Detailed, Illustrated Synopsis for ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

This post is meant to accompany my previous one, ‘Analysis of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”‘ (MND).

Hippolyta and Theseus
Hippolyta and Theseus

Act One: Theseus, the Duke of Athens, having recently captured Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons, plans to marry her.  Egeus complains to the duke that his daughter, Hermia, refuses to obey him and marry Demetrius.  Instead, she loves Lysander, who fights for his right to marry her.  Lysander tells everyone Demetrius used to love Helena, who still “dotes” on him.

Hermia and Helena
Hermia and Helena

The Athenian law punishes those who disobey their fathers with the death penalty, and Egeus wishes to use this law to intimidate Hermia into marrying Demetrius; still, she boldly refuses.  The duke must uphold the law, but offers her a third choice: if she won’t marry Demetrius, instead of suffering death, she can devote herself to the chaste worship of the goddess Diana, and abjure the society of men.  She has until Theseus’ wedding day to decide.  Theseus, Egeus, and Demetrius then leave the room, and Lysander and Hermia are alone.

Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius, Egeus, and Theseus quarrelling.
Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius, Egeus, and Theseus quarrelling.

Lysander comforts her (see first quote from my ‘Analysis of MND’ post), and tells her his plan to take her out of Athens and away from its cruel law.  They’ll go through the nearby forest and stay at his aunt’s home.  Then they’ll be married.  This gives Hermia hope.

When Helena joins them and tells them of her dejection from Demetrius’ preference of Hermia over her, they tell her of their plan to leave, Demetrius then having only Helena to love.  Lysander and Hermia leave, and Helena is alone, complaining in a monologue of her loss of Demetrius’ love (see second quote from ‘Analysis of MND’).  Finally, she foolishly decides to tell Demetrius about her friends’ plan to flee to the woods, hoping this will win Demetrius’ favour.

Peter Quince, having chosen the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe to have his ‘actors’ perform in a play before the duke, gives each actor his role.  Nick Bottom, every director’s nightmare, is to play Pyramus, lover of Thisbe; but Bottom wants to play every role.  Francis Flute, a boy, is to play Thisbe, but he doesn’t want to play a girl because he’s starting to grow a beard.  Bottom wants to play Thisbe, but Quince insists he’s to be only Pyramus.

Snug is to play a lion, but he wants to see his ‘lines’ quickly because he’s ‘slow of study’; Quince assures him he only needs to improvise roaring–this reassures Snug.  Bottom offers to play the lion, and boasts of his ability to roar; Quince says he’ll frighten away the ladies, so Bottom offers to roar softly.  Still, Quince insists Bottom is only to be Pyramus, and tells everyone to meet in the nearby forest that night to rehearse, because he doesn’t want the Athenians to watch how the play is being put together.

Act Two: In the forest that night, a fairy chats with Puck, and Puck tells her of the pranks he likes to play on people.

There is trouble in fairyland.  Oberon, the fairy king, is angry with Titania, his queen, because she, not even willing to share a bed with him, refuses to give him an Indian changeling boy for his page.  She says that the boy’s mother honoured Titania while the mother was alive, and out of friendship with the mother, Titania wants to have the child, and should have him.  She and her fairy retinue leave Oberon.

Oberon and Titania quarrel over the Indian boy.
Oberon and Titania quarrel over the Indian boy.

Wanting revenge for this ‘injury’, Oberon commands Puck, his fairy servant, to go off and find a special flower that one of Cupid’s arrows was shot into.  The arrow filled the flower with a potion, called ‘love in idleness’.  When the ‘love juice’ of this flower is poured onto the eyelids of anyone sleeping, he or she, when waking, will fall in love with the first person…or animal…or thing…he or she sees.  Puck flies away to find the flower.

Puck finds the magical flower.
Puck finds the magical flower.

Oberon plans to put the love juice on Titania’s eyelids as she sleeps that night, making her fall in love with something ‘vile’ to humiliate her.  While she’s thus distracted, he’ll get the Indian boy.

While Oberon is waiting for Puck to return, he sees Demetrius walking through the forest, chased by Helena.  Invisible to them, Oberon listens to what they say to each other.

Though Demetrius insists that he neither will nor can love her, Helena says she loves him all the same.  He warns her of the dangers a maid may encounter in a forest at night, when Demetrius has no inclination to protect her.  He continues to try outrunning her in his search for Hermia, and Helena complains of how men are supposed to pursue women, not vice versa.

Oberon, taking pity on her, tells Puck–when he returns with the flower–to put some of the love juice on the eyelids of a sleeping Athenian man who is disdainful of a woman’s love.  Oberon tells Puck, who’s never seen Demetrius before, he’ll know the man by the Athenian clothes he’s wearing.  So Puck takes some of the flower and searches for the Athenian, while Oberon takes the rest of the flower and finds Titania, whose fairies are singing her to sleep.

When she’s asleep, Oberon pours the love juice on her eyelids and chants a magical poem to make her fall in love with a hideous monster.  He tells her to “wake when some vile thing is near”, and leaves her.

Oberon puts the love juice on Titania's eyelids.
Oberon puts the love juice on Titania’s eyelids.

Meanwhile, Lysander and Hermia are wandering elsewhere in the forest, and they are tired and lost.  They decide to sleep, Lysander’s hopes of getting close to Hermia disappointed when she, out of maidenly modesty, tells him to sleep further off.  He does, and when Puck sees them asleep, he assumes that Lysander, in Athenian clothes and sleeping apart from the girl (presumably out of disdain for her), is the man Oberon wants Puck to use the love juice on.  Puck pours it on Lysander’s eyelids and leaves them.

Soon after, Demetrius and Helena walk by that area, Demetrius still scorning her.  He leaves her alone, and she looks at her reflection in a pond.  Her reflection distorted by the ripples in the water, she sadly concludes, “I’m as ugly as a bear.”  Then she sees Lysander sleeping, and worries that he could be dead.  She wakes him, and he falls in love with her.  Shocked at this sudden change in him, she assumes he is making fun of her.  She leaves the area in tears, him pursuing her, and Hermia is left alone there.  Later, she wakes from a terrible dream, and, frightened, wonders where Lysander went.  She then goes to look for him.

Act Three: The ‘rude mechanicals’ arrive in another area of the forest and begin rehearsing their play.  Bottom points out that the lion may frighten the ladies, so they decide they will tell the audience the lion is really Snug.

Quince then mentions ‘two hard things’: they need a wall on the stage to separate Pyramus and Thisbe; and they need the moonlight to shine on them on the stage, but they doubt that there will be a window to let the moonlight in.  They decide that Snout will portray, as it were, the wall, holding his fingers in such a way as to indicate a chink through which the lovers may speak.  Robin Starveling, holding a lantern, will represent the man in the moon.

As they rehearse, misspoken lines abound: instead of ‘odorous savours sweet’, we have ‘odious’ savours; the lovers won’t meet at ‘Ninus’ Tomb’ but at ‘Ninny’s Tomb’.

Bottom walks away momentarily.  Puck has been watching all of the rehearsing, and he’s much amused by the actors’ lack of talent.  He uses magic on Bottom, changing his head into that of a donkey.  When Bottom returns to say his next words of love to Thisbe, all the other actors run away from him in terror at his ‘monstrous’ transformation.

Puck gives Bottom a donkey's head.
Puck gives Bottom a donkey’s head.

Bottom, not yet knowing what’s happened to him, pretends not to be afraid at what he thinks is a prank, and he sings a song, waking Titania.  She falls in love with him and takes him with her to be waited on by her fairies.

Titania in love with ass-headed Bottom
Titania in love with ass-headed Bottom

Meanwhile, Oberon is angry with Puck for putting the love juice on the eyes of the wrong man.  Later, Hermia finds Demetrius and demands to know where Lysander is; she suspects Demetrius may have harmed Lysander.  When Demetrius insists he neither hurt Lysander nor knows where he is, Hermia leaves Demetrius, and he falls asleep.

Now Oberon puts the love juice on his eyelids, while Puck finds Helena and uses his magic to bring her near sleeping Demetrius.  Lysander, still in love with Helena, follows her, and Puck, amused, observes the young lovers’ folly (see ‘Analysis of MND’, third quote).

Lysander, weeping, pleads with Helena that men who love in jest don’t weep as they woo.  Helena retorts that his jest increases in cunning, and chides him for forgetting his true love, Hermia.  Lysander says he was foolish to love Hermia, and that Demetrius loves her, but not Helena.  This wakes Demetrius, who immediately calls Helena, “goddess, nymph, perfect, divine!”  Now Helena thinks both men are making fun of her.  Lysander and Demetrius start to show hostility to each other as rivals for Helena.

Then Hermia appears, happy to have finally found Lysander.  When she asks him why he left her, he bluntly tells her he hates her and now loves Helena.  Hermia can’t believe this, while Helena imagines all three of them are in ‘confederacy’ against her.  She chides Hermia for it, saying it’s unladylike, while Hermia says it’s Helena who scorns her.  The fighting between the four of them continues, with insults directed at Hermia’s shortness.  Lysander and Demetrius leave the girls to fight elsewhere.

Oberon blames all this trouble on Puck, who explains that Oberon told him he would know the man by his Athenian clothing, so it was an honest mistake.  Still, Puck doesn’t mind the mistake–to him, causing mischief for the four Athenian lovers is all good fun.

Hermia, Helena, Lysander, and Demetrius fighting; Oberon and Puck watch.
Hermia, Helena, Lysander, and Demetrius fighting; Oberon and Puck watch.

Oberon then orders Puck to use his magic to separate Lysander and Demetrius so they won’t hurt each other.  Soon, when all four lovers fall asleep, Puck is to use the love herb on Lysander’s eyes, correcting them so he’ll love Hermia again.  When everyone wakes in the morning, all the night’s folly will seem a dream.  Puck must hurry, for morning is coming soon.  Oberon will go to Titania and get the Indian boy.  Then he’ll release her from her love of ass-headed Bottom, “and all things shall be peace.”

Chanting, “Up and down, up and down,” Puck leads Lysander and Demetrius away from each other by imitating their voices, fooling each man into thinking he’s chasing the other.  They soon grow weary of the chase, and fall asleep.  The girls also grow weary and fall asleep.  Puck squeezes the love juice on Lysander’s eyelids, and chants a magical poem to ensure that he’s in love with Hermia again.  “Jack shall have Jill/Naught shall go ill.”

Act Four: Titania is in bed with ass-headed Bottom.  He asks for her fairy attendants, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, and Mustardseed, to scratch him.  Itchy, he feels “marvellous hairy about the face,” and needs a barber.  When Titania asks him what he wants to eat, he asks for hay, though she offers to have one of her fairies fetch him nuts.  They decide to sleep, and Titania tells her fairies to leave them.  Holding Bottom in her arms, she says, “O, how I love thee! how I dote on thee!”  They sleep.

Oberon and Puck watch Titania and Bottom.
Oberon and Puck watch Titania and Bottom.

Oberon and Puck watch, and the fairy king begins to pity his queen for her foolish ‘dotage’.  Now that he has the Indian boy, which she quickly gave him, he will “undo this hateful imperfection of her eyes.”  He also orders Puck to change Bottom back to normal.  Then all will think “this night’s accidents but as the fierce vexation of a dream.”  First, Oberon chants a magical poem to change Titania’s judgment back to normal.

She wakes up and tells Oberon, “Methought I was enamoured of an ass.”  Indicating Bottom, Oberon says, “There lies your love.”  Shocked to see Bottom’s ass head, she asks how all of this happened.  Oberon says now that he and Titania are reconciled, they’ll go to Duke Theseus’ house tomorrow midnight, “and bless it to all fair prosperity.”  There, all the lovers will be happily married at the same time. Puck changes Bottom back to normal, saying, “Now when thou wak’st with thine own fool’s eyes peep.”

The next morning, Theseus, Hippolyta, Egeus, and their attendants, hunting, come by the forest.  They find the four young lovers sleeping there.  They wake.  Theseus asks what happened.  Lysander confesses that he eloped with Hermia to escape the Athenian law.  Egeus demands that the law be enforced, but Demetrius says–though he doesn’t know by what power–his love for Hermia “melted as the snow.”  He now loves Helena again.  Theseus overrules Egeus’ will, and they will all be married together in Athens.

Bottom, with his human head again, wakes up, and is amazed at his dream of having an ass’s head.  He says only a fool would tell people of such a dream, but he’ll tell everyone anyway.  He’ll have Peter Quince write a ballad of it, called “Bottom’s Dream”, and Bottom plans to sing it towards the end of their play.  He leaves the forest to find the other actors.

Back in Athens, the other ‘mechanicals’ are worried about what happened to Bottom.  Not knowing where he is, they conclude the play can’t be performed.  Snug tells them the Duke is coming from the temple.  If their play had gone forward, they’d have been all made men.  They are all disconsolate; then Bottom suddenly appears, and everyone quickly cheers up.  He tells them to hurry and get ready to perform, for he says, “our play is preferr’d.”

Act Five: Theseus and Hippolyta talk of love in his palace.  (See the fourth quote in my post ‘Analysis of MND’.)  Philostrate, master of revels, presents Theseus with a paper showing all the plays to be considered for the evening’s entertainment.  After rejecting several proposed plays, Theseus chooses “A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus and his love Thisby: very tragical mirth.”  Fascinated with these paradoxes, he asks Philostrate about the play.  Philostrate insists it’s unfit, but Theseus insists on hearing the play.  Philostrate reluctantly leaves to tell the ‘mechanicals’ to get ready to perform.

The play begins with all three married couples as the audience, and with Peter Quince as the Prologue: “If we offend, it is with our good will.”  As he continues speaking, it is obvious to Theseus, Lysander, and Hippolyta how inept Quince is.  He continues, introducing Bottom as Pyramus, Flute (in drag) as Thisbe, Snout as the Wall that separates the lovers (his hand shaped like a chink through which they can whisper to each other), Robin Starveling (with his lantern, dog, and bush) as Moonshine, and Snug as the Lion.

Quince gives a brief synopsis of the play: Pyramus would be with his lady Thisbe, but a wall separates the two lovers, and they can communicate only through a small hole in the wall; they agree to meet at Ninus’ Tomb; Thisbe arrives there first, but a Lion appears, and chases her; she gets away to safety, but only after a piece of her clothing is bitten and torn off, it being stained with the blood of a recent kill of the Lion’s.  Pyramus arrives, and sees the bloody piece of Thisbe’s clothing; he assumes she’s dead, and kills himself.  She returns, sees him dead, takes his sword, and kills herself, too.  Then Quince tells the audience his actors will now act out the story.  He leaves.

Snout presents himself as the wall, holding his hand out to represent the hole.  Bottom as Pyramus enters, reciting some ludicrous poetry about the night: “O night, O night, alack, alack, alack,…And thou, O wall, O sweet, O lovely wall,…Show me thy chink, to blink through with mine eyne.”  Wall holds up his fingers, so Pyramus can look for Thisbe.  Pyramus thanks Wall, and looks, but sees no Thisbe.  Disappointed, Pyramus says, “O wicked wall,” and curses Wall.  Theseus thinks the wall, being able to speak, should curse back; but Bottom comes out of character and tells the duke that Thisbe will be coming out now.

Francis Flute, in women’s clothes, enters as an absurd-looking Thisbe, hoping to speak with Pyramus.  They speak to each other briefly, and try to kiss through Wall’s chink, but obviously cannot.  Pyramus asks her if she’ll meet him at “Ninny’s Tomb”.  She says she will, and they leave.  Wall, having finished his part, says good-bye to the audience, and leaves also.

The 'rude mechanicals' perform 'Pyramus and Thisby'.
The ‘rude mechanicals’ perform ‘Pyramus and Thisby’.

Theseus, Demetrius, and Hippolyta comment on how ridiculous the play is.  Snug and Robin Starveling enter as, respectively, Lion and Moonshine.  Lion reassures the ladies, “whose gentle hearts do fear,” that he is really Snug the joiner.  Robin Starveling tells the audience his lantern represents the moon, and that he is the Man in the Moon.  Thisby appears, but Lion, roaring, scares her.  She runs away, and Lion tears her clothing.  Thorougly entertained by this unintended comedy, Demetrius, Theseus, and Hippolyta respectively shout out their compliments to the actors: “Well roar’d lion”; “Well run, Thisby”; “Well shone, Moon.”

Pyramus enters, thanking the Moon for its light.  He sees the piece of Thisbe’s clothing, “stain’d with blood”, and assumes she’s dead.  He takes out his sword and stabs himself.  He dies a slow and melodramatic death.  Moonshine leaves, and Thisbe re-enters.  She asks, “Asleep, love?  What, dead, my dove?”  She takes his sword, and says, “Come trusty sword; Come, blade, my breast imbrue.”  She stabs herself, and dies.  Theseus and Demetrius note that Moonshine, Lion, and Wall will have to bury the dead.

Bottom gets up and asks the audience if they’d like to see the Epilogue, or hear a Bergamask dance.  Theseus says no to the Epilogue, but will have the Bergamask.  The actors dance.

Then Theseus tells all the lovers, it’s “almost fairy time”, and so they must all go to bed.  They all leave, and the fairies enter, saying magic poems to bless the newly-weds, and singing and dancing.  They all then leave, except Puck, who addresses the audience.  (See the fifth and last quote from my ‘Analysis of MND’.)  He wishes a “good night unto you all.”

The fairies confer blessings on the newlyweds.
The fairies confer blessings on the newlyweds.

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