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....
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In this section:
- Shakespeare’s Language
- Shakespeare’s Sentences
- Shakespeare’s Words
- Shakespeare’s Wordplay
- Shakespeare’s Dramatic Verse
- Implied Stage Action
Shakespeare’s language can create a strong pang of intimidation, even fear, in a large number of modern-day readers. Fortunately, however, this need not be the case. All that is needed to master the art of reading Shakespeare is to practice the techniques of unraveling uncommonly-structured sentences and to become familiar with the poetic use of uncommon words. We must realize that during the 400-year span between Shakespeare’s time and our own, both the way we live and speak has changed. Although most of his vocabulary is in use today, some of it is obsolete, and what may be most confusing is that some of his words are used today, but with slightly different or totally different meanings. On the stage, actors readily dissolve these language stumbling blocks. They study Shakespeare’s dialogue and express it dramatically in word and in action so that its meaning is graphically enacted. If the reader studies Shakespeare’s lines as an actor does, looking up and...
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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...
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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...
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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 marriage to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, who he won through battle. The marriage is to take place in four days when there is a new moon. He desires to “… Stir up the Athenian youth to merriments. Awake the pert and nimble spirit of mirth.”
2. Theseus promises Hippolyta that their marriage will be one of joy, unlike the warring he used to win her, by declaring, “…But I will wed thee in another key….”
3. Egeus brings Hermia, Lysander, and Demetrius to Theseus because he (Egeus) wants Hermia to marry Demetrius. Against Egeus’ will, Hermia wants to marry Lysander. Egeus wants Theseus to invoke the law requiring that a daughter marry the husband her father chooses for her or face the consequences: death or...
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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 and the Duchess on his wedding day at night.” Quince wrote and is directing this play for Theseus’ and Hippolyta’s wedding, which is to be held during the new moon, four days hence.
2. Quince is the person assigning the roles because he wrote the play with, “…every man’s name which is thought fit …” for certain roles. As the director, it is his job to cast the actors in the parts for which they are most suited—an easy job for him since he is also the dramatist (playwright).
3. Bottom’s reaction to his assigned role is that he wants to know who Pyramus is and, when told, proclaims he will have everyone crying with his portrayal of this lover who dies. To quote, “I will move storms; I will condole...
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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 fairy’s declaring, “…you are that shrewd and knavish sprite….” The name Puck, which is not Robin Goodfellow’s actual name, means hobgoblin and often is used interchangeably with the hobgoblin’s actual name.
2. Oberon is angry with Titania because she refuses to give up the changeling she has brought with her from India. While she has had many affairs, it is her insistence on keeping the boy that enrages her husband. Oberon, himself, declares, “I do but beg a little changeling boy…” and, more directly, “Give me that boy….”
3. Titania is angry with her husband because she does not want to give up the changeling and she feels Nature “From our debate, from our dissension…“ is turning itself...
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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?
1. Now that Oberon has anointed Titania’s eye with the love juice, she will fall in love with the first creature she sees upon waking from the sleep she had instructed the fairies to sing her into. The still angry Oberon hopes Titania will see some “vile thing” the moment she opens her eyes.
2. Lysander wants to rest because Hermia is already “faint with wand’ring in the wood” in the attempt to reach his aunt’s house and he, frankly, has forgotten the way and needs to rest himself to remember the way.
3. Hermia, who is running away to avoid her father’s choice of husband in order to marry her own—a crime punishable by death or banishment to a nunnery—asks Lysander, “For my sake, my dear, lie...
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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 rehearsal spot in the wood is “a marvelous convenient place” for practicing their play because there is a flat area, a green plot, to serve as the stage and shrubs (hawthorne) to represent the tiring house (dressing room).
2. Bottom feels the craftsmen need “a device to make all well” —two Prologues (opening speeches) to the play—to warn the ladies of the audience that there will be a sword scene which is only acting, no one is really going to be hurt, and that the Lion is only an actor, not an actual savage beast who may harm them.
3. The craftsmen solve the problems of the moonlight and the wall by checking the almanac and assuring themselves there will, indeed, be moonlight to shine through the window...
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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 a play” near the sleeping Titania and changed Bottom’s head for that of an ass, then made certain Bottom was near Titania so that he was the first being she saw when she woke up and would she fall in love with him. Puck also mentions how frightened Bottom’s friends were and that the eye of the youth in “Athenian garments” has also been anointed.
2. Hermia is following Demetrius because she is convinced Demetrius, “…hath slain Lysander in his sleep…” Both men want to marry her. Theseus has ordered her to marry Demetrius, as Egeus desires, or face the nunnery or death. She and Lysander have run away to elope. She cannot think of another reason for Lysander to leave her sleeping, alone and unguarded, in the...
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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 bring him the unbroken honey-bag of a red-hipped bumble-bee on top of a thistle (a type of flower). He then asks Mustardseed to help Cobweb scratch since Bottom, still unaware he has an ass’ head, ironically mentions, “And I am such a tender ass, if my hair do but tickle me, I must scratch,” while thinking it’s time to get to a barber’s for a shave.
2. Oberon tells Puck the news that Titania, Oberon’s wife and queen of the fairies, has given him the changeling once she fell in love with Bottom (due to the love juice). Now that he has the changeling she had previously refused to relinquish, he orders Puck to remove the spell from Titania’s eye and, “…take this transformed scalp from off the head of this Athenian...
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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 because Robin Starveling went to his house, only to find, “He [Bottom] cannot be heard of.”
2. They can’t perform the play because there is not, “…a man in all Athens able to discharge Pyramus but he [Bottom].”
3. His friends say Bottom’s best qualities are his wit (sense of humor), which is “the best wit of any handicraftsman in Athens,” and his sweet voice.
4. The mistake Quince makes is in referring to Bottom’s voice as that of a “paramour” rather than “paragon.” The humor in this is that a paramour is a lover, while a paragon is a model of excellence. The bawdy joke is that Quince is calling his friend a lover, rather than a role model.
5. Snug’s news is that,...
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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 audience before Shakespeare’s play ends?
1. Theseus calls the story the lovers tell him, “More strange than true,” because he thinks, “the lunatic, the lover, and the poet,” are alike in their overblown imaginations. Hippolyta wonders if this is true since all of the four lovers tell the same story.
2. The choices for the revel are a battle song sung by, “an Athenian eunuch [a castrated male] to the harp,” an old play Theseus has already seen, another play he deems too serious for a wedding feast, and the craftsmen’s play.
3. Theseus chooses the craftsmen’s play for several reasons. The first is he doesn’t care for the other choices for various reasons. The second is he...
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Focusing on such issues as love, dreams, and reality, A Midsummer Night's Dream has been regarded by critics as Shakespeare's first mature comedy, a work which addresses fundamental questions about life. Since love triumphs at the end of the play, dispelling the chaotic magic of the night, the drama seems almost conventional. Thus a traditional reading of the play tends to emphasize the joyful outcome, regarding the supernatural elements as the natural background for a story which celebrates life. However, a rather different interpretation was suggested in 1961 by the eminent Polish scholar Jan Kott, who in his seminal Szekice o Szekspirze (Shakespeare, Our Contemporary) drew attention to the sinister undercurrents of this seemingly charming and gentle love story. Unlike earlier critics who only touched upon the dark side of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Kott dismisses the romantic view of Shakespeare's work, maintaining that the play essentially focuses on brutal eroticism and explores a range of violent sexual fantasies. Furthermore, Kott argues, love is debased by the interchangeability of objects of desire, reaching its lowest ebb in Titania's erotic attraction to a beast.
Kott's reading of the play points to the battle of the sexes as a major topic. As feminist critics have observed, the tensions among the antagonists—such as Hermia and her father—do not stem from a blind urge to inflict pain, but reflect the efforts of a...
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While there are many things in A Midsummer Night's Dream that modern audiences enjoy about the play, the theme of love is one that many people, from Shakespeare's original audiences to modern audiences, can relate to.
The four young lovers in the play—Hermia, Lysander, Helena, and Demetrius—all seem to feel love very deeply, even before the fairies work their magic. For Lysander's love, Hermia is willing to go against her father's wishes (he wants her to marry Demetrius). Both Hermia and Lysander would rather run away and risk the punishment of Athenian law if they are caught. Helena, in love with Demetrius, betrays her friendship with Hermia with the hope of gaining a little of Demetrius's favor. She hopes that in telling Demetrius of Hermia's plan and her whereabouts, he will thank her, and that perhaps this attention will lead to something more. Demetrius has pursued Hermia into the wood and is almost insane from not finding her ("And here am I, and wode [mad] within this wood, / Because I cannot meet with Hermia" [II.i.192-93]).
This love which seems so strong, however, is weak in two ways: for the men, it appears to be fickle; and for the women, it comes between them as lifelong friends. Lysander and Demetrius are both affected by the love potion of Oberon, applied by Puck to their eyelids. Lysander, who so deeply loved Hermia, suddenly loves Helena. Not only is he completely enamored with her, but he now violently despises...
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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 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...
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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, 1959.
Charney, Maurice. All of Shakespeare. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
Foakes, R. A. ed. The New Cambridge Shakespeare. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
Frye, Northrop. "Characterization in Shakespeare's Comedy," Shakespeare Quarterly: Vol.IV (1953), pp.271-277.
Goddard, Harold C. The Meaning of Shakespeare—Volume 1. Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1951.
Granville-Barker, Harley. Prefaces to Shakespeare. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965/1978.
Gurr, Andrew. Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Halliday, F.E. Shakespeare. New York: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 1956.
Levi, Peter. The Life and Times of William Shakespeare. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1988.
Macdonald, Ronald R. Twayne’s English Author Series—William Shakespeare: The Comedies. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.
Mowat, Barbara A. & Paul Werstine, ed. The New Folger Library—Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. New York: Washington Square Press, 1993.
Muir, Kenneth. Shakespeare's Comic Sequence....
(The entire section is 340 words.)