In order for the title to have any meaning for the contemporary student of Shakespeare’s play, its origin must be explained. At the time the play was written, only three seasons were observed: autumn, winter, and summer—which included what we now consider spring and began in March. Therefore, the play, whose action takes place on the eve of May Day, actually is in midsummer as Shakespeare knew it. This was the time of year when animals were traditionally let out to pasture and the spirits of nature were thought to be abroad. The action takes place in the fairy wood, which may be what the “dream” part of the title refers, although it may refer to another common custom, the divining by midsummer dreams and flowers who one’s lover is or whether one’s lover is faithful, just as the characters in the play do. It was also customary on May Day (May 1st) to greet the day with a sunrise service that includes songs to emphasize hope and cheerfulness.
As was usual for a dramatist of his time, most of Shakespeare’s plays were not original. This is not to say he plagiarized, rather that plays were based on other, earlier works by masters such as the ones Shakespeare studied in grammar school: Ovid, Plautus, Terence, and Chaucer. For Shakespeare, the poetry and the event were much more important than the characters in his plays. There are several theories about this but the preponderant one is that Puck is the imagination’s way of ordering the random. It could be said that Puck (from English rustic folklore) is the gateway between the imaginative elements and reality as we know it. Curiously enough, Bottom is the only human who can see the imaginative (fairy) elements.
The play-within-the-play seems to be Shakespeare’s version of a dramatist and actor’s worst nightmare. Lines are forgotten, cues missed, conversation carried on between the actors and the audience, and the actors’ efforts laughed at. In addition, the audience loudly and freely carries on conversations during the production. It is also a parody of...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
William Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream includes four interwoven plots: the two sets of lovers who flee into the woods, the upcoming nuptials of Theseus and Hippolyta, the battle of the sexes between Oberon and Titania, and the play rehearsals and performance by the “rude mechanicals.” The four plots merge in the last two acts as the four lovers pair off (Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius) and join the newlyweds Theseus and Hippolyta in the viewing of the tragedy Pyramus and Thisby. Shakespeare’s comedy concludes with the joining of these three couples, as well as with the reconciliation of the fourth, Oberon and Titania.
As the play begins, Egeus, upset that his daughter Hermia desires to marry Lysander rather than Demetrius, demands from Theseus that she be killed or sent to a nunnery. Hermia and Lysander, desperate because of the obstinacy of Egeus, flee to the woods in order to escape him. Helena, Hermia’s friend who loves Demetrius, informs him of the plot, hoping that he will forget Egeus’ daughter and love her instead. Demetrius, however, scorns her love and follows the couple into the woods—with Helena in pursuit. As the four lovers sleep, Oberon orders Puck to place love juice in the eyes of Demetrius so that he will love Helena, yet Puck mistakenly puts the potion in the eyes of Lysander. Lysander consequently falls in love with Helena; Puck then attempts to rectify the situation by...
(The entire section is 432 words.)
Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Theseus’s palace. Home of Theseus, the “duke of Athens,” in which the play opens, shortly after Theseus has militarily subdued the Amazon queen Hippolyta, whom he plans to marry in the evening. Theseus is an important figure in ancient Greek mythology, but the Athens of William Shakespeare is partly classical and partly medieval, hence Theseus’s title as a “duke.” The Athens of the play mirrors a courtly world with inflexible codes of conduct that become oppressive to the quartet of young lovers.
At the end of the play, all the characters who have appeared in the play reappear at Theseus’s palace for the marriage festivities, on which the Fairies bestow a final blessing. By this point, the palace resembles an Elizabethan great house.
Woods. Forested region close to the palace that is the setting for most of the play. Woodlands are familiar English locales with their beautiful moonlit glades and common English insects and flowers. However, the woods are also mysterious and alien, with fairies and spirits. Within these woods, confusions about love and imagination crystallize. The play’s woodland fairyland has its own laws of time and space. For example, the king of the Fairies, Oberon, appears in an instant from India, and the mischievous fairy Puck circles the earth in forty minutes. The woods’ rhythms are those of sleeping, dreaming, and awaking. Dangers lurk—not only those of hunting but the bafflements of reason, illusion, random desires, and shifting identities.
Act I, Scene 1: Questions and Answers
1. Why has Theseus ordered a revel?
2. What does he promise Hippolyta?
3. Why does Egeus bring Hermia, Lysander, and Demetrius to Theseus?
4. Why does Theseus tell Hermia to come to terms with her father’s choice of husband for her?
5. What is Hermia’s decision?
6. Why does Theseus lead Egeus and Demetrius away?
7. What is Lysander’s plan?
8. Why does Helena want to be like Hermia?
9. Why do Hermia and Lysander tell Helena the plan?
10. What does Helena intend to do with this information?
1. Theseus, Duke of Athens, has ordered a revel to celebrate his...
(The entire section is 524 words.)
Act I, Scene 2: Questions and Answers
1. Why do the craftsmen meet?
2. Why is Quince the one assigning the roles?
3. What is Bottom’s reaction to his assigned role?
4. What is Flute’s misgiving about his assignment?
5. Why does Bottom want to play Flute’s role?
6. What is Snug’s worry?
7. Why does Bottom want to play Snug’s role?
8. What do Quince and Bottom caution about the role of the Lion?
9. Why does Quince insist Bottom play Pyramus?
10. Where are the men to meet next?
1. The craftsmen meet to assign and discuss the roles they will have, “… to play in our interlude before the Duke...
(The entire section is 492 words.)
Act II, Scene 1: Questions and Answers
1. How did Puck earn his reputation?
2. Why is Oberon angry with Titania?
3. What is her argument with him?
4. What is it Oberon sends Puck to find?
5. How does Oberon intend to punish his wife?
6. Why does Helena pursue Demetrius?
7. Why does Demetrius want Helena to leave him alone?
8. How is it that Oberon is able to overhear them?
9. What does Oberon decide when Puck returns?
10. How does Oberon instruct Puck to recognize Demetrius?
1. Puck earned his reputation as a hobgoblin by playing pranks, some mean, on both humans and animals as we can see by the...
(The entire section is 589 words.)
Act II, Scene 2: Questions and Answers
1. What is it Oberon hopes Titania sees immediately upon
2. Why does Lysander want to rest?
3. Why does Hermia ask him to move further away to sleep?
4. Why does Robin Goodfellow (Puck) anoint Lysander’s eye?
5. What does Robin Goodfellow think Hermia’s reason is for sleeping so far removed from Lysander?
6. Why does Helena stop chasing Demetrius?
7. Why does Demetrius leave Helena alone in the wood?
8. Why does Lysander profess his love for Helena?
9. What is Helena’s reaction to Lysander’s protestations of love?
10. Why does Hermia awake?
(The entire section is 592 words.)
Act III, Scene 1: Questions and Answers
1. Why does Quince feel their rehearsal spot is ideal?
2. Why does Bottom feel they need two Prologues to the play?
3. How do they solve the problems of representing the moonlight and the Wall in their play?
4. Why is Bottom alone when Puck changes his head to that of an ass?
5. How is it that Bottom is alone when Titania awakes?
6. Why hasn’t Bottom followed his friends from the wood?
7. Why does Titania awake?
8. What does Titania offer Bottom?
9. What is his reaction to this offer?
10. What part are the fairies to play in this?
1. Quince feels that the...
(The entire section is 653 words.)
Act III, Scene 2: Questions and Answers
1. What is it Puck reports to Oberon?
2. Why is Hermia following Demetrius?
3. What is it Oberon realizes when he sees them together?
4. How is this mistake to be rectified?
5. Why won’t Helena accept Lysander’s advances?
6. Why does she doubt the veracity of Demetrius’ protestations of love?
7. Why do Hermia and Helena argue?
8. Why do each of the young people leave?
9. How does Puck manage to make Lysander and Demetrius sleep?
10. Why do Helena and Hermia also fall asleep?
1. Puck reports to Oberon that he came upon the craftsmen “met together to rehearse...
(The entire section is 775 words.)
Act IV, Scene 1: Questions and Answers
1. What is it Bottom asks Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, and Cobweb to do?
2. What news does Oberon tell Puck?
3. Why is Titania in love with her husband again?
4. Why are Theseus, Hippolyta, and Egeus in the wood?
5. Why does Theseus think the five sleeping people came to the wood?
6. What does Lysander answer when questioned by Theseus?
7. Why is Egeus so angry?
8. Why won’t Demetrius marry Hermia as he had promised?
9. What is Theseus’ decision?
10. Why does Bottom want Quince to write a ballad?
1. Bottom asks Peaseblossom to scratch his head. He asks Cobweb to...
(The entire section is 674 words.)
Act IV, Scene 2: Questions and Answers
1. How do the actors know Bottom has not yet returned?
2. Why can’t they perform the play?
3. What do his friends say are Bottom’s best qualities?
4. What mistake does Quince make in referring to Bottom’s voice?
5. What is Snug’s news?
6. What is especially disappointing about not being able to present the play?
7. What would Flute have demanded for Bottom?
8. What is Bottom’s reaction upon finding his friends?
9. Why won’t he tell them what has happened to him?
10. What is his advice to his fellow actors?
1. The actors know Bottom has not yet returned...
(The entire section is 430 words.)
Act V, Scene 1: Questions and Answers
1. Why does Theseus doubt the reality of the story the lovers tell him?
2. What are the choices for the revel?
3. Why does Theseus choose the craftsmen’s play?
4. What is the consensus of opinion about the Prologue?
5. Why does Theseus command Demetrius to be silent?
6. What is Hippolyta’s astute comment about the play?
7. How does Robin Starveling defend the use of the lanthorn (lantern) in representing the moon?
8. How does Pyramus die in the play-within-the-play?
9. What does Oberon tell the fairies to do before they sing and dance all night?
10. What two things does Puck ask from the...
(The entire section is 518 words.)
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 257 words.)
Bibliography and Further Reading
*If available, books are linked to Amazon.com
Barber, Cesar Lombardi . Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972.
Berry, Edward. Shakespeare's Comic Rites. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. New York: Chelsea House Publishing, 1987.
Bonazza, Blaze O. Shakespeare's Early Comedies: A Structural Analysis*. The Hague: Mouton, 1966.
Briggs, Katharine M. The Anatomy of Puck. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul,...
(The entire section is 340 words.)