A thousand years after the Fall of Rome, the Classical world was still a huge influence over writers like Shakespeare. For example – though it’s sometimes difficult to be absolutely specific – it’s reckoned that he located well over one third of his plays in Italy and Greece. But the great majority of these are set in Italy – around a dozen. By contrast, just three of his plays are set in Greece: “Timon of Athens” and “The Two Noble Kinsmen” are late plays – 1607 and 1613 respectively – though, again, it’s hard to be absolutely sure of the details. The third leg of this Athenian trio is “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, written in around 1595.
For this play to have a Mediterranean setting comes as a bit of a surprise. After all, it seems to be one of the most intrinsically “English” of Shakespeare’s plays. This impression is most vivid in the scenes set in the forest: “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,” says Oberon to Puck, “Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows” – and the English imagination is able to imagine just the place. It’s a bank “over-canopied with luscious woodbine, / With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.” The sort of forest Shakespeare knew as a child around Stratford in the English Midlands perhaps.
Shakespeare’s locations are worth investigating in their own right. For example, outside his History plays, Shakespeare only sets one play in England: “The Merry Wives of Windsor”. True, this excludes plays set in Britain (“King Lear”, “Cymbeline”) before the arrival of the English. Nonetheless, it comes as something of a surprise that this most English author should have spent so much of his imaginative life dreaming of lands so far from home. Which raises the question of whether Shakespeare ever left his native land. To which the answer, as with so much about his life, is: It’s perfectly possible, but we just don’t know.
Scene by Scene
Act 1 Scene 1
Theseus Duke of Athens impatiently reminds Hippolyta that they will be married in four days’ time.
He despatches Philostrate, Master of the Revels, to encourage the young people of Athens to party.
He promises Hippolyta that though he won her by conquest, he will marry her with love.
Egeus appears to complain that his daughter Hermia, meant for Demetrius, now loves Lysander.
Egeus asks Theseus for “the ancient privilege” of directing her marriage or having her killed.
Theseus encourages Hermia to do as her father wishes or to take the draconian consequences.
She may be made to live as a nun for life – Hermia says she would prefer that to marrying Lysander.
Theseus gives her four days to agree to the rules or she will risk either a “single life” or execution.
Demetrius calls on Lysander to give in but he replies flippantly that Demetrius should marry Egeus.
Egeus asserts his rights, but Lysander replies that Demetrius has been intimate with Helena.
Theseus says he has heard about this, and calls Egeus and Demetrius to a private meeting with him.
Left alone, Lysander tells Hermia about his maiden aunt who lives outside the jurisdiction of Athens.
They can take refuge there if Hermia agrees to meet him the next evening at an agreed location.
Helena appears to reveal her envy of Hermia and to ask how she is able to attract Demetrius too.
Hermia replies that the more dismissive she is towards Demetrius, the more he loves her.
Lysander tells Helena what he and Hermia have agreed – to leave Athens tomorrow and not return.
Helena reflects on the way lovers can be “beguiled” by love and lose their judgement.
But she resolves to tell Demetrius what she has learnt about the plan to hide in the wood tomorrow.
Act 1 Scene 2
Peter Quince the carpenter assembles his actors for their performance of “Pyramus and Thisbe”.
Bottom the weaver plays Pyramus, and he means to have the audience in tears at the tragedy.
Francis Flute the bellows-mender will play Thisbe, though reluctant to play a woman’s part.
Other parts are allocated, including Snug as the lion, reassured to know it “is nothing but roaring”.
Bottom would also happily play the part of the lion, and demonstrates his roar, but is not allowed.
Quince informs the actors that they are to meet in the wood the following evening to rehearse.
Act 2 Scene 1
A fairy loyal to Titania, the “fairy queen”, encounters Oberon’s servant Puck in a wood near the city.
Oberon is angry with Titania, says Puck, because she “withholds” her attendant, a sweet Indian boy.
The fairy recognises Puck as Robin Goodfellow, a light-hearted trickster and mischief-maker.
Suddenly Oberon and Titania appear from opposite sides of the stage in a hostile atmosphere.
Titania accuses Oberon of loving Hippolyta, while Oberon accuses Titania of favouring Theseus.
Titania accuses Oberon of being responsible for a sequence of natural disasters recently.
Oberon counters the solution is for her to surrender the Indian boy but Titania refuses point-blank.
She says the child was entrusted to her when his mother, an old friend of hers, died in childbirth.
Titania leaves, but Oberon enlists Puck to search the forest and find a flower called love-in-idleness.
When this flower’s juice is dropped into the eyes, the sleeper falls in love with the first thing it sees.
However, Demetrius pursued by Helena now suddenly arrive – he tells her he cannot love her.
Helena tells him that the more he rejects and dismisses her, the more she will be drawn to him.
He threatens her but when he leaves to escape, she says she is willing to die, and gives chase.
Puck returns with the flower: Oberon will pour some of its juice into Titania’s eyes at night.
Oberon instructs Puck to find Demetrius and “anoint his eyes” so that he will now love Helena.
Act 2 Scene 2
Fairies sing lullabies to help Titania sleep before Oberon arrives to squeeze the flower on her eyes.
He hopes that when Titania wakes up, she will fall hopelessly in love with “some vile thing”.
Lysander and Hermia, meanwhile, arrive looking for a suitable location where they can sleep.
Before they fall asleep, they are united in the hope that they will love one another for ever.
Puck arrives and mistaking Lysander for Demetrius, he applies the flower juice to Lysander.
Now Demetrius and Helena arrive – Helena feels depressed when she compares herself with Hermia.
She finds Lysander sleeping and wakes him up – he is instantly transformed into loving her madly.
She imagines he is ridiculing her and tells him she thought he was a “lord of more true gentleness”.
She runs away, and Lysander, dismissing Hermia, craves to be Helen’s “knight” and gives chase.
Hermia awakes from a nightmare, dreaming of being devoured by a snake, to find Lysander gone.
Act 3 Scene 1
The craftsmen, led by Quince, arrive in the wood at a suitable spot for them to rehearse their play.
Bottom, nervous about the fragile temperaments of the audience, wants to offer some clarifications.
He wants a prologue to be clear that when Bottom, playing Pyramus, kills himself, he is only acting.
Also he wants it to be clear that the lion is not a real lion, and this should be clear to the “Ladies”.
Arrangements are also made for moonshine to be supplied with a lantern, and for there to be a wall.
Puck arrives mystified to find the “hempen home-spuns” rehearsing, with Bottom and Flute central.
When Bottom exits he is followed by Puck, and when they return, Bottom has the head of an ass.
The craftsmen abandon their rehearsal, followed by Puck, leaving Bottom confused and isolated.
Suspecting his companions of trying to make him look foolish, Bottom passes the time with a song.
At this point, Titania, sleeping nearby, hears the song and awakes to fall madly in love with Bottom.
She promises him exotic luxuries if he stays with her: jewels, flowers to sleep on and “an airy spirit”.
She instructs her fairies to feed him fruit and honey – in general to treat him as a treasured guest.
Bottom introduces himself to each of the fairies, and Titania leads him to her forest bower.
Act 3 Scene 2
Puck reports that Titania has fallen in love with a “monster” – one of a group of “rude mechanicals”.
They were rehearsing a play for Theseus’s marriage when Puck put an ass’s head on his shoulders.
All his companions fled but when Titania arrived, she fell in love with an ass “straightway”.
Now Demetrius appears with Hermia – and it seems the wrong man has been given the love potion.
Hermia is mystified that Lysander has deserted her, and accuses Demetrius – his rival – of murder.
She abandons him and goes in search of Lysander alone, leaving Demetrius to lie down and sleep.
Oberon is mortified by Puck’s mistake and instructs him to bring Helena here to meet Demetrius.
Helena appears with Lysander, questioning why he has abandoned his former affection for Hermia.
Demetrius awakes and begins to praise Helena, but she is suspicious of this sudden change of heart.
She accuses both the men of ganging up and bullying her – all simply “to make you sport”.
Both deny it, and both claim they have given up on Hermia – who suddenly appears before them.
Lysander tells Hermia he doesn’t love her – now Helena thinks all three of them are in on the joke.
She turns on Hermia, accusing her of a breach of trust after all their years of friendship.
Hermia is dumbfounded, but Helena turns to leave, saying “death or absence” is her “remedy”.
Lysander tells Hermia he hates her and loves Helena – provoking further arguments between them.
Helena announces that she wants nothing more than to leave the forest and return safely to Athens.
Oberon blames Puck for the argument, but Puck responds that he followed Oberon’s instructions.
Now Oberon tells Puck to keep the two men apart but to keep them busy till they fall asleep.
Then he may apply the antidote to “take all error” from the scene, and the lovers return to Athens.
Meanwhile he will go in search of Titania to “release” her “charmed eye” from her love for Bottom.
Puck leads the two men in search of one another till they lie down to sleep; the women the same.
Now he pours the love juice into Lysander’s eye, so that when he awakes he will again love Hermia.
Act 4 Scene 1
Bottom is enjoying the luxury of his new life, being waited on by Titania and the fairies.
Still unaware he has the head of an ass, he lies down to sleep soothed by the loving Titania.
Oberon appears to record that he has finally been given the much-desired Indian boy by Titania.
So now he is able to release her from her infatuation with Bottom, and send him back to Athens.
Titania awakes and after expressing her revulsion for Bottom is affectionately reunited with Oberon.
Theseus appears along with Hippolyta and Egeus – to come across the four young lovers fast asleep.
Lysander tries to explain why they are asleep here, and admits they came to escape Athenian law.
Egeus calls for “the law”, but Demetrius admits he now loves Helena, and will do so “for evermore”.
Theseus overrules Egeus and instead proposes a feast “in great solemnity” and a three-fold wedding.
The hunting party leaves, and the young lovers follow after, gradually emerging from the dream.
When Bottom awakes he can hardly believe his dream, but will get Quince to write it up in a song.
Act 4 Scene 2
The “rude mechanicals” are worried that Bottom is missing as only he can play the part of Pyramus.
Finally he arrives in time to get the actors together for the Palace, while he muses on his dream.
Act 5 Scene 1
Theseus says he does not believe the stories he’s been told about last night’s events in the forest.
But Hippolyta replies that, as they all told the same story, it is likely they were telling the truth.
Philostrate strongly recommends Theseus does not choose the craftsmen’s play, but he is overruled.
Hippolyta suspects the play will be wretched but Theseus recommends “tongue-tied simplicity”.
Quince introduces the play and summarises the characters and events about to be staged.
Bottom falls into a discussion with Theseus about the wall and the forthcoming appearance of Flute.
Hippolyta is not impressed by the play but Theseus suggests that imagination may be needed.
As the tragedy unfolds on the stage the nobles amuse themselves discussing the performance.
Thisbe’s suicide, following Piramus’s, completes the narrative that anticipates “Romeo and Juliet”.
Theseus declines Pyramus’s offer of an epilogue to the play, and announces “Lovers, to bed”.
Oberon, Titania and Puck close the play with dancing and blessings on the house’s inhabitants.
Puck has the last word, telling theatre-goers that if the play “offended”, it was just a kind of dream.
As the play begins Theseus looks forward to his marriage to Hippolyta in four days’ time when the old moon has faded and a new moon emerged. Throughout the play the moon plays a strong symbolic role. For example, when Lysander is accused by Egeus of having romanced Hermia, it is significant that he “by moonlight at her window sung” (1.1) because the moon is associated with love and romance. For Titania (in 2.1) the moon brings change to the seasons (“the spring, the summer / The chiding autumn, angry winter”) and is generally associated with transformation – very appropriate in this particular play; for the craftsmen, the moon is so intrinsic that the part is played by one of their cast. So as a symbol it will cover many of the key themes of the play, from romance to transformation.
Throughout the play, love is the source of much unhappiness and confusion. As Lysander himself says in 1.1, the “course of true love never did run smooth”. It is love that causes Hermia to fall out with her father because she has chosen the wrong partner. In the process her friend Helena has been left deeply unhappy because of her unrequited love for Demetrius. Later in the play Helena will suddenly attract both Demetrius and Lysander, and be distressed by the confusion this causes. Meanwhile we have already learnt that Hippolyta was “woo’d” and “won” by force of arms “doing thee injuries”, and later in the play we will see how Pyramus and Thisbe are deceived by love into committing suicide.
The antidote or solution to the problems caused by love will prove to be the juice of the flower love-in-idleness. But in the hands of the mischievous Puck, this will cause plenty of problems of its own – for example, as said above, it will cause Helena much confusion and upset when she discovers that those who previously shunned her are now suddenly in love with her, and of course it will cause Titania to fall in love with Bottom. Happily, these problems will be solved by the potion too. But one of the themes of the play is the problems love causes, though clearly this theme is conveyed in a light-hearted, dreamlike spirit.
Helena’s view in 1.1 that love is a kind of madness is a fairly common insight in Shakespeare’s plays: indeed Theseus repeats it in the final scene, when he asserts that “lovers are madmen”. Elsewhere in Shakespeare’s plays, the jailer’s daughter goes mad for love in “The Two Noble Kinsmen”, and in “Hamlet” it seems that it’s Ophelia’s love for the prince that drives her mad. The idea of love as madness recurs throughout “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” – reaching its surreal climax, perhaps, in Titania’s love for Bottom.
Lysander and Hermia, left alone in 1.1, need a way of escaping from the jurisdiction of the laws of Athens in order to express their love for one another. The law cannot stop them falling in love but it has plenty of other options: as Theseus points out, Hermia needs to follow her father’s will “Or else the law of Athens yields you up / To death, or to a vow of single life”. Theseus’s stance is hard to understand – after all, he has won his own love unconventionally, by force of arms. In the end, the patriarchal solidarity of Theseus and Egeus is defeated, and love triumphs. Once again, the comparison with “Romeo and Juliet” is striking.
To summarise: love has many expressions in this play and many associations. It is presented as random (it is possible to fall in love with a weaver with the head of a donkey); it is unpredictable, because people can wake up and find they’re in love with you; it is confusing because people you thought hated you seem to love you and it is irrational because the more you love someone, often the more they disdain you; love is painful, and love is blind, but love is also magical, and the play aims to evoke some of the fantasy and excitement it evokes.
The relationship between Hermia and her father, in which he lays down rules which she refuses to follow, is a common theme in Shakespeare’s plays. Instances of conflict between fathers and daughters are routine throughout his work. Often, as here, fathers issue instructions and daughters quietly ignore them. Examples include Jessica in “The Merchant of Venice”, Silvia in “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” and of course Juliet. In all these cases, love is the drug. Incidentally, at this time Shakespeare (who worked in London, three or four days travel from his family in Stratford) had two daughters, one of them in her early teens, around the same age as Juliet. Conflicts between mothers and sons in Shakespeare (“Hamlet” is an exception here) are vanishingly rare.
Many of Shakespeare’s plays turn on the idea of privileged knowledge and how it is used and abused. Here (1.1) Helena uses a soliloquy – a common feature in Shakespeare – to reveal to the audience that she intends to speak out of turn in revealing the secret plans of Lysander and Hermia to Demetrius. It is striking how often the Shakespearean characters selected to confide in the audience have unwelcome news to convey – or are just downright evil. Here Helena tells the audience something that makes them distinctly uncomfortable.
If the narrative of the craftsmen’s play, revealed in 1.2 of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, seems familiar to audiences of “Romeo and Juliet”, that may be because Shakespeare was writing both plays around the same time – the mid-1590s. It’s not clear which was written first, but the plot of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (which suggests that all love’s problems can be put right in the end) is powerfully contradicted by “Romeo and Juliet”.
Whatever its purpose, however, the plan outlined in 1.2 for the players to perform the unhappy tale of Pyramus and Thisbe in celebration of the forthcoming marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta is oddly inappropriate, especially given that the forthcoming marriages of Hermia and Lysander and Demetrius and Helena are being celebrated at the same time.
When he administers his love potion (or has it administered), Oberon is playing a role not very different from that of Shakespeare himself: he is making things happen, just as the author does, choosing who will fall in love with whom and advancing the narrative. In this respect he reminds the reader of one of Shakespeare’s last characters, Prospero in “The Tempest”, who is a master of magic and (just like Oberon) possesses the ability to make young men fall in love with young women and vice versa. Curiously, both Oberon and Prospero have a young servant – Puck in Oberon’s case, Ariel in Prospero’s – whose job it is to fulfil their master’s wishes. One important difference: Ariel doesn’t make mistakes.
Mistaken identity is a dramatic trick Shakespeare uses elsewhere in his plays – for example, “The Comedy of Errors” (which he wrote a year or two before “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”), is based around the idea of long-separated twins suddenly finding themselves in the same town, and being mistaken for one another. Farce follows. Here it is the similar appearance of the two Athenian lads that confuses Puck and makes him choose the wrong target for his love-in-idleness potion. As it happens, the two young men are indeed quite similar to one another. But not in Helena’s opinion.
Dreams, as the title implies, have their place in the play. Hermia, for example, has a grotesque dream of a serpent at her breast in 2.2, an image out of the tale of Cleopatra. She looks for sympathy or support from Lysander, only to discover that he has been whisked away from her by Puck’s love potion. In the last scene of the play, Bottom (quite understandably) believes he has had a dream, though as he says “man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream”. More generally the play itself has a dreamlike quality in that juxtaposed and often random-seeming events coalesce in surreal sequences using somewhat contradictory evidence to reach an affirmative conclusion about love.
The play put on by the “rude mechanicals” in 5.1 is a reminder that a key theme of the play is illusion. This theme has many expressions, including the idea that romantic love is in some ways an illusion (for example Titania falling in love with Bottom). A second illusion is the central role played by love-in-idleness, which transforms Lysander into Helena’s most devoted suitor in 3.2. The play in 5.1 presents the other side of this theme: when Snug reassures the “ladies” that he is not a real lion, merely an actor, he reminds the real audience that the illusion does not end with “Pyramus and Thisbe”.
Who’s Who / Characters
Duke of Athens, who has won his bride Hippolyta by force, and supports Egeus in his determination to have his daughter Hermia marry the man he chooses. Nevertheless for all his authoritarian instincts he has the intelligence to tell Egeus “I will overbear your will” when he calls in 4.1 for “the law” to be imposed on Demetrius for eloping to the forest.
Determined to plough her own path rather than to be forced into an unhappy marriage by her father, she bravely escapes to the forest with Lysander, but is abandoned there by him – temporarily at least – and falls out with Helena. However with order restored she is once again reconciled with Helena, and curiously has no role in the final act of the play.
Initially rejected by Demetrius, she steadfastly maintains her attraction to him, even when she feels she is being mocked by the two men falling for her – and ultimately she is rewarded. At first she comes across as a furtive, untrustworthy character, but her determination to pursue Demetrius overwhelms the illogical, random nature of love as presented here, and she triumphs in the end.
He takes pity on Helena and is moved by her plight in being rejected by Demetrius, so his sympathy and decency are established early on. But less admirable is the revenge he takes on Titania for having adopted the Indian boy: we aren’t told why Oberon wants the boy but until he gets him he has his wife fall in love with the comical Bottom complete with ass’s head – a cruel and unusual punishment indeed.
An ambiguous figure, part mischievous devil, part light-hearted servant, part fairy, part hobgoblin. He follows his master’s instructions but whereas Oberon has compassion and human sympathy, Puck delights in mischief and only corrects his mistakes under instruction.
Self-confident and enthusiastic but woefully clumsy and comically bereft of self-knowledge, the justified (and good-natured) object of mockery in his repeated references to asses while unaware that he is sporting the head of a donkey.
- How long must Theseus and Hippolyta wait at the start of the play for their wedding?
- Who does Lysander say Demetrius should marry in the opening scene?
- Which of Lysander’s relations is the supportive family member living outside Athens?
- What is Bottom’s normal job?
- In 2.1 the fairy recognises Puck by his real name. What is it?
- Give the name of the flower whose juice makes people fall in love.
- Which animal appeared in Hermia’s nightmare?
- What accusation does Hermia level at Demetrius in 3.2?
- Why does Hippolyta believe that in 5.1 the young lovers must be telling the truth?
- What is Theseus’s final instruction to the young lovers?
- Four days
- Robin Goodfellow
- That he murdered Lysander
- They all tell the same story
- That they go to bed
Many of the most characteristic moments in Shakespeare’s plays take place at night: the murder of Duncan in “Macbeth” for example, or the appearance of the ghost on the ramparts of the castle in “Hamlet”, King Lear confronting the storm, or Romeo arriving at the Capulets’ mausoleum, hardly able to see who he’s fighting till it’s too late.
Much of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” also takes place, as the title implies, at night, and this will have caused staging problems for Shakespeare’s actors, because in Elizabethan England, plays were staged in the afternoon and artificial lighting – which means candles in this context – could have played no part in their staging (though later, Shakespeare did put on his plays in an indoor theatre).
Shakespeare’s plays often reference the time of day – or night. In this play the references are fairly common, but more common are the references to the moon. We will meet up “by moonlight” says Quince to his actors; “Ill met by moonlight” says an angry Oberon to Titania; “The moon … looks with a watery eye,” says Titania; and Puck closes the play with a reference to the wolf that “behowls the moon”. There are numerous other examples of a detail included partly, one imagines, to remind the afternoon crowds at the Globe that, on stage, night has fallen. A further element of the illusion, perhaps.