A Midsummer Night's Dream Summary

A Midsummer Night's Dream is a play by William Shakespeare in which four Athenian lovers become entangled in a quarrel between the King and Queen of the fairies.

  • Hermia's father wants her to marry Demetrius, but she is in love with Lysander. Hermia and Lysander flee into the woods.
  • Helena, who loves Demetrius, informs him of Hermia's flight. Helena and Demetrius pursue Hermia and Lysander.
  • Oberon, the Fairy King, has his servant sprinkle a love potion on his wife, making her fall in love with a donkey-headed musician. Lysander and Demetrius are also mistakenly exposed to the potion, and they both fall for Helena, much to Hermia's distress.
  • Oberon removes the enchantments from everyone except Demetrius, who remains in love with Helena. The human lovers happily marry. 

Summary

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Last Updated on July 24, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1742

Introduction

William Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream between 1595 and 1596, and it was first published around 1600. One of Shakespeare's early comedies, it distinguishes itself in its originality. Unlike many of his other works, including his comedies, Shakespeare did not rely on other source materials in composing A Midsummer Night's Dream.

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Set in Athens, the play follows the trials, heartache, and eventual happiness of two Athenian couples and the entertaining antics of meddling, magical fairies. The main plot involves two sets of couples—Hermia and Lysander, and Helena and Demetrius—whose romances are complicated by the whims of Oberon and Titania, the King and Queen of the Fairies, and their servant Puck.

Shakespeare's lighthearted play explores the capricious, dream-like, and sometimes ridiculous nature of love. A Midsummer Night’s Dream brings further humor with its play-within-a-play format, in which a group of craftsmen celebrate the upcoming marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta by putting on a badly performed play.

Plot Summary

Act I begins with Athenian duke Theseus and his future wife, Hippolyta, preparing for their wedding. One of Theseus’s subjects, Egeus, arrives seeking his support. Egeus wants his daughter, Hermia, to marry Demetrius, but he says another man, Lysander, has stolen her heart.

Theseus reminds Hermia of the cost of her disobedience. Athenian law dictates that if Hermia disobeys her father, she will be put to death or forced to live the rest of her life as a nun. Hermia declares that she would rather be a nun than marry Demetrius. Theseus says she must make her final decision before his wedding in four days. Once Hermia and Lysander are alone, he asks her to run away with him the next night, and she agrees.

Hermia’s friend Helena appears. She is jealous that Demetrius loves Hermia instead of her. Hermia tells Helena of her plan with Lysander. Helena secretly vows to betray Hermia’s confidence and tell Demetrius, hoping that doing so will put her in his favor.

In local carpenter Peter Quince’s house, he and fellow craftsmen discuss plans to perform a play for Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding. The other craftsmen are Nick Bottom, the weaver; Frances Flute, the bellows-mender; Robin Starveling, the tailor; Tom Snout, the tinker; and Snug, the joiner.

Though they take the play seriously, it is clear they know nothing about how to perform it well. They agree to meet in the woods the next night to practice in secret so that no one else in town can steal their idea.

In act II, Puck, a trickster fairy, is in the forest at night when his king, Oberon, and queen, Titania, show up. They are quarreling about an Indian prince who has become Titania’s favorite squire. Oberon covets the squire for himself, but Titania refuses to part with him.

After Titania leaves, Oberon asks Puck to bring him a magical flower, the juice of which, when laid on a sleeper’s eyelids, will make them fall in love with the first person they see upon waking. Puck goes in search of the flower. During Puck’s absence, Oberon vows to use the flower on Titania and trick her into loving an animal of the forest. Oberon hopes to rid Titania of her love for the Indian prince so Oberon can have him. During his plotting, he hears someone approaching and becomes invisible so he can listen in secret.

Oberon discovers that the approaching sounds are those of Helena and Demetrius. Helena begs Demetrius to love her, but he is unreceptive and warns her to stop following him. When they leave, Puck returns with the flower. Oberon tells Puck to use it on Demetrius, referring to him as an Athenian man because he doesn’t know his name. Puck agrees.

After Titania’s fairy servants sing her to sleep, Oberon sneaks up and puts the flower’s juice on her eyes. He leaves, and Hermia and Lysander enter, tired from their escape together. They rest, but Hermia asks him not to sleep right by her.

Puck comes upon them, mistaking Lysander for the Athenian man Oberon told him about. He uses the flower on Lysander and sneaks away. Demetrius passes through, running from Helena. She grows tired from her chase and falls behind.

Lysander wakes to see Helena and falls in love with her. She thinks he’s mocking her and leaves, but Lysander gives chase. When Hermia wakes, alone, she is scared from a nightmare and wonders why Lysander is gone. She goes to find him.

At the start of act III, Bottom, Quince, Snout, Starveling, Snug, and Flute meet in the woods to practice the play. Puck, unseen, sneaks up on them and watches their rehearsal. Bottom briefly leaves, and when he returns, he has a donkey’s head, courtesy of Puck. The others run away from him. Bottom thinks they’re playing a trick on him to make him look foolish. To show that he’s unaffected by the other craftsmen’s behavior, Bottom starts to sing.

Titania, hearing him, wakes up and falls in love with him. She summons her fairies—Cobweb, Peas-Blossom, Moth, and Mustard-seed—to dote on Bottom and bring him to her bower.

Puck reports back to Oberon about his shenanigans with the flower. They hide as Hermia and Demetrius enter. She accuses him of killing Lysander, but he denies it. She goes off to look for Lysander, and Demetrius falls asleep.

Oberon chides Puck for using the flower on the wrong Athenian man, saying he ruined true love by making false love true. He orders Puck to fetch Helena and puts the flower’s juice on Demetrius himself.

Lysander and Helena show up. He tries to convince her of his love for her, but she reminds him that he has already made a vow to Hermia. Demetrius, waking, sees her and declares his love. She believes he, too, is mocking her and ridicules both of them.

Hermia comes upon them. She asks Lysander why he left, and he says he doesn’t love her, to which she responds with disbelief. Helena thinks all three of them are conspiring against her.

Lysander and Demetrius argue about who loves Helena more while Hermia turns on Helena and threatens violence. Helena entreats the men to protect her and confesses that she told Demetrius of Hermia’s plan to escape with Lysander. The men leave to fight over Helena. Helena runs away to escape Hermia, but Hermia leaves, too.

Oberon orders Puck to veil the night in fog and transform his voice to confuse the men so that they stop fighting. He tells Puck to crush an herb into Lysander’s eyes. Once he falls asleep, the herb will remove the love spell and restore his love for Hermia. Oberon makes plans to go to Titania, ask for her pageboy, and, once she hands him over, rid her of her love for the ass-headed Bottom. He leaves.

Lysander returns, looking for Demetrius. Puck, despite his own amusement at the chaos, obeys Oberon by changing his voice to sound like Demetrius’s, thereby tricking Lysander to follow him. He uses the same trick on Demetrius, making sure the two men don’t run into each other.

When Lysander returns, tired from having unsuccessfully chased Puck’s disguised voice, he falls asleep. Puck, pretending to be Lysander, returns with Demetrius in tow. Demetrius, exhausted, also falls asleep. Separately, Helena and Hermia arrive and also fall asleep. Puck puts the herb on Lysander’s eyes, declaring that all will now be well.

Act IV begins with the return of Titania and Bottom while the Athenians rest. Oberon lurks, unseen, behind them. Titania’s fairy servants dote on Bottom at Titania’s bidding. Titania and Bottom fall asleep together, and the fairy attendants leave.

Oberon tells Puck that he successfully convinced Titania to give up her pageboy. Because of this, he uses herbs to break the love-spell and wake her. He tells Puck to undo the spell on Bottom. Titania thinks her infatuation with Bottom was a dream, but she sees Bottom sleeping near her and is confused. Titania calls up music to keep Bottom asleep. Oberon declares that the “pairs of faithful lovers” shall be wed. He and Titania leave.

Theseus enters with Hippolyta, Egeus, his servants, and his hounds, for he intends to go hunting. The group stumbles upon the young Athenians and wakes them. Lysander doesn’t remember how he got into the forest but confesses that he and Hermia were going to run away. This angers Egeus, but Demetrius says he no longer wants Hermia because he loves Helena.

The hunt forgotten, Theseus says the couples will be married. He goes with Hippolyta, Egeus, and the servants to oversee the preparation of a feast. The Athenians feel like the entire night was one long dream. Though they are somewhat bewildered, they follow the others. Bottom awakens, also thinking that he has had a strange dream.

At Quince’s house, the players wonder where Bottom is. They are sad because without him they can’t go on with the play, which they hope to profit from. Bottom manages to arrive in time but doesn’t explain where he’s been, because he deems it too strange. He tells the players to get ready to perform.

In act V, Hermia, Lysander, Helena, and Demetrius arrive at the palace. Theseus calls to Philostrate, his master of revels, who gives him a list of potential entertainment. Theseus chooses to see the craftsmen’s play. The play is about two star-crossed lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe, who meet untimely ends. Thisbe, scared by a lion, runs away and loses her mantle. Pyramus finds the mantle in the lion’s bloody jaws and assumes Thisby is dead. Out of grief, Pyramus kills himself. Thisbe finds his body and kills herself as well. The audience takes amusement in how poorly acted the play is.

The fairies arrive after the couples retire to bed. Puck vows not to let anything, even a mouse, disturb the house where the lovers lie. Oberon and Titania sing and dance to bless the house, and Oberon orders the fairies to go to each bedchamber and bless each couple. Puck ends the play with a short monologue, hoping the audience has not not been offended by the play. He then suggests that if the play has offended, it may be nothing more than a dream.

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