84 pages 2 hours read

William Shakespeare

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1595

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a comedic play by William Shakespeare that was likely first written and performed around 1600. The first certifiably recorded performance took place in 1604. Set in the Greek city-state of Athens, the play centers on an impending marriage. Before the wedding, the characters find themselves in a forest where a group of fairies manipulates and tricks them. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most popular and most performed plays.

Plot Summary

Duke Theseus of Athens prepares to marry the Amazon queen Hippolyta. The wedding celebrations will last four days. Theseus orders Philostrate, his master of the revels, to arrange the entertainment. As the preparations get underway, an Athenian nobleman named Egeus enters the court. He wants Theseus to discipline his daughter Hermia who is refusing to marry Demetrius, the suitor Egeus has chosen, because she has fallen in love with a man named Lysander instead. Egeus calls on Theseus to punish Hermia to the full extent of the law, though Hermia insists that she will not marry Demetrius regardless. Theseus tells her that she must resolve the problem by the day of his wedding; otherwise, she may be executed or forced to become a nun.

Once alone with Lysander, Hermia agrees to run away with him. They will marry at the house of Lysander’s aunt—well outside Athens. Hermia explains the plan to her friend Helena, who is deeply in love with Demetrius. Helena hopes that she can reclaim Demetrius’s love by telling him about Hermia’s plan. Lysander and Hermia set off through the woods; Demetrius and Helena follow.

The woods outside Athens are home to a community of fairies. King Oberon and Queen Titania rule the fairies but often disagree with one another. Their latest dispute involves a young Indian prince in Titania’s retinue whom Oberon would like to knight and add to his own retinue. Titania refuses, so Oberon hatches a plot with his mischievous servant Puck. He sends Puck to collect a magical flower from the woods. This flower produces a juice that, when dropped onto a sleeping person’s eyes, causes the sleeper to fall deeply in love with the first person they see when they wake. Also in the woods are a group of Athenian laborers led by Peter Quince. The laborers are rehearsing a play for Theseus’s wedding, but they massively overestimate their acting abilities. This is especially true of Nick Bottom, who believes himself to be the best actor for every role.

As the laborers rehearse, the four young Athenian nobles walk through the woods, Demetrius trying to prevent Lysander and Hermia from reaching their destination and Helena doggedly pursuing Demetrius. Oberon watches the young Athenians and instructs Puck to use the magic potion to make Demetrius fall in love with Helena. Puck misinterprets the order and uses the potion on Lysander, who falls in love with Helena. Lysander abandons Hermia and tries to convince Helena that he really loves her. As Puck tries to resolve his mistake, he makes Demetrius also fall in love with Helena. The two young men chase after an incredulous Helena while Hermia becomes angry. Puck must intervene to prevent a fight between the men.

Puck also plays a prank on Bottom and casts a spell that gives him a donkey’s head. Bottom does not notice, but all the other aspiring actors run away, assuming that this monstrous creature has killed Bottom. Oberon, however, has since applied the love potion to Titania’s eyes. When she wakes up and sees Bottom, she falls in love with him and praises his beauty. Oberon only lifts the spell when Titania agrees to allow him to knight the Indian prince. Puck also lifts the love spell on Lysander.

The next morning, Theseus and Hippolyta walk through the woods and discover Hermia, Helena, Demetrius, and Lysander. The young nobles cannot remember what happened the night before, but the effects of the magic linger: Demetrius now loves Helena and Lysander has returned to Hermia. The two couples marry at the same time as Theseus and Hippolyta. After the weddings, Theseus calls for entertainment. Bottom returns to his acting troupe, who are shocked that he is still alive. They perform for the nobles. When the play ends, the humans depart for bed. The fairies arrive and bless the court and the couples. Puck lingers behind, asking the audience for their approval and their forgiveness. He suggests to the audience that everything they have witnessed could be a dream. 

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