Here is a summary of the plot for anyone who would like some context. I hope it will entice you to read the play; Shakespeare’s words and imagery are beautiful. This play is also very, very funny. I think the language is straightforward (not so many puns), making it easy to read. It moves along briskly and is quite short. Give it a spin!
If anyone sees any errors, let me know so I can fix them—this is just based on my casual reading of the text, so I could easily have things out of order or get the details wrong.
Without further ado, here’s… A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Taking a pointer from the mechanicals (explained in a minute), I feel the need for a prologue here so that you don’t get too lost in the convolutions of this convoluted story. The overall gist is this: 4 teenagers are bickering. The fairy king and queen are bickering. The fairies intervene magically with the teenagers with some hilarious results. The fairy king messes with the fairy queen with some hilarious results. There’s a very silly play within the play. There’s a happy ending!
Setting the Scene
A Midsummer Night’s Dream takes place in ancient Athens. Theseus, the Duke of Athens, has just won a war against the Amazons and he is set to marry Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons. The play opens with Theseus telling Hippolyta how excited he is about their upcoming wedding and that he plans to make it a big celebration.
They are interrupted by Egeus who comes in to ask Theseus to help settle a problem. Theseus has promised his daughter Hermia in marriage to Demetrius. However, Hermia is in love with Lysander and wants to marry him instead. There is some smart-mouthing back and forth between Lysander and Demetrius. Lysander points out that Demetrius was recently in love with Helena and Theseus admits he had heard this rumor.
Egeus claims it is his right to do with Hermia as he wants and he wants her to marry Demetrius. Theseus agrees that this is the law and he tells Hermia she must do as her father says and marry Demetrius. If she doesn’t marry Demetrius, she must either die or become a nun. He gives her 4 days (until his wedding) to make her choice.
Lysander and Hermia are left by themselves and Lysander hatches a plan to elope with Hermia to his aunt’s house outside of Athens, where Athenian law can’t follow them. Hermia agrees to meet him in the woods outside Athens so they can run away together.
Helena joins them and she’s in a very bad mood. She is lovesick for Demetrius and extremely jealous of him now loving Hermia, her lifelong friend. Hermia tells Helena of her plan to elope with Lysander. Helena decides she will tell Demetrius about this plan so that he will follow Hermia into the woods, and Helena can then follow him into the woods.
The Rude Mechanicals
A Midsummer Night’s Dream has a “play within the play” called Pyramus and Thisby (P&T). P&T is planned by a group of working men who Puck (we’ll get to him in a minute) refers to as “rude mechanicals,” meaning unsophisticated men who work with their hands. Puck also calls them “hempen homespuns,” referring to their simple clothes. In other words, these are bumpkins. Just about everything they say is ridiculous. P&T is ridiculous.
The mechanicals are: Peter Quince (a carpenter), Nick Bottom (a weaver), Francis Flute (a bellows mender), Tom Snout (a tinker), and Robin Starveling (a tailor). Bottom is the most ridiculous of these silly characters; he’s the quintessential silly ass.
These men are excited about the upcoming wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta and create a play that they hope to perform at the wedding reception. They meet quickly and Peter Quince gives out the parts. Bottom gets the lead role (Pyramus) and also wants to play most of the other parts. Quince quashes that idea and asks the men to learn their lines and meet him in the woods outside Athens so they can rehearse the play in privacy.
Fairyland is another dimension that mortals are usually unaware of. However, happenings in fairyland can affect mortals. Oberon and Titania (king and queen of the fairies) are quarrelling and their quarrels lead to all kinds of disruptions and natural disasters in the mortal world.
The cause of the current quarrel is a disagreement over a mortal boy who Titania adopted. Titania befriended his mother and when the mother died, Titania vowed to take care of the boy in memory of the mother. Oberon wants the boy to use as a servant. Titania refuses to give up the child and leaves abruptly.
Oberon is very angry and decides to play a trick on Titania. He knows of a flower whose juice serves as a love potion when sprinkled on the eyes (the next person/thing seen is the object of infatuation) and he tells his fairy jester Puck (also called Robin Goodfellow) to go find this flower and bring it to him so he can use it on Titania. He wants her to fall in love with something vile (he also knows the antidote herb to take away the spell, so this is meant to be temporary, just as a joke).
At this point, the fairy world collides with the mortal world. Helena has followed Demetrius into the woods (as he went looking in anger for the eloping Hermia and Lysander). Helena humiliates herself in her desperate attempt to get Demetrius to love her again. He ignores her and goes searching for Hermia. Oberon (invisible to the mortals) sees this and feeling sorry for Helena, decides to help her out by putting a little love juice on Demetrius’s eyes.
Puck comes back with the “love-in-idleness” flower and Oberon squeezes the juice on the sleeping Titania’s eyes. He tells Puck to go find Demetrius and do the same to him (Oberon tells Puck to look for the boy with Athenian clothes).
Puck’s Crucial Error
They’ve been wandering in the woods for a while, and it’s getting late so Lysander tries to cozy up to Hermia for the night. Hermia, being a good girl, fends him off and tells him to go find somewhere further off to sleep. Puck wanders up and seeing Lysander’s Athenian clothes, assumes he’s the one Oberon meant for the love juice. Puck sprinkles some on Lysander.
Helena and Demetrius are still running around in the woods. Demetrius is very rude to Helena and finally runs off and leaves her behind. Helena is still beside herself about Demetrius and jealous of his love for Hermia. And then… Helena stumbles on Lysander and can’t tell if he’s alive or dead, so she shakes him. Lysander wakes, sees Helena, and falls immediately in love with her due to the love juice that Puck mistakenly put on him.
Helena is confused by Lysander’s advances and assumes he’s pulling her leg. She leaves and he follows her. Hermia then wakes up from a bad dream to find herself alone in the woods. She goes off to find Lysander.
Picture all four kids wandering around in the woods all night. They’re tired. They’re confused. They’re running on hormones and love juice.
The Mechanicals Rehearse
The mechanicals meet in the woods to rehearse P&T and there is much silliness over the need for a prologue to explain to “the ladies” in their potential audience that there is no need to be upset because Bottom, who is playing Pyramus, is really Bottom the weaver, and he’s not really killing himself. And also that the lion is not really a lion and there’s no need to be afraid. Etc.
Puck sees this silliness playing out right under the sleeping Titania and while watching them he gets an idea. He sees Bottom acting like an ass (get it? Bottom?) and so when Bottom exits the “stage” for a moment during the rehearsal, Puck magically puts a donkey head on him. Bottom becomes a real ass and doesn’t realize it! He returns to the rehearsal on cue and scares all the other mechanicals. They run through the woods to get away from the monster.
Bottom decides they are trying to make an ass of him. He won’t fall for it, so he stays right there and sings a song. His song wakes the sleeping Titania, who immediately falls in love with the silly ass. Puck goes back to Oberon to report the success of the trick!
Oberon asks Puck if he put the love juice on the Athenian and Puck reports that he did. However, Demetrius and Hermia wander by in the woods and it’s soon clear that Puck put the love juice on the wrong Athenian (Lysander). Oberon is angry and tells Puck to find Lysander. In the meantime, Oberon puts love juice on Demetrius. Then, Puck returns with Helena and Lysander. Puck asks Oberon if they can watch how things play out with the teenagers. “Lord, what fools these mortals be.” So, Oberon and Puck sit back to watch the sport (they are always invisible to the mortals).
Demetrius wakes up, sees Helena and falls in love. So now, both Lysander and Demetrius are crazy, head-over-heels, ready-to-die-for-her in love with Helena. She ain’t buying it. She thinks both boys are making fun of her. What’s worse, she believes Hermia, her friend, is in on the joke. She thinks they are all just being mean, mean, mean.
So, the girls argue because Helena can’t believe Hermia would be so mean. And Hermia has no idea what’s going on. She sees Lysander suddenly acting like he’s in love with Helena, so she assumes Helena came onto him and is a backstabber. Meanwhile the boys are arguing about which of them loves Helena better.
It’s been a long night and things degenerate quickly. They start ganging up on Hermia and making fun of her for being dark-haired and small (but shrewish!). There’s much name-calling and general meanness. Demetrius and Lysander are ready to duel.
At this point, Oberon has seen enough. He wonders if Puck caused all this mayhem on purpose. Puck professes innocence, but admits he’s enjoying the outcome. He likes watching all the arguing and fighting. Oberon tells Puck to lead the boys around in the woods so that they get confused and don’t harm each other. Lysander and Demetrius chase Puck’s voice around in the dark and eventually they give up and fall asleep. The girls wander around in the woods and eventually fall asleep in the same general area. Puck squeezes the antidote herb on Lysander’s eyes so he’ll love Hermia again when he wakes up.
Titania and Oberon Reconcile
When we last saw proud Titania, beautiful queen of the fairies, she was enamored of an ass. She continues doting on the ass-headed and ridiculous Bottom, having her fairy servants bring him treats and scratch his back, etc. He is a silly ass throughout, making idiotic comments and acting like a clown.
Oberon finally feels the joke has gone far enough. While under the influence of the love juice, Titania has given up the mortal boy who began their quarrel. So Oberon has what he wanted to begin with, and he feels like he’s gotten Titania back. Oberon gives the antidote to Titania. She awakens from a dream that she was enamored of an ass! He tells her to look down and see her love. The gross ass-headed Bottom makes her sick now. Oberon tells Puck to take the ass head off Bottom and that Bottom will remember the night as if it were a dream.
Morning finally comes and Theseus and Hippolyta mark the beginning of their wedding day with a hunt in the woods. Egeus is with them. They come upon the four teenagers all sleeping peacefully together. They blow the hunting horns to wake the kids up. Lysander stands up half awake and half asleep and unable to account for how they are all there together. He remembers going to the woods to elope with Hermia.
This angers Egeus that they were going against his wishes. Demetrius, also in a dreamy state, points out that it’s fine with him, because he no longer loves Hermia and doesn’t want to marry her. He loves Helena again with all his heart and wants only her.
Theseus accepts all this without blinking and tells the teenagers to follow him back to Athens and they will all get married when he marries Hippolyta later in the day. The adults ride off to Athens to prepare for the weddings.
The four teenagers are still a bit groggy and not even sure what just happened. They finally get it together and realize that Theseus told them to go to Athens to get married. They return to Athens.
Bottom wakes up from his dream and doesn’t know what to make of his memories of being doted on by the queen of the fairies and waited on by her fairy servants. He decides he will tell Peter Quince to write a song called “Bottom’s Dream” that he can perform at Theseus’s wedding. He goes back to Athens.
Pyramus and Thisby
And finally we come to the play within the play. The three Athenian couples have been married and are ready to be entertained at the party afterward. Theseus asks for a list of choices and one choice intrigues him:
A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus
And his love Thisby; very tragical mirth.”
Tedious and brief? Tragical and merry? He needs to see this.
So, the mechanicals begin their play with the prologue to explain that what the audience is about to see is not real and no one should get upset about it and Bottom isn’t really Pyramus and Snug isn’t really a lion.
The members of the wedding party (Theseus & Hippolyta, Lysander & Hermia, Demetrius & Helena) are all in high spirits and they joke and make witty comments to each other throughout P&T. They are very amused by the whole thing.
The plot of P&T is very silly. The lovers Pyramus and Thisby are separated by a wall (played literally by Snout) and have to talk to each other through a hole in the wall (which Snout makes with his fingers). They agree to meet each other at a nearby tomb (Ninus’s tomb, which everyone mispronounces as Ninny’s tomb). The scene changes to the moonlit tomb (the moon played by Robin Starveling with a lantern). Thisby gets there first, is frightened away by a lion (played by Snug), and drops her scarf. The lion picks up the scarf and shreds it. Pyramus gets there, sees the shredded scarf, thinks Thisby has been eaten by the lion, and melodramatically stabs himself. Thisby comes back, sees the dead Pyramus, and stabs herself.
And farewell, friends.
Thus Thisby ends.
Adieu, adieu, adieu.
There is no way to get the full idea of how silly this is from reading it, so if you have a few minutes, watch this video of Pyramus and Thisby performed by The Beatles! Paul McCartney is Pyramus, John Lennon is Thisby, Ringo Starr is the lion, and George Harrison plays moonshine. Enjoy!
As P&T comes mercifully to an end, Theseus sees that it is nearly midnight and almost fairy time so he wishes everyone a good night and they head off to bed. Oberon comes out and instructs the fairies to bless all the newly-married couples and bring them happiness and healthy children. Puck ends the play on the stage by himself asking the audience forgiveness if the play has offended anyone, wishing everyone a goodnight, and asking for their applause.
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.
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