Table of Contents
Type of Work
A Midsummer Night's
Dream is a stage comedy centering on the
travails, pitfalls, and joys of love and marriage.
Composition and Publication
Shakespeare probably wrote the play between 1594 and 1596.
It was published in 1600 and 1619 in unauthorized editions
and then in 1623 as part of the First Folio, the first
authorized collection of Shakespeare's plays.
Shakespeare based parts of the play on "The Knight's
Tale," by Geoffrey Chaucer (1340?-1400). Chaucer's
story—which is part of a longer work, The Canterbury Tales—has
an entirely different plot. But the setting and two of the
main characters, Theseus and Hippolyta, are the same.
Other sources Shakespeare used include The Golden Ass, by
Apuleius (second century AD); Theseus, by Plutarch (46 BC?-AD 120?);
and possibly King James
the Fourth, a play by Robert Greene (1560?-1592).
Pyramus and Thisbe,
the play within the play, is based on passages in Metamorphoses (Book
IV), by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC-AD 17). The character
Puck, a mischievous sprite in A Midsummer Night's Dream, 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. Puck is also the name of a mischievous
fairy in Celtic and English folklore.
Settings and Time of Action
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 that 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.
The tone of the play is lighthearted, mischievous, and
Theseus: Duke of
Athens. In Greek mythology, Theseus was a hero of many
accomplishments, one of which was to kill the Minotaur, a
monster that was half-man and half-bull. Another was to
defeat the Amazons, a race of warrior women. Afterward, he
married the queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta. In
Shakespeare's play, he orders lavish festivities and
merriment for his marriage to Hippolyta, telling her "I
will wed thee . . . with pomp, with triumph and with
of the Amazons and the wife-to-be of Theseus. She was once
a battlefield foe of Theseus, as the character description
of Theseus points out.
Strong-willed young woman in love with Lysander. She
refuses to marry Demetrius, her father's choice for her.
Her father asks Theseus to settle the dispute.
Young men in love with Hermia.
woman in love with Demetrius.
Master of Revels for Duke Theseus.
who plays Pyramus in a play staged with his fellow
Carpenter who plays Thisbe's father in the tradesmen's
play. He also recites the prologue.
(cabinetmaker) who plays a lion in the tradesmen's play.
Bellows-mender who plays Thisbe in the tradesmen's play.
Tom Snout: Tinker
who plays Pyramus's father.
Tailor who plays Thisbe's mother.
Oberon: King of
the fairies in the forest outside Athens.
Titania: Queen of
Puck (also called Robin
Goodfellow): Mischievous sprite who acts on
behalf of Oberon. He can take the form of any creature or
thing—hog, bear, horse, dog, and even fire. For more
information on Puck, see Sources.
Nedar: Father of
Helena. He has no speaking part in the play.
Moth, Mustardseed: Fairies.
Attendants of Oberon and Titania.
Attendants of Theseus
Only four days remain until the marriage of Theseus, the
duke of Athens, to Hippolyta, who served as queen of
warrior women called Amazons. When Theseus bemoans how
lazily the hours pass before their wedding day, Hippolyta
Four days will quickly
steep themselves in night;
Four nights will quickly dream away the time;
And then the moon, like to a silver bow
New-bent in heaven, shall behold the night
Of our solemnities. (1.1.9-13)
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 his
daughter, Hermia, and two Athenian youths, Lysander and
Demetrius. Egeus informs Theseus that he has ordered his
daughter to marry Demetrius but that she has refused,
vowing to marry Lysander instead. 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
later decide to 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, Helena
informs him of Hermia’s plan.
Meanwhile, tradesmen in Athens rehearse for a play they
plan to stage as part of the festivities celebrating the
wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. The tradesmen include
Bottom, a weaver; Snout; a tinker; Snug, a cabinetmaker;
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 Thisby. (Thisby
should be Thisbe.
But the tradesmen, no scholars, misspell the word.)
Although the men know nothing of play-making, they fancy
themselves great wits and great actors. When Bottom learns
that he will play Pyramus, a young man who kills himself
after mistakenly thinking his beloved Thisbe 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 the next day. 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
changeling boy he wants as a page. (A changeling was a
fairy child left to take the place of another child.)
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 (also called Robin Goodfellow),
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,
Having once this juice,
I’ll watch Titania when she is asleep,
And drop the liquor of it in her eyes.
The next thing then she waking looks upon,
Be it on lion, bear, or wolf, or bull,
On meddling monkey, or on busy ape,
She shall pursue it with the soul of love:
And ere I take this charm from off her sight,
As I can take it with another herb,
I’ll make her render up her page [the changeling] to me.
On the following day, Lysander and Hermia escape to the
woods. Demetrius also enters the woods in hopes of
encountering Hermia, ignoring the lovestruck Helena, who
trails after him like a lapdog. After Puck returns with
the magical flower juice, Oberon—feeling sorry for
Helena—orders Puck to squeeze the juice on the eyelids of
Demetrius to make him fall in love with Helena. Oberon
then ventures forth and squeezes 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, she wanders forth in search of Lysander.
As the tradesmen rehearse their play, they discuss having
someone play the moon. And, because the play calls for
Pyramus and Thisbe to talk through a chink in a wall that
separates them, 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 [in the shape of a V], and through that
cranny shall Pyramus. . . and Thisby whisper" (3.1.25).
(The tradesmen think Thisbe is spelled with a y at the end instead
of an e.)
When Puck happens by, he makes mischief by giving
Bottom the head of an ass. 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 young men
compete for her attentions, she concludes that they are
only ridiculing her. Hermia, attracted to the scene by the
noise, then blames Helena for stealing Lysander.
The men go off to fight a duel. Helena, afraid of Hermia,
flees; Hermia follows her. Oberon assigns Puck to restore
order. Using magic, he causes the four young people to
fall asleep near one another, then applies magical juice
to Lysander’s eyes to undo the previous spell. Titania
sleeps next to Bottom. Oberon, meanwhile, who has 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,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet.
Are of imagination all compact. (5.1.6-10)
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 as
Thus die I, thus, thus,
thus. [Stabs himself.]
Now am I dead,
Now am I fled;
My soul is in the sky:
Tongue, lose thy light;
Moon take thy flight.
Now die, die, die, die, die. [Dies.] (5.1.277-283)
Thisbe, discovering Pyramus dead, then kills herself.
Bottom gets back up and asks Theseus whether he would like
to 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:
Lovers, to bed; ’tis almost fairy time.
I fear we shall out-sleep the coming morn
As much as we this night have overwatch’d.
This palpable-gross play hath well beguiled
The heavy gait of night. Sweet friends, to bed.
A fortnight hold we this solemnity,
In nightly revels and new jollity. (5.1.322-329)
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
The play reaches its climax near the end of Act 4, when
Lysander and Hermia reunite and Demetrius pledges his love
for Helena. The denouement (falling action or
conclusion) takes place in the fifth act.
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 the story lines into a unified whole—a kind
of symphony, with a major theme, love. He even blends
ancient Greek and Elizabethan societies and customs into
Format: Verse, Prose, Poetry
Shakespeare wrote most of his plays in verse interspersed
with prose passages and, occasionally, a poem or poetic
Midsummer Night's Dream contains numerous poems
and poetic passages, along with the traditional verse and
prose passages, to make it one of Shakespeare's most
Verse is an elegant collection of lines that follow a
regular, rhythmic pattern. In Shakespeare, this pattern is
usually iambic pentameter, a rhythm scheme in which each
line usually has five pairs of syllables. Each pair
consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed
syllable. Verse resembles poetry, and the word verse is often used
as a synonym for poetry. However, Shakespeare's
iambic-pentameter verse contains no rhyming lines, as does
his poetry. (An explanation of iambic-pentameter
verse appears below.)
Prose, of course, is the language of everyday
conversation, letters, lectures, sermons, newspaper
articles, book chapters, and encyclopedia articles. Prose
has no rhyme or rhythm scheme.
In a Shakespeare play, royal, noble, and upper-class
characters usually speak in verse; commoners generally
speak in prose. In a prose passage in A Midsummer Night's Dream
and other Shakespeare plays, the first line begins with a
capital letter and each succeeding line with a lower-case
letter (unless the first word of a line is a proper noun
or the beginning of a new sentence). Here is a prose
passage spoken by Bottom.
When my cue comes, call
me, and I will answer: my next (next cue) is, ‘Most fair
Pyramus.’ Heigh-ho! Peter Quince! Flute, the
bellows-mender! Snout, the tinker! Starveling!
God’s my life! stolen hence, and left me asleep! I have
had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit
of man to say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if
he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was—there
is no man can tell what. Methought I was,—and methought
I had,—but man is but a patched fool, if he will offer
to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not
heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not
able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to
report, what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to
write a ballad of this dream: it shall be called
"Bottom’s Dream," because it hath no bottom; and I will
sing it in the latter end of a play, before the duke:
peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall sing
it at her death.
Notice that the lines in the prose passage continue to the
right margin and that the lines in the verse passage,
because each has only ten syllables, do not.
In poetic passages and poems in A Midsummer Night's Dream, end rhyme
occurs. So does a regular, rhythmic pattern, as in verse
Here is a poetic passage in which Lysander confides to
Helena that he and Hermia plan to steal away to the
forest. The rhyming words are boldfaced.
Helen, to you our minds
we will unfold.
To-morrow night, when Phoebe behold
Her silver visage in the wat’ry glass,
Decking with liquid pearl [moonlight] the bladed grass,—
A time that lovers’ flights doth still conceal,—
Through Athens’ gates have we devis’d to steal.
And here is a poem recited by Puck as he stands alone on
the stage. The rhyming words are boldfaced. Note that one
of the rhyming pairs (moon
contains words with a similar—but not the same—sound. Such
rhymes are called near rhymes, slant rhymes, or
Now the hungry lion roars,
And the wolf behowls the moon;
Whilst the heavy ploughman snores,
All with weary task fordone.
Now the wasted
brands do glow,
Whilst the screech-owl, screeching loud,
Puts the wretch that lies in woe
In remembrance of a shroud.
Now it is the
time of night
That the graves, all gaping wide,
Every one lets forth his sprite,
In the church-way paths to glide:
And we fairies,
that do run
By the triple Hecate’s team,
presence of the sun,
Following darkness like a dream,
Now are frolic; not a mouse
Shall disturb this hallow’d house:
I am sent with broom before,
To sweep the dust behind the door.
Pentameter and Blank Verse
Under "Format: Verse, Prose, Poetry,"
you read that Shakespeare wrote his plays in verse, prose,
poems, and poetic passages. You also read that he used a
rhythm pattern called iambic pentameter in verse passages.
What Is Iambic
To understand iambic pentameter, you first need to
understand the term iamb
am). An iamb is a unit of rhythm consisting of an
unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.
Consider the words annoy,
fulfill, pretend, regard, and serene. They are all
iambs because the first syllable of each word is
unstressed (or unaccented) and the second syllable is
stressed (or accented): an NOY, ful FILL, pre TEND, re
GARD, and ser ENE. Iambs can also consist of one word with
a single unstressed (unaccented) syllable followed by
another word with a single stressed (accented) syllable
(example: the KING). In addition, they may consist of a
final unstressed syllable of one word followed by an
initial stressed syllable of the next word. The following
lines from A Midsummer
Night's Dream demonstrate the use of iambs. The
stressed syllables or words are capitalized.
How NOW, my LOVE! Why IS your CHEEK so PALE?
How CHANCE the RO ses THERE do FADE so FAST? (1.1.133-134)
When a line has five iambs, it is in iambic pentameter. In
the word pentameter,
the prefix pent-
means five. The suffix -meter
refers to the recurrence of a rhythmic unit (also called a
foot). Thus, because the above lines contain iambs, they
are iambic. Because they contain five iambs (or five feet)
they are said to be in iambic pentameter. (A line with
five iambs, or five feet, contains ten syllables, as in
the quoted lines immediately above.)
What Is Blank Verse?
When the words at the end of each line of iambic
pentameter do not rhyme, the lines are said to be in
unrhymed iambic pentameter. Another term for unrhymed iambic pentameter
is blank verse.
Occasionally, a line in blank verse may have nine
syllables, or perhaps ten or eleven, instead of the usual
ten. The reason is that the importance of conveying the
right meaning dictates veering from standard practice. At
times, a passage mainly in blank verse may contain a line
with even fewer syllables. Such a deviation may occur when
a character ends a passage with a transitional statement,
as in the following.
I wonder if Titania
[pronounced ty TAN
yuh] be awak’d; (ten syllables)
Then, what it was that next came in her
eye, (ten syllables)
Which she must dote on in extremity. (ten
Here comes my messenger. (3.2.3-6) (six
Note that the first three lines each have five iambs, or
ten syllables, but that the last line has only three
iambs, or six syllables.
A deviation from iambic pentameter may also occur when a
character responds to a question with a short reply, such
as yes or no.
Origin of Blank
Blank verse was modeled after ancient Greek and Latin
verse. It was first used in 1514 in Renaissance Italy by
Francesco Maria Molza (1489-1544). In 1539, Italian
Giovanni Rucellai was the first poet to label the unrhymed
iambic pentameter in his poetry as blank verse (versi sciolti in
Italian). Englishman Henry Howard, an earl of Surrey
(1516-1547), first used blank verse in English in his
translation of Vergil's epic Latin poem The Aeneid (19 BC).
The first English drama in blank verse was Gorboduc, staged in
1561, by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton. It was about
an early British king. Later in the same century,
Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare turned blank
verse into high art when they used it in their plays.
Marlowe used the verse form in Doctor Faustus, Tamburlaine, and Edward II.
Shakespeare used it in all of his plays. In Germany,
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) popularized blank
verse in his long poem Nathan
the Wise (Nathan
der Weise), published in 1779.
Lysander sums up the main theme of the play when he tells
Hermia, "The course of true love never did run smooth"
(1.1.134). Even the relationship between Theseus and
Hippolyta did not begin smoothly, as Theseus observes.
Hippolyta, I woo’d thee
with my sword,
And won thy love doing thee
But I will wed thee in another key,
With pomp, with triumph, and with revelling. (1.1.19-22)
In Greek mythology, Hippolyta was the queen of the
Amazons, a race of warrior women in Scythia, a country
that was between the Black Sea and the Aral Sea. Theseus,
a king of Athens and courageous adventurer, decided one
day that he would marry Hippolyta, so he traveled to her
country to woo her. But after she refused his proposal, he
kidnapped her, precipitating a war with the Amazons.
Theseus won the war and—according to Shakespeare's
interpretation of the myth—the hand of Hippolyta.
For all the other lovers in the forest outside
Athens, the course of love likewise does not run smooth.
Oberon and Titania argue over the changeling boy.
Lysander, who deeply loves Hermia, announces that he loves
Helena after Puck enchants him with the magical juice of a
flower. Helena, meanwhile, chases after Demetrius, who
despises her. Demetrius, also enchanted by flower juice,
chases after Hermia. In the end, all these lovers make up.
In the tradesmen's play, Pyramus and Thisbe are forbidden
by their familes to see one another and limited to
communicating through a hole in a wall separating their
dwellings. After they run off to meet in the woods,
Pyramus mistakenly thinks a lion has killed Thisbe, and he
draws a dagger (or sword) and kills himself. When Thisbe
comes upon his body, she stabs herself with the same
Love is elusive. Theseus had to go to war to win
Hippolyta. Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius, and Helena have to
chase through woods, endure confusion, and become victims
of Puck's pranks before they can rest content at the sides
of their true loves. For poor Pyramus and Thisbe,
togetherness eludes them forever.
Forest as a Magical Place
In A Midsummer Night's
Dream, fanciful, irrational, magical things
happen in the forest. Fairies sing and dance. The
mischievous sprite Puck uses enchanted flower juice to
alter the reality that the lovers see. The fairy king
Oberon becomes invisible to eavesdrop on a conversation
between Demetrius and Helena (2.1.193-194). Puck gives the
tradesman Bottom the head of an ass. And the young lovers
confuse the dream world with the real world. As Demetrius
That we are awake? It seems to me
That yet we sleep, we dream. (4.1.181-183)
The experiences of Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius, Helena,
Oberon, and Titania appear to represent the trials that
all couples undergo from time to time in courtship
and marriage. Such trials test a couple's patience and
faith in one another and cause the relationship to
mature—and, in some cases, to disintegrate.
Seeing Through Differerent Eyes
After Bottom appears with the head of an ass, his friends
see him as a beast. When Quince first beholds him, he
O monstrous! O strange! we
Pray, masters! fly, masters!—Help! (3.1.51-52)
But when the bewitched Titania sees him, she says,
Mine eye [is] enthralled
And thy fair virtue’s force, perforce, doth move
On the first view, to say, to swear, I love thee.
These scenes mimic real life, in which one person's
perception of reality frequently differs from another's.
Dreaming the Impossible Dream
The tradesmen know little of acting and stagecraft. Yet
they dare to dream the impossible dream: presenting a play
before Theseus, the ruler of Athens. Though they bumble
through their performance, they succeed in entertaining
Theseus. Lysander and Hermia also realize an impossible
dream—becoming husband and wife over the objections of
Hermia's father, Egeus. Helena, too, realizes an
impossible dream: winning the heart of Demetrius.
The play celebrates marriage with dancing, singing, and a
joyous embracement of love. Theseus introduces this theme
when he tells his Master of Revels,
Stir up the Athenian youth to merriments;
Awake the pert and nimble spirit of mirth;
Turn melancholy forth to funerals;
The pale companion [death] is not for our pomp
[celebration]. [Exit PHILOSTRATE.
Hippolyta, I woo’d thee with my sword,
And won thy love doing thee
But I will wed thee in another key [way,
With pomp, with triumph, and with revelling. (1.1.14-22)
Oberon reinforces this theme when he says,
Now, until the break of
Through this house each fairy stray.
To the best bride-bed will
Which by us shall blessed be;
And the issue [children] there create
Ever shall be fortunate.
So shall all the couples three
Ever true in loving
And the blots of Nature’s hand
Shall not in their issue stand: (5.2.33-42)
Theseus, Hippolyta; Oberon, Titania (he tricks her);
Demetrius, Helena (she chases him); Egeus, Hermia
Does Not Always Know Best
Egeus orders his daughter, Hermia, to marry Demetrius, a
man she does not love. Hermia protests and runs away with
her true love, Lysander. In the end, Theseus sanctions the
marriage of Hermia and Lysander, and Demetrius vows his
love for Helena. Egeus is proven wrong.
Demetrius Tricked Into Loving Helena?
Demetrius pursues Hermia in the first three acts. But, in
Act 4, after Puck spritzes him with magic flower juice,
Demetrius ceases pursuing Hermia and turns his attentions
to Helena as his true love. Was he tricked into loving
Helena? No. He simply matured. The magic juice helped
bring him to his senses. Demetrius explains that his
attraction to Hermia was a crush, an infatuation born of
immaturity, and that Helena was always his true love even
though he did not realize it. Note the following passage
addressed to Theseus.
My good lord, I wot [know] not by what
But by some power it is,—my love to Hermia,
Melted as doth the snow, seems to me now
As the remembrance of an idle gaud [passing fancy; mere
Which in my childhood I did dote
And all the faith, the virtue of my heart,
The object and the pleasure of mine eye,
Is only Helena. To her, my lord,
Was I betroth’d ere [before] I saw Hermia:
But, like in sickness, did I loathe this
But, as in health, come to my natural taste,
Now do I wish it, love it, long for it,
And will for evermore be true to it. (4.1.151-163)
and References to Mythology
In keeping with the ancient Mediterranean setting, the
characters often allude or refer directly to people,
places, and gods in Greek and Roman myth and legend.
Following are examples.
(3.2.379): River in the Underworld (Hades).
See Dido, below.
Daphne (2.1.239): Apollo—god of poetry, music,
medicine, and the sun—pursued the nymph Daphne, daughter
of a river god. After she prayed for a way to escape
Apollo, her father changed her into a laurel tree. Apollo
later used the leaves of the laurel in wreaths with which
victors of various contests were crowned.
Daughter of King Minos of Crete. She gave Theseus a thread
that enabled him to find his way out of the labyrinth, a
maze constructed to house the Minotaur, a creature with
the head of a bull and the body of a man.
Son of the king of Phoenicia and founder of the Greek city
(1.1.175, 3.2.108)): Roman name for the Greek god of love,
Eros, who shot arrows at humans to wound them with love.
Roman name of Artemis, goddess of the moon and the hunt.
(1.1.179): Dido is not referred to by name but by the
queen, meaning she was the queen of the North
African country of Carthage. She appears in Virgil’s great
epic poem, The Aeneid.
Dido falls desperately in love with The Aeneid’s main
character, Aeneas, after he stops in Carthage on his way
from Troy to Italy. But after he abandons her, she kills
herself by falling on a sword. At sea on his ship, Aeneas
can see Carthage glowing with the flames of Dido’s funeral
Greek demigod known for his feats of strength.
One of two Roman names for Zeus, the king of the Olympian
gods in Greek mythology. The other Roman name is Jupiter.
Roman name of Poseidon, god of the sea in Greek mythology.
Mispronounced and misspelled reference to Phoebus, a name
used for Apollo whenever he was
spoken of in his role as the sun god.
3.2.66): Roman name for the Greek goddess of love,
Aphrodite. She was the mother of Cupid.
Here is an
example of a passage, spoken by Hermia, referring to
figures of myth and legend. They include Cupid (second
line), Venus (fourth line), Dido (sixth line, referred to
as the Carthage queen), and Aeneas (seventh line, referred
to as a Troyan, meaning Trojan).
My good Lysander!
I swear to thee, by Cupid’s strongest bow,
By his best arrow with the golden head,
By the simplicity of Venus’ doves,
By that which knitteth souls and prospers loves,
And by that fire which burn’d the Carthage queen,
When the false Troyan [false Trojan, Aeneas] under sail
By all the vows that ever men have broke,
In number more than ever women spoke,
In that same place thou hast appointed me,
To-morrow truly will I meet with thee. (1.1.174-184)
Nature and animal imagery 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,
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)
The song of the fairies is another example. It emphasizes
the spooky creatures that inhabit the forest.
You spotted snakes with
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen;
Newts and blind-worms, do no wrong,
Come not near our fairy queen.
Philomel, with melody
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)
Use of Couplets
Sometimes characters speak in couplets. (A couplet
consists of two successive lines with end rhyme). Here are
Captain of our fairy band,
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,
Through this house each fairy stray.
To the best bride-bed will we,
Which by us shall blessed be;
And the issue there create
Ever shall be fortunate. (Oberon: 5.2.33-38)
O Helena, goddess, nymph,
To what, my love, shall I compare thine eyne?
Crystal is muddy. O, how ripe in show
Thy lips, those kissing cherries, tempting grow!
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!
Figures of Speech
Among examples of figures of speech in the play are the
Alliteration is the repetition of a consonant
sound at the beginning of words or syllables.
Turn melancholy forth to funerals;
The pale companion is not for our pomp.
Fair Hermia, look you arm yourself
To fit your
to your father’s
No night is now with hymn or
carol blest. (2.1.106)
in the fresh lap of the crimson rose.
Anaphora is the repetition of a word or group of words at
the beginning of a sentence, clause, or phrase.
But I will wed thee in
With pomp, with triumph, and with revelling.
So will I grow,
so live, so die, my lord.
Over hill, over dale,
[through] bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
flood, thorough fire. (2.1.4-7)
lead you about a round,
Through bog, through bush, through brake, through brier:
a horse I’ll be, sometime a hound.
A metaphor is a comparison between unlike things
without the use of like,
as, or than.
Pluck the wings from painted butterflies
To fan the moonbeams from his sleeping eyes.
moonbeams to a physical object that a current of air
lead them thus,
Till o’er their brows death-counterfeiting sleep
With leaden legs and batty wings doth creep.
Comparison sleep to a
The eastern gate, all fiery-red,
Opening on Neptune with fair blessed beams,
Turns into yellow gold his salt green streams.
Comparison of dawn to
a fiery gate, comparsion of the ocean to yellow gold
An oxymoron is the use of contradictory words that occur
together. Little giant
and brave coward
are examples of oxymorons. Following is an oxymoron from
So musical a discord, such sweet thunder. (4.1.103-104)
Personification is a form of metaphor that
compares a thing to a person, as in the following example.
The moon methinks, looks
with a watery eye;
And when she weeps, weeps every little flower.
Comparison of the moon
to a person. (The moon is a female who weeps.)
A simile is a comparison between unlike things with the
use of like, as, or than. Here are
moon, like to a silver bow
New-bent in heaven. (1.1.11-12)
Comparison of the moon
to a silver bow
The starry welkin cover thou anon
With drooping fog as black as Acheron (3.2.378-379)
Comparson of the
blackness of the fog to that of Acheron. In Greek
mythology, Acheron was a river in the abode of the
English essayist and literary critic William Hazlitt
(1778-1830) wrote that A
Midsummer Night's Dream contains outstanding
descriptive passages. In Characters of Shakespeare's Plays
(London: C. H. Reynell, 1817), he said:
In the Midsummer Night's Dream
alone, we should imagine, there is more sweetness and
beauty of description than in the whole range of French
poetry put together. What we mean is this, that we will
produce out of that single play ten passages, to which
we do not think any ten passages in the works of the
French poets can be opposed, displaying equal fancy and
imagery. Shall we mention the remonstrance of Helena to
Hermia, or Titania's description of her fairy train, or
her disputes with Oberon about the Indian boy, or Puck's
account of himself and his employments, or the Fairy
Queen's exhortation to the elves to pay due attendance
upon her favourite, Bottom; or Hippolita's description
of a chace, or Theseus's answer? The two last are as
heroical and spirited as the others are full of luscious
tenderness. The reading of this play is like wandering
in a grove by moonlight: the descriptions breathe a
sweetness like odours thrown from beds of flowers.
Titania's exhortation to the fairies [3.1.93-103] to
wait upon Bottom, which is remarkable for a certain
cloying sweetness in the repetition of the rhymes, is as
Be kind and
courteous to this gentleman.
Hop in his walks, and gambol in his eyes,
Feed him with apricocks and dewberries,
With purple grapes, green figs and mulberries;
The honey-bags steal from the humble bees,
And for night tapers crop their waxen thighs,
And light them at the fiery glow-worm's eyes,
To have my love to bed, and to arise:
And pluck the wings from painted butterflies,
To fan the moon-beams from his sleeping eyes;
Nod to him, elves, and do him courtesies.
The sounds of the lute and of the trumpet are not more
distinct than the poetry of the foregoing passage, and
of the conversation between Theseus and Hiopolita
Theseus. Go, one of
you, find out the forester,
For now our observation is perform'd;
And since we have the vaward of the day,
My love shall hear the music of my hounds.
Uncouple in the western valley, go,
Dispatch, I say, and find the forester.
We will, fair Queen, up to the mountain's top,
And mark the musical confusion
Of hounds and echo in conjunction.
Hippolita. I was with Hercules and Cadmus
When in a wood of Crete they bay'd the bear
With hounds of Sparta; never did I hear
Such gallant chiding. For besides the groves,
The skies, the fountains, every region near
Seem'd all one mutual cry. I never heard
So musical a discord, such sweet thunder.
Theseus. My hounds are bred out of the
So flew'd, so sanded, and their heads are hung
With ears that sweep away the morning dew;
Crook-knee'd and dew-lap'd, like Thessalian bulls,
Slow in pursuit, but matched in mouth like bells,
Each under each. A cry more tuneable
Was never halloo'd to, nor cheer'd with horn,
In Crete, in Sparta, nor in Thessaly:
Judge when you hear.—
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
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).
Questions and Essay Topics
- When Hermia’s father opposes her choice of
husbands, Duke Theseus tells her not to go against her
father’s wishes, saying, “To you, your father should
be as a god” (1.1.51). Is Theseus right?
- The play ends with a triple wedding. Do you believe
those getting married will stay married?
- Write an informative essay focusing on what a
typical wedding was like in Shakespeare’s day.
- Puck’s magic spells cause several characters to fall
in love with the wrong persons. Are there “magic
spells”—that is, special circumstances, arrangements,
or events—in real life that affect people this way?
- Hippolyta, bethrothed to Theseus, is the queen of
the Amazons, who play prominent roles in various
stories in Greek mythology. Who were the Amazons?
- German composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) wrote
music based on the themes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. One of
these compositions inspired by Shakespeare’s play
accompanies a ceremony performed tens of thousands of
times in churches throughout the world every year.
What is this ceremony? What is the composition?
- Write an essay focusing on one of the themes of the
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