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.