Four distinct circles of characters meet and overlap in this comedy of marriage, merriment, magic, and imagination. The occasion is the marriage of Duke Theseus of Athens to the Amazon Queen, Hippolyta. As lawgiver, Theseus must settle a romantic dispute. The young lovers Hermia and Lysander want to marry, but Hermia’s father wants her to wed Demetrius instead. Helena, Hermia’s dearest friend, loves Demetrius. Theseus supports the father’s stance: Hermia is told to marry Demetrius or else decide between a nunnery and death.
Rather than obey, Hermia flees with Lysander. Demetrius sets off in pursuit of his betrothed, while the infatuated Helena follows. Far from the strictured world of court and city, the four lose themselves in a dream-dominated, spirit-haunted wood. The forest spirits are divided by a quarrel between Oberon, the king of the fairies, and his queen Titania. The dissension soon entangles the human lovers as well.
Oberon gives the mischievous sprite Puck a vial of magic potion to sprinkle into the eyes of Titania so that when she wakes she will be enamored of whomever she first sees. The fairy queen wakes to fall in love with Bottom, a weaver who has ventured into the wood with his fellow mechanicals to practice their play of Pyramus and Thisbe. Bottom, given an ass’s head by the madcap Puck, is comic indeed. The sight of Titania caressing and crooning over this farcical monster softens Oberon, who frees her from the spell and sets the other lovers to rights.
With harmony in fairyland comes harmony in Athens. Out early, Theseus and Hippolyta come upon the waking lovers, and Theseus decides to overturn his first decision and pair the lovers as they desire. The comedy concludes with the three marriages solemnized, the long-awaited performance of Bottom and his fellow actors, and the fairies’ blessing on the human couples.
Arthos, John. “The Spirit of the Occasion.” In Shakespeare’s Use of Dream and Vision. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977. Connects nature with the dream world and its dual potential of horror and bliss. Dreams stem from and inform the psyche, and they share a cognitive function with the world of art.
Brown, John Russell. Shakespeare and His Comedies. New York: Methuen, 1957. Focuses on Theseus’ speech connecting the madman, the lover, and the poet. Reveals how the play negotiates and validates varying responses to the unknown.
Calderwood, James L. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. New York: Twayne, 1992. Drawing on all the different theoretical approaches to literary interpretation, Calderwood organizes the experience of the play around the topics of patriarchal law, desire and voyeurism, marginality and threshold experiences, the power of naming, performativity, and the illusion of conciliation and unity. An excellent summary of the state of reading Shakespeare.
Patterson, Annabel. “Bottom’s Up: Festive Theory.” In Shakespeare and the Popular Voice. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1989. Reads the presentation of the lower class in political terms. Bottom’s malapropisms represent a suppression of voice and class, yet his creative use of language points toward a more synthetic utopian society.
Welsford, Enid. The Court Masque. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1927. Reads A Midsummer Night’s Dream in light of the tradition of the court masque, which was a popular form at the time the play was presented. Focuses on the visual and aesthetic qualities of music and dance to try to interpret the play in its cultural context.