A Midsummer Night's Dream:  Plot Synopsis

Act 1, Scene 1 

                       Act 1 opens at the palace of Theseus, the Duke of Athens.
                       Theseus is anxiously awaiting his marriage to Hippolyta, the
                       Queen of the Amazons, which is to be held in four days on
                       the first night of the new moon. Theseus sends his director
                       of entertainment at court, Philostrate, to "Stir up the
                       Athenian youth to merriments" (12) and ensure that the
                       duke's subjects are in a festive mood and prepared for the
                       wedding. A commoner named Egeus arrives with his
                       daughter, Hermia, and her two young suitors, Demetrius
                       and Lysander. The furious Egeus lodges a formal complaint
                       against Hermia because she is in love with Lysander and
                       refuses to marry her father's choice, Demetrius. Egeus
                       claims that Lysander has deviously bewitched his innocent
                       child, singing mesmerizing lovesongs by moonlight under her
                       open window, and lavishing her with fancy rings, baubles,
                       and sweetmeats. Egeus demands that, if Hermia does not
                       agree to marry Demetrius, Theseus must grant him "the
                       ancient privilege of Athens" (41), the barbaric license to kill
                       Hermia for her disobedience or send her to a nunnery to
                       forever live in seclusion. Although Theseus finds Lysander
                       to be an upstanding young man, he advises Hermia to
                       perform her duty as a respectful child and marry Demetrius
                       as her father commands, for he feels obligated to uphold
                       Athenian law. When she refuses, Theseus tells her to "take
                       time to pause" (83) and think over her decision more
                       carefully. He gives her until the day of his own wedding to
                       make her final choice. Demetrius interjects with a smug
                       plea to Hermia and Lysander to yield to his "certain right"
                       (92). Defiantly, Lysander insists that he is the better man,
                       noting that Demetrius had wooed and then discarded
                       Hermia's dear friend, Helena, who still "dotes in
                       idolatry/Upon this spotted and inconstant man" (109-10).
                       Theseus admits that he is simply too preoccupied with his
                       own concerns to care about the subtleties of the feud
                       between Lysander and Demetrius, and he leaves, taking
                       with him Egeus and Demetrius to employ them "in some
                       business/Against our nuptial" (124-5). Now alone, Lysander
                       and Hermia decide to elope, agreeing to meet the following
                       night in the woods near Athens. Meanwhile Helena
                       appears, obsessed with thoughts of her beloved Demetrius.
                       She begs Hermia to tell her with what charms she won
                       Demetrius' heart. Hermia comforts Helena by revealing her
                       plan to marry Lysander and leave Demetrius and Athens
                       behind. Lysander and Hermia run off, and Helena, in a
                       desperate attempt to regain Demetrius' attention, decides to
                       expose Hermia's plan to Demetrius so that she can go with
                       him to find the fleeing lovers. 

Act 1, Scene 2 

                       A carpenter named Quince and his fellow workmen, Snug
                       the joiner, Bottom the weaver, Flute the bellows-mender,
                       Snout the tinker, and Starveling the tailor gather in Quince's
                       house. The group has heard that Theseus is to be wed and
                       they want to produce a play in his honor. Quince, the
                       director, announces that the play will be "The most
                       lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and
                       Thisby" (11-2), and he announces who will play which part.
                       Bottom, who has appointed himself "assistant director", is
                       determined to produce the play his way. Although he
                       already is to play the role of Pyramus, Bottom thinks he
                       should play the lion and Thisby as well. It is decided,
                       however, that Flute should play Thisby, Snug should play
                       the lion, Starveling should be Thisby's mother, and Snout
                       Thisby's father. Quince tells the men they must all know
                       their lines by the next night when they will rehearse in
                       secret in the woods near Athens. 

Act 2, Scene 1 

                       The woods outside Athens are filled with fairies, presided
                       over by their king and queen, Oberon and Titania. A
                       mischievous servant to Oberon, Puck (also known as Robin
                       Goodfellow), and a fairy who serves the queen discuss the
                       intense fight raging between the magical royal couple. The
                       feud, so tempestuous that the fearful elves "Creep into
                       acorn-cups" (31) for protection, is over a changeling, a
                       "lovely boy, stol'n from an Indian king" (22), whom Titania
                       has made her personal attendant. Jealous Oberon desires to
                       take the boy from Titania and make him "Knight of his
                       train" (25), but Titania refuses to let Oberon make the
                       changeling his page. Puck and the fairy cut short their
                       conversation as they hear their masters approach from
                       different sides of the forest. As soon as Oberon and Titania
                       see each other they begin to quarrel. Oberon again asks for
                       the boy but Titania insists that she can never part with the
                       changeling due to an obligation to his dead mother, a mortal
                       who was once in her service. Titania leaves and Oberon
                       vows revenge, exclaiming, "I will torment thee for this
                       injury" (147). He orders Puck to pick a flower called
                       love-in-idleness and, while Titania is sleeping, Oberon will
                       squeeze drops of its juice onto her eyelids. The juice will
                       cause Titania to fall in love with the first thing she sees
                       when she opens her eyes, be it a "lion, bear, or wolf, or
                       bull/On meddling monkey, or on busy ape" (181-2). Puck
                       rushes off to find the flower, assuring his master that he
                       will "put a girdle round about the earth/In forty minutes"
                       (174-5). While Oberon awaits Puck's return, he sees
                       Demetrius, followed by Helena, begging to be taken back.
                       Demetrius is cruel, telling Helena that he becomes sick
                       when he looks at her, but nothing he can say or do will quell
                       her consuming desire. Oberon is unhappy that Demetrius
                       does not return Helena's love and decides Demetrius should
                       have a dose of the magical juice also. When Puck returns,
                       Oberon explains the change in plans: 

                            A sweet Athenian lady is in love
                            With a disdainful youth: anoint his eyes;
                            But do it when the next thing he espies
                            May be the lady: thou shalt know the man
                            By the Athenian garments he hath on.
                            Effect it with some care, that he may prove
                            More fond on her than she upon her love:
                            And look thou meet me ere the first cock
                            crow. (260-7)

Act 2, Scene 2 

                       In another part of the forest Titania's fairies sing a lullaby to
                       protect their queen from potentially dangerous woodland
                       creatures. They leave her sleeping on the soft leaves, and
                       Oberon quietly enters to put the magic drops on Titania's
                       eyelids. The two lovers, Hermia and Lysander, weary and
                       lost in the dense wood, decide to rest until morning. But,
                       before they lie down, Hermia instructs Lysander to keep his
                       distance because "Such separation as may well be
                       said/Becomes a virtuous bachelor and a maid" (59-60). As
                       they sleep Puck arrives and naturally assumes that, since
                       they are Athenian and sleeping apart from one another,
                       they must be Demetrius and Helena. Thus Puck mistakenly
                       sprinkles the juice onto Lysander's eyelids. Demetrius
                       comes running through the forest pursued by Helena who
                       cannot keep up the chase. Demetrius leaves Helena behind
                       and when Lysander awakes, Helena is the first person he
                       sees. The juice works -- Lysander falls madly in love with
                       Helena. She is offended by his advances and runs away but
                       Lysander follows her, leaving the sleeping Hermia alone.
                       When Hermia wakes, terrified by a nightmare, she sees
                       Lysander is gone, and sets off to find him. 
Act 3, Scene 1 

                       Bottom and his associates arrive in the wood to begin
                       rehearsing the play. Quince is ready to start at once but
                       Bottom insists that the script needs changes. Puck happens
                       upon the rehersal and decides to play a trick on the
                       tradesmen. He gives Bottom the head of an ass, which
                       everyone can see but Bottom. The men are horrified by
                       Bottom's transformation and they run off, screaming "O
                       monstrous! O strange! we are haunted" (110). Bottom
                       thinks that his friends are trying to frighten him and, to
                       prove his courage, he sings a song. Bottom's booming voice
                       awakens Titania, who, under the spell of the flower, falls
                       instantly in love with him and calls on four of her fairies,
                       Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed to grant
                       his every wish. Bottom introduces himself to the fairies as
                       they lead him to Titania's dwelling. 

Act 3, Scene 2 

                       In another part of the forest, Puck reports to Oberon that
                       Titania has fallen in love with an ass, and Oberon is
                       delighted by the news. Puck also tells Oberon that he has
                       successfully bewitched the mortal Athenian, but when
                       Demetrius enters, arguing with Hermia, Oberon is baffled:
                       "This is the woman; but not this the man" (42). Hermia
                       demands to know what Demetrius has done with Lysander,
                       and when Demetrius insists he knows nothing about what
                       happened to Lysander, Hermia rages off into the wood.
                       Exhausted, Demetrius goes to sleep on the forest floor.
                       Oberon chides Puck for placing the wrong Athenian under
                       the spell, and he commands him to find Helena, while he
                       himself puts the magical juice on Demetrius' eyes. When
                       Helena returns, Lysander is following behind, begging her
                       to accept his love. Demetrius wakes and he too falls in love
                       with Helena: 

                            To what, my love, shall I compare thine eyne?
                            Crystal is muddy. O, how ripe in show 
                            Thy lips, those kissing cherries, tempting
                            That pure congealed white, high Taurus snow,
                            Fann'd with the eastern wind, turns to a crow 
                            When thou hold'st up thy hand: O, let me kiss
                            This princess of pure white, this seal of bliss!

                       Helena believes both men are mocking her and outraged
                       she screams, "O spite! O hell! I see you are all bent/To set
                       against me for your merriment" (145-6). Hermia enters,
                       searching for Lysander, and is astounded by Lysander's
                       behaviour toward Helena. Helena assumes Hermia must be
                       involved in the malicious mockery, and a verbal battle
                       ensues amongst the four. Lysander and Demetrius storm
                       away to fight a duel and Oberon sends Puck to straighten
                       out the situation once and for all. When with Lysander,
                       Puck pretends to be Demetrius, and when with Demetrius,
                       Puck pretends to be Lysander, sending them running
                       throughout the forest in order to prevent the deadly
                       confrontation. When Lysander falls asleep, Puck applies an
                       antidote to the magical juice to Lysander's eyelids. 

Act 4, Scene 1 

                       Titania, her fairies, and Bottom arrive and Titania wants to
                       place musk-roses around Bottom's hairy head and kiss his
                       floppy ears, but all Bottom can think about is oats and hay.
                       When Bottom grows tired, Titania curls up in his arms and
                       they take a nap together. Oberon and Puck enter and
                       Oberon tells Puck that he will release Titania from the spell
                       because she has consented to give him the changeling.
                       Oberon orders Puck to change Bottom's head back to its
                       original form and he awakens his queen, who is astonished
                       by the dreams she has had: "My Oberon! what visions I
                       have seen!/Methought I was enamour'd of an ass" (81-2).
                       The reconciled royal fairies can now prepare to celebrate
                       at Theseus' wedding the next day and Oberon vows that all
                       the pairs of "faithful lovers" (97) will be wed. 

                       The next morning, Theseus, Hippolyta, Egeus, and the
                       duke's entourage are in the wood hunting. Theseus sees the
                       four sleeping lovers and orders the huntsmen to wake them
                       with their horns. Lysander immediately tells Theseus of his
                       plan to elope with Hermia, and Egeus demands that
                       Theseus execute Lysander for his treachery. But
                       Demetrius quickly interjects that he no longer has any
                       desire to wed Hermia, now that Helena is the sole "object
                       and pleasure" (176) of his eyes. Theseus is overjoyed and
                       graciously insists that the two reunited couples should
                       marry on the same day that he marries Hippolyta. They all
                       return to Athens, except for Bottom who wakes up in the
                       forest, puzzled by the strange dream he has had. He
                       decides to write a ballad about his dream which he will sing
                       at the wedding. He calls it "Bottom's dream, because it hath
                       no bottom" (223). 

Act 4, Scene 2 

                       Quince, Flute, Snout, and Starveling meet at Quince's
                       house. They are troubled by the disappearance of Bottom,
                       their prize leading man who has "simply the best wit of any
                       handicraft man in Athens" (10). Snug arrives with news
                       that the duke is coming and he brings with him two other
                       couples who are to be married the same day. Snug believes
                       that if they could only perform the play for all three couples
                       they would become wealthy men. Just when the men are
                       about to give up hope, Bottom enters, ready to take center
Act 5, Scene 1 

                       The hour of Theseus' wedding has come, and he discusses
                       the planned festivities with the four lovers and his master of
                       revels, Philostrate. Philostrate hands him a list of activities,
                       on which is 'a tedious brief scene of young Pyramus/And
                       his love Thisbe" (56-7). The master of revels pleads with
                       the duke to cut the play from the agenda, but, when
                       Theseus hears that a group of common workmen have
                       laboured over the production, he decides to keep it on the
                       roster, for "never anything can be amiss/When simpleness
                       and duty tender it" (82-3). And so the play is performed,
                       and the audience finds the performances of Bottom and his
                       colleagues very amusing. Hippolyta asserts, "This is the
                       silliest stuff that ever I heard" (214), but Theseus is more
                       forgiving: "If we imagine no worse of them than they of
                       themselves, they may pass for excellent men" (220-2). By
                       the time the performance is over it is midnight, and the
                       newlyweds, performers, and guests retire for the evening.
                       When all is quiet, Puck and the fairies come out of the
                       shadows to bless the marriages. For those of us who may
                       be offended by being asked to believe in such nonsense as
                       fairies, Puck leaves us with some final advice: 

                            If we shadows have offended, 
                            Think but this, and all is mended,
                            That you have but slumber'd here 
                            While these visions did appear. 
                            And this weak and idle theme,
                            No more yielding but a dream,
                            Gentles, do not reprehend:
                            if you pardon, we will mend:
                            And, as I am an honest Puck,
                            If we have unearned luck 
                            Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue,
                            We will make amends ere long;
                            Else the Puck a liar call;
                            So, good night unto you all. 
                            Give me your hands, if we be friends,
                            And Robin shall restore amends. (433-448)