A Midsummer Night’s Dream Summary – Act 1, Scene 1
Theseus impatiently awaits his wedding to Hippolyta, which will take place in four days’ time. He tells Philostrate to get the young people of Athens in a mood for a celebration.
Egeus enters with his daughter Hermia, and Lysander and Demetrius. He complains to the Duke that he has given consent to Demetrius’s request to marry Hermia, but Lysander has made it his business to win Hermia’s love, and has succeeded. Egeus does not believe Lysander is genuine in his protestations of love. He tells the Duke that according to Athenian law, he has a right to do with his daughter whatever he pleases. If she will not marry Demetrius, he will condemn her to death.
Theseus attempts to persuade Hermia to accept her father’s wishes. But she is in love with Lysander and cannot change her feelings. She appeals to the Duke to tell her the worst that may happen to her if she refuses Demetrius. Theseus replies that she must either die or become a nun. Those are her only choices. Hermia says she will choose the latter option rather than marry a man she does not want. Theseus gives her until his own wedding to think it over, at which time she must make her choice.
Demetrius begs Hermia to relent, while Lysander makes a mocking remark aimed at Demetrius. Egeus intervenes and remonstrates with Lysander, but Lysander does not back down. He says he is in every way Demetrius’s equal, and what is more, Hermia loves him. He also reveals that in the past, Demetrius sought Helena’s love, and now Helena dotes on him.
Theseus says he has some business to discuss with Egeus and Demetrius, and he again warns Hermia to be ready soon to make up her mind. They all exit, leaving Lysander alone with Hermia. The two lovers commiserate with each other over their difficult position. Lysander comes up with a plan. He has a wealthy aunt who lives some distance from Athens, outside the jurisdiction of Athenian law. There they could marry. He tells Hermia to meet him in the wood outside of Athens the following night. Hermia promises to be there.
Helena enters. She makes it clear that she is envious of Hermia, since Hermia has Demetrius’s love. Hermia confesses her frustration, since the more she tries to push Demetrius away, the more he loves her. She and Lysander confide in Helena about their plan to meet in the wood.
After Hermia and Lysander leave, Helena reflects on the fickle ways of love, and then decides to inform Demetrius of the other couple’s plan, so that he will pursue Hermia into the wood. He might even thank Helena for the information she gives him.
Act 1, Scene 1 Analysis
This scene contains what is called the exposition. It introduces the characters and supplies the information necessary to the understanding of the play. The existing situation is explained; the problems and dilemmas of the characters are laid out.
The celebratory tone with which the play begins, which looks forward to a marriage, is abruptly curtailed by the tangled situations of the young lovers and the cruel inflexibility of Egeus. Hermia responds in the only way she can, to affirm the power of love over the oppressive rule of law, the vibrancy of youth over the dead hand of the older generation. Egeus is the kind of character who often appears in comedies. This type of character is sometimes known as the blocking figure. He attempts to obstruct the flow of love and desire and thwart the inevitable happy ending.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream Summary – Act 1, Scene 2
A group of artisans discuss the play they are going to perform as part of Theseus’s wedding celebration. The play is entitled, “The most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe.” Peter Quince takes a roll call of the actors and hands out their parts. Bottom the weaver gets the leading role of Pyramus, which pleases him because he is super-confident of his acting abilities. He is so confident, in fact, that he wishes to play the part of Thisbe too, which Quince assigns to Flute the bellows-mender. Bottom also wants to play the lion, and promises to delight everyone with his roar. But the part goes to the timid Snug the joiner. Quince tells the men to learn their parts by the following night, and to meet for a rehearsal in the wood by moonlight.
Act 1, Scene 2 Analysis
This scene introduces the second main plot, the artisans and their play. Shakespeare is carefully arranging events so that everyone ends up in the wood by the end of the Act. Then the fun can begin.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream Summary – Act 2, Scene 1
In the wood, Puck interrogates a fairy who serves the Fairy Queen. When Puck hears that Titania the Queen is coming, he says she better not get within sight of Oberon. Oberon is angry with her because she has a changeling boy (a mortal child stolen by fairies), and Oberon wants the boy as a knight of his train. Titania refuses to give him up, so now, whenever Titania and Oberon meet, they quarrel.
The fairy recognizes Puck as a mischievous sprite known as Robin Goodfellow, and Puck tells of some of the tricks he performs on unsuspecting humans for the amusement of Oberon.
Oberon and Titania enter. Titania says slyly that since Oberon has always been a protector of Hippolyta, she guesses that he is there to bless her marriage to Theseus. Oberon replies that he knows about Titania’s love for Theseus, so she is in no position to cast aspersions about him. Titania dismisses his comment, and points out that because she and Oberon have not performed their usual harmonious dances together since the beginning of midsummer, the weather has been terrible. There have been fogs and floods, and farming has been badly affected. It seems more like winter than summer; the seasons have all changed places, and people are confused. She blames their quarrel for all these bad effects in nature. Oberon tells her that the power to make amends lies in her; all he asks is that she give up her changeling boy. Titania refuses, saying that his mother was a member of her order and died giving birth to the boy. Titania now raises him for her sake, and will not give him up.
After Titania exits, Oberon says he will make her suffer because of her defiance. He summons Puck and tells him to fetch him a flower known as “love-in-idleness,” explaining that if the juice from that flower is put on the eyelids of a sleeping person, that person will fall madly in love with the next living creature he or she sees. As Puck departs on his errand, Oberon says he will drop the juice from the flower into Titania’s eyes as she sleeps, and he will not lift the spell until she has given up the changeling boy.
As Oberon watches, Demetrius enters, with Helena following him. Demetrius impatiently tells Helena to go away and stop following him. He says he cannot love her, but this only has the effect of making her love him more. She says that the more he spurns her, the more she will fawn on him. After more of this, Demetrius says he will run away and leave her to the mercy of wild beasts. When he exits, Helena follows, still determined to pursue him and hoping for a change of heart.
Puck enters, and Oberon takes the flower from him, promising to himself that he will anoint Titania’s eyes with it. Then he tells Puck to take the flower and anoint the eyes of Demetrius, at a moment when the next thing he is likely to see will be Helena.
Act 2, Scene 1 Analysis
This scene introduces the third plot and the third set of characters. It also sets up the plot that will lead to the comic situations in the wood. The quarrel between Titania and Oberon is significant. In Shakespeare’s worldview, disorder at one level of the universe leads to disorder everywhere else, which is why the fairies’ quarrel disrupts the normal patterns of weather at the earthly level. Another theme developed in this scene is that of the irrationality of love. The more Helena is scorned, for example, the more she loves. This theme will be developed further through the device of the flower-juice.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream Summary – Act 2, Scene 2
Titania bids her fairies sing her a lullaby, which sends her asleep. The fairies depart, and Oberon enters and squeezes the juice on Titania’s eyelids. He tells her to awaken when some vile thing is near.
Lysander and Hermia enter. They are lost, and decide to rest. Hermia insists that Lysander lie down some distance away from her, to ensure her chastity. They both sleep. Puck enters, and mistakes Lysander for Demetrius. He puts some of the flower-juice on Lysander’s eyelids.
Demetrius enters, with Helena chasing him. He tells her to leave him alone, and goes off on his own. Helena comes upon the sleeping Lysander and wakes him up. As soon as Lysander opens his eyes he falls wildly in love with Helena and wants to kill Demetrius. He regrets all the time he spent with Hermia; Helena is much more worthy of his love. Helena, bewildered, can only assume that Lysander is making fun of her, and protests that she does not deserve to be mocked. She exits, upset and confused.
Lysander turns to the sleeping Hermia and says that he now loathes her, and has eyes only for Helena. He goes off to find her.
Hermia wakes with a start, calling for Lysander to help her. She says she dreamt a serpent was eating away at her heart, while Lysander sat by smiling. On finding that Lysander has gone, she is terrified at being alone in the wood.
Act 2, Scene 2 Analysis
The love-juice does its work, further revealing the irrationality of love. It is a fickle emotion and can change at any moment.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream Summary – Act 3, Scene 1
The artisans meet in the wood for their rehearsal. Bottom is convinced that their play will be so well produced that the ladies in the audience will be shocked by the contents of it. For example, Pyramus must kill himself. To solve the problem of adverse audience reaction, he asks that a prologue be written, explaining that Pyramus does not really die. He also feels the need to have it explained that Pyramus is in fact not Pyramus at all, but Bottom the weaver. But then, what of the lion? Won’t the lion scare the ladies too? asks Snug. Bottom has the solution to that also. He tells Snug to inform the audience that he is not really a lion, but Snug the joiner. So literal-minded are the artisans, they then decide that since Pyramus and Thisbe meet by moonlight, there must be a character to represent moonlight, and also another character to represent the wall through which the lovers talk.
The rehearsal begins, as Puck watches. Bottom as Pyramus and Flute as Thisbe make some howling errors that Peter Quince has to correct. Then Bottom, who has temporarily left the scene, returns, but the mischievous Puck has caused his head to be transformed into an ass’s head. Most of the artisans flee in terror, and Puck goes with them, promising to chase and torment them. Then Snout and Peter Quince see the ass’s head on Bottom, and they run too.
Bottom, suspecting that his companions are trying to make an ass of him, decides to sing to himself. The song awakes Titania, who immediately sees Bottom and falls in love with him. Bottom, of course, does not have a clue as to why this has happened. Titania asks him to remain with her in the wood; she will have him attended and cared for by her fairies. She summons Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed, and tells them to lead Bottom to her bower.
Act 3, Scene 1 Analysis
The artisans’ obsession with obtaining realism in their play is connected to a wider theme of the play: the contrast of reason and imagination. Peter Quince and company misunderstand the nature of theater, which is more imaginative than realistic art.
The theme of the irrationality of love recurs in the absurdity of the affair between Titania and the ass-headed Bottom. As Bottom says, “reason and love keep little company together nowadays.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream Summary – Act 3, Scene 2
Puck tells Oberon of his exploits with Bottom and Titania, and Oberon is delighted. He then tells of putting the love-juice in the Athenian’s eye, but when Demetrius and Hermia enter, Puck realizes that Demetrius is not the same man.
Hermia is still looking for Lysander, and fears that Demetrius may have killed him, but Demetrius denies that he has done Lysander any harm. Hermia exits, hoping that she never has to see Demetrius again. Demetrius sees no point in following her while she so angry, and he lies down to rest and sleep.
Oberon and Puck come forward, and Oberon realizes the mistake Puck has made. In order to correct it, he sends Puck off to fetch Helena, and squeezes the juice onto Demetrius’s eyelids. Puck returns with news that Helena is near. Oberon and Puck stand aside to watch how their plot unfolds.
Lysander and Helena enter. Lysander swears that his love for her is genuine. Helena does not believe him; has he deserted Hermia so easily?
Demetrius awakes, and the first person he sees is Helena. He falls immediately in love with her and praises her in extravagant terms. Helena can only conclude that they are both making fun of her, and that they really hate her. She says they both really love Hermia and have joined forces for the purpose of mocking her. Lysander agrees that Demetrius must be mocking Helena, for he is in love with Hermia. He says he is willing to give up Hermia and let Demetrius have her. Demetrius replies that Lysander can keep Hermia; he, Demetrius, is no longer in love with her, if he ever was. Now he loves Helena.
Hermia enters. She asks Lysander why he deserted her. He replies that his love for Helena took him away, and now he hates Hermia. Hermia cannot believe her ears, while Helena concludes that Hermia is part of the plot to humiliate her. She turns on Hermia and berates her. Has she forgotten the close friendship that they shared? Hermia is amazed at her friend’s words. She denies the she is scorning Helena; it seems to her that it is the other way round. Helena, unconvinced, questions her further, but still Hermia does not understand. For her part, Helena does not believe Hermia’s protestations of ignorance.
The four young people then quarrel bitterly. Lysander swears he really does love Helena; Demetrius says that he loves her much more than Lysander does. Lysander challenges him to fight, and Demetrius belittles him. Hermia attempts to find out what is going on, but Lysander pushes her away and insults her. She is bewildered. Lysander repeats that he hates her and loves Helena. This makes Hermia turn on her former friend, whom she believes has stolen her lover away. Helena, who still believes there is a plot to humiliate her, responds with insults. Hermia becomes so angry she threatens to scratch Helena’s eyes. Helena appeals to the men for protection, and then explains her part in the situation: all she did was tell Demetrius that Hermia and Lysander were going to the wood that night. She did not try to take Lysander from Hermia. Now she promises to go back to Athens; she follows Demetrius and the others no further.
Hermia does not believe her, and Helena hits back with insults, calling Hermia malicious. Hermia tries to attack her, but Lysander restrains her and tells her to go. He insults her too.
Lysander and Demetrius exit, planning to fight a duel. Hermia blames Helena for the situation, and Helena runs away. Hermia is left to express her bewilderment and confusion.
Oberon and Puck come forward. Oberon is annoyed by Puck’s mistake, but Puck has enjoyed watching the resulting mix-up. Oberon tells Puck to veil everything with a fog, to make sure that Demetrius and Lysander do not come into contact with each other. When they get tired of searching and go to sleep, Puck is to put a herb into Lysander’s eye. The herb takes away all error, and when Lysander awakes, everything he has just experienced will seem like a dream. Meanwhile, Oberon plans to go to Titania and beg her for the changeling boy. When he has the boy, he will release Titania from the spell. Puck points out that this must all be done quickly, because morning approaches. Oberon accepts this, although he says that they are not like ghosts who must return to churchyards at dawn.
Puck then confuses Lysander and Demetrius by calling their names and leading them away from each other. Tiring, Lysander lies down and sleeps, and shortly after that, so does Demetrius.
Helena enters. She too is weary and lies down to sleep. As Puck watches over them, Hermia arrives also. She is exhausted and like the three others, lies down to sleep. Puck squeezes the herb on Lysander’s eyelids, saying that when he wakes up, all will be well.
Act 3, Scene 2 Analysis
The theme of the irrationality of love finds its full _expression in this scene, with its multiple confusions and switching of affections. It should be noted, however, that it is the male characters, Lysander and Demetrius, who change their affections; Hermia and Helena remain constant throughout.
The theme also shows the extent to which the humans are helpless in the face of the machinations of the fairy world. A psychoanalytic interpretation might suggest that the lovers are actually victims of their own unconscious desires.
Oberon emerges from this scene as not only a powerful spirit but a benevolent one too, since he makes efforts to sort out the love tangle and ensures through Puck that Demetrius and Lysander do each other no harm. His darker side is revealed through the ruthless way he deals with Titania.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream Summary – Act 4, Scene 1
Titania and her train enter with Bottom, as Oberon looks on unseen. The fairies attend to Bottom’s every need, and Bottom seems to enjoy every minute of it. He goes to sleep with Titania’s arms around him as she declares how much she loves him.
Puck enters, and Oberon confesses that he is beginning to pity Titania. He reveals that a short while before, he had encountered her and she had agreed to give him the changeling boy. Now that he has attained what he wants, he removes the spell cast by the love-juice by squeezing it again on Titania’s eyelids. Titania awakes, and says she dreamed she was in love with an ass. Oberon tells Puck to remove the ass’s head from Bottom. Oberon then calls for some music, and he and Titania dance together.
After the Fairy King and Queen exit, leaving the lovers and Bottom still asleep, Theseus, Hippolyta and Egeus enter, and there is the sound of hunting horns. It is dawn. Theseus is looking forward to watching his hounds do their work.
They stumble upon the four sleeping forms. Egeus wonders what they are all doing in the wood together. Theseus has no doubt of their innocent intent, and he then remembers that this is the day when Hermia must make her choice. He bids the huntsmen to wake them with their horns.
Startled, the four wake up, and it is Helena who is the first to offer an explanation of why they are there, even though she is not sure herself. But Egeus does not let her finish. He angrily jumps to the conclusion (correct, as it happens) that Lysander and Hermia were trying to elope so that she would not have to marry Demetrius. He tries to incite Demetrius to anger over the deception. But Demetrius simply says that he no longer loves Hermia, but now loves Helena. He points out that he was in love with Helena first, before he ever met Hermia, and how he is reverting to his original choice.
The genial Theseus overrules Egeus and gives the two couples permission to marry. Theseus, Hippolyta and Egeus make their way back to Athens. The two couples are puzzled about what has happened and decide that they must have been dreaming. They also return to Athens.
Bottom awakens and finds himself alone, without his fellow-actors. He declares that he has had a strange dream that no man could explain. He decides to get Peter Quince to write a ballad about it, to be called Bottom’s Dream.
Act 4, Scene 1 Analysis
As the blocking figure, Egeus still tries to obstruct the happy ending. But the time has come for the plot to be resolved according to the formula of romantic comedy, so he has no success.
The theme of the relationship between dreams and reality (or illusion and reality) is prominent here. All the characters who have had unusual and baffling experiences in the wood dismiss all the events there as a dream. This includes the four lovers, as well as Bottom and Titania. But were the lovers really dreaming, or were they being opened up to some aspect of reality that was closed to them in the rational, day-to-day world they usually inhabit?
A Midsummer Night’s Dream Summary – Act 4, Scene 2
Back in Athens, Quince, Flute, Snout and Starveling are desperate to find Bottom. If he cannot be located, they will have to cancel their play. Snug enters, with the news that the Duke has just left the Temple with several lords and ladies who have just been married. He regrets that their play is not going to happen, for it would have brought them the favor of the Duke.
Bottom suddenly enters and says he has a wonderful story to tell them . . . but he will keep it for later. He urges them all to get prepared immediately to perform their play.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream Summary – Act 5
In the evening, in Theseus’s palace, Hippolyta remarks on the strange tale the four lovers have told them. Theseus is prepared to dismiss it as a fanciful story, no more true than something a madman or a poet (who both have vivid imaginations) might conjure up. Hippolyta is not convinced. She points out that the stories the young people tell are all consistent with one another, which makes her think they are reliable.
Lysander, Demetrius, Hermia and Helena enter. Theseus asks Philostrate what the entertainment will be for the remainder of the evening. Philostrate hands him a sheet of paper with a list of acts for him to choose from. The artisans’ play, Pyramus and Thisbe, is fourth on the list, and it attracts Theseus’s attention. Philostrate tells him that it is a very bad play, and that when he saw it in rehearsal it made him laugh, even though it is a tragedy. Theseus asks who is to perform it, and after Philostrate tells him that it is being done by some artisans from Athens who have never exercised their minds in anything before, Theseus decides, over Philostrate’s protests, to hear it. He tells the doubtful Hippolyta that what matters is not the quality of the product, but the honesty and simplicity with which it is offered.
There is a flourish of trumpets. Peter Quince enters and speaks the play’s prologue. according to the watching aristocrats, Theseus, Hippolyta and Lysander, he delivers the lines badly.
As the rest of the players enter, Peter Quince continues his prologue, explaining who the characters are, including Wall (played by Snout), Moonshine (played by Starveling), and Lion (played by Snug). He also explains the plot of the play. Pyramus and Thisbe are to meet at Ninus’ tomb and woo each other there. But Thisbe is scared away by a lion, and as she flees she drops her mantle. The lion mangles it and leaves it looking bloodstained. When Pyramus arrives, he is so distraught at the sight of the apparently bloody mantle that he kills himself, thinking his lover dead.
The players perform their parts as best they can, despite the rude interruptions from the aristocrats, who enjoy themselves by mocking the farcical performance.
Snout explains at length that he is playing a wall. Pyramus approaches the wall, on the other side of which Thisbe eventually appears. The two lovers engage in a love dialogue in which they both mangle the names of the characters from classical mythology. Then they part, agreeing to meet at Ninus’ tomb.
Snug enters and explains that he is Lion, as does Starveling as Moonshine. They manage to get their lines out in spite of the mocking comments from the aristocrats. Lion chases Thisbe away, and then Pyramus enters and passionately laments what he thinks is the death of Thisbe. He stabs himself and dies. Thisbe returns to find her lover dead, and stabs herself in grief.
After some generous praise for their performance from Theseus, they conclude with a rustic dance.
It is midnight, and Theseus and the others retire to bed. Puck enters and announces that now is the time that fairies frolic. Oberon and Titania and their train sing and dance a blessing on the house.
The last word is given to Puck, who speaks directly to the audience. He says that if anything in the play has offended them, they should consider themselves to have been sleeping, and the play to be nothing more than a dream.
Act 5 Analysis
In his famous speech about the lunatic, the lover and the poet, Theseus reveals himself to be a rationalist. He does not give any credence to the world of imagination. Perhaps this is to be expected from a man who is an efficient ruler and practical man of affairs. He puts his trust in his day-to-day experience, rather than the imaginative worlds inhabited by lovers or poets.
The artisans’ play is usually extremely funny in performance, as actors get the opportunity to act as non-actors trying to be actors. It also suggests that the theater need not strive overmuch for realism since the artisans’ attempts at realism actually make their play less rather than more believable.
Oberon and Titania, now restored to friendship, show the true role of the fairies, which is to bless the human world and guard it from dangers.