About A Midsummer Night’s Dream
A Midsummer Night’s Dream comedy play by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written between 1590 and 1597. It portrays the events surrounding the marriage of the Duke of Athens, Theseus, and Hippolyta. These include the adventures of four young Athenian lovers and a group of six amateur actors (the mechanicals), who are controlled and manipulated by the fairies who inhabit the forest in which most of the play is set. The play is one of Shakespeare’s most popular works for the stage and is widely performed across the world.
Theseus – Duke of Athens
Hippolyta – Queen of the Amazons, betrothed to Theseus
Philostrate – Master of the Revels
Egeus – father of Hermia, wants her to marry Demetrius
Nedar – father of Helena
Hermia – daughter of Egeus, in love with Lysander
Helena – in love with Demetrius
Lysander – in love with Hermia at first but later loves Helena and then goes back to love Hermia
Demetrius – in love with Hermia at first and then loves Helena at the end
Spirit 1&2 – Talk to Puck and Oberon
Oberon – Titania’s husband and King of the Fairies
Titania – Oberon’s wife and Queen of the Fairies
Robin Goodfellow/Puck – servant to Oberon
Peaseblossom – fairy servant to Titania
Cobweb – fairy servant to Titania
Moth – fairy servant to Titania
Mustardseed – fairy servant to Titania
First Fairy, Second Fairy
The Mechanicals (An acting troupe)
Peter Quince – carpenter, leads the troupe and plays Prologue
Nick Bottom – weaver, plays Pyramus
Francis Flute – bellows-mender, plays Thisbe
Robin Starveling – tailor, plays Moonshine
Tom Snout – tinker, plays Wall
Snug – joiner, plays Lion
The play consists of four interconnecting plots, connected by a celebration of the wedding of Duke Theseus of Athens and the Amazon queen, Hippolyta, which is set simultaneously in the woodland and in the realm of Fairyland, under the light of the moon.
The play opens with Hermia, who is in love with Lysander, not wanting to submit to her father Egeus’ demand that she wed Demetrius, whom he has arranged for her to marry. Helena meanwhile pines unrequitedly for Demetrius. Enraged, Egeus invokes an ancient Athenian law before Duke Theseus, whereby a daughter must marry the suitor chosen by her father, or else face death. Theseus offers her another choice: lifelong chastity while worshiping the goddess Diana as a nun.
Peter Quince and his fellow players plan to put on a play for the wedding of the Duke and the Queen, “the most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe”. Quince reads the names of characters and bestows them to the players. Nick Bottom, who is playing the main role of Pyramus, is over-enthusiastic and wants to dominate others by suggesting himself for the characters of Thisbe, the Lion, and Pyramus at the same time. He would also rather be a tyrant and recites some lines of Ercles. Quince ends the meeting with “at the Duke’s oak we meet”.
In a parallel plot line, Oberon, king of the fairies, and Titania, his queen, have come to the forest outside Athens. Titania tells Oberon that she plans to stay there until she has attended Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding. Oberon and Titania are estranged because Titania refuses to give her Indian changeling to Oberon for use as his “knight” or “henchman,” since the child’s mother was one of Titania’s worshipers. Oberon seeks to punish Titania’s disobedience. He calls upon Robin “Puck” Goodfellow, his “shrewd and knavish sprite”, to help him concoct a magical juice derived from a flower called “love-in-idleness”, which turns from white to purple when struck by Cupid’s arrow. When the concoction is applied to the eyelids of a sleeping person, that person, upon waking, falls in love with the first living thing they perceive. He instructs Puck to retrieve the flower with the hope that he might make Titania fall in love with an animal of the forest and thereby shame her into giving up the little Indian boy. He says, “And ere I take this charm from off her sight, / As I can take it with another herb, / I’ll make her render up her page to me.”
Hermia and Lysander have escaped to the same forest in hopes of eloping. Helena, desperate to reclaim Demetrius’s love, tells Demetrius about the plan and he follows them in hopes of killing Lysander. Helena continually makes advances towards Demetrius, promising to love him more than Hermia. However, he rebuffs her with cruel insults against her. Observing this, Oberon orders Puck to spread some of the magical juice from the flower on the eyelids of the young Athenian man. Instead, Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius, not having actually seen either before, and administers the juice to the sleeping Lysander. Helena, coming across him, wakes him while attempting to determine whether he is dead or asleep. Upon this happening, Lysander immediately falls in love with Helena. Oberon sees Demetrius still following Hermia and is enraged. When Demetrius decides to go to sleep, Oberon sends Puck to get Helena while he charms Demetrius’ eyes. Upon waking up, he sees Helena. Now, both men are in pursuit of Helena. However, she is convinced that her two suitors are mocking her, as neither loved her originally. Hermia is at a loss to see why her lover has abandoned her, and accuses Helena of stealing Lysander away from her. The four quarrel with each other until Lysander and Demetrius become so enraged that they seek a place to duel each other to prove whose love for Helena is the greatest. Oberon orders Puck to keep Lysander and Demetrius from catching up with one another and to remove the charm from Lysander. Lysander returns to loving Hermia, while Demetrius continues to love Helena.
Meanwhile, Quince and his band of six labourers (“rude mechanicals”, as they are described by Puck) have arranged to perform their play about Pyramus and Thisbe for Theseus’ wedding and venture into the forest, near Titania’s bower, for their rehearsal. Bottom is spotted by Puck, who (taking his name to be another word for a jackass) transforms his head into that of a donkey. When Bottom returns for his next lines, the other workmen run screaming in terror, much to Bottom’s confusion, since he hasn’t felt a thing during the transformation. Determined to wait for his friends, he begins to sing to himself. Titania, having received the love-potion, is awakened by Bottom’s singing and immediately falls in love with him. She lavishes him with attention and presumably makes love to him. While she is in this state of devotion, Oberon takes the changeling. Having achieved his goals, Oberon releases Titania, orders Puck to remove the donkey’s head from Bottom, and arranges everything so that Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius, and Helena will believe that they have been dreaming when they awaken. Puck distracts Lysander and Demetrius from fighting over Helena’s love by mimicking their voices and leading them apart. Eventually, all four find themselves separately falling asleep in the glade. Once they fall asleep, Puck administers the love potion to Lysander again, claiming that all will be well in the morning.
The fairies then disappear, and Theseus and Hippolyta arrive on the scene, during an early morning hunt. They wake the lovers and, since Demetrius does not love Hermia any more, Theseus overrules Egeus’s demands and arranges a group wedding. The lovers decide that the night’s events must have been a dream. After they all exit, Bottom awakes, and he too decides that he must have experienced a dream “past the wit of man”. In Athens, Theseus, Hippolyta and the lovers watch the six workmen perform Pyramus and Thisbe. Given a lack of preparation, the performers are so terrible playing their roles to the point where the guests laugh as if it were meant to be a comedy, and everyone retires to bed. Afterwards, Oberon, Titania, Puck, and other fairies enter, and bless the house and its occupants with good fortune. After all other characters leave, Puck “restores amends” and suggests to the audience that what they just experienced might be nothing but a dream (hence the name of the play).
Sources and date
It is unknown exactly when A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written or first performed, but on the basis of topical references and an allusion to Edmund Spenser’s Epithalamion, it is usually dated 1595 or early 1596. Some have theorized that the play might have been written for an aristocratic wedding (for example that of Elizabeth Carey, Lady Berkeley), while others suggest that it was written for the Queen to celebrate the feast day of St. John. No concrete evidence exists to support this theory. In any case, it would have been performed at The Theatre and, later, The Globe. Though it is not a translation or adaptation of an earlier work, various sources such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale” served as inspiration. According to John Twyning, the play’s plot of four lovers undergoing a trial in the woods was intended as a “riff” on Der Busant, a Middle High German poem.
Publication and text
The play was entered into the Register of the Stationers Company on 8 October 1600 by the bookseller Thomas Fisher, who published the first quarto edition later that year. A second quarto was printed in 1619 by William Jaggard, as part of his so-called False Folio. The play next appeared in print in the First Folio of 1623. The title page of Q1 states that the play was “sundry times publickely acted” prior to 1600. The first performance known with certainty occurred at Court on 1 January 1605.
Themes in the story
Both David Wiles of the University of London and Harold Bloom of Yale University have strongly endorsed the reading of this play under the themes of Carnivalesque, Bacchanalia, and Saturnalia. Writing in 1998, David Wiles stated that: “The starting point for my own analysis will be the proposition that although we encounter A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a text, it was historically part of an aristocratic carnival. It was written for a wedding, and part of the festive structure of the wedding night. The audience who saw the play in the public theatre in the months that followed became vicarious participants in an aristocratic festival from which they were physically excluded. My purpose will be to demonstrate how closely the play is integrated with a historically specific upper-class celebration.”
David Bevington argues that the play represents the dark side of love. He writes that the fairies make light of love by mistaking the lovers and by applying a love potion to Titania’s eyes, forcing her to fall in love with an ass. In the forest, both couples are beset by problems. Hermia and Lysander are both met by Puck, who provides some comic relief in the play by confounding the four lovers in the forest. However, the play also alludes to serious themes. At the end of the play, Hippolyta and Theseus, happily married, watch the play about the unfortunate lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe, and are able to enjoy and laugh at it. Helena and Demetrius are both oblivious to the dark side of their love, totally unaware of what may have come of the events in the forest:3
Problem with time
There is a dispute over the scenario of the play as it is cited at first by Theseus that “four happy days bring in another moon”. The wood episode then takes place at a night of no moon, but Lysander asserts that there will be so much light in the very night they will escape that dew on the grass will be shining like liquid pearls. Also, in the next scene, Quince states that they will rehearse in moonlight, which creates a real confusion. It is possible that the Moon set during the night allowing Lysander to escape in the moonlight and for the actors to rehearse, then for the wood episode to occur without moonlight. Theseus’s statement can also be interpreted to mean “four days until the next month”. Another possibility is that, since each month there are roughly four consecutive nights that the moon is not seen due to its closeness to the sun in the sky (the two nights before the moment of new moon, followed by the two following it), it may in this fashion indicate a liminal “dark of the moon” period full of magical possibilities. This is further supported by Hippolyta’s opening lines exclaiming ” And then the moon, like to a silver bow New-bent in heaven, shall behold the night Of our solemnities.”; the thin crescent-shaped moon being the hallmark of the new moon’s return to the skies each month. The play also intertwines the Midsummer Eve of the title with May Day, furthering the idea of a confusion of time and the seasons. This is evidenced by Theseus commenting on some slumbering youths, that they “observe The rite of May” (Act 4, Scene 1).
Loss of individual identity
Maurice Hunt, Chair of the English Department at Baylor University, writes of the blurring of the identities of fantasy and reality in the play that make possible “that pleasing, narcotic dreaminess associated with the fairies of the play”. By emphasising this theme even in the setting of the play, Shakespeare prepares the reader’s mind to accept the fantastic reality of the fairy world and its happenings. This also seems to be the axis around which the plot conflicts in the play occur. Hunt suggests that it is the breaking down of individual identities that leads to the central conflict in the story. It is the brawl between Oberon and Titania, based on a lack of recognition for the other in the relationship, that drives the rest of the drama in the story and makes it dangerous for any of the other lovers to come together due to the disturbance of Nature caused by a fairy dispute. Similarly, this failure to identify and to distinguish is what leads Puck to mistake one set of lovers for another in the forest, placing the flower’s juice on Lysander’s eyes instead of Demetrius’.
Victor Kiernan, a Marxist scholar and historian, writes that it is for the greater sake of love that this loss of identity takes place and that individual characters are made to suffer accordingly: “It was the more extravagant cult of love that struck sensible people as irrational, and likely to have dubious effects on its acolytes”. He believes that identities in the play are not so much lost as they are blended together to create a type of haze through which distinction becomes nearly impossible. It is driven by a desire for new and more practical ties between characters as a means of coping with the strange world within the forest, even in relationships as diverse and seemingly unrealistic as the brief love between Titania and Bottom the Ass: “It was the tidal force of this social need that lent energy to relationships”.
The aesthetics scholar David Marshall draws out this theme even further  by noting that the loss of identity reaches its fullness in the description of the mechanicals and their assumption of other identities. In describing the occupations of the acting troupe, he writes “Two construct or put together, two mend and repair, one weaves and one sews. All join together what is apart or mend what has been rent, broken, or sundered”. In Marshall’s opinion, this loss of individual identity not only blurs specificities, it creates new identities found in community, which Marshall points out may lead to some understanding of Shakespeare’s opinions on love and marriage. Further, the mechanicals understand this theme as they take on their individual parts for a corporate performance of Pyramus and Thisbe. Marshall remarks that “To be an actor is to double and divide oneself, to discover oneself in two parts: both oneself and not oneself, both the part and not the part”. He claims that the mechanicals understand this and that each character, particularly among the lovers, has a sense of laying down individual identity for the greater benefit of the group or pairing. It seems that a desire to lose one’s individuality and find identity in the love of another is what quietly moves the events of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As the primary sense of motivation, this desire is reflected even in the scenery depictions and the story’s overall mood.
In his essay “Preposterous Pleasures: Queer Theories and A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, Douglas E. Green explores possible interpretations of alternative sexuality that he finds within the text of the play, in juxtaposition to the proscribed social mores of the culture at the time the play was written. He writes that his essay “does not (seek to) rewrite A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a gay play but rather explores some of its ‘homoerotic significations’ … moments of ‘queer’ disruption and eruption in this Shakespearean comedy”. Green states that he does not consider Shakespeare to have been a “sexual radical”, but that the play represented a “topsy-turvy world” or “temporary holiday” that mediates or negotiates the “discontents of civilisation”, which while resolved neatly in the story’s conclusion, do not resolve so neatly in real life. Green writes that the “sodomitical elements”, “homoeroticism”, “lesbianism”, and even “compulsory heterosexuality” in the story must be considered in the context of the “culture of early modern England” as a commentary on the “aesthetic rigidities of comic form and political ideologies of the prevailing order”. Aspects of ambiguous sexuality and gender conflict in the story are also addressed in essays by Shirley Garner and William W.E. Slights albeit all the characters are played by males.
Male dominance is one thematic element found in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lysander and Hermia escape into the woods for a night where they do not fall under the laws of Theseus or Egeus. Upon their arrival in Athens, the couples are married. Marriage is seen as the ultimate social achievement for women while men can go on to do many other great things and gain societal recognition. In his article “The Imperial Votaress”, Louis Montrose draws attention to male and female gender roles and norms present in the comedy in connection with Elizabethan culture. In reference to the triple wedding, he says, “The festive conclusion in A Midsummer Night’s Dream depends upon the success of a process by which the feminine pride and power manifested in Amazon warriors, possessive mothers, unruly wives, and wilful daughters are brought under the control of lords and husbands.” He says that the consummation of marriage is how power over a woman changes hands from father to husband. A connection between flowers and sexuality is drawn. The juice employed by Oberon can be seen as symbolising menstrual blood as well as the sexual blood shed by virgins. While blood as a result of menstruation is representative of a woman’s power, blood as a result of a first sexual encounter represents man’s power over women.
There are points in the play, however, when there is an absence of patriarchal control. In his book Power on Display, Leonard Tennenhouse says the problem in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the problem of “authority gone archaic”. The Athenian law requiring a daughter to die if she does not do her father’s will is outdated. Tennenhouse contrasts the patriarchal rule of Theseus in Athens with that of Oberon in the carnivalistic Faerie world. The disorder in the land of the fairies completely opposes the world of Athens. He states that during times of carnival and festival, male power is broken down. For example, what happens to the four lovers in the woods as well as Bottom’s dream represents chaos that contrasts with Theseus’ political order. However, Theseus does not punish the lovers for their disobedience. According to Tennenhouse, by forgiving the lovers, he has made a distinction between the law of the patriarch (Egeus) and that of the monarch (Theseus), creating two different voices of authority. This distinction can be compared to the time of Elizabeth I in which monarchs were seen as having two bodies: the body natural and the body politic. Elizabeth’s succession itself represented both the voice of a patriarch as well as the voice of a monarch: (1) her father’s will which stated that the crown should pass to her and (2) the fact that she was the daughter of a king. The challenge to patriarchal rule in A Midsummer Night’s Dream mirrors exactly what was occurring in the age of Elizabeth I.