Probably composed in 1595 or 1596, A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of Shakespeare's early comedies but can be distinguished from his other works in this group by describing it specifically as the Bard's original wedding play. Most scholars believe that Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night's Dream as a light entertainment to accompany a marriage celebration; and while the identity of the historical couple for whom it was meant has never been conclusively established, there is good textual and background evidence available to support this claim. At the same time, unlike the vast majority of his works (including all of his comedies), in concocting this story Shakespeare did not rely directly upon existing plays, narrative poetry, historical chronicles or any other primary source materials, making it a truly original piece. Most critics agree that if a youthful Shakespeare was not at his best in this play, he certainly enjoyed himself in writing it.
The main plot of Midsummer is a complex contraption that involves two sets of couples (Hermia and Lysander, and Helena and Demetrius) whose romantic cross-purposes are complicated still further by their entrance into the play's fairyland woods where the King and Queen of the Fairies (Oberon and Titania) preside and the impish folk character of Puck or Robin Goodfellow plies his trade. Less subplot than a brilliant satirical device, another set of characters—Bottom the weaver and his bumptious band of "rude mechanicals"—stumble into the main doings when they go into the same enchanted woods to rehearse a play that is very loosely (and comically) based on the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe, their hilarious home-spun piece taking up Act V of Shakespeare's comedy.
A Midsummer Night's Dream contains some wonderfully lyrical expressions of lighter Shakespearean themes, most notably those of love, dreams, and the stuff of both, the creative imagination itself. Indeed, close scrutiny of the text by twentieth-century critics has led to a significant upward revision in the play's status, one that overlooks the silliness of its story and concentrates upon its unique lyrical qualities. If A Midsummer Night's Dream can be said to convey a message, it is that the creative imagination is in tune with the supernatural world and is best used to confer the blessings of Nature (writ large) upon mankind and marriage.
Summary of the Play
Theseus and Hippolyta are to wed at the new moon, and Philostrate has been ordered to have a revel prepared for the wedding. Several local craftsmen agree to write and produce a play for the revel. Egeus brings his daughter, Hermia, to Theseus for judgment since he is convinced that her choice of husband, Lysander, has bewitched her into choosing him. According to Athenian law, a father may decide who his daughter marries; if she does not obey, she may be put to death or ordered to a nunnery for the rest of her life. As she is well aware, her father has chosen Demetrius. The craftsmen repair to the woods to rehearse at the same time that Lysander and Hermia meet there to plan their elopement. Hermia and Lysander confide in Helena, who has previously been jilted by Demetrius and wants to win him back. Helena, in turn, tells Demetrius of the young lovers’ meeting.
Fairies have come from India to bless Theseus’ wedding and are haunting the same wood where the craftsmen and lovers plan to meet. Oberon is quarreling with Titania over her continued possession of a changeling; in retaliation for his wife’s actions, Oberon sends Puck to gather the flower necessary to make a love juice. This love juice will cause the one who has it squeezed into his/her eye while asleep to fall in love with the first being seen upon waking. Helena follows Demetrius into the wood as he attempts to find the lovers, thereby disturbing Oberon who then orders Puck to squeeze the love juice into the eye of the youth who disturbed him. Oberon describes Demetrius by his clothes, but Puck finds Lysander asleep near Hermia and thinks this is the youth Oberon meant. Puck anoints Lysander’s eye while Oberon does the same to Titania. When Helena, still following the unwilling Demetrius, finds Lysander, she wakes him and becomes the object of his love. While Lysander is pursuing Helena, Hermia awakens and searches for him.
The craftsmen arrive in the haunted wood to rehearse. Puck is still nearby and plays a trick on Nick Bottom by putting an ass’s head on him. The others flee in terror, but Bottom remains singing to keep up his courage. His song awakens the anointed Titania, who immediately falls in love with him. Hermia happens upon Demetrius and accuses him of murdering Lysander and then runs away. Demetrius is exhausted and falls asleep, whereupon Puck anoints his eyes. Lysander and Helena arrive quarreling, which wakes Demetrius who then falls in love with Helena. The two men begin competing for her love. Hermia hears the noise and joins them, only to accuse Helena of stealing Lysander’s love. The men go off to find a place to fight, and Helena, afraid of Hermia, runs away with Hermia in pursuit. Oberon orders Puck to make the four lovers sleep and reanoint Lysander as he sleeps, so that he will fall in love with Hermia once again.
Titania continues her amorous pursuit of Bottom as the mismatched lovers fall asleep. Oberon gains possession of the changeling and removes the enchantment from his wife. He orders Puck to take the ass’s head off Bottom. As the sun rises, Hippolyta and Theseus enter the wood to hunt, see the sleeping lovers, and awaken them with hunting horns. Egeus brings his suite again, but Demetrius is now in love with Helena and leaves Hermia to Lysander. Theseus is so pleased at this that he invites each pair of rightly matched lovers to be wed during his own wedding. Bottom wakes up thinking the whole experience has been a dream.
The craftsmen give their play, which they think is wonderful. At midnight, the lovers go to sleep and Oberon and Titania, with their fairies, take over the palace. They dance, sing, bless the sleepers, and leave. Puck remains to apologize and request applause from the audience.
Estimated Reading Time
Using The New Folger Library edition, reading will take approximately three hours (including the introductory and concluding material). Keeping in mind that readers will take more or less time, depending on what they choose to dwell upon and their reading rate. The time allotted for each section is as follows: introductory material—45 minutes; Act I—20 minutes; Act II—30 minutes; Act III—55 minutes; Act IV—10 minutes; Act V—10 minutes; concluding material—10 minutes. Because of the puns, double entendres, poetic description, and unfamiliar syntax, it is suggested you read the play itself at least twice. Readers should read the play once to familiarize themselves with Shakespeare’s use of the English language and then again read to better grasp the plot with its twists and turns and to firmly establish the role of each character in the plot.
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Theseus, the duke of Athens, is to be married in four days to Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, and he orders his master of the revels to prepare suitable entertainment for the nuptials. Other lovers of ancient Athens, however, are not so happy as their ruler. Hermia, in love with Lysander, is loved also by Demetrius, who has her father’s permission to marry her. When she refuses his suit, Demetrius takes his case to Theseus and demands that the law be invoked. Theseus upholds the father; by Athenian law, Hermia either must marry Demetrius, be placed in a nunnery, or be put to death. Hermia swears that she will enter a convent before she will consent to become Demetrius’s bride.
Faced with this awful choice, Lysander plots with Hermia to leave Athens. He will take her to the home of his aunt and there marry her. They are to meet the following night in a wood outside the city. Hermia confides the plan to her good friend, Helena. Demetrius had formerly been betrothed to Helena, and although he had switched his love to Hermia he is still desperately loved by the scorned Helena. Helena, willing to do anything to gain even a smile from Demetrius, tells him of his rival’s plan to elope with Hermia.
Unknown to any of the four young people, there are to be others in that same woods on the appointed night, midsummer eve. A group of Athenian laborers is to meet there to practice a play the members hope to present in honor of Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding. The fairies also hold their midnight revels in the woods. Oberon, king of the fairies, desires for his page a little Indian foundling, but Oberon’s queen, Titania, has the boy. Loving him like a son, she refuses to give him up to her husband. To force Titania to do his bidding, Oberon orders his mischievous page, called Puck or Robin Goodfellow, to secure the juice of a purple flower once hit by Cupid’s dart. This juice, when placed in the eyes of anyone sleeping, causes that person to fall in love with the first creature seen on awakening. Oberon plans to drop some of the juice in Titania’s eyes and then refuse to lift the charm until she gives him the boy.
While Puck is on his errand, Demetrius and Helena enter the woods. Making himself invisible, Oberon hears Helena plead her love for Demetrius and hears the young man scorn and berate her. Demetrius has come to the woods to find the fleeing lovers, Lysander and Hermia, and Helena is following Demetrius. Oberon, pitying Helena, determines to aid her. When Puck returns with the juice, Oberon orders him to find the Athenian and place some of the juice in his eyes so that he will love the woman who dotes on him.
Puck does as he is ordered, while Oberon squeezes the juice of the flower into the eyes of Titania as she sleeps. Puck, coming upon Lysander and Hermia as they sleep in the woods, mistakes Lysander’s Athenian dress...
(The entire section is 1176 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Act I, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis
Theseus: duke of Athens; engaged to Hippolyta
Hippolyta: engaged to Theseus
Egeus: Hermia’s father who insists upon his paternal right to choose her husband
Lysander: the youth in love with Hermia
Demetrius: the man chosen by Egeus for his daughter, Hermia, to marry despite her love for Lysander
Hermia: a young woman in love with Lysander but ordered by her father to marry Demetrius
Helena: Hermia’s friend from childhood who is in love with Demetrius
Philostrate: the master of the revel (celebration for Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding)
As Theseus awaits his wedding day, Egeus brings...
(The entire section is 529 words.)
Act I, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis
Peter Quince (the carpenter): author and director of the play-within-the-play
Nick Bottom (the weaver): manager of the play-within-the-play and is Pyramus in it; becomes the object of Titania’s love
Francis Flute (the bellows mender): unwillingly plays the role of Thisbe in the play-within-the-play
Snug (the joiner): portrays the lion in the play-within-the-play because he roars well
Robin Starveling (the tailor): portrays the moon in the play-within-the-play
Tom Snout (the tinker): portrays a wall in the play-within-the play
The craftsmen meet with Quince, the director, to assign the roles for the...
(The entire section is 390 words.)
Act II, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis
Robin Goodfellow (Puck): a hobgoblin in Oberon’s service
Oberon: king of the fairies; married to Titania
Titania: queen of the fairies; married to Oberon
Puck and one of the fairies come upon each other in the wood. The fairy ascertains that Puck is that spirit who is mischievous and plays all sorts of tricks on humans and animals alike. Oberon and Titania enter with their various attendants from opposite sides of the wood (stage), still deep in their quarrel about Titania’s refusing to relinquish the changeling—a child secretly exchanged for another in infancy—she had brought from India with her since his mother had been her friend and...
(The entire section is 650 words.)
Act II, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis
Titania enters the wood instructing her fairies to sing her to sleep. Just after they do, and leave, Oberon arrives and anoints her eye with the love juice so that she will love the first creature she sees upon waking. Lysander and Hermia make their entrance and decide to sleep since they are so tired that Lysander has forgotten the way to his aunt’s house. He lays down next to Hermia but she suggests he move away since they are not yet married. He pretends to be insulted at this request, so she apologizes and rephrases it in such a way that he acquiesces. As they sleep, Puck enters and, thinking he has found the youth in “Athenian garments” who Oberon ordered him to anoint, applies the love juice to...
(The entire section is 584 words.)
Act III, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis
Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Mote, and Mustardseed: Titania’s fairies
The craftsmen meet in the wood to rehearse their play. After finding the perfect setting for the rehearsal, Bottom cautions Quince that he will need two Prologues to the play so that the ladies will not be afraid due to the sword scene or the Lion. The logistics of the moonlight and the need to have someone play the Wall are discussed and the rehearsal begins. This is when Puck (who is invisible), concerned that they are so near the sleeping Titania, makes his entrance to watch and cause mischief. Bottom exits on cue, and while he is “offstage” Puck replaces Bottom’s head with that of an ass. When it...
(The entire section is 533 words.)
Act III, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis
Puck reports to Oberon that he placed an ass’s head on Bottom and that Titania fell in love with Bottom because he was the first thing she saw when she awoke. Puck also reports that he anointed the eye of the youth in “Athenian garments.” When Hermia and Demetrius enter, it becomes obvious to Puck and Oberon that Puck has mistakenly placed the love juice in Lysander’s eye, not Demetrius’.
Hermia, finding all other explanations for Lysander’s disappearance unacceptable, harasses Demetrius for supposedly murdering Lysander. Demetrius attempts to convince her that he is even more deeply in love with her than he was before and more than Lysander could possibly ever be. Overwhelmed,...
(The entire section is 728 words.)
Act IV, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis
Bottom makes several absurd requests of the fairies as he and Titania chatter about whether to eat or sleep. They choose to sleep. Oberon and Puck come upon them while they sleep as Oberon explains to Puck that he is now in possession of the changeling and will take the spell from Titania. He does so, wakes her, and she is instantly in love with her husband, Oberon, again and repulsed by the ass-headed Bottom whom she had so recently adored. Oberon orders Puck to take the ass’s head from Bottom and Puck complies as Titania causes Bottom, Helena, Hermia, Demetrius, and Lysander to fall far more deeply asleep than they already are.
Theseus, Hippolyta, and Egeus arrive accompanied by the sound of...
(The entire section is 561 words.)
Act IV, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis
The craftsmen regret the loss of Bottom, for only he could play the role of Pyramus. Without him, they cannot perform the play. Snug arrives to tell them that two other couples are also being married that night and, were they performing, they would have made their fortunes. Bottom arrives, refusing to tell them what has happened until later, but offering them advice on their roles for their play which has been chosen for the night’s revel.
It appears that while Bottom is clownish and egotistical, his friends truly like him and rue his disappearance—not only for his acting, but for who he is. Bottom is in all probability a lover, too, since Quince—an intelligent man and...
(The entire section is 213 words.)
Act V, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis
Hippolyta and Theseus think the lovers are telling them a fantasy rather than what really happened to them in the haunted wood. The lovers join them and Theseus asks Philostrate what entertainment is available to them during the three hours between their wedding feast and bedtime. Theseus rejects one suggestion after another, deciding upon the craftsmen’s play. Philostrate tries to dissuade him from this choice by telling him it is inane, but Philostrate does have to admit he laughed until he cried when he saw how terrible it was.
The craftsmen present their play much to the delight of their audience, who freely pass comments from one to another and discourse with the actors in the midst of their...
(The entire section is 374 words.)