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A Midsummer Night's Dream
William Shakespeare

THE STORY, continued


LINES 1-114

As Titania lies asleep nearby on her bank of flowers, the workingmen arrive in the wood to rehearse "Pyramus and Thisby." Quince finds the spot suitable enough, and they plan to enact the play just as they will perform it later before the duke. But first Bottom has a question: If in this comedy Pyramus must draw a sword and kill himself, wouldn't that unnecessarily scare the women?

Snout and Starveling agree; maybe it would be better to leave the killing out. But Bottom has a better plan. Why not write a prologue that explains that the sword is not real, that Pyramus is not really dead, and, what's more, that Pyramus is actually Bottom the weaver! Bottom's plans always enlarge the role for himself. Though he seems to have the welfare of the whole company in mind, he's always looking out for some special effect for himself.

Remember how the theater itself is connected to the tension between illusion and reality? It's funny to think Bottom might be worried about people's believing that he (as Pyramus) is really dead. The conventions of theater make it easy for us to believe in some things and not in others. But the interplay is very subtle. In some way we "believe" in Bottom, that these words and thoughts are his. And yet, keeping in mind that, ideally, we'd be watching the play performed, we know the words would actually be spoken by an actor who certainly is not Bottom. And even beyond that, the words are actually Shakespeare's. While we may laugh at Bottom for thinking the audience takes his killing as real, Shakespeare slyly laughs at us for taking his character Bottom as real. A great artist makes us believe in his characters and events. An even greater artist can show us his conventions- the strings that hold up the puppet- and still make us believe, laughing at the power of our imaginations. Watch how this tension is heightened by challenging other conventions. What element of theater, for instance, might the discussion of the man in the moon and his lantern be pointing to?

Quince agrees to the prologue. Then Snout brings up the problem of the lion: mightn't it be too frightening as well? Bottom agrees, characteristically showing off his ignorance with a verbal flourish, calling the lion a "fearful wild fowl." Foul he may be, but fowl, no. (Scholars often use the somewhat similar appearance of a lion before an Elizabethan court performance to help date this play.) Bottom really gets into it now, making sure no spectator will miss the difference between theatrical illusion and reality. He suggests that the lion wear only a partial mask and give a short explanation to the audience (Bottom offers four different ways to begin this short apology, resourceful as always) that reveals the lion to be none other than an actor- Snug, to be precise. Can you feel Shakespeare's tease? He's really stretching the limit of what we might believe "before our eyes." Quince nicely agrees to that suggestion too and adds a problem of his own. What will they do about moonlight, which shines when Pyramus and Thisby meet? Consulting a calendar, the rustics find that the real moon will be shining the night of the performance. If they leave a casement window open, it will shine for their play. Then the real moon will also be the theatrical moon. Bottom suggests a person might play the man in the moon, with his legendary Elizabethan properties (firewood and a lantern). And since Pyramus and Thisby converse through a chink in a wall, they'll need someone to represent a wall, too. You can see how far this absurd play between illusion and reality could go. All that taken care of, they begin to rehearse.

Suddenly Puck appears. He can't resist playing with the players. Bottom begins his flowery speech, using the word "odious" instead of "odors," then exits. Thisby (Flute) hesitatingly begins his poetic call to Pyramus, a ridiculous, confused bit of poetic language. Like the contradictory "lamentable comedy," Pyramus is described as both "lily-white of hue" and colored "like the red rose." Like Bottom, Flute also mispronounces a word. (Ninus's tomb- Ninus was a legendary hero, founder of the Biblical city Nineveh- becomes Ninny's tomb.) In addition, he's jumped his cue: he's added the wrong line at the wrong time. When he repeats the correct cue line, Bottom appears, sporting an ass's head the mischievous Puck has placed on him. The company flees in terror. Puck swears to follow them around the forest, appearing in the forms of various animals. He knows he has them scared at night in the woods and is going to have some fun. Bottom's reply is touching: "Why do they run away?" He's left alone, transfigured but unaware of it.

NOTE: Now all the interplay between illusion and reality, and the metamorphosis from one to the other, begins to compound. The fairy magic moves from realm to realm. The themes of illusion in love and illusion in the theater begin to interweave. And in case we were taking comfort that the character Bottom at least was real, he too is changed. Is he really an ass, or does he just appear that way in one light? In another light, especially to Titania, he will appear differently, indeed. Bottom seems to act like an ass at times. Yet his simple, well-meaning ignorance in a way makes him lovable; he's really not such an ass. If you feel that way- and Shakespeare surely leads us toward that sympathetic feeling- how far are your eyes from Titania's? Shakespeare's comedy mercilessly attacks all the conventions by which we measure and establish someone's beauty and lovability.

LINES 115-201

Snout reappears. "O Bottom," he says, "thou art changed! What do I see on thee?" Bottom replies that it's an ass head of Snout's own, again pointing to the responsibility in the seer for what he's seeing. Bottom, of course, doesn't know what his own head looks like. Quince takes another look and flees again. Bottom thinks he sees their jest; they are making fun of him. (Helena has this same feeling when love is turned her way.) But he won't fall for their trick and get scared. He'll hold his ground and sing to pass the time.

He sings a little nature tune about birds, and you can imagine what Bottom might sound like singing a sweet little folk melody, and how he'd look with his new head. But to Titania, awaking from sleep, there is nothing silly about it. "What angel wakes me from my flow'ry bed?" is her classic question. Angel? Looking at Bottom and hearing that word, suddenly we know the terrible and ridiculous power of Cupid's dart. How easily our eyes can be fooled!

Bottom breaks off his song, questioning the meaning of a line. Titania, entranced with the music, begs him to continue. She's in a dreamy, swoony delight. See how our very language fools us- she's awake, but her mind's eye is still dreaming. And that same "eye" is "enthralled" by the sight of Bottom, enough so that- on first sight- she must say to him, "I love thee." It's the kind of remark that should make anyone who's ever been in love wince. If you could see yourself as others see you, how would you look with your arms entwined around an ass?

Bottom takes her declaration in stride, questioning the aptness of that statement. "And yet," he adds, "to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays."

Remember, Lysander claimed to be speaking out of reason when he proclaimed his charmed love for Helena. Bottom's statement couldn't be more basic to the play.

But such reasoning doesn't unhook Titania; it drives her into deeper trouble. In fact, it makes Bottom seem "deep" to her. Now she thinks he is wise, not just beautiful. She wants him to stay with her. Queenlike, she commands him, though it's also the command of seduction. She will give him fairies to attend to his needs. They'll bring him jewels and sing to him while he sleeps on a bed of flowers, and she will give his mortal body the lightness of a spirit. She calls four fairies and instructs them in their fairy duties with characteristic Shakespearean detail, the kind of minute and magical descriptions that make us believe- or want to believe- that a fairy world might be real. They'll feed him little fruits and berries, steal honey bags from the bees, and "pluck the wings from painted butterflies / To fan the moonbeams from his sleeping eyes." Noticing these tiny things opens up a new perspective on the world for us, and through that opening Shakespeare lets his fairies flit through.

Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed salute Bottom. He rather gallantly speaks to each in turn, joking with them and enjoying his pampered part. The goodness of Bottom's heart shows through his respectful treatment of the fairies. Although probably large and certainly gross with his ass's head, he is gentle- even genteel- with the delicate fairies. Bottom, who as his name implies is as down-to-earth as could be, also possesses the ability to reach across into this other realm. His is the one human voyage that explores all the levels of Shakespeare's meaning in the play: love, theater, and magic. Other characters are affected by the fairies' charms, but Bottom is actually involved in their ethereal world. Is he gross, is he ugly, is he a bore? Maybe so. But see how Bottom's reactions with the fairies make your feelings about him more complex.

Titania is impatient with love. The moon (at every turn we are reminded of the moon) seems to be weeping for some violation of chastity. Is this grotesque romance about to be consummated? Titania has her conquest. She's not too much bewitched by love, though, to notice that Bottom can get awfully long- winded. "Tie up my lover's tongue," she commands; "bring him silently."


LINES 1-121

Oberon encounters Puck in another part of the woods. The king wonders if his plans of vengeance for Titania have taken place. Puck's ecstatic answer meets all of Oberon's "vilest" wishes: "My mistress with a monster is in love." Puck gleefully recounts his mischief with the troupe of actors. You can almost see him acting out the entire scene as he tells it to Oberon, laughing all the while. He explains how Bottom's appearance with the ass's head exploded their calm rehearsal, as the actors flew away like birds hearing a gunshot. In their confusion and fear they ran through the woods, with both Puck and the briars plucking at their clothing. We know the punchline: "Titania waked, and straightway loved an ass."

Oberon agrees this turned out better than expected. But how about the Athenian? he wants to know. Puck tells him that has also been taken care of. As if to prove the point, Hermia and Demetrius enter. This plot, so ripe with perfect timing and coincidences, sometimes seems magical itself. Oberon and Puck discover the mistake.

NOTE: Just as you learn from your own mistakes, see what you can learn from the "mistakes" in the play. Imagine what the play would have been like if Hermia and Lysander loved each other and if Helena and Demetrius loved each other, in simple order. Then look what happens because of the mix-ups. See how the twists of fate reveal Shakespeare's meaning about the nature of love.

Demetrius, as usual, is doting on Hermia. She, as usual, is fed up with him. But this time she has the added suspicion that he has killed Lysander while she slept. Hermia is still sure of Lysander's devotion. She couldn't possibly imagine the trick that's about to be revealed to her. To her, Lysander's love is truer than the sun is to the day. Since you have already heard how Oberon and Titania's quarrel has upset the order of the natural world, you may realize Hermia's comparison is not as stable as it might first seem. But Hermia can't believe Lysander would have stolen away from her, and she piles up more images of natural harmony to prove her case to Demetrius.

Demetrius would rather speak love poetry than answer the accusation. He feels murdered by Hermia's cruelty. Hermia has no patience for his extravagant phrases. Where, she wants to know, is her Lysander? Will he give him to her? Demetrius responds coldly that he'd rather give the carcass to his hounds. This really works up Hermia to a point of agitation. You can feel the threat of physical violence in her mood. He, she says, is the dog. She insists on the truth: Has he killed Lysander while he slept? Demetrius replies he has neither seen nor killed Lysander. His tone tells us he'd rather be talking about other things with Hermia. Since he can't give her the information she seeks, Hermia leaves in a huff, hoping to see Demetrius no more. He, for his part, is thoroughly worn out. Sorrow, he says, is made heavier in him by his lack of sleep. To ease it, he lies down and sleeps.

Oberon admonishes Puck for his mistake. Because of it, a true love has been turned, "and not a false turned true." Puck replies that those are the rules of fate. For every man holding true in love, a million fail, breaking their oaths again and again. This twist is not exactly what Oberon had in mind. He was hoping to remedy a situation, not make it worse. Though he is angry at Titania, he does have some sympathy for love. He instructs Puck to find Helena and bring her to him. Puck flies off like an arrow. Oberon, holding the purple flower swollen with the wound from Cupid's dart, drops the magic juice on the eyelids of sleeping Demetrius. When he sees Helena, she will shine like Venus, the evening star. In a twinkle Puck returns. He has with him not just Helena but Lysander, too. Puck never chooses the simple route. He'll always try to throw something extra into the bargain. He likes these complications. They're entertainment to him. "Lord," he exclaims, "what fools these mortals be!" He knows what will happen when Demetrius wakes up. Two will woo one, and that will be sport for Puck. He admits it: he is best pleased by those things that turn preposterous. Is that unfair? Is Puck just a troublemaker, or do his manipulations reveal us to ourselves?

NOTE: Truth and falseness now are spelled out as themes in the play. Did you think love was always "True Love"? Puck makes it clear the odds are very different. The odds on true love versus false love are a million to one. It becomes clear that humans are going to need very special, accurate eyes to be able to see love clearly. Puck's mischief turns a supposedly true love inside out. Maybe Lysander's love was that one-in-a-million. But after seeing the ease with which the potion changes lovers' feelings, don't you begin to wonder if they might be a little changeable anyway- even without the juice? In what ways are human lovers fools, or in what ways is Puck just making fools of them?

LINES 122-277

Lysander is defending himself against Helena's accusations. He shows off his tears as badges of his true feeling. Twice he mentions truth, which must ring as hollowly in our ears at this point as it does in Helena's. She says his truths kill each other. The vows weigh nothing; they're empty if he deals them equally to Hermia and herself. Lysander says his vows to Hermia lacked judgment- a clear picture of the value of a lover's judging ability! Helena replies he's really lacking judgment if he gives Hermia up. Lysander tries another tack. Demetrius, he insists, loves Hermia, not Helena. Could there be a better cue? Demetrius, awakening, leaps to his feet, calls Helena a goddess, and spouts an outlandish set of swoony, ecstatic, romantic lines. This language begins to mock not just love but Elizabethan love poetry, too. In fact, it sounds like a takeoff on one of Shakespeare's own sonnets: "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day," for instance. Demetrius is full tilt into his romantic rhetoric, going first for the eyes (not surprisingly, given what we've seen about the importance of eyes in the play), then the cherry lips, then Helena's white hand. Love poetry has rarely sounded so hollow. Who could trust someone spouting phrases like that? Lack of trust, of course, goes hand in hand with lack of truth.

Helena sees the mockery, but thinks both men are part of a plot to make fun of her. Couldn't they just hate her, she asks, instead of mocking her? She's weepy and pouty and very perturbed, knowing they both love Hermia.

Not liking to see their "true love" so upset, the two men let fly with accusations. Lysander offers a pretty little speech, yielding up Hermia to Demetrius and accepting Helena in exchange. Demetrius is not interested. If he ever did love Hermia, it was just temporary. Now his heart has returned home to Helena. But here, he adds, as Hermia enters, is Lysander's dear love.

Though the night has clouded her sight, Hermia's "ear" has helped her find Lysander. Why, she wants to know, did he leave her?

NOTE: Hermia remains constant in her love for Lysander (as does Helena in her love for Demetrius). Her eyes see truly, not falsely. But in this magic, changeable moonlight, her eyesight isn't able to penetrate the dark. Her "true" Lysander isn't really there to be seen.

Lysander instantly shows his changed mood. Love made him go- love for fair Helena. In fact, after some flowery building up of Helena's beauty, he declares he hates Hermia. She, of course, is astonished. So is Helena. She now thinks all three are out to make fun of her. She chides Hermia, Is this what comes from all their days of friendship, when they embroidered and sang as if they were one person? Like a double cherry or berry, they grew together. Will Hermia cut apart their friendship now with her mockery?

Hermia, of course, doesn't know what Helena's talking about. She feels scorned herself. Helena asks if Hermia didn't put Lysander and Demetrius up to all that puffy poetry. It has to be through Hermia's goading. Though Hermia continues to protest, Helena is too wound up to stop. She's so used to being unloved she knows there has to be some trickery behind this new situation. (Unfortunately, she doesn't know the right mischief maker to suspect.) Paranoid, she projects her insecurity onto all of them, imagining winks and laughs behind her back. She'll leave rather than endure this mockery. If you've ever been in a situation where you imagine there is a conspiracy against you, you may realize what pain Helena is in.

Lysander tries poetry again. Hermia, still lovingly faithful to Lysander, herself begins to think he's making fun of Helena. Then the two men have a contest of vows, each protesting his love for Helena. Words fly back and forth. The men are ready to fight it out. Hermia tries to hold Lysander back, and he lets loose a startling run of rude remarks to her. She is an "Ethiope," a "cat," a "burr," a "vile thing," a "tawny Tartar." These remarks are hitting below the belt. Her dark beauty is now cruelly devalued, and Hermia begins to see that Lysander is not joking. Though Lysander wants to fight Demetrius, he can't hurt Hermia to make her let him go- even though he hates her.

That's the final blow to Hermia. What harm, she asks, could be worse than his hate? She doesn't understand what's happened. "Am not I Hermia? Are not you Lysander?" She's the same woman she was, but "since night you loved me; yet since night you left me." If she's the same, then Lysander must indeed be different.

Hermia's question is right to the point. Is he or is he not Lysander? Isn't the character of a lover measured by his love? How do Lysander's actions make you feel about him and Hermia? Can you hold someone accountable who has been charmed by Cupid's dart? Notice, too, how the implied danger keeps a dark current of satire running through the comic farce.

LINES 278-400

Lysander puts it plainly. He's not jesting. He hates Hermia and loves Helena. Now Hermia turns to her rival. Her temper is up and she thinks now that she's the one being made a fool of. Helena, she says, is a "thief of love." The confusion works both women up to a fever. Helena still thinks she's being mocked. Hermia, she says, is a puppet, a counterfeit. Hermia takes this as another slur on her physical nature- she's small. She thinks Helena must have used her height to gain the attention of Lysander. You can see the argument's becoming laughable as each woman projects her confusion and insecurity onto the other. Hermia, formerly so sweet and steadfast in her love, becomes something of a terror. It seems in anger these women reveal more of their character than when they're holding to love. While the men project the same sappy romantic lyricism, the women battle it out.

Hermia throws back the slurs at Helena, the "painted maypole." She's ready to scratch out her eyes. Helena, taken aback, appeals to the men for protection. Nevertheless, she slyly lets loose another arrow, again mentioning Hermia's "lower" stature. But really Helena just wants out of the situation. She can't quite understand what's gone on. She refers to her fond and simple nature. She just loves Demetrius as always. She's been true to Hermia, she explains, and merely followed Demetrius into the woods. It's foolishness, not cunning, that got her there. And even though she wants to go, her loving heart keeps her there with Demetrius.

The men take Helena's part, offering to protect her. Again the slurs fly, with Lysander's comments to Hermia rudest of all. If he is flowery in love, he is downright dirty in disaffection. Even Demetrius is shocked. With Hermia temporarily knocked out by rudeness, the men are free to fight. They exit with fists raised.

Now the women are left alone. Hermia turns in anger toward Helena, but Helena takes advantage of her longer legs and runs away. Hermia, dazed by it all, leaves as well.

Oberon and Puck have been watching the confusion. Oberon puts the blame on Puck. He either made a mistake or acted willfully. Puck protests his innocence. He was merely told of "the Athenian"; it really wasn't his fault. He's not sorry though, since he's gotten some entertainment from his mistake. We know that's what he likes best. But Oberon has more compassion. He's a king, remember, and a powerful spirit. He doesn't want the men to hurt each other. He explains in detail a further mission for Puck: he's to spread a thick fog over the two lovers. Then Puck is to lead them around, faking his voice first as Lysander, then as Demetrius, thoroughly confusing them, and tiring them out.

NOTE: Oberon's speech befits his royal power. In contrast to that of the lovers, his poetry rings with grandeur and truth. It lends his thoughts a knowledge that seems more than mortal. He does have eyes that can see beyond the blindness of love, and he will work the lovers toward a true love's end.

Oberon instructs Puck to once again apply a magic juice to Lysander's eyes, this time from the flower that has the ability to release the Cupid charm, returning Lysander to his original devotion. "When they next wake," he says, "all this derision / Shall seem a dream and fruitless vision." You begin to see how the power of love is likened to the power of dream. Midsummer madness clouds sight. True love's eyes are needed to see through its "dream."

This business taken care of, Oberon will tend to his queen. He'll once again ask Titania for the changeling, then release her from her spell. Puck warns that this must be done fast. The charmed night is ending, and the ghosts and "damned spirits" will be returning to their proper haunts, ashamed to be seen in daylight. Oberon agrees, but explains "we are spirits of another sort." He has frequently made love to the Morning spirit. He's not afraid of daylight. He often confronts the dawn, glorying in the "blessed beams" of the sun as it turns the ocean gold. Even so, he agrees they must act fast. Bouncing up and down, Puck takes off to remedy the situation.

NOTE: Oberon makes clear that he and his fairy folk are essentially good spirits. They're not demons like other night creatures. We have seen they are powerful; now Shakespeare shows us that their power works ultimately for the resolution of love. Again you can measure Oberon by the power of his poetry. His description of the sunrise is itself beautiful magic. There's no better way to feel the spirit of the fairies than to let yourself experience Oberon's charmed language.

LINES 401-463

Lysander stumbles back onto the scene, chasing his phantom Demetrius. As he exits, Demetrius enters, lured by Puck's imitations. Puck plays with him mercilessly, goading him onward. When Demetrius leaves, Lysander returns. He can't figure out what's going on. Every time Demetrius calls, Lysander follows- only to find no one there. Tired and confused, he lies down to sleep. Once more Demetrius is lured back, with Puck running circles around him. Demetrius is worn out from the mockery. He's just an angry lover who wants to fight but can't seem to find the enemy. Faint and weary, he too lies down to sleep.

If there is to be reunion from this confusion, everybody must be assembled. Sure enough, Helena wanders into sight. It's been a long night. She appeals to the dawn to come so that she can return to Athens, and looks toward sleep to deliver her from her heavy sorrows. Did she just happen to appear? No, Puck is behind it all, counting bodies. Only three? Two couples need four lovers: here's the last. Hermia drags herself in, "Bedabbled with the dew and torn with briars." Her legs can't move anymore. With the true sweetness and devotion of her character, she prays that Lysander be protected if he and Demetrius really do fight.

As the lovers sleep, Puck speaks his magic rhymes. He anoints Lysander's eyes with the redeeming juice: "True delight" in Hermia will return to him. Puck promises order will be restored. "Jack shall have Jill," just as the story says, "...and all shall be well."

NOTE: The frantic comedy of the lovers draws to a close. The farce is worked up to a fever pitch, with entrances and exits made so fast you can hardly keep track of them. But as you laugh at the mix-ups of these poor bedraggled lovers, notice how Shakespeare is able to raise real questions about truth and love, right in the midst of your laughter.


LINES 1-104

Titania now enters the scene with her fairies and Bottom in tow. Oberon follows, unseen by them. Titania asks Bottom to sit beside her so she may stroke his cheeks, place musk roses on his head, and kiss his "fair large ears." Her eyes are still charmed, and Bottom's ass's ears are beautiful things to her. Bottom is enjoying all the attention. His transformed nature seems to have made him a bit lethargic- maybe the new head is too heavy for him. He asks Peaseblossom to scratch it. Cobweb's services are also required; he is to bring Bottom a honey bag from the top of a thistle, being careful that it doesn't break. True to his current kingly position, Bottom cares about his new subjects; he doesn't want the honey to spill all over Cobweb. Some genuine kindness always seems to come through him, even in his most preposterous situations.

Next Bottom calls to Mustardseed to help with the scratching. The humor comes from Bottom's innocence about how he looks. He marvels at his itchy hairiness as if it were just an overgrown beard. And if he itches, he must scratch. Titania, still doting in love, asks if Bottom would like to hear some music. She probably has in mind some ethereal fairy music. Bottom, true to his workingman's nature, calls for the "tongs and the bones"- metal and bone clappers used by the poorer classes. You can see how Shakespeare always tries to heighten the ridiculousness of the situation by pointing out with details the differences between Bottom's and Titania's natural worlds. It makes their relationship even more absurd. They remain blissfully ignorant of a situation that is perfectly obvious to us. Have you ever wondered how someone in love can "see" what he or she does in another person? Titania swooning over ass-headed Bottom highlights just that predicament. What would her sweet like to eat? Oh, some "good dry oats" or a bundle of "sweet hay" would suit him just fine. Titania says her fairy shall seek him out some nuts. Bottom responds that some dried peas sound more like it. But in truth he needs to sleep. That's fine for Titania. She'll wind her arms around him just as the ivy twists around the elm. (Plant life, again, is the appropriate image for fairy magic.) She loves Bottom- she "dotes" on him.

NOTE: "Doting" is Shakespeare's code word for love under the spell of romantic illusion, love that is, in fact, blind. In Act I, Scene I, Lysander, describing Demetrius's unworthiness, mentions how Helena cannot see this. Instead, she "dotes, / Devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry" on him. She doesn't see his character. She only sees what her eyes want her to see. The same is true for Titania. This time the illusory mechanism of love is highlighted by the use of the love juice to turn Titania's eyes from true to false sight.

Puck enters and Oberon welcomes him. Oberon says he is beginning to pity Titania's doting on Bottom. He may also be a little jealous. He recently ran into her winding flowers in Bottom's hair, and the sight was too much for him.

Notice how Oberon always has a command of poetry, even when he is merely describing an event. First he describes the dew that normally lies on flower buds as round and lustrous pearls. But since that image is not appropriate to the current situation, he changes "pearls" to "tears," thus reflecting his sadness about his and Titania's quarrel and separation.

While Oberon was taunting Titania, and while she was thoroughly distracted with her new love, he asked again for the changeling boy, and this time Titania gave him to Oberon. Now that the king has gotten what he wanted he is ready to undo the charm from his queen's eyes. He also instructs Puck to remove the ass's head from Bottom. When Bottom awakens, he will "think no more of this night's accidents / But as the fierce vexation of a dream." But first, with another rhyming spell, he removes the charm of Cupid's flower with the remedy of "Dian's bud."

NOTE: Diana, moon goddess, was the protector of virgins. Thus it is mythically appropriate to have her flower counteract the magic of Cupid's all-too-ready passion.

Notice, also, how Oberon brings the theme of "dreaming" into the play. Sleeping/dreaming now takes on the same kind of opposition as reality/illusion and truth/falsehood have had. The characters will all begin to awaken from their "Midsummer Night's Dream" into their true, natural "seeing." Think about how dreaming relates to the major themes of the play. How is love like a dream? How is the spectacle of theater like dream images?

Titania awakes as if from a vision. In her dream she thought she was in love with an ass. Oberon points to the very ass in question. Now Titania's eyes loathe the sight of him. Oberon instructs Puck to remove the charmed head from Bottom and calls for music. Puck says now Bottom will see with his "own fool's eyes." Oberon and Titania dance and Oberon celebrates the return of love by pledging that they will dance again the next night to honor the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. Then, too, the other lovers will be blessed in marriage. As Puck remarks the lark's announcement of morning, Titania and Oberon leave together. She asks that he explain the night's strange proceedings. How much of the story do you think Oberon will tell her?

LINES 105-222

Theseus and Hippolyta enter, with Egeus and their train of attendants. They have been observing the rites of May (such as Lysander mentioned in Act I, Scene I, line 167), and now, since it's still early, Theseus wants Hippolyta to hear the music his hunting hounds make as they bark.

The abrupt difference between Theseus's hunting music and the music we just heard in fairyland is telling. Now it is morning; the magical moonlit night of the play's title is over. Theseus's hounds trumpet a return to reality, to social order as opposed to madness, and to marriage as opposed to passionate doting.

Hippolyta mentions that once when she was in Crete with Hercules and Cadmus she heard Spartan hounds as they cornered a bear. The entire surroundings seemed to resound with the barking, like thunder. Theseus notes his hounds are bred from the Spartan kind; they have the same sandy color, hanging cheeks, and long ears. Though they are slow, their voices are matched like bells.

Though it sounds strange to us, in Elizabethan times the music of hunting hounds was well prized. Often, different kinds and sizes of dogs were chosen for a pack in order to create a kind of barking harmony.

But before Theseus can sound off the dogs for Hippolyta, he sees something. This spot, of course, is still the same place where the lovers and Bottom all fell asleep- and they are still there sleeping. Egeus, Hermia's father, at once recognizes his daughter, her two suitors, and Helena. Though Egeus wonders what they might be doing there, Theseus charitably supposes they had gotten up early to perform the rites of May and pay homage to the duke and his bride-to-be. Then he remembers: Isn't this the day Hermia was to have given her answer about her choice, to live with Demetrius, die, or join a nunnery? Egeus nods; Theseus commands the huntsmen to sound their horns. Once again people are waking up. But now the enchanted night is over; the solemnities of approaching marriage are enforcing reality.

Theseus greets the lovers with a bawdy remark about birds mating on St. Valentine's day. Then he sizes up the situation. He knows Demetrius and Lysander are bitter rivals. Then why are they sleeping near each other without thought of their safety? Lysander, amazed, half asleep and half awake, tries to piece the puzzle together for Theseus. All that we have seen transpire is but a foggy dream to Lysander now. He can't even remember it, though he seems to know he's been through something. Going back to the beginning, he explains his and Hermia's plans for escape. Egeus is outraged and calls for the law to be enforced. He explains to Demetrius that Lysander would have stolen Hermia from him.

This Demetrius knows through Helena, though he too is disoriented from the midsummer dream. Remembering, he describes how he trailed Hermia and Lysander into the woods, with Helena following him. He doesn't know how, but somehow his love for Hermia has melted like snow and seems like a memory of some childhood fascination with a trinket that he used to "dote" upon. Now, his heart is focused on Helena, whom he was engaged to before he first saw Hermia. His love for Hermia was like a sickness; now he has come back to his "natural taste." Demetrius has been doubly charmed. First he loved Helena; then Hermia charmed his eyes; then Oberon charmed his eyes back to Helena. What's "natural" in this affection is hard, indeed, to tell!

Theseus finds that things have turned out rather neatly. He overrules Egeus and declares the two couples will be married at the same time as he and Hippolyta. Theseus, as the representative of social and political order, legislates the final harmony of love and matrimony for Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius. This done, the duke and his courtiers return to Athens.

The lovers are still in a bit of a stupor. Demetrius can't quite make out what's gone on. The happenings are like a far-off vista where mountains melt into clouds. To Hermia everything is slightly out of focus, as if he has double vision. Demetrius puts it succinctly: "Are you sure / That we are awake?" he asks. "It seems to me / That yet we sleep, we dream." Shakespeare doesn't let us completely off the hook. Though for now things are resolved in marriage, the nature of love will remain as perplexing as ever. How did these revelations make you feel about the lovers? What level of trust do you have in them now? They all agree, at least, that the duke was there. Therefore, they must be awake. They too resolve to return to Athens, recounting their dreams along the way.

Bottom is left to rouse himself. He awakens as if he were still in the middle of rehearsing "Pyramus and Thisby"- the very point at which he was "transformed" by Puck. He calls to his fellow actors, thinking they must have stolen away while he slept. Then he remembers... well, he half remembers. But Bottom didn't have just a dream; he had a "vision." And it seems to him beyond the ability of man to say what his dream was. Man would be an "ass" to try to recount it. He tries- but no, he can't reach it. It's beyond his mortal grasp. He's back to characteristic form, his senses and words all jumbled. His eyes can't hear and his ears can't see well enough to recount the dream. His hand can't taste it, his tongue can't conceive it, and his heart can't speak about it. He resolves to have Quince write a "ballet" (he means "ballad") about it. It will be called "Bottom's Dream" because it has no bottom. The actor in him revives: he'll sing the ballad at the end of the play to entertain the duke!

Unlike the lovers, Bottom had actual connections to the fairy world and seems also to be more deeply connected to his dream than anyone else. He, alone, recognizes its visionary nature. He was, after all, literally transformed by his experience, and some of that transformation remains. For all his foolishness and arrogance, Bottom is able to hold onto some of the magic that transpired. Though he isn't smart enough to fathom it all, he isn't stupid enough to discount it as a mere dream. Man, he seems to say, must be willing to rest in some kind of mystery. In a way this is like the Christian doctrine of faith: people cannot know God's mind and will, and so must rely on faith. Bottom has a kind of purity of faith. The humor is still there: his mix-up of the senses is a take-off on a passage from I Corinthians about man's inability to understand God's will. But something innocent and reverent shines through the humor. His amazed state keeps things alive, keeps them in question. He won't let there be a final resolution between dreaming and being awake. There is still some fairy dust on his head.


Back in Quince's house in Athens the would-be actors are in distress. Where is their star, Bottom? Starveling suggests he must have been "transported"- carried off by the fairies. This joke, we know, is all too true. If he doesn't come, Flute wants to know, can the play still be performed? Quince says there's not another man in Athens able to play Pyramus. Flute glumly agrees: Bottom is the wittiest of the workingmen in town. Quince notes Bottom is also the handsomest and a "very paramour for a sweet voice." He meant to say "paragon," as Flute points out. A "paramour" is a worthless man. (After what we've seen of paramours in the preceding acts, Flute clearly has a point.)

Snug enters with even more upsetting news. It turns out there will be several weddings, not just the duke's. If they'd been able to perform, adds Flute, they'd have been given sixpence a day for life by the duke.

Before things get too gloomy, Bottom strides in, calling for his "lads," his "hearts." It's clear from both their previous distress and his affectionate terminology that these men have great feeling for each other. Their comradely manner, easy and spontaneous, is in great contrast to the courtly and complex relations of the lovers. Quince expresses his delight in seeing Bottom. Bottom, still somewhat transfixed from his vision, promises to give a discourse on the wonders that have befallen him. Then he changes his mind; then again swears to tell all. Why do you think he has trouble describing his dream? Put yourself in Bottom's shoes. How much would you want to tell of your transformation? And if you tried, would you be able to find the words to describe it?

Now Bottom takes charge of the troupe. Their play has been chosen. He has his crew gather their motley properties. With good strings on their beards, new ribbons on their shoes, clean linen for Thisby, and unclipped nails for the lion, they should be able to work some good effects. One more thing, says Bottom: don't eat onions or garlic: sweet breath will produce sweet comedy. You've heard Bottom do a bombastic speech before, with its hard-pressed alliterations. You can see why he makes this final admonition. The troupe leaves to prepare the performance of their "lamentable comedy."


LINES 1-107

In the palace of the duke, Theseus, Hippolyta, Philostrate, and the royal court assemble to begin the wedding festivities. Having heard the lovers speak of their adventures, Hippolyta admits their tales sound a little strange, but she half believes them. Theseus, ever the rational man, thinks their stories more strange than true. They're just fairy tales to him, and you can see how his rational mind blocks out even the possibility that fairies are real. Theseus says that lovers and madmen create fantasies in their overheated minds that are way beyond what reasonable minds can comprehend. In fact, he adds, the lunatic, the lover, and the poet are similar. The first sees more devils than there are in hell. The second looks at the face of a gypsy and sees there the great mythic beauty Helen. And the poet looks all around him, and as his imagination busies itself with phantom forms, his pen gives them shape and substance. He says that imagination is able to perform these tricks: if it wants some joy, it creates a bringer of that joy; if it perceives some fear, then it can turn a bush into a bear.

NOTE: This speech of Theseus is one of the most famous passages in the play. In it Shakespeare shows the power of the mind to deceive itself, but also to engage in true creation. There are two sides to the mind's dialogue with illusion and reality. You have seen how the lovers' false sight can lead them astray into "doting." But clearly Shakespeare's own art, that of the "poet," is able, by its shape-creating, to bring you to deeper values and understandings of human nature.

Readers have also seen Theseus in two ways. Some feel his speech indicates an inability to see things outside the realm of reason, like true passion or art. Others feel that Theseus is a ruler exercising the caution proper to his office, but that his speech about the poet indicates a real sympathy for the magical workings of art. Which side are you on? Watch the way Theseus responds to the announcement of the workingmen's entertainment for a clue to his feelings toward art.

The lovers enter and salute the duke. Theseus inquires what entertainments have been scheduled to while away the time before the newlyweds can go to bed. He is, just as at the beginning, the impatient lover- three hours are a torturous "long age" to him. Philostrate, the master of the revels, presents him with a choice of plays. Theseus reads through the list. It's really a ridiculous array of the stock, corny, and inappropriate theatricals common to Elizabethan entertainments, though Shakespeare seems to be pushing it far toward the improbable in his satire. A battle of the centaurs to be sung by a eunuch doesn't sound quite right for a pre-wedding-night ceremony. Nor does a presentation of the Bacchanals, devotees of the god Dionysus, who in their drunken frenzy ripped people to pieces. The Muses mourning "for the death / Of Learning" is certainly inappropriate and tedious sounding. In this company, "Pyramus and Thisby" stands out as a possible goof, if nothing else. Theseus immediately gets the irony (though unintended) of the combination "tragical mirth." Though Philostrate tries to dissuade him (having seen the rehearsal), Theseus chooses the "lamentable comedy." Even if, as Philostrate says, the company has no skill in acting, Theseus is willing to hear them out. He believes that their simple earnestness will be enough to justify their art. Hippolyta, though, is anxious. She doesn't like to see people embarrass themselves by attempting more than they are capable of.

Again you can see the dual nature of Theseus. He may not have much understanding of the artistic process, but he has respect for people- his subjects- and their attempts at fulfilling their duties to him. He's used to seeing people stumble and stutter in his presence. He's enough of a statesman to understand that intentions are what matter. He's even had scholars greet him, getting their punctuation all confused and putting periods in the middle of sentences. Which is right to the point, because here comes nervous Quince doing just that in his bumbling prologue to the play.

LINES 108-218

Quince sets forth a puzzle, and you can play with it to unravel it and make sense. He is so discombobulated that he stops and starts in all the wrong places. It's just a simple prologue about coming to entertain with good will, but you've got to look very carefully to find it. Theseus realizes immediately that Quince isn't "standing" on the right punctuation marks. Lysander sees he doesn't know when to stop. Hippolyta likens him to a child playing on a recorder. But after all, says Theseus, the speech was like a tangled chain: out of order but not broken.

As the characters of the play enter, Quince continues his prologue. He introduces Pyramus, the beauteous Thisby, the vile wall across which the lovers had to speak, and the man in the moon. Introducing the lion, he explains the slight plot. Stealing forth to secretly meet Pyramus by night at Ninus's tomb, Thisby was surprised and scared off by a lion. Her mantle fell as she fled, and the lion bloodied it with his mouth. When Pyramus sees it he thinks Thisby has been killed, and he draws his dagger and kills himself. The rest will be revealed by the play. Notice that Quince works himself up to a lyric pitch by the end. You may feel he has been receiving some coaching from Bottom, whose overwrought, alliterative style is noticeable in the climactic lines: "Whereat, with blade, with bloody blameful blade, / He bravely broached his boiling bloody breast."

NOTE: The "Pyramus and Thisby" plot is very similar, in some respects, to that of Shakespeare's own Romeo and Juliet, in which Romeo kills himself after mistakenly thinking that Juliet herself is dead. Shakespeare may have been poking fun at his own work in this parallel, and his audience may even have recognized it. The two plays were probably written around the same time.

Now it is the wall's (Snout's) turn to speak. Try to visualize all of this play within a play as it happens, and you'll be able to appreciate more fully its burlesque comedy. As in a children's play, seeing someone dressed up as a wall is a lot more ridiculous than just thinking about it. The wall explains that through a hole or "chink" in it the lovers whispered. Theseus and Demetrius exchange sarcastic comments, though the duke graciously admits that one couldn't expect a wall to speak better.

And here comes the noble Pyramus, with all of Bottom's pent-up theatrical energy. He immediately explodes with a series of exclamations and "O's"; why say something once when you can say it three times, "alack, alack, alack"? Pyramus decries the night and praises the wall, and takes eight lines to say what might have been said in one. The wall holds up his fingers as the chink, but Pyramus peers through to no avail and curses the wall. Imagine Bottom actually looking through Snout's fingers, and you can see some of the problem these actors are going to have in getting their tragicomedy taken seriously.

Theseus says, as an aside, that since the wall is a person, it ought to curse back at Pyramus. He meant it as a joke to his fellow members of the audience, but Bottom has no sense of where the proper parameters of the stage are. He steps out of character and addresses Theseus directly, explaining that the wall shouldn't speak, because the line is actually Thisby's cue to come on stage.

The "lovely" Thisby (Flute) then enters. She speaks to the wall, lamenting how frequently it has kept her and Pyramus apart. How often her cherry lips have kissed its stones, its stones all mixed up with lime and hair. Yecch! Shakespeare never misses a chance to poke fun at his pompous lyricism! The two lovers encounter each other through the hole in the wall, exchanging a trite but confused set of lovers' vows involving the hero Leander (though Bottom mixes up his name with Alexander's) and Helen, and other twisted namings. Their passionate connection reaches its height as they kiss through the chink, though Thisby admits, "I kiss the wall's hole, not your lips at all."

After arranging to meet at "Ninny's" tomb (Bottom has still not gotten the name right), they exit. Having discharged his part (and, one senses, glad to be done with it), the wall also graciously leaves. Theseus and Demetrius continue joking while again Hippolyta expresses her discomfit with the amateurs. Theseus says that all plays are but shadows, and the worse ones can be made better by the imagination. Theseus suggests his testy wife believe as much in the players as the players do in themselves. That way, they may be seen as excellent men.

NOTE: Again Theseus weaves in his theme of the power of the imagination. Theater is all made up, in a way, of light and shadow. It takes belief and imagination on the part of the audience to make something more substantial. This play within a play and its characters within characters test and challenge our ability to engage our imaginations.

LINES 219-372

Now the lion and the moon enter. The lion delivers just the prologue Bottom had suggested, revealing himself- so as not to frighten the ladies- to be Snug the joiner. The men in the audience dig in, exchanging jokes about the gentle lion and punning back and forth. When the moon starts to say his part, he is continually interrupted by the heckling of Theseus, Demetrius, Hippolyta, and Lysander. They're having fun at his expense, and you can feel his growing uncomfortableness, at which they only laugh more. He finally finishes his lines, which merely tell who he is and what he represents. When you think of the magical and powerful ways in which the moon and moonlight have been presented in A Midsummer Night's Dream, this moon is absurdly mundane. Again, Shakespeare is poking fun at theatrical conventions. He's already thoroughly bewitched us with his moonshine, so he doesn't have to worry.

Thisby enters, the lion roars, and Thisby flees. Both are commended by the audience. Even the moon draws applause from Hippolyta, who seems finally to have gotten into the spirit of the thing. Now is Pyramus's big moment. With his inflated alliteration ("gracious, golden, glittering gleams"), relentless rhyme scheme, exclamations, and inappropriate terms ("O dainty duck!"), you can recognize Bottom in his high style. And you can also see Shakespeare (an actor himself, remember) mercilessly satirizing a pompous style in Elizabethan theater that he obviously did not think well of. (Critics suggest two kinds of acting were at war in Shakespeare's time. The other, which it is said he preferred, was a more relaxed, natural style.) He calls to the fates to conclude his life. But wait! He's not done yet. Why stop now when you can recite ten more lines? So Bottom curses lions, extols Thisby, calls forth his tears, and draws his sword. Yet more! Bottom won't just do it; he'll tell us he's dying. Finally, at the height of his acting power, he proclaims his own death: "Now am I dead." And proclaims it: "Now die, die, die, die, die."

Again the audience are all over the actors with their joking comments; they don't wait a moment to chime in. When you think about it, Lysander and Demetrius were just recently in a play of their own, acting out their own romantic trials. It's a bit smug of them to be presuming such distance from their complications, now. You, of course, have seen them as players in a plot constructed by Oberon. Their poking fun at the actors reminds us how recently we poked fun at them.

Thisby enters and finds Pyramus dead. She mourns his passing, extolling his "lily lips" and "cherry nose," his "yellow cowslip cheeks," and eyes "green as leeks." Is this a lover's lament or a recipe? Again you can see the ridiculous heights (or depths) to which bad poetry can climb. She calls to the sisters of Fate to end her life since they have already ended Pyramus's. She stabs herself, bidding farewell to her friends, "Adieu, adieu, adieu."

NOTE: Notice how the play "Pyramus and Thisby" mirrors the situation of the lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Though the lovers come to happy wedded ends, remember how serious a situation Hermia was in at the beginning of the play. She was threatened with death. This underlying tragic element shows the serious nature of Shakespeare's critique of love. The workingmen's play serves to diffuse this tragic element by virtue of its comedy. It serves almost like an exorcism. Pyramus and Thisby meet their terrible ends amid laughter, not tears. And the lovers, if they can only see it, are presented with a comic rendition of ill-fated, doting love.

Theseus and Demetrius note that the moon, the lion, and the wall are left to bury the dead. This is enough to make Bottom rise from the dead, offering his opinion that the wall has now come down.

He asks if they'd like to see an epilogue to the play, or hear a dance, and you may recognize his typical switching of the words for each action. Theseus pleads for no epilogue. But he agrees that a dance (the country "bergomask") sounds good. And so the company dances.

Theseus announces it's midnight, time for the lovers to go to their beds. He adds, knowing less than we know, that it's almost fairy time, as well. The play, he finds, has done its job of passing the long hours. And can you feel the way in which the performance has relieved the tension for the lovers, giving them a chance to laugh at themselves? Now the newlyweds can retire to their beds, and the celebration of their marriages will continue for two weeks. The duke and duchess and the four lovers, all firmly united in the social and sacred bonds of marriage, leave together. Their world of love has come into its proper order.

LINES 373-440

Now it is moonlight again, and the fairy world returns for a bow, lest- in our sense of social order- we forget the reality of its magical powers. Puck enters with a broom. He describes the scary night world, with its lions roaring and wolves howling, the owl screeching like the dead. This is the time, says Robin, when the graves open and the sprites leap out. But it's also the time of Puck and his fellow fairies. Remember, Oberon previously told us they are "spirits of another sort." Though they too are creatures of the night, they have come to frolic, not to menace. They are here to bless the house of the duke. Puck will even help clean, sweeping out the dust from behind the door.

NOTE: It was popular folklore that Puck helped sweep the house clean at midnight. But notice, as well, how poetically apt his action is. It's as if he were cleaning the stage (not just the house) of its illusions, or sweeping the sand from our charmed eyes.

Oberon enters with Titania and all the fairies. He sends light throughout the house and commands his fairies and elves to hop like birds, singing and dancing, bringing cheer. Titania has them all rehearse their song. It's clear that the fairy way of giving blessings is through a magical rite of song and dance. And this lovely gift of grace we get to experience. Oberon sends his sprites through the palace. He and Titania shall bless the bride-bed of Theseus and Hippolyta and assure that their offspring will be happy. All the lovers shall be so blessed: their children will be healthy and well formed, not prey to accidental birth defects. Though again this was a traditional realm attended to by the fairies, Oberon's blessing of natural grace upon the children of the lovers seems to indicate that the natural world has been restored to harmony. Remember the terrible picture he painted when he and Titania were at odds? Now with field- dew he consecrates the house to the ultimate order of peace and harmony. Everyone but Puck leaves the stage.

And Puck, with his usual mischievous gleam, offers us this apology. If you didn't like the play, he says, just pretend that you have "slumb'red here, / While these visions did appear." In that case, all you have seen is "but a dream." Like Theseus, you can pretend that it was all some airy construction of the imagination. Like the lovers you can cover it over, as if the dream were best forgotten. Or like Bottom you can test it, move toward it, glimpse it, respect its power, and think it over. In the end Shakespeare teases you, pretends innocence, and leaves the serious matter of his comedy for you, the reader or viewer, to judge. Puck admits he is just an actor; theater and spirit magic are the two sides of his face. If he can escape the hisses from his audience, he will play the part the best he can. If you befriend him with your applause, he'll befriend you with his magic.



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

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