Theseus, Duke of Athens, will marry Hippolyta in four days. Their marriage might or might not be consensual on her part. “I woo'd thee with my sword,” Theseus explains ominously and ambiguously, “And won thy love doing thee injuries; but I will wed thee in another key” (16-8). It seems their relationship has had a problematic past, yet an optimistic future. This will tie in to the secondary plot of the four lovers.
Meanwhile, Egeus is furious with Hermia (his daughter), who refuses to marry Demetrius (the man Egeus wants her to marry), instead preferring Lysander. Egeus accuses Lysander of “bewitch[ing] the bosom of my child. … With cunning hast thou filch'd my daughter's heart, / Turn'd her obedeience (which is due to me) / To stubborn harshness.” (27, 36-8) He calls upon “the ancient privilege of Athens” that “she is mine, I may dispose of her; / Which shall be either to this gentleman, / Or to her death” (41-4). Egeus' motivation (why would he prefer his daughter's death over her marrying the man of her choice?) is not clear. “I would my father look'd but with my eyes” (56), Hermia complains, foreshadowing Oberon's elixir that will has power to do just that. But Theseus sides with Egeus. “Rather your eyes must with his judgment look”, he insists. “[P]repare to die / For disobedience to your father's will, / Or else to wed Demetrius” (57, 86-88)
After all but Lysander and Hermia exit, he tries to comfort her with one of the most famous lines of the play: “The course of true love never did run smooth” (134). But no amount of consoling can mitigate her pain. “Oh hell, to choose love by another's eyes” (140), she moans, again foreshadowing Oberon's magic potion.
Facing either their loss of love or her loss of life, Lysander proposes they runaway together. He talks of his wealthy widowed aunt, who lives about 25 miles away. “There, gentle Hermia, may I marry thee”, he plans. “And to that place the sharp Athenian law / Cannot pursue us.” (161-3) This quote helps us understand why Shakespeare set Midsummer in Athens – because Athens has a long and storied history of intellectual thought and process of law. Plato's The Laws (ca. 350 BC), for example, remains a classic read on political philosophy, more than two millennia after its writing. But it's precisely that history and process that impinges upon the young lovers, thus they flee Athens to get away from its impositions. They hatch a plan to “Steal forth thy father's house to-morrow night, / And in the wood … There will I stay for thee. (164-8) In this play (and many other Shakespeare plays, including As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice), the rural provides a much-needed emotional counterbalance to urban rationality.
As Hermia and Lysander finalize their escape plan, Helena (Hermia's childhood friend) enters. Helena is in love with Demetrius (who despises her), and begs Hermia to “teach me how you look, and with what art / You sway the motion of Demetrius' heart.” (192-3) Their rapid fire couplets reveal the arbitrary (to outsiders) ardor that afflicts many young lovers:
Hermia: I frown upon him; yet he loves me still.
Helena: O that your frowns would teach my smiles such skill.
Hermia: I give him curses; yet he gives me love.
Helena: O that my prayers could such affection move!
Hermia: The more I hate, the more he follows me.
Helena: The more I love, the more he hateth me.
Hermia: His folly, Helena, is no fault of mine.
Helena: None by your beauty; would that fault were mine! (194-201)
In a moment of feminine confidentiality, Hermia informs Helena of her plan to elope with Lysander. During a scene-concluding monologue, Helena hatches her own plan: She will tell Demetrius of Hermia's escape in an effort to attract Demetrius' amorous attention.
In a tertiary plot commonly called “the rude mechanicals” (as Shakespeare calls them in 3.3.9), Peter Quince leads his friends Snug, Bottom, Flute, Snout, and Starveling in a discussion as they brainstorm ideas “to play in our enterlude before the Duek and the Duchess, on his wedding-day” (5-7). In one of many “plays within the play” to be found in Shakespeare, they agree to perform The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby for the occasion, and assign the roles: Bottom will play Pyramus, Flute will play Thisby, Starveling will play Thisby's mother, Snout will act Pyramus' father, Quince takes Thisby's father, and Snug will play a lion. They all agree to convene “in the palace wood, a mile without the town, by moonlight; there will we rehearse; for if we meet in the city, we shall be dogg'd with company” (101-4). Just as Hermia and Lysander wished to avoid the city, so, too, do these amateur actors. Their paths, of course, will soon cross.
The quaternary and final plot line introduces the fairies of the woods. The first to appear is Robin Goodfellow, nicknamed Puck. He speaks with an unnamed fairy colleague, explaining that fairy king Oberon and fairy queen Titania are fighting over possession of “A lovely boy stolen from an Indian king” (22).
King and queen soon enter, and continue their bickering on stage. “I do but beg a little changeling boy, / To be my henchman” (121-2), bellows Oberon. Titania explains the child is an orphan, and she has adopted him. “I will not part with him”, she replies, infuriating Oberon, “Not for thy fairy kingdom.” (137, 144)
It is never explained why Oberon wants such a boy to be his henchman. He has, after all, far more capable servants in his fairy underlings, including Puck. In any case, Oberon now seeks revenge on his wife for refusing his demands, and he commands Puck to fetch a magic flower, “The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid / Will make or man or woman madly dote / Upon the next live creature that it sees.” (170-2) Oberon plans to paint Titania's eyes with the potion while she sleeps, causing her to fall hopelessly in love with whatever she sees upon waking, “Be it on lion, bear, or wolf, or bull, / On meddling monkey, or on busy ape” (180-1). While she's distracted, he can steal the child.
Suddenly, Demetrius enters, followed closely by Helena. She has followed her plan to tell him about Hermia and Lysander's flee from Athens, and, just as she predicted, Demetrius is now searching for his betrothed. But her plan to be alone with him as they wander through the forest backfires. “[G]et thee gone, and follow me no more”, he says in no uncertain terms. “I do not nor I cannot love you” (194, 201). In one of the most complicated and uncomfortable passages of the play, Helena reveals masochistic proclivities:
And even for that do I love you the more:
I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius,
The more you beat me, I will fawn on you.
Use me but as your spaniel; spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,
Unworthy as I am, to follow you. …
I'll follow thee and make a heaven of hell,
To die upon the hand I love so well. (202-7, 243-4)
How are we to make sense of these words? One novel interpretation is found in Jillian Keenan's 2016 memoir Sex with Shakespeare. Keenan wonders if Helena is sexually kinky, while Demetrius is vanilla – and that's why they are incompatible. “What if this portion of Helena's dialogue isn't silly self-debasement?” Keenan writes in her opening chapter. “What if it is instead the most explicit and brave declaration of sexual consent in the Shakespearean canon?” (p. 19).
Oberon, overhearing their confidential conversation, decides to use some of his potion to help. “[A]noint his [Demetrius'] eyes,” he instructs Pucks, “But do it when the next thing he espies / May be the lady [Helena].” (261-3) What could possibly go wrong?
In another part of the forest, Titania's fairy servants sing her to sleep, and Oberon applies the potion to her eyelids, with the words “Wake when some vile thing is near.” (34)
Just then, Lysander and Hermia enter, exhausted, and prepare to sleep. After they drift off, Puck applies potion to Lysander's eyelids, mistaking him for Demetrius. Then Helena and Demetrius enter and find Lysander and Hermia still snoozing. Worried Lysander might be dead, Helena wakes him, whereupon the potion takes effect, and Lysander falls in love with Helena. “[N]ature shows art,” he serenades Helena, “That through thy bosom makes me see thy heart. … Not Hermia, but Helena I love. / Who would not change a raven for a dove?” (104-5, 113-4) Unaware of the magic at play, Helena is offended that Lysander would so betray Hermia. “[I]s't not enough, young man,” she scolds him, “That I did never, no, nor never can, / Deserve a sweet look from Demetrius' eye, / But you must flout my insufficiency?” (125-9)
Meanwhile, the rude mechanicals debate how to best present their performance. Puck stumbles upon them and decides to have some fun by turning Bottom's human head into that of an ass. Unaware of his new donkey noggin, he can't understand why his friends all run away from him in terror. Left alone, he sings to himself and wanders through the forest, where he stumbles upon the sleeping Titania, and rouses her. “What angel wakes me from my flow'ry bed?”, she asks, as the potion does its job.
I pray thee, gentle mortal, sing again,
Mine ear is much enamored of thy note;
So is mine eye enthralled to thy shape;
And thy fair virtue's force (perforce) doth move me
On the first view to say, to swear, I love thee. (129, 137-41).
At first, Bottom is confused by this amorous attention. “Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason for that”, he admits. “And yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company” (142-4) And so, not one to refuse the romantic advances of a beautiful woman, he plays along.
Oberon wonders aloud what happened to Titania, and with what creature she has fallen in love. Puck arrives, telling him, “My mistress with a monster is in love. … Titania wak'd, and straightway lov'd an ass.” (6, 34) And when Oberon asks about Demetrius, Puck claims, “I took him sleeping (that is finish'd too)” (38), neither yet realizing Puck's error. But the truth comes out when Demetrius and Helena enter. “This is the woman”, Puck confirms, “but not this the man.” (42) Lysander and Helena arrive a moment later, and the four bicker back and forth at some length, while the two fairies, hidden from view, observe their banter. Oberon resolves to use the potion again to restore order. “When they next wake,” he says, “all this derision / Shall seem a dream”. (370-1).
At some point between acts 3 and 4, Oberon asks Titania for the changeling boy off stage, whom she readily gives up. On stage, Titania, still governed by the potion, continues doting on Bottom, whose head is still that of a donkey's. “Her dotage now I do begin to pity”, Oberon admits, as he watches from a distance. “Now I have the boy, I will undo / This hateful imperfection of her eyes.” (62-3) He also instructs Puck to restore Bottom's human head.
A moment later, Theseus, Hippolyta, and Egeus appear and spot the four young lovers still asleep on the ground. “[I]s not this the day”, Theseus addresses Egeus, “That Hermia should give answer of her choice?” (135-6) They wake them, and Theseus demands Hermia's decision, but Demetrius (who was just potioned) intervenes. “[M]y love to Hermia / Melted as the snow”, he concedes, potion taking effect. “The object and the pleasure of mine eye, / Is only Helena.” (165-6, 170-1) Pleasantly surprised at his sudden change of heart, Theseus invites both young couples to join his own wedding celebration: “[I]n the temple, by and by, with / These couples shall eternally be knit.” (180-1)
Everybody exits except the still-sleeping and now human-headed Bottom. He wakes, uncertain of how he got here, and wonders if the fantastical events he remembers were real or imagined. He assumes the latter, and that nobody could make sense of it. “Man is but an ass,” he concludes, “if he go about t' expound this dream.” (206-7) He gives it no more thought, and exits in search of his friends.
Meanwhile, in Quince's house, the other rude mechanicals worry about Bottom, since nobody has seen him since their rehearsal in 3.1. They will not be able to perform Pyramus and Thisby without him. When he shows up safe and sound, everybody is overjoyed, and they all agree to perform as originally planned.
In the aftermath of the three off-stage weddings, Theseus calls for entertainment. “What revels are in hand?”, he asks. “Is there no play / To ease the anguish of a torturing hour?” (36-7) Why Theseus considers his own wedding torturous is unclear. He selects the rude mechanicals' Pyramus and Thisby from a list of options, and the lengthy “play within the play” commences. “This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard” (210), Hippolyta comments as she watches – a phrase that could just as easily describe A Midsummer Night's Dream. Play complete, everybody engages in a celebratory dance.
After the human characters exit, the fairies enter one last time and launch into their own song and dance, and Puck offers a concluding soliloquy: “You have but slumber'd here / While these visions did appear. / And this weak and idle theme, / No more yielding but a dream” (5.1.425-9).
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