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.
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.