A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003, 2008, 2011, 2013
How to Cite This Study Guide.......
Night's Dream is a stage comedy with elements of romance and fantasy.
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 (second century AD); Life of Theseus, by Plutarch (46 BC?-AD 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.
The tone of the play is lighthearted, mischievous, and magical.
Lovers; Puck, the Main Trickster Who Invigorates the Plot
and Informs the Audience That the Story Is Not to be Taken Seriously
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 changeling3 boy 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 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 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,4 and 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.
.......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 and Denouement
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. The
denouement (falling action or conclusion) takes place in the fifth
Love ultimately triumphs. 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 people, places and gods in Greek and Roman myth and legend. Among the allusions are the following:
Acheron (3.2.379): River in the Underworld (Hades)........Following is an example of a passage, spoken by Hermia, alluding to figures of myth and legend from the list above. 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:
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)
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen;
Newts and blind-worms, do no wrong,
Come not near our fairy queen.
Philomel,6 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)
.......Sometimes characters speak in couplets. (A couplet consists of two successive lines with end rhyme). Here are two examples:
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!
.......Among examples of figures of speech in the play are the following. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.
Turn melancholy forth to funerals;Anaphora
But I will wed thee in another key,Metaphor
Pluck the wings from painted butterfliesOxymoron
I never heardPersonification
The moon methinks, looks with a watery eye; 116Personification, Simile
Four happy days bring inSimile
The moon, like to a silver bow
Superior Descriptive Passages
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 follows:—
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 (4.1.89-113)
Theseus. Go, one of you, find out the forester,Character Habitats
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 once,
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 Spartan kind,
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 observation:
1. Moon . . . bow: New moon, crescent-shaped.