Let’s delve into the world of Shakespeare’s beloved comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This play revolves around the upcoming wedding between Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta. As the story unfolds, we witness the amusing misadventures of a group of young Athenian lovers and a troupe of amateur actors, all under the whimsical influence of mischievous fairies who dwell in the enchanted forest.
If you’re contemplating whether or not to embark on this literary journey, fear not! This book summary will provide you with a comprehensive overview, allowing you to make an informed decision about investing your time in this delightful tale.
So, without further ado, let’s embark on our exploration of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Table of Contents
A fairy king uses magical powers to obtain a “changeling” boy as his page and to arrange the marriages of four human lovers.
Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, are to be married at the next full moon. After a war between their two nations, during which Theseus won Hippolyta’s “love doing thee injuries,” the couple eagerly await a joyous, loving wedding in four days’ time, a ceremony to be filled “with pomp, with triumph, and with revelling.”
Their planning is interrupted when Egeus, a citizen of Athens, comes to Theseus to complain that his daughter Hermia wants to many Lysander rather than Demetrius, the man Egeus has
chosen for her. Egeus requests that Theseus enforce Athenian law by either having Hermia many Demetrius or putting her to death.
Theseus gives Hermia until his wedding day to decide whether she wishes to many Demetrius, die, or live the rest of her life as a nun.
Left alone, Lysander and Hermia decide to escape Theseus’s edict by eloping to another country. They plan to meet the following night in a forest outside the town. Hermia’s friend Helena, a beautiful blond-haired woman who loves Demetrius, joins them, despairing because Demetrius loves Hermia instead of her.
Lysander and Hermia encourage her by revealing their plan to elope, thereby leaving Demetrius free. Yet Helena irrationally plans to tell Demetrius of their flight, hoping to win his favor. In another part of Athens, a group of simple laborers plan to perform the carpenter Peter Quince’s version of the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, about doomed young lovers, at Theseus’s wedding.
The weaver Nick Bottom is given the part of Pyramus, while the bellows-mender Francis Flute is to portray Thisbe. Also participating in the story of the young lovers will be the tailor Robert Starveling, the tinker Tom Snout, and the joiner Snug. The group then parts, having made plans to rehearse in the woods outside Athens.
In the woods the following night, Oberon, King of the Fairies, and his queen, Titania, are involved in an argument so bitter it has caused violent weather and confusion among the seasons. Oberon wants Titania’s “little changeling boy” (a child secretly substituted for another in infancy; in this case, a child snatched from the human world by the fairies) to be his page, yet she will not give him up.
So Oberon instructs his mischievous lieutenant Robin Goodfellow, also known as Puck, to fetch the magical flower “love-in-idleness,” which he will use to put Titania in a trance so that he can then persuade her to give him the changeling child.
Demetrius, pursued by Helena, enters the woods in search of Hermia. As Oberon looks on, Demetrius cruelly rejects Helena’s advances and races off, with Helena close behind. Puck returns with the flower, which Oberon plans to administer to Titania so that she will fall in love with the next creature she sees and therefore give up the changeling. He also tells Puck to rub it on Demetrius’s eyes, so that he will fall in love with Helena.
Oberon finds Titania asleep in a clearing and squeezes the flower’s juice into her eyes, casting a spell on her to fall in love with the first “vile thing” she sees. Lysander and Hermia soon enter the clearing, exhausted. They decide to sleep there, Hermia modestly telling Lysander to rest at a distance.
Puck comes upon them as they sleep and, mistaking Lysander for the Athenian man Oberon told him to charm, squeezes the flower’s juice into his eyes. Helena, exhausted by her pursuit of Demetrius, stops to rest in the clearing. She sees and awakens Lysander, who instantly falls in love with her. Helena flunks he is mocking her, however, and leaves angrily, with Lysander in close pursuit. Hermia, awaking to find herself alone, flees the clearing and leaves Titania asleep.
Later that night, Quince, Bottom, and company assemble to rehearse their skit in the clearing where Titania sleeps. The devilish Puck sneaks upon them and, after watching the rehearsal, casts a spell on Bottom that transforms his head into that of an ass. The other actors flee in terror, leaving the transfigured Bottom alone with Titania, who awakens and (true to the spell) falls instantly in love with him.
In another part of the woods, Puck reports Titania’s love for Bottom to Oberon. Demetrius then arrives, pursued by Hermia, who suspects him of killing Lysander. Unable to learn Lysander’s fate, she storms off in a rage. Demetrius then falls asleep, exhausted by the night’s chase. Oberon realizes that Puck has mistakenly administered the love juice to Lysander and tells his servant to fetch Helena.
Oberon squeezes the juice into Demetrius’s eyes, and Puck leads Helena (followed by Lysander) back to the clearing, where Demetrius awakes and falls instantly in love with an unbelieving Helena. Hermia wanders into the clearing and asks Lysander why he deserted her.
He tells her that he now loves Helena and challenges Demetrius to a fight for her. Hermia, believing Helena has stolen Lysander from her, chases her from the clearing. Oberon, who has witnessed the arguments, instructs Puck to fill the night with a “drooping fog” so that Demetrius and Lysander will be unable to fight.
Then, after they fall asleep, Puck is to crush a special herb into Lysander’s eyes to reverse the effect of the “love-in-idleness.” Puck manages to lead all four lovers back to the clearing, where they fall asleep from exhaustion. He then puts the herb into Lysander’s eyes, knowing that when everyone awakes, all will be well and that “Jack shall have Jill / Nought shall go ill.”
In the clearing, Titania dotes upon her beloved Bottom. After they fall asleep together, Oberon and Puck come upon them. Oberon discloses that his plan has worked: Titania, obsessed with Bottom, has given Oberon the changeling child.
He lifts the spell from Titania and has Puck remove Bottom’s ass-head. Titania awakes, free of the spell, and is reconciled with Oberon. As dawn approaches, the King and Queen of Fairies leave the four lovers asleep in the clearing. Theseus, Hippolyta, and Egeus enter the clearing.
They awaken the four lovers, who can only vaguely remember the night’s confusions. Egeus demands that Lysander be punished for stealing away Hermia, yet Demetrius claims he now loves Helena and no longer desires Hermia. Theseus overrules Egeus and declares that the two couples—Lysander and Hermia, Demetrius and Helena—are to be married along with him and Hippolyta.
They all return to Athens, leaving Bottom alone in the clearing. He awakes, puzzled by the night’s occurrences, claiming that “Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream” (i.e., he’d look like a fool if he told people about his dream). He hurries off to join his fellow players, who rejoice at his return, then head off to the palace to perform their show.
At the palace after the weddings, Theseus is skeptical of the lovers’ stories, yet Hippolyta sees that it all just might be true. The lovers enter, and Theseus decides that they shall watch the production of Pyramus and Thisbe.
So the players perform their comically inept show. Pyramus and Thisbe are two young lovers kept apart by feuding families. They can speak through a wall (played by Snout) that separates their two homes, yet they are unable to embrace.
They decide to meet secretly at a deserted tomb. Thisbe arrives first and is chased off by a lion, who rips a cloak she leaves behind. Pyramus then comes to the tomb and finds the ripped cloak. Thinking Thisbe dead, he stabs himself. Thisbe soon returns and discovers Pyramus’s body, whereupon she, too, kills herself.
The six newlyweds, who had been joking about the play during its performance, kindly applaud the players and send them off. Theseus ends the celebration by suggesting they all go to bed. Puck then enters the deserted room, followed by Oberon, Titania, and the fairies. They dance and sing, and Oberon blesses the house and its lovers.
They then disperse, leaving Puck behind. He addresses the audience, suggesting that those “offended” by the play can think “That you have but slumber’d here / While these visions did appear.”
Theseus: Duke of Athens, marries Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons after defeating her in war. Mature, confident, effective leader; represents harmony, reason, and the rule of law. Allows lovers to be properly paired at the play’s end.
Hippolyta: Queen of the Amazons, marries Theseus. Shares his rationality and maturity; also possesses imagination and sympathy. Is upset by Hermia’s dilemma; believes the lovers’ stories of their night in the woods.
Oberon: King of the Fairies. His feud with Titania over the changeling leads to the play’s confusions and complications. He possesses magical powers, yet is kind to human beings and matches the lovers correctly at the night’s end.
Titania: Queen of the Fairies (Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, Mustardseed). Falls in love with the ass-headed Bottom while under the flower’s spell; when awakened, she is reunited with Oberon after giving him the changeling.
Puck: Oberon’s servant. Playful, mischievous; possessor of magical powers. Enjoys the confusion he creates among human beings.
Lysander: Young man, loves Hermia. Runs away with her when they are forbidden marriage. Mistakenly put under a spell by Puck; falls in love with Helena, yet returns to Hermia in the end.
Hermia: Lysander’s lover. Defies her father’s wish that she marry Demetrius; flees Athens. Loses Lysander to Helena while he is under the spell, yet regains and marries him in the end.
Demetrius: Loves Hermia, rejects Helena. Pursues Lysander and Hermia to the woods; he is put under a love spell by Oberon; marries Helena.
Helena: Loves and chases Demetrius. Confused but doubtful when Lysander says he loves her; finally weds Demetrius.
Egeus: Hermia’s father. Demands that she marry Demetrius or die; causes his daughter to flee. Ultimately overruled by Theseus.
Nick Bottom: A weaver, he is given the ass-head by Puck. Loved by Titania while she is under the spell. Plays the role of Pyramus in the skit.
Peter Quince: A carpenter. Writes and introduces the Pyramus and Thisbe skit.
Francis Flute: A bellows-mender; plays Thisbe in the skit.
Tom Snout: A tinker; plays “the wall” in the skit.
Snug: A joiner; plays the lion in the skit.
Robin Starveling: A tailor; plays Moonshine in the skit.
Themes and Ideas
Shakespeare contrasts the mature, balanced form of love, as represented by marriage, with the irrational, obsessive, “doting” kind of love. The ideal, “proper” kind of love is represented by Theseus and Hippolyta’s marriage, by Oberon and Titania after their reconciliation, and by the lovers after their night in the woods.
This sort of love is rational, patient, realistic, and harmonious. Marriage makes peace of war, order from chaos, and restrains passion. Contrasted to “doting” love, which is irrational, fickle, disturbed, and ruled by whim and fancy.
Shakespeare makes the point that a person who “dotes” loves an unworthy object (e.g., Titania’s doting on the ass-headed Bottom) or loves one who does not return his or her love (Helena’s love for Demetrius; Lysander’s for Helena). Puck’s ability to trick Titania and the young lovers illustrates how doting love is inconstant, unrealistic, and easily led astray.
Reason and love must be combined to end confusion and allow for happiness. Only when characters stop doting and start loving with realistic eyes rather than with fanciful imagination can love be mature.
When uncontrolled by reason or judgment, imagination is shown to be harmful to lovers; it leads them to desire the wrong object. Helena maintains that love is in error when it “looks not with the eyes, but with the mind”—i.e., when it is based on the mind’s fancies instead of on the facts as provided by the senses and interpreted by reason.
Shakespeare illustrates this disorder of imagination through the flower’s juice, causing Lysander to love the wrong woman and Titania to love the ass-headed Bottom. The night in the woods is a dream in which imagination overcomes reason.
Only with the coming of dawn and the return to Athens are imagination and reason again balanced. Imagination then plays a positive role: by using their imaginations to “amend” (improve) the players’ performance, Theseus, Hippolyta, and the lovers are able to enjoy Pyramus and Thisbe.
3. Appearance vs. Reality
Throughout the play, Shakespeare shows the problem of distinguishing between appearance and reality. Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius and puts the spell on him. The “love-in-idleness” juice causes Titania to suffer the illusion that Bottom is a lovely creature and it causes Lysander to pursue the wrong woman.
Helena believes Lysander’s and Demetrius’s passion for her to be a cruel joke, when in fact they are serious; Hermia mistakenly believes Helena has seduced Lysander. When the night’s dream is over, neither Bottom nor the lovers are able to tell whether the events were real or illusory:
Bottom claims that one is “but an ass” if one tries to explain the dream, while Demetrius says, “These things seem small and undistinguishable / Like far-off mountains turned into clouds.” The Pyramus and Thisbe skit expresses and parodies (ridicules) this theme: Pyramus commits suicide when he mistakenly believes the lion has killed Thisbe.
4. Night vs. Day
The “day world,” set mostly in Athens, is characterized by the rule of law, marriage, reason, and understanding; it is a world where passion is balanced by maturity, and imagination by rationality.
Ruled by Theseus, it is the setting for final marriages. The “night world,” set mostly in the woods, is characterized by confusion, irrational passions, blind love, and errors in perception and judgment; it is an unbalanced, dreamlike world where passion and imagination run unchecked.
Ruled by Oberon and Puck, it is the setting for the “doting” love of Titania, Lysander, and Demetrius. Shakespeare ends the play by merging the two worlds, with the fairies of the “night world” spreading through the “day world” of Theseus’s house to bless the married couples.
5. Harmony vs. Discord
Elizabethans believed in a system of laws (Natural, Celestial, Rational, Divine, and Human) that ensured order in the universe; this system is collectively referred to as the Elizabethan World Order.
When one (or more) of these laws are violated, all of the other laws are disturbed and the harmony of the world is shattered. The result is discord, unhappiness, and chaos. When arguing, both Hermia and Egeus see the other person as violating the natural order—Egeus views Hermia as not giving him “obedience…which is my due”; Hermia views Egeus as arbitrarily choosing Demetrius over Lysander. Oberon and Titania’s fight over the changeling causes bad weather and confusion of seasons.
The lovers’ discord in the woods is accompanied by fog and darkness. When the harmony among the lovers returns, Theseus sees “gentle concord in the world” (i.e., the World Order is restored). The play ends on a harmonious note as the human and fairy worlds intermingle.
6. Metamorphosis (Change)
The possibility of a sudden change in heart, mind, and body is a dominant theme. Love is depicted as being able to transform one’s personality and perception of reality: “Things base and vile, holding no quantity, / Love can transpose to form and dignity.” Under the spell of love, Titania, Lysander, and Demetrius are suddenly transformed and have a change of heart without motive or reason.
Later, all three change just as quickly back to their original personality. The metamorphosis can also be physical: the changeling boy is taken from the human to the fairy world; Bottom is transformed into an ass-headed monster. These metamorphoses illustrate how imagination, unbalanced by reason, can lead to uncontrolled, unwanted changes in an individual.
1. A Magical Blend of Fantasy and Comedy
Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a delightful mix of fantasy and comedy that captivates readers with its magical elements. The play takes us into the whimsical world of fairies and mortals, intertwining their stories in fascinating ways.
The playful undertones of magical realms and comedic social satire add an interesting appeal to the story. It’s no wonder this play has become one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies. The deliberate comedy in the play creates a unique charm that is both entertaining and engaging.
2. A Polished Achievement in Poetic Drama
While A Midsummer Night’s Dream may be considered a light and magical play, it is far from being a mere trifle. Upon closer analysis, one discovers a polished achievement in poetic drama. The play showcases Shakespeare’s masterful use of language, meter, and rhyme, which tie the worlds of the faeries and mortals together thematically.
The amount of imagination and poetry present in the play is truly remarkable. It is a diverse and complex masterpiece that explores complex issues and delivers a moral lesson without being overly dogmatic. There is an inherent humanity that resonates throughout the play, making it a deeply enriching experience.
3. An Exploration of Love’s Trials and Tribulations
At its core, A Midsummer Night’s Dream delves into the multifaceted theme of love. Through the stories of five different couples (or six, if we count Pyramus and Thisbe), Shakespeare portrays the various powers and wonders of this alluring topic.
The play offers a profound and in-depth look at the trials and tribulations that come with true love. It navigates issues such as family, societal restrictions, faith, and propriety. Love’s conflicts with reason and the challenges posed by differences in class or even species are skillfully addressed. By doing so, Shakespeare presents a thought-provoking exploration of the complexities and conflicts inherent in the pursuit of love.
1. Awkward Rhyme and Language
One aspect of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that I find slightly off-putting is the use of rhyme. While Shakespeare is known for his brilliant verse, the rhymes in this play can feel a bit forced and awkward. They don’t flow as smoothly as his typical blank verse, and at times, they don’t seem to suit Shakespeare’s style as well.
The language itself, with its old-fashioned syntax and vocabulary, can also make the reading experience challenging. It requires some effort to decipher the meaning behind certain lines, and it can feel like decoding a puzzle at times.
2. Complex Plot with Too Many Characters
A Midsummer Night’s Dream boasts a multitude of characters, and this can make the plot quite convoluted and confusing. With so many intertwined storylines and characters constantly bickering and scheming, it becomes a challenge to keep track of who’s in love with whom and what their motivations are.
While this complexity adds depth to the play, it also requires extra effort from the reader to grasp the intricacies of the relationships and follow the events unfolding. It might be easier to appreciate the play’s humor and dynamics by watching a talented cast bring it to life on stage rather than reading it in book form.
3. Unrealistic and Superficial Love Portrayal
A Midsummer Night’s Dream presents a rather unrealistic and superficial portrayal of love. Characters fall in and out of love at the drop of a hat, often based on appearances rather than deeper connections. The play emphasizes the fleeting nature of attraction and the fickleness of romantic feelings.
While this approach adds to the comedic elements of the story, it can also leave a sense of shallowness and make it difficult to truly invest in the characters’ relationships. Love is reduced to a game of manipulation and superficial desires, which can be disappointing for those seeking a more nuanced exploration of the complexities of human emotions.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a captivating and entertaining play that showcases Shakespearean comedy at its finest. The mix of wordplay, physical comedy, and timeless human nature makes it a delightful read. Beyond being a comedy, it incorporates elements of romance, fantasy, Greek mythology, and adventure, adding depth and excitement to the story.
The characters’ journey through a forest filled with talking animals and enchanting fairies blurs the lines between dreams and reality, creating a magical and immersive experience.
This is, without a doubt, one of Shakespeare’s most creative and enjoyable works, and it has rightfully earned its place as my favorite comedy by the Bard.
William Shakespeare (1564–1616) was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. He arrived in London around 1586. His career as a playwright, poet, actor, and theatre shareholder in London lasted from the early 1590s until 1612.
Shakespeare wrote various types of plays, including tragedies, comedies, romances, and historical dramas, for the popular theatre. His early works mirror the optimism and vibrant spirit of an England that was emerging as a global power.
His later plays, such as Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, are characterized by pessimism, cynicism, and reflect the decadence and political corruption prevalent in the Elizabethan and Jacobean courts.
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