A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a comedy William Shakespeare is believed to have written around the mid-1590s. It is not known what Shakespeare’s independent source was, if there was any, for the main plot: it seems to have been his own original idea. The story of Pyramus and Thisbe, however, comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and the characters Theseus and Hippolyta are from Greek Myth.
The story revolves around the actions of three groups of characters. In Athens, Theseus (the Duke of the city), who has just captured Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons, plans to marry her. Meanwhile, Lysander and Hermia, two young lovers, wish to escape from Athens and its laws, which Hermia’s father (Egeus) wants to use to force her to marry Demetrius. Demetrius used to love Helena, who still loves him.
The second group of characters is a group of would-be actors, including writer/director Peter Quince, Nick Bottom, Francis Flute, Snout, Snug, and Robin Starveling. They want to put on a play (the story being Pyramus and Thisbe) before the duke and his bride as part of their wedding celebration.
In the forest outside Athens, there is trouble in the fairy kingdom. Oberon, the fairy king, wants an Indian changeling boy from Titania, Oberon’s queen, who refuses to give up the boy. Oberon therefore tells Puck, his fairy servant, to fetch a magic flower with a kind of potion, or love-juice, inside it–he will put this love-juice on Titania’s eyelids as she sleeps, making her fall in love with whoever, or whatever, she sees upon waking, and during her foolishly amorous state Oberon will get the Indian boy.
Much of the humour of the play comes from the interactions between these three groups of characters. The play is set in ancient Athens during the day, and in a nearby forest at night. Here are some famous quotes:
Ay me! for aught that I could ever read/Could ever hear by tale or history,/The course of true love never did run smooth. –Lysander, to Hermia
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,/And therefore is wing’d Cupid painted blind. –Helena
Lord, what fools these mortals be! –Puck
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet,/Are of imagination all compact*. –Theseus
*composed, made up
If we shadows have offended,/Think but this, and all is mended,/That you have but slumber’d here/While these visions did appear./And this weak and idle theme,/No more yielding than a dream;/Gentles, do not reprehend;/If you pardon, we will mend. –Puck
The central theme of this play is the foolishness of being in love, as most of the above quotes imply. “Dote”, which used to mean “foolishly love”, is said many times in the play.
Demetrius foolishly abandons his true love, Helena, for Hermia, who will never love him. Helena foolishly continues to love Demetrius even after he’s proven himself untrue, and has scorned her many times to her face. Lysander’s and Hermia’s foolish love puts her in danger of the Athenian death penalty, then exposes them to the dangers of a forest at night, with its fairy magic. The love potion in the flower makes Lysander foolishly love Helena; and while it’s also used to correct Demetrius in making him love Helena again, the absurdity of both men loving Helena, so suddenly, underscores the idea of love’s capacity to make fools of us.
The supreme example of this absurdity, though, is Titania’s being in love with Bottom, when he has his ass’s head! Finally, the foolishness of Pyramus’ and Thisbe’s love, so emphatically displayed by the incompetent production and acting of Bottom and the other “rude mechanicals”, is seen in Pyramus’ suicide, him mistakenly assuming Thisbe is dead, followed by Thisbe’s own suicide. (A tragic example of this kind of misunderstanding between two young lovers would soon be seen again in Romeo and Juliet, which Shakespeare may have been working on at the time.)
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