Describe the setting of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and explain how the setting influences the mood and plot of the play.
Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream has two settings: Athens and the woods outside of Athens. While most of the play takes place in the woods, Athens is an important point of contrast in the text. The contrasting settings establish a classic society versus nature conflict.
In Athens, the human characters are subject to the rule of the king and queen, Theseus and Hippolyta. One of their subjects named Hermia is in love with Lysander, but her parents want her to marry Demetrius. Theseus is very serious and believes his word is law; he orders Hermia to marry Demetrius; otherwise, she will be put to death or forced to become celibate. He invokes the law by saying,
For you, fair Hermia, look you arm yourself
To fit your fancies to your father's will,
Or else the law of Athens yields you up
(Which by no means we may extenuate)
To death or to a vow of single life (I.i.117-121).
Theseus is telling her that if she does not do as he orders, she will be at the mercy of the law. He also suggests that "the law of Athens" is not totally in his control, even though he is the king. It is as though the characters answer to some "higher law" of the state, which seems rather harsh and unforgiving. As a result of Theseus's proclamation, Hermia and Lysander plan to run away to the woods, where most of the action of the play occurs.
The forest, on the other hand, is free from social law and confinement. The fairies have a king and queen also, Oberon and Titania, but their "rule" is much more playful than what we see in Athens. The actions of the fairies are not malicious or violent. They do, however, enchant the human characters, which causes them to fall in love with people who they do not necessarily love in their everyday lives. After the mania that takes place in the forest, the lovers return to Athens. However, because of the events of the night, everyone is able to be content in society, as well. The lovers end up with their beloveds, and there is a happy ending.
This play uses two different setting locations. The play begins and ends in ancient Athens. More specifically, readers are told at the beginning of Act I that the play opens in the palace of Theseus. The second setting to this play is a forest "near Athens."
The two locations definitely affect the mood of the play. Athens is ruled by law, order, and logic. It's a place of great seriousness. It is so serious a place that a father demanding the death penalty for a daughter's disobedience isn't terribly odd.
Contrast that serious and not fun mood with the mood that is established in the forest setting. The forest is a place of great mystery and magic. Fairies live there, and they are not governed by law, order, and logic. Instead, they are governed by their emotions. A good example of the forest's "do as you feel" mantra is in how Titania and Oberon interact with each other. They plot and scheme against each other one moment only to quickly change their minds and forgive each other the next moment. The reason for the attitude change isn't logical; it's simply because their mood has changed. Problems and arguments can be, and are, laughed away as whimsical fun. It gives an overall lighthearted mood to the forest sections.
As for how the two locations affect the plot, the forest offers the four young lovers a place to cavort with each other away from the prying eyes of the overly legalistic Athens society. Because it's a magical forest, the actions of the characters can be laughed away and forgiven. Additionally, because it's a magic forest, new solutions to the ridiculous love triangles can be figured out.
A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare actually has two separate settings. The first setting is ancient Athens in the time of Theseus. In the Elizabethan period, scholarly chronology of antiquity was, at best, imprecise. Theseus would have been placed in an early heroic period, perhaps slightly before the Trojan war. Because this setting is far from the reality of Elizabethan England, it allows Shakespeare scope for imagination and flexibility in handling issues like customs and mores; two upper class girls in England running off and spending time sleeping in the woods with two young men would have ruined their reputations for chastity and become unmarriageable.
The wood is a fantastical setting, filled with magic. It is a world of dreams, and perhaps a dreamscape rather than a reality. It is a place of mysterious beauty where wishes can be made true and fantasy become reality. It gives the play its mood of light fantasy and allows a magical solution to the romantic problems of the love plot.