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A Midsummer Night's Dream
A Study Guide

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.

Dates of Composition and Publication

Shakespeare probably wrote the play between 1594 and 1596. It was published in 1600 and 1619 in quarto 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", a biography in Parallel Lives, 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 4), 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 magical.


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 revelling."
Hippolyta: In Greek mythology, Queen of the Amazons. In the play, she is the wife-to-be of Theseus. She was once a battlefield foe of Theseus, as the character description of Theseus points out.
Hermia: 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.
Egeus: Hermia's father.
Lysander, Demetrius: Young men in love with Hermia.
Helena: Young woman in love with Demetrius.
Philostrate: Master of Revels for Duke Theseus.
Bottom: Weaver who plays Pyramus in a play staged with his fellow Athenian tradesmen.
Peter Quince: Carpenter who plays Thisbe's father in the tradesmen's play. He also recites the prologue.
Snug: Joiner (cabinetmaker) who plays a lion in the tradesmen's play.
Francis Flute: Bellows-mender who plays Thisbe in the tradesmen's play.
Tom Snout: Tinker who plays Pyramus's father.
Robin Starveling: Tailor who plays Thisbe's mother.
Oberon: King of the fairies in the forest outside Athens.
Titania: Queen of the fairies.
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.
Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, Mustardseed: Fairies.
Other Fairies: Attendants of Oberon and Titania.
Attendants of Theseus and Hippolyta

Plot Summary

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 observes:

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, saying:

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. (2.1.183-192)

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 Pyramus.

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 audience

Climax and Denouement

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 his mix.

Format: Verse, Prose, Poetry


Shakespeare wrote most of his plays in verse interspersed with prose passages and, occasionally, a poem or poetic passage.  A 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 poetic play.


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 passages.

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. (1.1-215-220)

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 and fordone) contains words with a similar—but not the same—sound. Such rhymes are called near rhymes, slant rhymes, or half-rhymes.

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,           
From the 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.  (5.2.2-21)

Iambic 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 Pentameter?

To understand iambic pentameter, you first need to understand the term iamb (pronounced EYE 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 syllables)       
Here comes my messenger. (3.2.3-6)   (six syllables)

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 Verse

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.


Love's Pitfalls

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 injuries;           
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 weapon.

Love's Elusiveness

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.

The 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 says,

Are you sure   
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 says,

O monstrous! O strange! we are haunted.  
Pray, masters! fly, masters!—Help! (3.1.51-52)

But when the bewitched Titania sees him, she says,

Mine eye [is] enthralled to thy shape;           
And thy fair virtue’s force, perforce, doth move me,  
On the first view, to say, to swear, I love thee. (3.1.70-72)

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. 

Celebrating Marriage

The play celebrates marriage with dancing, singing, and a joyous embracement of love. Theseus introduces this theme when he tells his Master of Revels,

Go, Philostrate,  
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 injuries;           
But I will wed thee in another key [way, manner],  
With pomp, with triumph, and with revelling. (1.1.14-22)

Oberon reinforces this theme when he says,

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 [children] there create  
Ever shall be fortunate.  
So shall all the couples three  
Ever true in loving be;           
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

Father 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.

Is 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 power,—  
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 trifle]
Which in my childhood I did dote upon;       
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 food;          
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)

Allusions 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.

Acheron (3.2.379): River in the Underworld (Hades).
Aeneas (1.1.180): See Dido, below.
Apollo and 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.
Ariadne (2.1.84): 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.
Cadmus (4.1.98): Son of the king of Phoenicia and founder of the Greek city of Thebes.
Cupid (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.
Diana (1.1.94): Roman name of Artemis, goddess of the moon and the hunt.
Dido (1.1.179): Dido is not referred to by name but by the designation Carthage 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 pyre.
Hercules (4.1.98): Greek demigod known for his feats of strength.
Jove (5.1.181): One of two Roman names for Zeus, the king of the Olympian gods in Greek mythology. The other Roman name is Jupiter.
Neptune (2.1.131): Roman name of Poseidon, god of the sea in Greek mythology.
Phibbus: (1.2.14): Mispronounced and misspelled reference to Phoebus, a name used for Apollo whenever he was spoken of in his role as the sun god.
Venus (1.1.177, 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 was seen,
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

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 double tongue,
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:
Never harm,
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 two examples:

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, perfect, divine!
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! (3.2.144-151)

Figures of Speech

Among examples of figures of speech in the play are the following. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.


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. (1.1.17-18)

Fair Hermia, look you arm yourself
To fit your fancies to your father’s will. (1.1.122-123)

No night is now with hymn or carol blest. (2.1.106)

                      Hoary-headed frosts
Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose. (2.1.111-112)


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 another key,
With pomp, with triumph, and with revelling. (1.1.21-22)

So will I grow, so live, so die, my lord. (1.1.84)

Over hill, over dale,
Thorough [through] bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire. (2.1.4-7)

                        I’ll lead you about a round,
Through bog, through bush, through brake, through brier:
Sometime a horse I’ll be, sometime a hound. (3.1.53-55)


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. (3.1.101-102)
Comparison of moonbeams to a physical object that a current of air moves

                            Thou lead them thus,
Till o’er their brows death-counterfeiting sleep
With leaden legs and batty wings doth creep. (3.2.385-387)
Comparison sleep to a winged creature

             The eastern gate, all fiery-red,
Opening on Neptune with fair blessed beams,
Turns into yellow gold his salt green streams. (3.2.413-415)
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 the play.

                                  I never heard
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. (3.1.116-117)
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 examples.

               The 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 dead, Hades.

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 wrote the following. (Hazlett's words are in blue. The Shakespeare passages he quoted are in red. Note that Hazlitt spells Hippolyta with an i before the t instead of a y.)

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 Hippolita [4.1.89-113].

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 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.—

Character Habitats

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:

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).

Study Questions and Essay Topics

  1. 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?
  2. The play ends with a triple wedding. Do you believe those getting married will stay married?
  3. Write an informative essay focusing on what a typical wedding was like in Shakespeare’s day.
  4. 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?
  5. Hippolyta, bethrothed to Theseus, is the queen of the Amazons, who play prominent roles in various stories in Greek mythology. Who were the Amazons?
  6. 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?
  7. Write an essay focusing on one of the themes of the play.

Example of an MLA Citation for This Study Guide

Cummings, Michael J. “A Midsummer Night's Dream: a Study Guide.” Shake Sphere: a Guide to the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. N.p., 2013. Web. 5 Feb. 2016.                          <>.

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