prologue in which the characters assure their audience that they are only playing “fake” parts; both Moonshine and Wall appear on stage as personified characters. Throughout all this, Theseus, Hippolyta and the others make light-hearted comments and criticisms about the play. When the performance ends, all the mortals depart, while Oberon, Titania, and Puck appear with their fairy retinue. This provides Puck the opportunity to present the play’s closing epilogue in which he thanks the audience for their kind indulgence in watching a play with a “weak and idle theme,” saying that what has gone before is no more harmful than a dream. (Jump to the text of Act V, scene i)

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