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A Midsummer Night's Dream
William Shakespeare



LINES 1-127

The scene is the palace of Theseus, duke of Athens. He is preparing to wed Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, a famous tribe of women warriors. She had earlier been taken captive by Theseus. They are both legendary figures, and their speeches and actions have a kind of formality. But like any husband-to- be, Theseus is anxious for the wedding day, which will be marked by a new moon. It is still five days away, and Theseus complains about how slowly the old moon wanes. Hippolyta reminds him that the four nights will be filled with dreams that will quickly pass the time. Theseus sends Philostrate, his master of the revels (a kind of entertainment coordinator), to prepare the festivities for the wedding celebration.

From the very beginning, the moon shines forth as the main image of the play. Its mood and its mystical connections tie the various subplots together. The word moon appears twenty-eight times in the play, passing through its phases and working its magic. For Theseus and Hippolyta the moon is the means of measuring the time till their wedding day, and so, in a way, it is the light that illumines their marriage. It also lights the woods for the eloping lovers, Hermia and Lysander, and because of its nighttime appearance is associated with romance. Moonlight is the fairies' proper illumination; they are creatures of the night world and revel under the moon's magic, spectral beams. Even for the rustics, the workingmen, the moon is important. It is, in fact, one of the "characters" in their play, as it shines over the garden in which Pyramus and Thisby secretly meet. And, especially, the moon symbolizes the night, in which dreams take place, as well as the mad, bewitching Midsummer's Eve, in which dreams and reality intermingle.

Egeus, an Athenian elder, enters, followed by his daughter Hermia and her two suitors, Lysander and Demetrius. Egeus is extremely upset. He tells Theseus that he has given consent to Demetrius to marry his daughter. However, Hermia is of a different mind. Egeus explains that Lysander has "bewitched" Hermia with poetry, song, and lovers' trinkets so that she wants to marry him and not Demetrius. Athenian law says the father has the right to marry off his daughter as he sees fit- or have her put to death for her disobedience. Egeus asks Theseus to uphold that law. Notice how the sweet order of marriage established in the opening lines between Theseus and Hippolyta has immediately been disrupted. Now there is romantic discord instead of harmony, and the contrast between the two will run throughout the play. The conflict has been set up between love and law (or reason, as it is later called).

Theseus questions Hermia, explaining that a daughter must obey her father. Hermia, adamant in her refusal, says she wishes her father would look with her eyes, but Theseus chides her, saying that she must learn to see with her father's eyes. She asks to know the worst that can happen to her if she defies Egeus. Theseus explains that she must either give up men and enter a nunnery, or else be put to death. As you can see, the stakes in this romantic discord are very high. Put yourself in Hermia's position. Can you sympathize with her problem? The proper behavior in love is sometimes hard to decide; having to choose between a father and two different suitors makes the decision even harder. If Hermia were to ask your advice, what would you say to her?

NOTE: Shakespeare is a poet as well as a playwright, and that means much of his information is conveyed through imagery as well as action. Watch carefully the ways in which "eyes" and "seeing" function throughout the play. You may be reminded of the old saying, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Our eyes are only one way of judging reality, and they can be easily fooled. Especially in romantic love, where appearances are so important, how can we be sure of what we're feeling (seeing)? A Midsummer Night's Dream is concerned with multiple layers of reality. Note the ways in which peoples' eyes fool them.

Hermia absolutely refuses to marry Demetrius. Theseus gives her until the next new moon- his wedding day- to decide her own fate. Lysander protests that he is as worthy as Demetrius and is, in any event, loved by Hermia. He can't resist throwing in that Demetrius had previously sought and won the love of Helena. Therefore, why doesn't he marry her? But the law is the law. Theseus gives Hermia one more warning, and the rest exit, leaving her and Lysander alone.

LINES 128-251

The two frustrated lovers try to comfort each other. They speak in a poetic, almost courtly manner, trading clever lines and poetic imagery back and forth. The style reflects the content here. They speak the way conventional romantic characters do. But how appropriate is that to their current situation, dangerous and distressing as it is? Does their reliance on stock romantic speech get in the way of their real feelings, instead of express them? What's real or true is hard to see and, as Lysander explains, "the course of true love never did run smooth." "O hell!" responds Hermia, sticking with her theme, "To choose love by another's eyes!" Both feel that happiness in love is fleeting, but agree to take the challenge of making it endure.

Lysander tells Hermia of a secret plan. He has an aunt who lives outside Athens and who looks on him as a son. Lysander proposes that he and Hermia flee the city and live together in marriage at his aunt's house, free from the cruel Athenian law. Both agree to meet the following night in the woods outside of town and to put their plan of elopement into action. Hermia swears repeatedly that she will meet Lysander there. She gets carried away in her romantic poetic flight, swearing by several "broken" vows as well as true ones. We understand what she's saying, but her examples don't really inspire much confidence in the success of romantic entanglement. In spite of the possible deadly consequences of the couple's actions, Shakespeare is reminding us we are in a comic situation.

Suddenly Hermia enters, the picture of frustration. Where Hermia and Lysander are caught up in their mutual love, Helena bears testimony for love's other side, its false side. She is miserable that Demetrius loves Hermia rather than her, and explains how she would willingly change places with Hermia, wishing her voice could be Hermia's and "my eye your eye."

But Helena and Hermia do not trade places. Instead, they trade rhymed lines back and forth, comparing their situations. Hermia frowns on Demetrius, who nevertheless still loves her; Helena wishes her smiles could elicit such a good reaction. Hermia curses him and still he loves her; Helena wishes her prayers could bring the same results. Their romantic plight, signaled by the high poetic style, is undercut by the perfect fit of their comically mismatched desires.

Many readers have complained that the four Athenian lovers are difficult to tell apart and are not very richly characterized. It may be that the ways in which they are alike are more important than the ways in which they are different. Watch how they become even more interchangeable through the course of the play. Do you think they are meant to represent lovers in general, rather than four particular people?

Though Hermia and Helena are drawn as opposites, we do not get very much physical or emotional detail about them. But their situation highlights their opposition, their differences. They are connected by, yet also placed in opposition by, their mutually frustrated desires. In the passage about Demetrius, the end rhymes make us feel the young women are connected, yet the fact that one has what she doesn't want but the other does shows us how they are opposed. That they are lovers aligns them. Love's inconstancy sets them apart. The plot gives them their definition: they are alternately frustrated and mated.

To give Helena a little comfort- and a little hope- Hermia tells her of their plan to elope. Lysander explains that when the moon rises the next night (the moon is to light their way, but its enchanted beams can mislead as well as lead, as they will discover), he and Hermia will leave the city. Helena knows the meeting place. She and Hermia used to play and embroider there as children and opened their hearts to each other. Shakespeare reminds you, with these details of their past, that there are several kinds of love. The love the two women shared as children will be tested by the new love they both now seek. Lysander and Hermia exit.

Helena is left alone with her unhappiness and is quick to spell it out for you. Imagine yourself in Helena's position. How would your frustration color your thoughts? Her soliloquy is worth examining closely because in it she touches on several of the play's themes. First Helena complains that throughout Athens she is thought to be as pretty as Hermia. Why doesn't Demetrius agree? He, instead, dotes on "Hermia's eyes." Here the problem with seeing is doubled: eyes can bewitch eyes. Demetrius can no longer see what everyone else in Athens can. But Helena is in a similar predicament. Though she resents Demetrius, she also loves him. Why?

Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity.

(I, i, 232-33)

The eyes of love are selective and transforming. They can see beauty where beauty is, but they can also mistake ugliness for beauty. Keep this power of love in mind; Titania will be seriously under its influence when she confronts Bottom wearing his ass's head.

But love is even more complex than that. In fact, says Helena, love doesn't see "with the eyes, but with the mind." And that is why Cupid is said to be blind, shooting his arrows aimlessly. The eyes of lovers do not merely transform the object of their desire; sometimes they don't really see it at all! (That is Demetrius' problem with Helena. He can no longer see her.) And, adds Helena, love is a child because it can be so easily "beguiled." All the oaths that Demetrius once swore to Helena are worth nothing now. The way Helena describes it, love is something like looking in a hall of mirrors. There are reflections behind reflections behind reflections, and it's not easy to tell the real from the false. The lover's eyes can see what isn't there, yet not see what is there. The mind can play tricks on the eyes, and the eyes, on the mind. Most importantly, love has the power to transform. Under its rule, appearance and reality become one. This idea recurs throughout the entire play (if you can only see it!).

NOTE: Another thing that challenges our perceptions about appearance and reality is the theater itself. If you keep in mind that, ideally, you would be watching a play instead of reading it, you will be able to appreciate another layer of meaning in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The theater, like romantic love, has the power to enchant our eyes and transform what we see.


We are now in another part of Athens, in the house of Quince, a carpenter. He and his comrades- Snug, a joiner; Bottom, a weaver; Flute, a bellows mender; Snout, a tinker; and Starveling, a tailor- have gathered together to choose the parts in a play they'll be performing for the duke's wedding. They're a group of simple working people, not professional actors, and they're also a far cry from any traditional image of noble Athenian youth.

NOTE: Unlike the lovers, the rustics speak in prose, which is appropriate to their more mundane station in life. But like the lovers, the way they speak tells us a lot about who they are. They're not particularly literate people, so dramatic dialogue isn't very comfortable for them. Watch the way they try to impress or outdo each other, particularly Bottom, who feels he can undertake any part.

Quince asks if all the company is assembled to rehearse. Bottom says it would be better to call all the names individually, but he uses the word "generally" instead. This is one of Bottom's characteristic traits. He has more enthusiasm than knowledge and is a true ham. He loves to use big words even if he doesn't really understand them. He is infatuated with the sound and the flourish of them. But he approaches language with such relish and gusto that it's hard to fault him. He may not always be correct, but his heart is in the right place. Shakespeare knows enough about language to show us that a word's sound can often override its sense. Even when Bottom's wrong, he often sounds right to us (as he does to himself), so Shakespeare's joke is on us as well as on Bottom. Did you ever try to impress anyone by trying to use a larger word than you could handle? If you got away with it, were you or your listener the greater fool?

Bottom also recommends that Quince tell the name of the play first, and so we discover the piece to be presented is "The most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby." Its very title gives you a good indication of its contradictory nature: "lamentable" but a "comedy." It might also indicate to you how little these actors really know about the theater. Obviously, this is going to be a chance for Shakespeare- a trained actor as well as playwright- to give us some inside jokes.

NOTE: The story of Pyramus and Thisby is not Shakespeare's invention; it was a stock Elizabethan plot. But notice how cleverly it fits into A Midsummer Night's Dream. The play within the play concerns two lovers frustrated by their parents' interference. We have just seen a similar situation with Hermia, Lysander, and Egeus. Shakespeare will make great comic use of this traditional story line to comment on the actions of his own characters.

Bottom is the first up. When told that his part is to be Pyramus, Bottom wants to know if Pyramus is a lover or a tyrant. His appetite is large, and he is ready to bite into a big part and give it his full dramatic powers. The part, explains Quince, is that of a "lover that kills himself, most gallant, for love." Quince recognizes Bottom's need for the large gesture. He adds the words "most gallant" like food for Bottom's appetite.

Bottom understands the depths of the dramatic task at hand and immediately begins pumping himself up for it. He sees that such a tragic figure will require great poignancy in order both to shed tears (as Pyramus) and to bring the audience to compassionate tears of their own. "I will move storms," he assures his fellows. However, he adds, he could well play a tyrant if asked to do so- and then to prove it, he does so. Bottom is a one-man band. Though some readers have felt he is at times egotistical or overbearing, others note his eagerness to grab onto life and play it to the hilt. Certainly, Bottom doesn't let much pass him by. If he won't be able to play a tyrant in "Pyramus and Thisby," he'll play it right now for us. He digs into his speech with total energy. The too-obvious alliteration ("raging rocks," "shivering shocks") and high-blown poetic rhetoric don't matter. Their overly conscious style may be appropriate for a tyrant anyway. What does matter is Bottom's enthusiasm. He puts on these parts and takes them of with utter relish. He really enjoys being the center of attention. And he is thoroughly pleased with his own powers. After his speech- almost like coming out of a trance- he admits, "This was lofty!"

Next up is Francis Flute. His part is to be Thisby. Flute wonders naively- hopefully- if that's the part of a wandering knight. No such luck; Thisby is Pyramus's lady love. Flute protests: Can't he play someone else? He has a beard coming. (Mind you it's not here, but it's coming.) But that's his assigned part, and Quince assures him he can play it behind a mask, speaking "small" (softly).

NOTE: Did you know that all female roles in Elizabethan theater were played by boys or young men? Women were not allowed on the stage. The profession of acting was still seen as a socially inferior- if not immoral- occupation. Since that was the law, men performing as women was socially accepted at the time. However, Flute is disturbed at being assigned Thisby's role because he wants to imagine himself a man rather than a boy (not because he's worried about playing a woman), though we can certainly guess a good deal of jesting took place in Shakespeare's time around the issue.

If Flute is reluctant to play the part, someone else is always ready. That someone, of course, is Bottom, always within dramatic arm's reach. He offers to play the role, speaking in a "monstrous little voice." As is often the case, Bottom combines inappropriate words ("monstrous" and "little") to convey his meaning, but the ingenuity and verve of this man, who can quickly swoop from raging tyrant to sweet Thisby is amazing.

Quince, a resourceful and commanding fellow, has things well in hand. Bottom must play Pyramus; Flute, Thisby; Starveling, Thisby's mother; Snout, Pyramus's father; and Quince himself, Thisby's father. (These parts mysteriously disappear in the final version of the play as it is performed. The players may have discovered that their talents or energy were more limited than at first surmised.) In addition, Snug will play the lion's part. Snug is a little worried. He asks Quince if the lion's part is already written so that he may study it now- he's a bit slow at learning. Quince explains handily that Snug can do the part extemporaneously, for it is "nothing but roaring."

Sensing an opening in Snug's reluctance, Bottom makes his move. He's ready to play the lion, and if given the opportunity he will really roar. Quince warns that too realistic roaring would frighten the court ladies, and then they'd all be in trouble. Bottom accommodates; in that case he will roar as gently as a dove or a nightingale. Does that make sense? It doesn't matter. His unquenchable zest is what matters to Bottom.

Quince holds to his position. Bottom must play only Pyramus. But Quince, as director, is no fool. He knows how to butter up his temperamental crew. He flatters Bottom by explaining how appropriate the part is for him- "sweet-faced," "proper," and "gentlemanlike." Bottom is caught but not stopped. He wants to know what kind of beard he should wear and shows off his masterly weaver's knowledge of color by offering an inventory of possible beards.

Quince gives his final orders: they will meet the next night in the palace wood about a mile outside of town by- of course- "moonlight." Quince will draw up a list of the stage properties needed. Bottom gets in a last lick. He repeats the pledge to meet, adding the comment that they will be able to rehearse "most obscenely and courageously." He's used the wrong words again, loving the pure sound of his speech.

As he departs, he adds the line "hold or cut bowstrings." This odd phrase has confused many readers. It's not entirely clear what the expression means, though it seems to be akin to our American "fish or cut bait." Even more likely, he has just garbled some Elizabethan colloquial phrase.


LINES 1-59

In a wood near Athens, the very same one mentioned in the previous act, two fairies appear. Puck, also known as Robin Goodfellow, asks the other sprite what she's up to. The fairy explains her activities. She wanders throughout the countryside, swifter than the moon, as an attendant of the fairy queen, Titania. Her mission at the moment is to place dew on the flowers. The cowslips (a yellow wildflower) are the queen's personal bodyguards, and the fairy is going to place a drop of dew in the "ear" of each, like a pearl.

The fairies introduce another realm in this play of transformations and interlocking zones of reality. Shakespeare immediately gives us a clue to their other-worldly nature by associating them with flowers. Shakespeare drew on many traditions in the creation of his fairy folk. Midsummer's Eve was a customary time for strange happenings (midsummer madness it was called) and was associated in folklore with fairy people, as well as with general dancing and cavorting through the woods. Some critics feel that the tiny flower-sized fairies are Shakespeare's invention. It is also likely, though, that there were oral traditions of such creatures that he drew on. What is certain is that ever since Shakespeare wrote of them, his tiny spirits have created their own tradition, so that is how we tend to think of them even today. Note, however, that Oberon and Titania seem to be of human scale, so you might read Shakespeare's playing with the size of the fairies as a way of placing them in a strange other- worldly context.

The fairy must get on with her work, as the queen and her elves will be arriving shortly. This worries Puck. The king, Oberon, is also coming that evening, and it's important the king and queen don't meet. They have had a falling-out that is setting the natural world on edge. Titania has a little Indian boy as an attendant. He is the son of one of her mortal worshipers or "votaries," and the queen has given him special attention, crowning him with flowers and taking him everywhere with her. (The boy is described as a "changeling," traditionally a child left by the fairies in exchange for one they have stolen.) Oberon is furiously jealous. He'd like this child to be in his train. The situation between the two has become so intense that anytime they meet of late they clash so violently that the elves crawl into acorn cups for fear.

Suddenly the fairy thinks she recognizes Puck. Isn't he the sprite also called Robin Goodfellow, who plays pranks on the villagers? This Robin has been known to mischievously interfere with the milling process, to make the housewife churn her butter in vain, to see that drink doesn't ferment properly, and generally to mislead people. Yes, answers Puck, he is that very same Hobgoblin, jester and companion to Oberon. He's a trickster all right. He doesn't really hurt people, but he loves to have fun at their expense. Do you know of someone like this? He can fool horses by neighing like a mare; he can pose as a crabapple bobbing in a drink and make it spill over the old woman drinking it. Sometimes he'll even pretend to be a stool- sit on him and down you go!

NOTE: Puck or Robin Goodfellow also had a rich tradition in folklore. He could be helpful as well as mischievous, though he seemed to prefer the latter. Puck is actually a general term for a spirit, often called "the pook." Notice how thoroughly English his world is, a true country village. There's nothing much Athenian in it. Shakespeare seems content to call the place Athens, but to let the details speak of England. One contemporary of Shakespeare's, however, Thomas Nashe, suggested that the English elves and pooks were the counterpart to the Greek satyrs and nymphs, so that though the specific figures were different, the magical, mythical world was similar.

LINES 60-187

The chatter between Puck and the fairy is ended by the sudden appearance of Oberon at one end of the stage and Titania at the other. The mood, as suggested by Puck, is dark and angry. "Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania" is Oberon's welcome. The moon's light, which is generally their natural accustomed light, has turned sour. This king and queen are in a mutual rage- his, a jealous one, as Titania points out. She is ready to leave immediately. Oberon upbraids her; is he not her lord? But Titania is not the kind of woman who can be easily pushed around. If he is her lord, she asks, why has he gone running around with Phillida (a familiar figure in romantic poetry)? And not only that- isn't the real reason he's come to Athens so that he can bless the union of Theseus and Hippolyta, his "former mistress" and "warrior love"? Obviously, the jealousy works both ways. Try to understand both of their sides. Is Oberon being too domineering? Is Titania neglecting her duties? Oberon and Titania are not nice "airy sprites" or tiny, funny elves. They are both mighty magical powers. They rule over an enchanted and mysterious realm, and they are filled with intelligence, passion, and cunning. They have the full range of human emotions, but their power is more than human. Oberon throws back his accusations: Titania is herself in love with Theseus and has previously caused the duke to break off with other of his affairs.

Titania, exasperated, replies that all of that has been concocted by Oberon's jealous imagination. Ever since the beginning of midsummer, Oberon has spoiled all their meetings with his jealous rages. More than that: this disturbance between them has set the whole natural world out of order. The primal forces themselves seem to be taking revenge on the king and queen who are so furiously at odds. The winds have sucked up fogs from the sea and overswollen the rivers with their contents. The ox and the farmer have labored in vain; the grain is rotting in the drowned field. The cattle are dead and the crows fat from feeding off them. The lovely English mazes and lawn games are full of mud. Even the moon is so angry that she spreads diseases through the air. The picture is absolutely frightening. It's almost as if biblical plagues have descended on England, corrupting its beauty. The very seasons are out of whack. Nobody can tell whether it's summer or winter. Frost falls on the new rose and spring buds burst through the snow and ice. And all of this, explains Titania, has occurred because she and Oberon have lost their harmony.

NOTE: This confusion in the natural world indicates how powerful Oberon and Titania are. You all know how difficult a family disturbance can be; sometimes it feels as if the whole world is breaking apart. But with Oberon and Titania it seems to be literally true. That their quarrel affects nature also displays the ways in which the different realms of the play affect each other. Each set of characters (the court, the lovers, the fairies, and the rustics) reflects and comments upon the others.

Titania's speech contains some of the most beautiful language in the play. Part of the excitement in experiencing Shakespeare is in noticing how rich his writing is, how fully he explores and expands his images and brings them to life. To really make the natural disasters vivid, he uses personification. All the forces of the world seem to act with will and emotion, just as people do. The wind sucks up water from the sea "as in revenge"; the rivers overflow because they are "proud"; the moon is "pale in her anger." The whole scene, then, is alive with feeling. And when things have feeling, don't you have stronger feelings for them?

Oberon tells Titania it's within her power to restore order to the world: all she has to do is give the changeling boy to him. Titania is not interested. She explains how close she was to the boy's mother, how they gossiped and played together. The woman unfortunately died in childbirth, and for her sake Titania plans to rear the boy.

How long does she plan to stay in the woods? Oberon wants to know. Perhaps till after Theseus's wedding day, she replies. If the king wants to dance in the moonlight with her, fine; if not, let them be. Oberon wants only the boy, "Not for thy fairy kingdom," cries Titania, and off she goes.

Oberon, a haughty and relentless presence, immediately plots his revenge. He calls Puck to his side, reminiscing about a time he heard a mermaid on a dolphin's back singing so beautifully that "stars shot madly from their spheres" to hear her music. (Scholars have pointed out the similarity between this image and some spectacular court entertainments for Queen Elizabeth in the late sixteenth century. This is sometimes used to help date the writing of A Midsummer Night's Dream.) That same time, adds Oberon, he saw Cupid flying, armed with arrows of love. He aimed an arrow at a virgin, but missed. (It has also been suggested that the virgin was a reference to Queen Elizabeth, known as the Virgin Queen.) Oberon, being sharp of eye as well as mind, marked exactly where the misdirected arrow fell. Do you get the feeling this jealous king doesn't miss a thing? He seems to have stored up potential magic charms the way a dog might store some bones. He knows they will come in handy some day.

The arrow fell on a flower, turning it from milk-white to purple. This startling sexual imagery makes us feel the dangerous and eerie power of Cupid's arrow. The wound it makes is "love's wound." The flower is called love-in-idleness; we know it today as a pansy. Filled with Cupid's magic, this transformed flower has the power to transform others. Its juice, squeezed on a sleeper's eyelids, will make that person fall in love with the next live creature he or she sees. Note Shakespeare's use of the word "creature" to indicate that the love object might not necessarily be human.

In trying to give you a picture of the power of the fairy world, Shakespeare relies heavily on the use of flowers. They seem to stand as special signposts of magical transformation. Flowers and plants have traditionally been associated with magic, and in the case of certain herbs their curative medicinal powers are well-known. In Shakespeare's time, much scientific, philosophical, and magical investigation was devoted to the powers and properties of plants and flowers. But no matter how much scientific understanding we have of them, their colors and intricate forms still instill in us a sense of wonder.

Sometimes Shakespeare compares the fairies to flowers in terms of their height. This makes them seem as if they're part of another dimension, even if we can see that on the stage they're the size of people. Some of the fairies even have floral names, connecting them to some elemental mystery. Later, Oberon will repeat the names of flowers as if they were magical incantations.

Here the love-in-idleness plant is symbolic of the power in love to change people, altering their inner and outer natures. Swollen as it is with the "poison" of Cupid's arrow, the flower is the essence of the nature of love. And the nature of love is at the heart of this play.

Notice also the recurrent theme of eyesight. In this instance, the eyes of the sleeping lover-to-be are altered by the juice of the plant. What "creature" this person sees on awakening- worthy or not- will become the object of love.

Oberon commands Puck to get that flower. The spriteful Robin obeys quickly: He'll "put a girdle round about the earth / In forty minutes." Alone, Oberon tells us his secret plan. Titania is to be the victim upon whose eyes the charmed juice will work its magic. And don't expect kindliness from the king; he's not after a prince for his queen. Rather he hopes for something more grotesque: a lion, a bear, a wolf, a bull, or even a monkey. And she won't have her "real" eyes returned until she delivers up the changeling boy to Oberon! How does this nastiness make you feel about Oberon and his potential power? Watch how this edge of danger undercuts the comedy of transformation, keeping dramatic tension alive. With Oberon lurking in the unseen air, how safe would you feel?

LINES 188-268

Approaching voices are heard. Oberon makes himself invisible as Demetrius and Helena enter. They are in the midst of a quarrel. Remember, Helena had told Demetrius of Lysander and Hermia's elopement plan. But he's interested in finding them, not in dealing with Helena. He'll kill the man; the woman is killing him. He commands Helena to go away; he is "wood" (mad) in the wood. But how can Helena go? She is drawn to him as though he were a magnet. If he could stop drawing her, she could stop being drawn. It's a double bind, appropriate to the topsy-turvy, blind nature of love.

Demetrius tells her in the plainest possible terms that he does not and cannot love her. But Helena even loves his honesty in telling her that! She's more than humble at this point- she's humiliated. She'll be his spaniel. He can do whatever he wants with her as long as he does something with her.

We're back to opposites in love. Demetrius becomes ill from looking at Helena; Helena becomes ill from not looking at Demetrius. He tries a new tack: she is seriously endangering her precious virginity by following him in the forest. Helena twists his words. She is very good at that- her literary cleverness rarely misses an opportunity to turn a phrase around. She explains that since he is all the world to her, she is not really alone with him in the woods.

Demetrius gives up. All he can think of now is to run away and leave her at the mercy of wild beasts. The wildest of those, Helena points out, is not as heartless as he. The tables will turn, she warns prophetically. Demetrius tells her once again to leave him alone, and exits. Helena declares she's not afraid of any harm to come at his hands; she's already been hurt. Poor Helena. Her situation is at once comic and tragic. Her desperate gropings for love are ridiculous, but painful. The whole reality of romance and the proper relations to it are being questioned by Shakespeare. Men are supposed to woo women, says Helena, but she finds herself in the opposite position. The way things should be and the way they shouldn't change places in this play. Good and bad, love, life and death are all mixed up for Helena. "I'll follow thee," she says, "and make a heaven of hell, / To die upon the hand I love so well."

Overseeing her predicament, Oberon decides to intercede. Puck arrives with the magic flower and gives it to his master. Oberon goes into a dreamy soliloquy, one of the most beautiful passages in all of Shakespeare's works, filled with glorious language and an almost sentimental remorse. He describes a favorite place of Titania's. It is a bank covered in flowers, and the Queen likes to sleep there, "lulled in these flowers with dances and delight." The snake sheds its skin there, and that skin is "wide enough to wrap a fairy in." Such delicate details give us more than an idea of the size of the fairy folk; they give us a feeling for the sweet enchantment of their world. But Oberon is not just having a sweet dream. He has a vengeful purpose. If that's where Titania is likely to be, that's where she will be given the magic love juice on her eyes. Oberon also commands Puck to put some juice on the eyes of the Athenian youth he has just seen. He cautions Puck to do it at just the right moment, so that the first thing the young man sees will be the lady who is in love with him. The king would see some things turn out right- or is he just as eager as Puck to turn the world upside down?

Does the way Shakespeare describe the favorite place of Titania make you want to sleep there yourself, surrounded by its beauty? Shakespeare entices you with great economy of language. The very names of the flowers seem to emit some special power. The thyme blows in the wind, sending its pungent scent around the bank. The violet nods its delicate head. The woodbine ("luscious" makes it seem good to eat as well as to see and smell) forms a canopy over it all, and the musk roses are sweet. To help feel the magic of this passage you might say these words aloud. "Wild thyme," "oxlips," "nodding violet," "luscious woodbine," "sweet musk roses," and "eglantine" roll across the tongue with what seems to be a magic power.

With a leap Puck is off on his mission. He'll be back before the first rooster can crow. By then, midsummer madness will be in full sway.


LINES 1-83

Titania and her loyal group of fairies are in another part of the wood. The queen asks for a ring dance and a song, and then suggests they set about some of their regular fairy business. This includes killing cankers in the musk-rose buds (remember the "sweet musk roses" Oberon spoke of- this must be Titania's favorite resting place!), obtaining bat wings to make coats for her elves, and keeping the hoot owl quiet so it doesn't disturb them. You can see again how these nature-related details used by Shakespeare give us a special awareness of the dimensions of the fairies' world.

The fairies sing a lullaby for their queen. It is a charm that seeks to ward off creepy and crawly things from Titania: snakes, hedgehogs, newts, and worms. They ask for a little musical assistance from Philomele, the nightingale, to lull their lady to sleep. Try to imagine how this chorus of fairies might actually sound. As they repeat their magic syllables- "Lulla, lulla, lullaby, lulla, lulla, lullaby"- feel the sweet drowsiness their birdlike voices induce. Again they warn off some disturbing things: spiders, beetles, worms, and snails. And again the nightingale's sweet song is called for. Shakespeare makes his fairies' natures apparent by the kind (and size) of animals he associates with them. Titania sleeps.

And now it's Oberon's moment. He squeezes the juice from the charmed flower onto Titania's eyelids and requests a different kind of spell. He asks that Titania love whatever she first sees on awakening, and he hopes that will be some "vile thing" like a lynx, cat, bear, leopard, or boar. Again, he reinforces the eyesight theme: "In thy eye that shall appear, / When thou wak'st, it is thy dear." Can you hear Oberon's malicious chuckle as he leaves?

NOTE: The fairies' magic is associated with natural imagery, and like the natural world it can be good or bad, sweet or scary. Titania and her fairies call up the images of small animals and insects. They seem frail (as their potential enemies are small), and their magic spell seeks protection from harm. Oberon, on the other hand, is working a nastier magic. He is causing trouble, not seeking protection from it. Accordingly, the animals he wishes for are more frightening, indicating his more dangerous spell.

Lysander and Hermia enter, exhausted from wandering through the wood. It seems Lysander has lost his way. You can guess that these lovers will be losing more than this particular way. Hermia chooses a soft bank for her bed and suggests Lysander find one for himself. Note that all the while the two are speaking the rhymed poetry of romantic lovers, a courtly and civilized kind of dialogue. But Lysander is suggesting something a little less genteel. He proposes that one "turf" is good enough for both of them. He tries an elaborate sort of poetic seduction. He says that his heart is knit to hers so that they have but one heart and that their lives are pledged together with but one love, so why not share one bed? Hermia agrees his "riddles" are clever, but evades their answer. Modesty decrees they must sleep apart. Hermia here, as usual, retains her feisty independent spirit. The two sleep apart, Lysander pledging eternal loyalty to Hermia and wishing that sleep give her rest. For her part, Hermia wishes Lysander's eyes get half that wish for rest. We will see in a moment just what kind of challenge his lover's eyes receive. Note how Shakespeare has utilized his plot devices. Lysander needs to be alone so he can be mistaken by Puck, and Shakespeare creates this comic scene to support it.

Puck arrives, having scoured the forest for the proper Athenian on whom to lay the love charm. He notices Lysander and Hermia, assumes incorrectly they are Demetrius and Helena, and anoints Lysander's eyes with the magic juice. When he wakes, says Puck, there will be no more simple sleep for the eyes of Lysander!

LINES 84-156

As Puck exits, Demetrius and Helena arrive, running. The pace of the plot has picked up now; it's in full farcical swing. Like the Marx brothers or Laurel and Hardy, who go in and out of trick revolving doors in search of each other, these lovers are hot on one another's heels, but always missing each other. A true comedy of errors has begun. Demetrius and Helena are still arguing- one is fleeing, the other pursuing. Finally Demetrius makes his getaway, and Helena is left out of breath.

Helena moans how much better off Hermia is; the latter's eyes are "blessed and attractive," but they didn't get so bright from being washed with tears. If so, Helena's would be brighter. Helena feels sorry for herself. Everyone (in other words, Demetrius) runs away from her. She must be really ugly. How could she presume to match her eyes with Hermia's? This is Helena's lowest point in the play. She knows the power of the eyes of love and feels she just doesn't have it. In this play of transformations (and split- second timing) what do you think is needed at a character's low point? Of course, a magic charm. Awaking, and rhyming Helena's lament ("Lysander, if you live, good sir, awake"), Lysander leaps up and tells Helena he would "run through fire" for her "sweet sake." For Helena's? Yes. The love juice is working its magic. Lysander is ready simultaneously to love Helena and to kill the vile Demetrius for her sake.

Helena thinks Lysander is angry because Demetrius loves Hermia. She tells him to be content; Hermia still loves him. But that's not the way things are going. It's "not Hermia but Helena I love," vows Lysander. Duped Lysander makes claims for reason. While speaking the most flowery poetry, he says only now reason has led him to Helena's eyes to read the true story of love.

NOTE: Shakespeare really drives home his message. Lysander is completely bewitched by magic, yet claims to be speaking with total reason. How do we know what we know? Have you ever been in, then out of love, and seen with different eyes what you saw before? Shakespeare is telling us there is no reason in love. There may be magic in a lover's eyes, but reason? Look again.

Helena feels she is being cruelly mocked and has done nothing to deserve such treatment. It's bad enough to be unloved; does Lysander have to rub it in? She leaves, exasperated. Lysander turns his wandering attentions to the sleeping Hermia. He is sick of her sweetness and ashamed of having been duped by her. From now on, all the love and honor of this noble knight will be directed toward Helena. He leaves to pursue her. Shakespeare's mockery of heroic illusion rubs Lysander's eyes and tongue in the mud. This is a lover truly lost in love.

Hermia awakes from a bad dream, screaming for Lysander to help her. She has dreamed a serpent was eating her heart while Lysander smiled. She goes in search of either death or her false lover.

THE STORY, continued


ECC [A Midsummer Night's Dream Contents] []

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