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LandseerMidsummerNightsDream

Scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream: Titania and Bottom, 1848 oil painting by Edwin Henry Landseer.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of the best known and most popular plays by William Shakespeare. It is believed to have been written between 1590 and 1596. It was first published in book form in 1600. The title page of the 1600 edition states that the play had already been performed several times but the first known performance was on January 1, 1605.

The play is set in Athens and in some woods near to the city during the time of Theseus, a ruler of Athens in Greek mythology. The characters are usually divided into the Athenians, the Fairies and the Mechanicals. The Athenians include the main characters Hermia, Lysander, Helena and Demetrius and the Mechanicals consist of Nick Bottom and his fellow laborers. In spite of the ancient Greek setting, the Mechanicals are recognizably English characters.The charcters of the fairy king and queen and Puck (also known as Robin Goodfellow) are characters who already existed in English folklore before Shakespeare's time.

Whilst the text has a great deal of dark undertones and an occasional sense of foreboding, the play is classified as a comedy because it ends happily, with the marriages of Hermia to Lysander and Demetrius to Helena. However, the play also includes a lot of humor, much of it involving Nick Bottom and the other Mechanicals. Elements of fantasy also feature strongly in the play, the existence of magic being an essential plot element.

Unlike most of Shakespeare's plays, there is no single source for A Midsummer Night's Dream. However, elements of it may have been suggested by "The Knights Tale", one of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Plot

Act I

The play opens in the palace of Theseus Duke of Athens, four days before he is due to marry Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons. Egeus arrives with his daughter Hermia and her two suitors Lysander and Demetrius. Egeus tells the Duke that he wants his daughter to marry Demetrius but she is in love with Lysander. He asks the Duke's permission to be allowed to send his daughter to a nunnery or put her to death, as was the right of ancient Athenian fathers, if she does not follow his wishes. Theseus comments that he finds Lysander to be a fine young man and gives Hermia four days to decide what to do. Lysander says that he is the better man because Demetrius courted Helena and then abandonned her, leaving Helena madly in love with him.

NickBottomRehearses

Nick Bottom and the other laborers rehearse their play. 1907 illustration by Lucy Fitch Perkins.

Lysander and Hermia decide to meet in the woods near Athens the following night and run away together. Helena arrives and asks Hermia what magic she used to win Demetrius' heart. Helena tries to make her feel better by telling her of her plans to leave Athens and Demetrius forever.

In an attempt to win some favor with Demetrius, Helena tells him of Hermia's plan to run off with Lysander.

Peter Quince the carpenter, Snug the joiner, Flute the bellows-maker, Snout the tinker, Starveling the tailor and Nick Bottom the weaver are all gathered at Peter Quince's house. Peter Quince has written a play which they are all to perform in four days' time for the wedding of Duke Theseus and Queen Hippolyta. Nick Bottom appoints himself assistant director and thinks that he should play all the parts. However, the roles are eventually divided evenly between the men and they agree to meet the following night to rehearse in the woods near Athens.

Act II

The woods near Athens are the home to many fairies who are ruled over by King Oberon and Queen Titania. Oberon and Titania have fallen out over an Indian boy, the orphaned son of a a woman who was once one of Titania's followers. Oberon wants to make the boy his page but Titania insists that he stay with her. In order to take revenge on his wife, Oberon tells the mischievous fairy Puck to pick a flower called love-in-idleness and to put some of its juice on the eyelids of the sleeping Titania. She will then fall in love with the first person or creature that she sees when she wakes up, no matter how hideous it is.

Study for The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania

Study for the Quarrel of Oberon and Titania, 1849 painting by Sir Joseph Noel Paton.

Demetrius enters the woods, followed by Helena who declares her love for him. Demetrius angrily tells her that he cannot stand the sight of her. Oberon overhears them and is saddened by how badly Helena is treated by the man that she loves. When Puck returns, Oberon tells him to find a man wearing Athenian clothes and, ensuring that the lady will be the first person he sees when he wakes up, put some of the love-in-idleness juice on his eyes.

Titania goes to sleep in another part of the woods. Oberon arrives and puts some of the magical juice on her eyelids.

Hermia and Lysander go to sleep in the forest but, because they are not yet married, Hermia insists that there be a gap between them. Puck arrives and sees a man in Athenian clothes sleeping some distance away from a woman. He assumes that they are the two people that Oberon was speaking of and puts the magical juice on Lysander's eyes.

Demetrius runs through the woods with Helena following behind him. Helena cannot keep up and stops at the spot where Hermia and Lysander are sleeping. Lysander wakes up and instantly falls in love with Helena. His behavior frightens her and she runs off with Lysander chasing after her.

Hermia wakes up, finds that Lysander is gone and goes off in search of him.

Act III

GHS shakespeare

Children in Norfolk, England perform a scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream on May 22, 2007.

Nick Bottom and the other laborers arrive in the woods to rehearse their play but Bottom insists that the script needs some changes. Puck sees them and decides to play a trick on them. He uses magic to give Bottom the head of a donkey. The other laborers run off in terror. Bottom thinks that they are playing a joke on him by trying to scare him. To show that he is not afraid, he begins to sing a song. His singing wakes up Titania. Under the flower's magical spell, she instantly falls in love with the donkey-headed Bottom and orders four of her fairy attendants to grant his every wish.

Puck tells Oberon that Titania has fallen in love with a donkey and that he has put the love-in-idleness juice on the eyelids of an Athenian man. Hermia and Demetrius enter and Oberon is confused to see them still arguing. Hermia asks Demetrius why Lysander is pretending to be in love with her. When Demetrius is unable to answer, she storms off into the woods. Oberon tells Puck that he has bewitched the wrong man.

Oberon puts some of the magical juice on the eyes of the sleeping Demetrius. Helena eneters, pursued by Lysander who is still proclaiming his love for her. Demetrius wakes up and instantly falls in love with Helena too. Helena believes that the two men are cruelly making fun of her. Hermia arrives. Helena assumes that she is involved in the men's mockery of her and all four begin to shout at each other. Lysander and Demetrius decide to fight a duel over Helena. Oberon tells Puck to stop the fight. Puck prevents it by pretending to be Demetrius when he is with Lysander, pretending to be Demetrius when he is with Lysander and sending the two men running around the forest. The exhausted Lysander falls asleep and Puck gives him an antidote to the magical juice.

Act IV

Joseph Noel Paton Oberon and the Mermaid JKAM

Oberon and Puck appear in this 1888 painting by Sir Joseph Noel Paton.

Oberon and Puck find Titania asleep in the arms of the donkey-headed Bottom. Oberon tells Puck that Titania has agreed to let the Indian boy become his page, so he will release her from his spell. He tells Puck to give Bottom back his human head. Titania wakes up, startled by the strange dreams that she has had. The reconciled fairy king and queen prepare to celebrate the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. Oberon says that all faithful lovers will get married.

The following morning, Theseus and Hippolyta are hunting in the woods with some companions, including Hermia's father Egeus. They see Hermia, Lysander, Helena and Demetrius sleeping and wake them up. Lysander tells Theseus of his plan to run off with Hermia. Egeus says that he should be executed for treason but Demetrius says that he no longer has any wish to marry Hermia because he is in love with Helena. Theseus is delighted and says that they should all marry on the same day that he marries Hippolyta.

Bottom wakes up in the woods and remembers the strange dream that he had about having a donkey's head. He begins to make up a song about his dream as he walks back to Athens.

Act V

OzMidsummer1907

This 1907 newspaper cutting shows children in Townsville, Queensland, Australia performing a scene from Act V of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Following the weddings of Theseus and Hippolyta, Helena and Demetrius and Hermia and Lysander, Nick Bottom, Peter Quince and the other laborers perform their play, the story of Pyramus and Thisbe.

Pyramus and Thisbe are neighbors who are in love with each other. Their parents are rivals and forbid their relationship but they are able to communicate with each other through a crack in the wall. They agree to meet at night at Ninnus' tomb and run away together. Thisbe arrives but is frightened away by a lion with blood on its mouth. Her veil falls off as she runs away and the lion begins to maul it. Pyramus sees the lion with Thisbe's bloodied veil in its mouth. He assumes that it has killed Thisbe and commits suicide by falling on his sword. Thisbe returns, sees the dead body of Pyramus and commits suicide too.

Although the story of Pyramus and Thisbe is a tragic love story, very similar in its plot to Shakespeare's own Romeo and Juliet, the Pyramus and Thisbe play-within-the-play in A Midsummer Night's Dream is played strictly for laughs. Peter Quince's play is badly written and badly performed. The lion is played by Snug in a deliberately unconvincing costume, so as not to frighten the women in the audience, one of the actors plays the wall that seperates Pyramus and Thisbe, using his fingers to represent that crack through which the two lovers talk, and Pyramus, played by Nick Bottom, delivers a lengthy speech after he has stabbed himself, beginning, "I am dead". Most of the sophisticated audience find the play and the actors terrible but Duke Theseus is more forgiving of their shortcomings.

After Peter Quince's play has finished, the newlyweds go off to bed and Puck and the other fairies arrive to bless their unions.

The play ends with an appeal on behalf of the "shadows" (the actors), to any members of the audience who may have found a play about magic and fairies to have been rather too silly. Puck says;

If we poor shadows have offended
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear,
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding than a dream.

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