Midsummer Night's Dream
Having defeated her people, Theseus,
Duke of Athens, is to wed the Amazon queen, Hippolyta. His enraged
counsellor Egeus suddenly interrupts the pre-wedding preparations by
asking for judgement on his daughter Hermia, who has refused his order
to marry the young nobleman Demetrius. Theseus upholds Egeus and the
law, which insists that Hermia must obey her father or choose between
death and a nunnery. Nevertheless, Hermia decides to elope with Lysander,
the man she truly loves; and the two lovers confide their plans to
Helena. Helena in turn tells Demetrius, with whom she is desperately
in love, and the four young Athenians arrive at various points of a
wood near the city.
Yet this forest is enchanted, and
in it Oberon, king of the fairies, quarrels with his queen Titania
over the possession of a changeling boy. Seeking to punish Titania
for her obstinacy, he orders his servant, the mischievous Puck, to
obtain the juice of a magic flower which, when trickled into the fairy
queen’s eyes, will make her fall
in love with the first person she sees on waking. Later, having overheard
Helena pleading with the hard-hearted Demetrius to return her affections,
he instructs Puck to drop the love-juice into Demetrius’s eyes
as well. But Puck confuses him with the sleeping Lysander, who, woken
by Helena, falls instantly in love with her! Puck tries to correct
his mistake, but he slips up again, and Demetrius is suddenly also
besotted with a now highly suspicious Helena.
The lovers are not alone in the magical
forest, however. A group of Athenian artisans have formed an unlikely
amateur dramatics troupe, and are rehearsing the play Pyramus
which they are eager to present at the Duke’s wedding celebrations.
Puck discovers them, and impishly gives an ass’s head to their
leader, a weaver called Bottom. It is he whom Titania first sees (and
adores!) when she wakes, and she leads him off to her fairy bower.
Meanwhile, Demetrius and Lysander
fight over Helena, who believes she is the victim of a cruel joke designed
to humiliate her. Hermia is also incredulous at her lover’s change
of heart, and the four young nobles proceed to brawl and quarrel until
magic eventually unravels all, and as Theseus and Hippolyta’s
wedding day dawns, the Duke reverses his judgement and matches Hermia
with her Lysander and Helena with her Demetrius. Bottom and his troupe
perform their unintentionally hilarious play to the assembled court,
while Titania and Oberon are themselves reconciled, before Puck finally
urges the audience’s applause.
Shakespeare’s most persistently
popular comedy, A Midsummer Night’s
Dream is much more than a piece of gentle fairy-fun. While it is of
course brilliantly entertaining, the play’s concern with the
anguish of unrequited desire is not merely comic, and Shakespeare was
investigating the uncanny wonder of dreams centuries before Freud.
As we laugh, we are encouraged to examine the nature of illusion and
reality; and the play fuses profound ideas about theatricality and
power in ways which never detract from the beauty of its language or
the hilarity of its plot.