Act V, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis
Hippolyta and Theseus think the lovers are telling them a fantasy rather than what really happened to them in the haunted wood. The lovers join them and Theseus asks Philostrate what entertainment is available to them during the three hours between their wedding feast and bedtime. Theseus rejects one suggestion after another, deciding upon the craftsmen’s play. Philostrate tries to dissuade him from this choice by telling him it is inane, but Philostrate does have to admit he laughed until he cried when he saw how terrible it was.
The craftsmen present their play much to the delight of their audience, who freely pass comments from one to another and discourse with the actors in the midst of their play. The actors are complimented on their skills and asked questions as they act and the audience critiques and discusses the actors’ roles and intents throughout the play. At the finish of the play, Bottom asks Theseus if he would prefer the Epilogue or a dance. Theseus chooses the dance. The dance is performed, the players (actors) exit, and Theseus announces it is time for all to retire.
Oberon, Titania, and the fairies take over the night intending to sing and dance until daybreak. But first, Oberon sends the fairies to bless each of the newly married couples and whatever children they might have. Puck remains behind to beg the audience’s forgiveness for any offense given and for their applause.
Shakespeare has neatly tied up all his loose ends by having the craftsmen present their play-within-the-play. The craftsmen’s play is a dramatist’s and actor’s worst nightmare: unexpected laughter, disparaging remarks, cues missed, lines forgotten, overacting, and loud comments by the audience. It also makes the point that the lovers—Demetrius and Helena (who were what we now call “off again, on again”), Hermia and Lysander (whose union was opposed by Hermia’s father), Theseus and Hippolyta (who met while leading opposing armies), and Oberon and Titania (who both had extramarital affairs)—have each other in the end, unlike the unfortunate Pyramus and Thisbe. In addition, it makes clear that the players, much as Shakespeare’s own company, owed allegiance to their patrons and were thankful for the patronage.