A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
This page has been revised, enlarged, and moved to
.......A Midsummer Night's Dream is a stage play in the form for a comedy.
Composition and Publication
.......Shakespeare based parts of the play on The Knight's Tale, by Geoffrey Chaucer (1340?-1400). Chaucer's story has an entirely different plot, but the setting and two of the main characters—Theseus and Hyppolyta—are the same. Other sources Shakespeare used include The Golden Ass, by Apuleius (2nd Century AD); Life of Theseus, by Plutarch (46?-120?); and possibly King James the Fourth, by Robert Greene (1560?-1592). Pyramis and Thisby, the play within the play, is based on passages in Metamorphoses (Book IV), by Ovid (43 BC.-AD 17). The character Puck appeared as Robin Goodfellow in a 1593 play, Terrors of the Night, by Thomas Nashe (1567-1601). Edmund Spenser referred to a devilish sprite called Pook in Epithalamium.(1595), and Shakespeare may have adopted Pook and changed his name to Puck.
Protagonists: The Various Lovers; Puck, the Main Trickster Who Invigorates the Plot and Informs the Audience That the Story Is Not to be Taken Seriously
.......The action takes place in Athens and nearby woods during the age of myth in ancient Greece. However, the play has the atmosphere and lighthearted mood of a land of enchantment which could be anywhere. Although the characters reside in the environs of Athens, many of them speak and act like Elizabethan Englishmen. The time of the action is June 24.
.......In Elizabethan England, Midsummer Day—the feast of Saint John the Baptist—fell on that date. It was a time of feasting and merriment. On Midsummer Night, fairies, hobgoblins and witches held their festival. To dream about Midsummer Night, therefore, was to dream about strange creatures and strange happenings—like those in the play.
Four days will quickly steep themselves in night;......To prepare for the wedding, Theseus orders his master of revels, Philostrate, to “Stir up the Athenian youth to merriments; / Awake the pert and nimble spirit of mirth” (1. 1. 15-16). After Philostrate leaves to go about his task, one of the duke’s subjects, Egeus, arrives with a complaint about his headstrong daughter, Hermia. With him besides Hermia are two Athenian youths, Lysander and Demetrius. Egeus has commanded his daughter to marry Demetrius, but she has vowed instead to marry Lysander. Egeus now wants Hermia to swear before the duke that she will marry Demetrius or suffer the penalty of an ancient law decreeing that a disobedient daughter shall either be put to death or banished. After hearing the full complaint, Duke Theseus reminds Hermia of her duty to obey her father, saying, “To you your father should be as a god” (1. 1. 51).
......The duke then warns her that if she does not change her mind on this matter before the new moon, he will have no choice but to enforce the ancient law. Hermia and Lysander decide they will steal away to the woods the following night, and Hermia confides the plan to her friend Helena. Bad move. Helena is a blabbermouth who loves the man Hermia rejected, Demetrius. To gain favor with him, she informs him of Hermia’s plan.
......Meanwhile, tradesmen in Athens plan to put on a play as part of the festivities celebrating the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. Among them are Bottom, a weaver; Snout; a tinker; Snug, a joiner; Quince, a carpenter; and Flute, a bellows-mender. Their play is to be called The most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby2. Although the workmen know nothing of play-making, they fancy themselves great wits and great actors. When Bottom is told he will play Pyramus, a young man who kills himself after mistakenly thinking his beloved Thisby is dead, Bottom predicts he will be a hit who will win the audience’s sympathy: “That will ask some tears in the true performing of it: if I do it, let the audience look to their eyes; I will move storms. . .” (1. 2. 14).
......To avoid the scrutiny of curious eyes, the actors decide to rehearse in the woods on the morrow. In the woods are fairies who have traveled from India to pronounce their blessing on the bed of Theseus and Hyppolyta. But all is not well with fairykind, for the queen of the fairies, Titania, will not give her husband, King Oberon, a changeling3boy he wants as a page. Oberon and Titania argue violently over the boy, so violently that the forest elves take refuge in acorn cups. But Titania stands fast. In revenge, Oberon orders his fairy mischief-maker, Puck, to harvest a magical flower whose juice, when squeezed on the eyelids of Titania while she sleeps, will cause her to fall in love with the first creature she sees upon awakening, perhaps a monster. Puck says he will circle the earth and, within forty minutes, produce the flower. After Puck zooms off, Oberon relishes his dastardly scheme, saying:
Having once this juice,......After Lysander and Hermia escape, Demetrius wanders into fairy territory in search of Hermia, ignoring the lovestruck Helena who trails after him like a lapdog. Oberon, feeling sorry for Helena, orders Puck to squeeze the juice of the magic flower on the eyelids of Demetrius to make him fall in love with Helena. Oberon then ventures forth andsqueezes flower juice on the eyelids of Titania, who is sleeping peacefully in a bed of violets and thyme. Puck, meanwhile, mistakenly squeezes flower juice on the eyelids of Lysander while he is sleeping with Hermia at his side. Upon awakening, Lysander’s gaze falls upon Helena, who is wandering in search of Demetrius.
......Lysander woos her. When she flees, he pursues her. After Hermia awakens and notices Lysander is gone, she wanders forth in search of him.
......As the tradesmen rehearse their play, they discuss having someone play the moon in case it is overcast on the night of the play. And, because the play calls for Pyramus and Thisby to talk through a chink in the wall, Bottom suggests someone also be recruited to play the wall: "Some man or other must present Wall: and let him have some plaster, or some loam, or some rough-cast about him, to signify wall; and let him hold his fingers thus,4and through that cranny shall Pyramus. . . and Thisby whisper" (3. 1. 25).
......When Puck happens by, he makes mischief by placing the head of an ass on Bottom’s shoulders. Upon seeing Bottom with his new top, the other actors flee in terror. Bewildered, Bottom thinks they are trying to scare him, so he strolls about singing a song to demonstrate his fearlessness. The song awakens Titania, and the flower juice makes her fall deeply in love with Bottom, whom she escorts away. Demetrius encounters Hermia, who accuses him of murdering Lysander. When she runs away, he lies down to sleep.
......Oberon, meanwhile, has discovered that Puck bewitched the eyes of the wrong man, Lysander rather than Demetrius. So he puts flower juice on the eyes of Demetrius while Puck fetches Helena. When she arrives, pursued by Lysander, Demetrius falls in love with her.
......As both men compete for her attentions, she concludes that they are only ridiculing her. Hermia, attracted to the scene by the noise, blames Helena for stealing Lysander.
......The men go off to fight a duel. Helena, afraid of Hermia, flees; Hermia pursues. Oberon assigns Puck to restore order. Using magic, he causes the four young people to fall asleep near one another, then applies the juice of another flower to Lysander’s eyes to undo the previous spell. Titania sleeps with Bottom. Oberon, having gained possession of the changeling boy, removes the enchantment from Titania’s eyes.
......At daybreak, Theseus, Hippolyta, Egeus, and others enter the woods to hunt. Sounding horns, they awaken the four lovers. Egeus again demands that Hermia marry Demetrius. But Demetrius announces that he is interested only in Helena. Theseus, pleased with the outcome, sanctions the marriage of the two couples to coincide with his own marriage to Hippolyta. Theseus is amused by the activities of the lovers during their time in the forest and says:
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,In the evening, during the wedding celebration, the craftsmen put on their play, with Snout playing Wall and Bottom enacting his tour de force suicide scene:
Thus die I, thus, thus, thus. [Stabs himself.]......Thisby, discovering Pyramus dead, then kills herself. Bottom gets back up and asks Theseus whether he would like hear an epilogue or see a dance. Theseus opts for a dance, then says it is time for bed:
The iron tongue of midnight hath told twelve:5......At midnight, the bridal couples retire to their chambers. Oberon and Titania dance and sing as they bless the blissful sleepers while Puck bids good night to the audience.
... .Structure and Language
.......Shakespeare layers the story of the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta upon the story of other lovers pursuing one another in a forest inhabited by mischievous fairies. To these stories he adds still another: the misadventures of a group of tradesmen who rehearse and stage a play for the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. Shakespeare skillfully arranges all of the story lines into a unified whole—a kind of symphony, with a major theme and many recurring motifs. He even blends ancient and Elizabethan societies and customs into his mix.
.......The language of the characters likewise occurs in a mix: (1) the verse or poetry of the love-struck couples and (2) the homespun—and often humorous—prose of the bumbling tradesmen. Examples of the verse and poetry appear below under allusions, nature and animal imagery, and couplets. Examples of the tradesmen’s humorous dialogue are the following:
That will ask some tears in the true performing of it: if I do it, let the audience look to their eyes; I will move storms. (1. 2. 14)Climax
.......The play reaches its climax near the end of Act IV, after all of the lovers overcome their obstacles and leave for the temple to be united in marriage.
Love ultimately triumphs in the end. Despite all the obstacles they face, the central characters eventually unite with the ones they love.
Love presents pitfalls. All of the lovers encounter mishaps before they achieve their heart's desire—marriage to the one they exalt above all others. As Lysander tells Hermia in Act I, Scene I, "The course of true love never did run smooth" (Line 134).
Appearances are deceiving. Again and again—thanks in part to Puckish pranks—reality wears a deceptive mask.
Father does not always know best. Egeus orders his daughter Hermia to marry a man she does not love. Hermia protests and runs away. In the end, Egeus is proven wrong.
Dream the impossible dream. Bottom, Snug, Snout, Quince and Flute—all bumbling comic characters—fancy themselves great actors and wits. So they put on a play. The moral: Dare to dream and your dream will come true—or at least you will have fun and enjoy life.
.......In keeping with the ancient Mediterranean setting, the characters allude often to gods and other personages in Greek and Roman myth and legend. Among those alluded to are the following:
Diana (1. 1. 94): Roman name of Artemis, goddess of the moon and the hunt........Following is an example of a passage, spoken by Hermia, alluding to personages of myth and legend. The allusions are to Cupid (second line), Venus (fourth line), Dido (sixth line, referred to as Carthage queen), and Aeneas (seventh line, referred to as Troyan).
My good Lysander!Nature and Animal Imagery
Nature and animal imagery also abounds in the play, helping to maintain the “enchanted forest” atmosphere. Oberon’s description of the place where Titania sleeps is an example of this imagery:
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,The song of the fairies in Act II, Scene II, is another example. It emphasizes the spooky creatures that inhabit the forest.
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull'd in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell'd skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in. (2. 1. 259-266)
You spotted snakes with double tongue,Use of Couplets
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen;
Newts and blind-worms, do no wrong,
Come not near our fairy queen.
Sing in our sweet lullaby;
Lulla, lulla, lullaby, lulla, lulla, lullaby:
Nor spell nor charm,
Come our lovely lady nigh;
So, good night, with lullaby.
Weaving spiders, come not here;
Hence, you long-legg'd spinners, hence!
Beetles black, approach not near;
Worm nor snail, do no offence. (2. 2. 12)
Sometimes characters speak in couplets. (A couplet consists of two successive lines with end rhyme). Here are two examples:
Captain of our fairy band,The lovers also sometimes speak in couplets, but their imagery is frequently overwrought as Shakespeare mocks their quixotic wooing. An example of intentionally sugared rhymes is the following passage spoken by Demetrius upon awakening:
Helena is here at hand;
And the youth, mistook by me,
Pleading for a lover's fee.
Shall we their fond pageant see?
Lord, what fools these mortals be! (Puck: 3. 2. 116-121)
Now, until the break of day,
O Helena, goddess, nymph, perfect, divine!.Character Habitats
Shakespeare's plays frequently present characters in settings far removed from urban centers. However, they generally are creatures of the city, the court, the vibrant life where people throng. Consider the following observation:
Shakespeare's characters are . . . dubious of rusticity. Valentine [in The Two Gentlemen of Verona] does not rejoice in his woodland life as head of an outlaw band; the lovers of A [Midsummer Night's] Dream find their woodland adventure unnerving, and mountain life seems rude to the characters in Cymbeline who are forced to endure it. Although Florizel [in The Winter's Tale] dreams of spending his life with Perdita in a cottage, she knows that pastoral bliss is only a dream; true content lies in Leontes' court, to which all the characters . . . return. Even Prospero [in The Tempest], who has no great desire to see Milan again, knows that he and Miranda must leave their island, which is as much prison as refuge to them. Although critics can idealize the pastoral experiences of Shakespeare's characters as renewing contacts with nature, that experience is often somewhat harrowing.—Shakespeare's Comedies From Roman Farce to Romantic Mystery. Newark: U of Delaware, 1986 (Page 144).Study Questions and Essay Topics
1. Moon . . . bow: New moon, crescent-shaped.
|Antony and Cleopatra (1974)||Trevor Nunn, John Schoffield||Richard Johnson, Janet Suzman|
|As You Like It (1937) NR||Paul Czinner||Henry Ainley, Felix Aylmer|
|Hamlet (1948) NR||Laurence Olivier||Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons|
|Hamlet (1990) NR||Kevin Kline||Kevin Kline|
|Hamlet (1991) PG||Franco Zeffirelli||Mel Gibson, Glenn Close|
|Hamlet (1996) PG-13||Kenneth Branagh||Kenneth Branagh,|
|Hamlet (1964) NR||John Gielgud, Bill Colleran||Richard Burton, Hume Cronyn|
|Hamlet (1964) NR||Grigori Kozintsev||Innokenti Smoktunovsky|
|Hamlet (2000) NR||Cambpell Scott, Eric Simonson||Campbell Scott, Blair Brown|
|Henry V (1989) PG-13||Kenneth Branagh||Kenneth Branaugh, Derek Jacobi|
|Henry V( 1946) NR||Laurence Olivier||Leslie Banks, Felix Aylmer|
|Julius Caesar (1950) NR||David Bradley||Charlton Heston|
|Julius Caesar (1953) NR||Joseph L. Mankiewicz||Marlon Brando, James Mason|
|Julius Caesar (1970) G||Stuart Burge||Charlton Heston, Jason Robards|
|King Lear (1970)||Grigori Kozintsev||Yuri Yarvet|
|King Lear (1971)||Peter Brook||Cyril Cusack, Susan Engel|
|King Lear (1974) NR||Edwin Sherin||James Earl Jones|
|King Lear (1976) NR||Tony Davenall||Patrick Mower, Ann Lynn|
|King Lear (1984) NR||Michael Elliott||Laurence Olivier, Colin Blakely|
|King Lear (1997) NR||Richard Eyre||Ian Holm|
|Love's Labour's Lost (2000)||Kenneth Branagh||Kenneth Branagh, Alicia Silverstone|
|Macbeth (1971) R||Roman Polanski||Jon Finch, Francesca Annis|
|Macbeth (1978) NR||Philip Casson||Ian McKellen, Judy Dench|
|The Merchant of Venice (2004) R||Michael Radford||Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons|
|The Merchant of Venice (2001) NR||Christ Hunt, Trevor Nunn||David Bamber, Peter De Jersey|
|The Merry Wives of Windsor (1970) NR||Leon Charles, Gloria Grahame|
|Midsummer Night's Dream (1996) PG-13||Adrian Noble||Lindsay Duncan, Alex Jennings|
|A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999)||Michael Hoffman||Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer|
|Much Ado About Nothing (1993) PG 13||Kenneth Branaugh||Branaugh, Emma Thompson|
|Othello (1990) NR||Trevor Nunn||Ian McKellen, Michael Grandage|
|Othello (1955) NR||Orson Welles||Orson Welles|
|Ran (1985) Japanese Version of King Lear R||Akira Kurosawa||Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao|
|Richard II (2001) NR||John Farrell||Matte Osian, Kadina de Elejalde|
|Richard III (1912) NR||André Calmettes, James Keane||Robert Gemp, Frederick Warde|
|Richard III - Criterion Collection (1956) NR||Laurence Olivier||Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson|
|Richard III (1995) R||Richard Loncraine||Ian McKellen, Annette Bening|
|Romeo and Juliet (1968) G||Franco Zeffirelli||Leonard Whiting, Olivia Hussey|
|Romeo and Juliet (1996) PG-13||Baz Luhrmann||Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes|
|Romeo and Juliet (1976) NR||Joan Kemp-Welch||Christopher Neame, Ann Hasson|
|The Taming of the Shrew (1967)||Franco Zeffirelli||Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton|
|The Taming of the Shrew (1976)||Kirk Browning||Raye Birk, Earl Boen, Ron Boussom|
|The Taming of The Shrew (1983) NR||Franklin Seales, Karen Austin,|
|The Tempest PG||Paul Mazursky||John Cassavetes, Gena Rowlands|
|The Tempest (1998)||Jack Bender||Peter Fonda, John Glover, Harold Perrineau,|
|Throne of Blood (1961) Macbeth in Japan NR||Akira Kurosawa||Toshirô Mifune, Isuzu Yamada|
|Twelfth Night (1996) PG||Trevor Nunn||Helena Bonham Carter|
|The Winter's Tale (2005) NR||Greg Doran||Royal Shakespeare Company|