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A midsummer night's dream

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The first edition of A Midsummer Night's Dream was published in 1600. Shakespeare wrote it during the first phase of his career, and it can be classified amongst his refined love comedies, characterised by a brilliant, highly refined use of the love conventions of the day.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is a pretty strange play, expecially for its mix of mythological themes (its setting in Athens, ancient Greece) and fairy elements typical of English tradition. It's unusual among Shakespeare's plays in lacking a written source for its plot. The wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta was described in Chaucer's 'Knight's Tale' and elsewhere. The theme of a daughter who wants to marry against her father's desires was a common theme in Roman comedy. Bottom and his friends are caricatures of amateur players.


Close your eyes and imagine yourself floating back in time to Athens. Here the Duke, Theseus, is preparing for his wedding to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. Theseus is looking forward to his wedding dayand night!

1) four happy days bring in another moon -- but O, methinks, how slow this old moon wanes!

Hippolyta, on the other hand, is not thrilled with the prospect of marrying Theseus. So, Theseus decides to send Philostrate, Master of the Revels, to 'stir up the Athenian youth to merriments' in hopes that a good party will put Hippolyta in the marrying mood. He tries to sweet talk her by saying:

2) Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword, and won thy love doing thee injuries; but I will wed thee in another key, with pomp, with triumph, and with revelling.

Hippolyta doesn't have a chance to answer, because Egeus enters with his daughter, Hermia, and the two men who wish to marry her.

3) Full of vexation come I, with complaint against my child, my daughter Hermia.

Egeus wants Hermia to marry Demetrius, but she wants to marry Lysander. Egeus believes that Lysander has 'bewitched' Hermia. So, instead of getting rid of the so-called problem (Lysander), Egeus gives his daughter a choice:

4) I beg the ancient privilege of Athens; as she is mine, I may dispose of her; which shall be either to this gentleman or to her death, according to our law

Thinking that death is a little EXTREME, Theseus tries to convince Hermia to obey her father and marry Demetrius. She responds by asking:

5) I beseech your grace that I may know the worst that may befall me in this case if I refuse to wed Demetrius.

Theseus adds a third choice to Egeus' unpleasant list: marry Demetrius, be put to death, or remain a virgin for the rest of your life by becoming a nun. She continues to refuse Demetrius, saying:

6) So will I grow, so live, so die, my lord, ere I will yield my virgin patent up un-to his lordship

Seeing that Hermia is very upset, Theseus tells her to take a few days to think about it. She will have to make her final decision on his wedding day. Lysander tries to argue his case -- not only is he as 'well-possessed' as Demetrius, but he is 'beloved of beauteous Hermia.' Seeing this as his chance to make some points, Lysander adds:

7) Demetrius, I'll avouch it to his head, made love to Nedar's daughter, Helena, and won her soul

Even though Theseus has heard these rumors, he still feels that Hermia should obey her father. He leaves with Hippolyta, Egeus, and Demetrius, to discuss some wedding business. Alone, Lysander and Hermia discuss their situation, and the plight of all lovers. Lysander sums it up with:

8) The course of true love never did run smooth

Finally, Lysander comes up with a plan -- the two crazy kids decide to meet the next night in the woods to run off and elope! Suddenly, Helena enters, and Hermia quickly changes the subject:

9) God speed, fair Helena! Whither away?

Well, Helena isn't too sure about this whole 'fair' business -- considering Hermia stole her boyfriend! Helena asks Hermia to teach her how to 'sway the motion of Demetrius' heart.' Hermia assures Helena that she has done nothing to lead Demetrius on. Helena, on the other hand, has done everything to get him to notice her, but nothing has worked. Hermia, in an effort to convince Helena that she doesn't like Demetrius, tells Helena that she and Lysander are running away. Lysander tells Helena that he and Hermia plan on eloping. The two love birds wish Helena luck and leave. Alone, Helena says:

10) How happy some o'er other some can be!

She reflects on the nature of love a bit, and then decides to fight for her man!

11) I will go tell him of fair Hermia's flight

She thinks that ratting on her friend will win her some brownie points with Demetrius. She leaves to find her love.

Elsewhere in Athens, a group of working men (also known as the Mechanicals) meet to prepare a play for the Duke's wedding. The group is lead by Quince the Carpenter. The other group members include Bottom the Weaver, Snug the Joiner, Flute the Bellows-mender, Snout the Tinker, and Starveling the Tailor. Quince tells the others that the play is:

12) 'The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe.'

He has assigned the role of Pyramus to Bottom. Bottom sees this as an opportunity to take center stage, and he begins acting. Quince tries to assign all the parts, but Bottom keeps interrupting. Bottom seems to think he can play ALL the parts! Quince is finally able to hand out the parts to the other actors, and he tells the group to memorize their lines and meet at the 'Duke's oak' the next night.

Meanwhile, in the woods outside of Athens, two fairies meet. Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, is a loyal subject of King Oberon, and he warns the Queen's fairy that:

13) Oberon is passing fell and wrath, because that she as her attendant hath a lovely boy stol'n from an Indian king

It seems that Oberon wants the Indian boy for himself, but since Titania won't give up the child, the two are constantly arguing. The Queen's fairy recognizes Puck, and so Puck starts bragging about all the tricks he has pulled on humans and animals. Just at that moment, the King, Oberon, and Queen, Titania, enter into the clearing.

14) Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania!

15) What, jealous Oberon?

Well, seeing that this is not going to be a pleasant meeting, all the fairies run and hide in the bushes. Titania accuses Oberon of being attracted to the mortal, Hippolyta. Oberon, in turn, accuses her of being in love with Theseus. Titania calls these accusations the 'forgeries of jealousy,' and she describes to Oberon how their arguments have caused the seasons to change. He tells her that she can restore the,natural order of things if she simply gives him the 'changeling boy.'

16) Set your heart at rest -- the fairy land buys not the child of me!

Titania explains how the boy's mother had been her dear friend, and that she died during childbirth. Titania says that she will never part with the boy, and she storms away with her fairies. Seeing that she is serious, Oberon promises to be revenged 'for this injury.' He calls Puck out from hiding, and tells Puck to fetch the flower 'love-in-idleness.' Oberon wants the flower because:

17) The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid will make or man or woman madly dote upon the next live creature that it sees.

After Puck leaves to fetch the flower, Oberon reveals a plan to use the flower's juice on Titania so that she will give him the Indian boy. When he hears voices, Oberon makes himself invisible. Demetrius and Helena enter arguing. Demetrius shouts:

18) I love thee not, therefore pursue me not.

Unfortunately for her, Helena's plan didn't work as well as she had hoped. She throws herself at Demetrius' feet proclaiming her undying love, but he won't have any of it. She continues to try and 'woo' him, but he runs off into the woods in search of Hermia, and Helena must chase after him. Oberon vows to help Helena, saying:

19) Ere he do leave this grove thou shalt fly him, and he shall seek they love.

Puck returns with the flower, and Oberon instructs him to use the love juice on the eye of the 'disdainful youth' that just left the clearing.

20) Thou shalt know the man by the Athenian garments he hath on.

While Puck is searching for Demetrius and Helena, Oberon plans on finding Titania!

Elsewhere in the woods, Titania's fairies sing her to sleep. When she is asleep,

Oberon sneaks in and squeezes the juice on Titania's eyes. He hopes that she will:

21) Wake when some vile thing is near!

He leaves as Lysander and Hermia enter. They decide to go to sleep for the night -- since they are lost! So, not only did Lysander get them lost, he also tries to sleep right by Hermia. She stands up for her modesty and makes him sleep 'further off.' The two sleep. Puck enters and sees Lysander in his 'Athenian garments,' and mistakenly puts the juice in his eyes! He leaves to find Oberon. Demetrius runs past. Helena can no longer keep up, so she stops to rest. She sees Lysander on the ground and wakes him. Due to his love juice state, Lysander immediately falls in love with Helena, saying:

22) And run through fire I will for they sweet sake!

Lysander tells Helena that he repents the 'tedious minutes' he spent with Hermia, and that he now loves her. Helena is not happy with Lysander's little game:

23) Is't not enough, is't not enough, young man, that I did never, no, nor never can deserve a sweet look from Demetrius' eye but you must flout my insufficiency?

She runs off, and Lysander follows her. Hermia awakes from a nightmare and finds herself alone. She is certain that something horrible has happened to Lysander, and so she runs off to try and find him.

After she leaves, the Mechanicals enter to rehearse their play. Before Quince has a chance to start rehearsal, Bottom begins suggesting changes for the script so that they won't fright the ladies. After settling on prologues to help explain the action, the Mechanicals discuss how they are going to show moonlight and the wall in the play. They finally decide on having Snout play the wall and Starveling play Moonshine. They begin rehearsing just as Puck enters:

24) What hempen homespuns have we swaggering here so near the cradle of the Fairy Queen?

After watching the rehearsal, Puck decides to play a trick on Bottom. Pyramus

(Bottom) leaves to go check on a noise. When Flute, as Thisbe, finally gets his line right, Bottom re-enters as Pyramus. He is surprised when all of his friends begin yelling 'O monstrous!' 'O strange!' They run away because Puck has used his magic to put an ass head on Bottom! Bottom thinks his friends are messing with him, so he shouts to Snout:

25) What do you see? You see an ass head of your own, do you?

Bottom is so certain that they are trying to make an 'ass' of him, that he decides to sing. He will prove to them that he isn't afraid! Of course, his singing wakes Titania, and she, in her love juice state, immediately falls in love with him. She is so in love with Bottom that she won't let him even think about leaving the woods. Instead, she calls four of her fairies (Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed) to wait on Bottom.

26) Be kind and courteous to this gentleman

Bottom greets each of the fairies, and then they lead him to Titania's 'bower.'

Puck can't wait to tell Oberon about the new turn of events. Puck finds Oberon, and tells him about the trick he played on Bottom, and how, in that moment,

27) Titania waked, and straightway loved an ass.

Oberon is very pleased. until Demetrius and Hermia enter. Demetrius tries to woo Hermia, but she is certain that he has killed Lysander. When he won't tell her where Lysander is, Hermia runs off. Demetrius realizes that 'there is no following her in this fierce vein,' so he decides to take a nap. Needless to say, Oberon is not a happy camper! He orders Puck to find Helena and bring her to Demetrius. Puck runs off to find Helena, and Oberon puts the love juice on Demetrius' eyes. Puck runs in to tell Oberon that Helena is on her way -- but she isn't alone. Puck is really enjoying the mess he has created, and says:

28) Lord, what fools these mortals be!

Lysander enters with Helena. He tries to convince her that he really does love her, but Helena thinks he is just messing with her. When she stumbles on Demetrius, he wakes and tells Helena how beautiful she is and how much he loves her. By this point, Helena is really upset:

29) O spite! O Hell! I see you all are bent to set against me for your merriment.

Off in the woods, Hermia hears all the commotion, and follows the voices. When she spots Lysander, she runs to her love and asks him why he left her. Lysander tells her that he hates her now and loves Helena. Well, that was the finally straw for Helena. She is now certain that they are all ganging up on her. Hermia doesn't quite understand what is going on; she runs after Lysander as he leaves to fight Demetrius for Helena. She clings to him -- even as he is telling her how much he now hates her. When Hermia finally gets the picture, she turns on Helena:

30) O me, you juggler, you canker-blossom, you thief of love! What, have you come by night and stol'n my love's heart from him?

Hermia tries to fight Helena, but the boys hold Hermia back. The boys finally leave to settle their own dispute, Helena runs away, and Hermia follows in bewilderment. Oberon demands that Puck fix his mess. So, Puck overcasts the night and disguises his voice to get all of the lovers in the same spot. He puts them all to sleep, and puts the antidote on Lysander's eyes so he will love Hermia again. Puck then leaves to find Oberon.

In another part of the wood, Titania and her fairies are pampering Bottom as Oberon watches. Titania finally tells her fairies to go away so that she and Bottom can go to bed. Puck enters, and Oberon tells Puck that he now has the Indian boy, so he will release Titania from this curse. He orders Puck to remove the 'head of this Athenian swain' so that:

31) All to Athens back again repair, and think no more of this night's accidents but as the fierce vexation of a dream.

Oberon removes the spell from Titania. She wakes and wonders:

32) How it came this night that I sleeping here was found with these mortals on the ground.

All the fairies leave, and as day breaks, Theseus, Hippolyta, Egeus, and their hunting party enter. They see the lovers on the ground and wake them. Lysander tries to explain the situation, and Egeus is furious that Lysander and Hermia were going to elope. Egeus wants Lysander punished. After Demetrius explains that he really loves Helena, Theseus decides that the lovers will be married along with himself and Hippolyta. After the hunting party leaves, Demetrius says:

33) It seems to me that yet we sleep, we dream.

The lovers don't know what to think about the night's events. They head back to town to get married! Bottom wakes up, and describes his dream! He also heads back to town to find his friends and get ready for the play.

After the weddings, the whole group gathers at the Palace to watch the play. They make fun of the play and the actors. When the play is over, everyone heads off to bed. Oberon and Titania enter with their fairies to bless the three couples. As the fairies leave to bless the marriage beds, Puck says:

34) If we shadows have offended, think but this, and all is mended:that you have but slumbered here while these visions did appear; and this weak and idle theme, no more yielding but a dream!


The Court

THESEUS -- Duke of Athens, engaged to Hippolyta. Kind and generous. He must enforce the law, but talks privately with Egeus and Demetrius to get them to relent. He appreciates the effort that goes into the play-within-a-play, and the sincerity of the ordinary people. He lets his imagination turn good people's sincere effort into a good performance.

HIPPOLYTA -- Queen of the Amazons. More literal-minded than Theseus. She cannot bring her imagination to consider a bad play good. But she notes that the lovers' tale of paranormal experience in the woods presents 'great constancy' -- what paranormal investigators look for today. Like most of us, Hippolyta decides, 'If they're all telling the same story, there may be something to it.'

PHILOSTRATE -- Master of the Revels to the Athenian Court. Master of ceremonies for Theseus. In Chaucer's The Knight's Tale, one of the rival lovers takes the name 'Philostrate' to work for Theseus and Hippolyta. This is almost certainly an oblique reference to Chaucer's tale.

EGEUS -- father to Hermia.

Attendants on Theseus and Hippolyta.

The Lovers

HERMIA -- daughter to Egeus, in love with Lysander. Short, dark-complected beauty. Spunky and likable.

LYSANDER -- in love with Hermia. Likable, rationalizer, sense of humor. He suggests Egeus and Demetrius get married. He cites classic stories as models for 'the course of true love', and thinks the effects of the love juice are the workings of his own 'reason'.

DEMETRIUS -- Egeus's choice as a husband for Hermia. Not a nice person. By the time he says he wants to feed Lysander's carcass to his hounds, this seems completely in character. I don't know what Helena sees in him. Neither does she -- such is the irrationality of love, even before the lovers enter the forest. He is the only one who remains under the influence of the magic juice. This is probably good.

HELENA -- in love with Demetrius. Tall, blonde beauty. Verbal abuse from Demetrius has made her think she's ugly. We have to hope that the love juice never wears off Demetrius, or she is in trouble

The Mechanicals

NICK BOTTOM -- a weaver who plays Pyramus. Enthusiastic. Wants to play all the roles. Likes to overact.

PETER QUINCE -- a carpenter who speaks the Prologue. Playwright for the amateurs.

FRANCIS FLUTE -- a bellows-mender who plays Thisbe. Young man. He points out that he's just getting his facial hair. He thinks this will make playing Thisbe a problem, but this is actually why he was chosen.

TOM SNOUT -- a tinker who plays Wall. Literal-minded.

ROBIN STARVELING -- a tailor who plays Moonshine. Just a few lines portray a pessimist. He plays the part of the moon. He seems to forget his lines, and explains who he is in prose.

SNUG -- a joiner who plays Lion. 'I am slow of study'. The lion need only roar. Actually Snug does learn a few lines.

The Fairies

PUCK (or Robin Goodfellow) -- Oberon's attendant.

OBERON -- King of the Fairies.

TITANIA -- Queen of the Fairies.

PEASEBLOSSOM, COBWEB, MOTH, MUSTARDSEED -- Titania's fairy attendants.

FAIRY 1 & FAIRY 2 -- fairies in Titania's service.

Other fairies attending their King and Queen.


Here, in the realm of illusion, you can notice several elements in which logic is suspended in favor of symbolism, as in our own dreams. The spiritual powers in have a sinister side, for example Oberon and Titania have manipulated Theseus and Hippolyta; their battle has devastated nature and hurt people and neither one cares; Puck remarks that only one male human in a million keeps his pro-mises.

Imagination makes impossible things into reality. The comedy is full of paradoxes: Helena's affection for Demetrius seems to make him hate her, while Hermia's hatred seems to make him love her; in the dream world of the forest, deer chase tigers as Helena pursues Demetrius.


"I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream".

-- Bottom

Don't look for a grand metaphysical theory or a system of right living in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', or most other works by Shakespeare. His work mirrors human experience.

We will probably not meet Puck and his supernatural companions when we go into the woods. But when we fall in love, or go crazy, or do creative writing, or fall asleep and dream, we enter the realm of the imagination. This happens even when we choose -- as Theseus does - to look beyond performance at intention.

Even if we pride ourselves (as Lysander does) on being 'rational', there are important facets of our humanity that are both non-rational and beyond our control. 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' celebrates this essential fact of life.

This is a short summary we have found on the internet:

Theseus, Duke of Athens, is about to marry Hippolyta, a lady warrior who he conquered. Egeus brings his daughter Hermia to court. She and Lysander want to get married, but Egeus wants her to marry Demetrius, who also wants her. Under Athenian law, Hermia must marry the man of her father's choice, choose 'single blessedness' (i.e., celibacy in a religious order), or be executed. Theseus says he will enforce this law and gives everyone a few days to decide. Demetrius has seduced and abandoned Helena, Hermia's friend. Lysander and Hermia decide to elope and get married in the next town, beyond the reach of Athenian law. Hermia tells Helena, who tells Demetrius in order to ingratiate herself to him. Hermia and Lysander flee into the woods, Demetrius follows the lovers, and Helena follows him.

Out in the forest, Oberon and Titania, king and queen of fairyland, have quarrelled over who will raise an orphaned Indian boy. Oberon sends Puck to find a magic flower. Cupid's arrow, aimed at Queen Elizabeth, was diverted and hit the flower ('love in idleness', a pansy). Now this flower's juice, applied to a sleeper's eyes, will make the person fall in love with whoever he or she sees first upon awkening. Puck brings the flower, and Oberon applies it to the eyes of sleeping Titania. Oberon then tells Puck to apply it to the eyes of Demetrius, so that when he wakes and sees Helena he will love her instead.

Hermia and Lysander fall asleep, with Lysander honoring Hermia's request to sleep a little distance away. Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius and puts the love juice in his eyes. Helena sees Lysander, thinks he may be hurt, and wakes him. Lysander sees Helena and falls in love with her. This gives rise to a comic situation, with much clever language and remarks about the ironies and irrationality of love.

Some skilled laborers have gone into the woods to rehearse a play for the wedding. They rewrite it, replacing the lovers' parents by 'the moon' and 'a wall'. Puck puts a donkey head on Bottom the weaver. Titania, awakening, falls in love with him. (In Elizabethan times, the male donkey was proverbial for his generous sexual endowment.)

Demetrius and Lysander meet Helena and Hermia and the love-comedy continues, with the men about to come to blows. Oberon sees what has happened, and instructs Puck to separate the two men, which he does using ventriloquism. Lysander is lost in the dark and decides to sleep it out. Demetrius is tired and rests, and Puck applies the love juice. Oberon applies the antidote to Lysander and Titania. Demetrius wakes up and falls in love with Helena. Theseus enters, the now properly-paired lovers are united, and everybody is happy.

The humans wonder how much of the night's events have been real, and how much was a dream. The laborers perform their play-within-a-play.

Although it's bad, Theseus and the others appreciate the sincerity and effort.

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