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SCENE SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
ACT I, SCENE 1
The play opens in the court of Theseus, Duke of Athens. He is discussing with Hippolyta their marriage, which is four days away; Theseus longingly hopes that the time will pass swiftly. He instructs Philostrate, the master of ceremonies, to organize the youth of Athens to prepare some merriments for the wedding celebration. As Theseus is planning to banish sorrow from the face of Athens, Egeus enters with Hermia, Lysander, and Demetrius.
Egeus is an Athenian who has chosen Demetrius to marry his daughter, Hermia. Since Hermia is in love with Lysander, she has refused to marry Demetrius, who had recently been in love with Helena, Hermia's friend. Hermia's pleas fail to move either her father or the Duke. In fact, Egeus demands that Theseus should enforce the ancient law of Athens which says that a daughter should either marry the man her father chooses for her or face death. Theseus advises Hermia "to fit her fancies to her father's will" and marry Demetrius or be prepared either to die or to remain single for the rest of her life.
Hermia and Lysander are left alone and bemoan the fact that "the course of true love never did run smooth." However, they decide to run away to Lysander's aunt, who lives about seven leagues away, where the cruel Athenian law cannot be put to force. There they will be free to marry. In order to escape together, they decide to meet the following night in the woods. As they finalize their plans, a distraught Helena enters and speaks about the misfortune of having been deserted by Demetrius. Helena is assured that Demetrius will no longer pursue Hermia since the lovers plan to run away and marry.
Hermia and Lysander leave, and Helena is left alone. In her anxiety to please Demetrius, Helena decides to tell him of Hermia's plans. She is certain that Demetrius will go to woods, and she decides to follow him there.
The opening scenes are always of great importance in Shakespeare's plays, for the main characters and the basic conflict are normally introduced; additionally, they often foreshadow the course of action the play will take. In this opening scene, all three couples are introduced, all of them in person though not all together. The conflict is also set, for Hermia's father has forbade her to marry Lysander, her true love; instead, he wants her to wed Demetrius, who is the lover of her good friend Helena. It is obvious that the play will certain on the resolution of the problems of these lovers.
Shakespeare's romantic comedies usually open in the bright daylight in a court or a palace, where romance and music are in the air. The opening scene of A Midsummer Night's Dream is no exception. It opens in the court of Theseus, where his marriage is about to take place. Though Theseus and Hippolyta met as enemies on the battlefield, Theseus has put aside all enmity and fallen deeply in love with the Queen of the Amazons. In fact, Theseus wants to send "melancholy to its funeral" and promises to wed Hippolyta "with pomp, with triumph, and with reveling." The joyous mood of Theseus immediately sets the overall light- hearted mood of the entire play. Later in the scene, when Egeus demands the enforcement of the ancient Athenian law, the mood swings to anxiety; but the scene ends on a note of hope when the lovers decide to run away and marry in a place where the law of Athens cannot be enforced. Therefore, the entire first scene clearly indicates that this drama is going to be about a world of love and comedy where no harsh aspects of human emotions are allowed to flourish.
The greatest outward conflict in the play is presented in this first scene. Egeus, a father who is angry over his daughter's disobedience, wants Hermia put to death if she will not give in to his demands about whom she should marry. The beautiful Hermia, however, is determined to marry a man of her choice and refuses to obey her father and marry Demetrius, especially since her own good friend Helena is in love with him. Theseus, as the ruler of Athens has to abide by the law of the land; therefore, he tells Hermia that if she does not marry her father's choice she will be sentenced to death or a life without a husband. It is obvious that Theseus does not like such a harsh sentence; neither does he like spoiling his happy mood with such problems.
Lysander, Hermia's lover, proves that he is cunning and levelheaded. Even though it is a time of crisis for Hermia and him, he thinks calmly and arrives at a workable solution to their problem. If they escape Athens and go to his aunt's house, Hermia and Lysander will be able to marry and escape punishment, for the cruel Athenian laws do not stretch seven leagues outside of town. Through the escape plot, Shakespeare adds much interest to the action and captures the attention of the audience, who are thoroughly absorbed in the play by the end of the opening scene.
In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare weaves three different worlds: the Athenian Gentry, the Craftsmen of Athens, and the Fairy Kingdom of Oberon and Titania. He introduces all three worlds in the first three scenes of the play. The opening scene introduces the Gentry of Athens, including Theseus (the Duke of Athens), Hippolyta (his betrothed), Hermia and Lysander (the second pair of lovers), Helena and Demetrius (the third couple who are not yet seen together), and Egeus (Hermia's angry father). Philostrate, a minor character, is also introduced for a purpose; he becomes the bridge between the Athenian Gentry and the Craftsmen of Athens, who are asked to create an entertainment for the wedding celebration. It is Philostrate who will organize the craftsmen and orchestrate the interlude.
Finally, the opening scene suggests a shift of action to the woods, where Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius, and Helena are going to converge. Of course, the woods are also the place where the fairy kingdom is housed.