A Midsummer Night's Dream Book summary

William Shakespeare



It is speculated that William Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night's Dream around 1594- 1596, for it is first mentioned by Francis Meres in 1598. The play Romeo and Juliet is believed to have been written around the same time as this play, and there are quite a few similarities between that tragic love story and this comedy play. This play is considered a masterpiece among Shakespeare's comedies very much like Hamlet is considered to be the playwright's best tragedy.

In this play, Shakespeare introduces the concept of kind and small fairies that seek to aid the humans around them. In Elizabethan times, fairies were considered to be evil creatures that harassed villagers and incessantly pranked them. In the play, the fairies mostly leave the humans alone and only intervene in order to remedy a situation, although Puck or Robin Goodfellow does describe a certain joy in pranking humans yet his pranks are mostly described as being good natured and humorous.

The nature of the play can be confusing for it is described near the end as being a dream, the audience is left unsure about whether the events in the play had truly occurred or represented a dream. This is an intentional effect by the playwright, who wished to communicate that theatre can in one way be seen as a shared dream. The play is also thought to be a commentary on the fickleness of love, as the characters in the play shift their romantic attentions from one to the other with surprising ease.


Plot Summary

The play opens with Theseus and Hippolyta in Athens, they are discussing their eagerness to get married in the next four days. Their conversation is interrupted with the entry of Egeus, he hails the duke of Athens and informs him that he has come to him with a complaint. Egeus explains how his daughter Hermia had refused to marry Demetrius, who was Egeus's choice. Instead, Hermia wished to marry Lysander, who according to Egeus had stolen her heart by deceit. Theseus informs Hermia that according to Athenian law, Hermia would be required to marry according to her father's choice or else face either execution or exile to a celibate order of priestesses. Lysander attempts to sway the duke by informing him that both his prospects and heritage were comparable to that of Demetrius, and so he should be given the hand of Hermia in marriage for he had her love as well. He reveals that Demetrius had in the past been betrothed to Helena but had now abandoned her while she continued to love him. Theseus reveals that he had learned of such a thing, and leaves to discuss the same with Egeus and Demetrius, but before he leaves, he informs Hermia that he would expect her decision by the day of his wedding.

Lysander and Hermia are left alone, and Lysander attempts to comfort Hermia who is distraught at their predicament. Lysander comforts her and provides a solution to their problem by suggesting that they elope to the house of a relative outside of Athens, where they would be free from Athenian law and so be free to marry. Hermia agrees and so they decide to meet at night in the forest close to Athens from where they plan to elope. They disclose the same to Helena when she enters and bemoans her unrequited love towards Demetrius. The two lovers depart, they leave Helena alone. She begins to think out loud and decides to disclose Hermia and Lysander's plan to elope, so doing she hopes to follow Demetrius to the forest and there somehow win him over.

In the streets of Athens, a group of workmen gathers to discuss their plans to enact a play for the duke on his wedding day. Peter Quince attempts to lead the workmen but is constantly interrupted by Bottom the weaver, who repeatedly tries to advocate his ability to play the other roles in the play in addition to the leading role of Pyramus. Peter Quince finishes giving all the men a role and they all agree to meet in the forest at night for a rehearsal so that they may perfect their play in secret.

In the forest close to Athens, Puck meets a fairy from the train of Titania, the queen of Fairies. She recognizes Puck as the mischievous sprite responsible for playing many a prank. Puck happily agrees and recounts some of his old pranks, he then asks her to be away for Oberon, the king of fairies is approaching the forest. He and his wife Titania are in conflict over a little Indian boy that Oberon desires to have in his train, while Titania keeps him close and fusses over him. Oberon and Titania then enter and argue about why they have both come to the forests of Athens. Titania departs and Oberon is left alone with Puck, and so Oberon decides to take revenge upon Titania. He bids Puck bring him a flower with the power of cupid's arrow, for its juice, has the power to cause someone to fall in love with the very next living that is perceived. He wishes to use the flower on Titania and make her fall in love with some terrible beast, and then have her give up the Indian boy to him.

Puck departs, and then in the same clearing, Helena and Demetrius arrive. Oberon hears their exchange, wherein Helena begs Demetrius to be with her but he dismisses her and continues to search for Lysander and Hermia. Taking pity on Helena, Oberon instructs Puck, when he returns with the flower, to use some on Demetrius as well so that he may fall in love with Helena. He describes Demetrius to Puck as the man in Athenian garb.

Titania enters her bower and with the help of her fairies goes to sleep. All but one fairy remains to guard the queen when Oberon arrives. He uses the flower on his wife's sleeping eyes and retreats.

Lysander and Hermia find their way to the bower and decide to sleep there for they have been wandering awhile in the forest and are quite lost. Once they have gone to sleep, Puck arrives at the scene and mistakes Lysander for Demetrius and uses the magical flower on his eyes. He departs, but Helena soon arrives following Demetrius. He yet again spurns her advances and continues onwards but Helena perceives Lysander sleeping close by. She thinks he has been wounded or worse and so attempts to rouse him. Lysander wakes up and is immediately smitten with Helena. He informs her so, but she retreats and believes he is mocking her. Lysander chases after her, and glances at Hermia before he leaves and hopes that she remains sleeping.

The Athenian workmen enter the forest and begin to practice their play, Puck sees them and decides to play a prank. He transforms the head of Bottom, the weaver, into that of an ass. The other workmen are horrified at the sight of Bottom and all of them flee. Bottom remains unaware of his transformation and so thinks that his friends are playing a prank on him. He begins to sing as he waits for his friends to return, and his singing causes Titania to wake. She sees the transformed Bottom and immediately confesses her love to him. Bottom is slightly taken aback and attempts to leave but Titania showers him with affection and has her fairies serve him, and so he remains.

Oberon is wondering out loud about the fate of his wife when Puck enters and informs the King how his wife had fallen in love with a man with an ass's head. The King is delighted by this, just then Demetrius enters with Hermia following close behind. Puck informs the king that he had used the flower on another man, and the King becomes upset with him for ruining another's relationship. Hermia soon departs in search of Lysander while Demetrius lies down to sleep. Oberon then commands Puck to bring Helena so that he may use the magical flower on Demetrius and so cause him to fall in love with Helena.

Puck departs and soon arrives with Helena who is pursued by Lysander, Oberon has used the flower on Demetrius before the pair arrive. As Lysander is loudly recounting his oaths of love for Hermia, Demetrius wakes up and falls in love with Helena. Both he and Lysander begin to argue over Helena, who begins to believe that they are both mocking her. Hermia then finds her way to the clearing by the sound of Lysander's voice, but he rejects her and declares his undying love for Helena. Hermia is hurt by Lysander's words and begins to believe that Helena had won over Lysander's love with her tall height. Helena now begins to believe that all three of them are together on the joke in mocking her. The matter comes near to blows, and Lysander departs with Demetrius to duel over Helena. Both Helena and Hermia also depart the clearing, leaving Oberon alone with Puck.

Oberon commands Puck to rescue the situation by calling down the fog and preventing them all from fighting. He then gives him another flower with the power of Diana, so that he may use it on Lysander and free him from the bewitchment of the love potion. He then decides to find Titania, procure from her the Indian boy, and then release her from the effects of the potion. Puck departs and does exactly as he is bid, by the end all the lovers are sleeping in the same clearing without being aware of one another.

Titania enters this clearing with Bottom and her fairies, she is followed by Oberon and later Puck. Oberon explains to Puck that he had encountered Titania a little earlier and had secured for himself the Indian boy. He asks Puck to return Bottom to his original state, and then uses the new flower on Titania. She wakes up in shock claiming to have seen a terrible nightmare in which she had been enamored with a man who had an ass's head. Both of them set aside their dispute and leave as the sun begins to rise. The lovers are found in the clearing by Theseus, Hippolyta, Egeus, and others. Demetrius confesses to the duke that his feelings for Hermia had transformed and he now only loved Helena. Hearing this the duke overrules Egeus in the matter of his daughter's marriage and rules that all of the lovers would be married alongside himself and Hippolyta. So saying he leads them all back to Athens.

Bottom returns to a group of dejected workmen who had thought he had been lost along with their opportunity to perform the play. Bottom hurries them along with a promise of a wondrous tale. After the wedding ceremony, the king looks for entertainment and decides to watch the play of Bottom and his friends. Bottom along with the other workmen enacts a disastrously hilarious rendition of Pyramus and Thisbe.

Theseus and Hippolyta retreat to their marriage bed, as do the other couples, and deep in the night, Oberon visits the duke's home with Titania and other fairies. They bless the house of marriage, and Puck ends the show by telling the audience, if they are offended, to remember that it was all just a dream.

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    William Shakespeare
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Simon & Schuster

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