The Play’s the Thing: Theseus, the Duke of Athens, is about to marry Hippolyta, a queen of the Amazons (I am not making this up). On the eve of his wedding, Egeus comes to him complaining that his daughter, Hermia, will not marry Demetrius and instead insists on loving Lysander. Both gentlemen are head over heels for Hermia, of course. Egeus asks Theseus to use the Athenian law against his daughter, saying that if she will not marry the man her father chooses, she must choose either to be executed or join a convent. Lysander and Hermia plan to run away together in the night to somewhere outside the boundaries of Athens to avoid the law and get married. Hermia shares the plan with Helena, who is in love with Demetrius, and Helena, in an effort to get some of Demetrius’ favour, tells him of the plan. All four of them head off into the the Athenian woods. Meanwhile, a group of tradesmen are putting together a play for Theseus’ nuptials. Among the group is Bottom, a weaver, who is the type who believes he can play every role. After assigning roles, the group makes plans to meet in the woods to rehearse. In the woods, Puck (aka Robin Goodfellow) meets another fairy and the two discuss how the fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titania, have recently had a falling out over the fact that Titania has taken a changeling, an Indian boy, that Oberon wants but she won’t turn him over. Oberon plots to get revenge on Titania by having Puck apply a love potion to her eyes while she’s sleeping that will cause her to fall in the love with the first thing she sees when she wakes up. While Puck heads off to fetch the flower necessary for the potion, Oberon witnesses Helena pleading with Demetrius to give her some bit of affection and him desperately trying to get rid of her and hunt down Hermia and Lysander. Oberon decides to have Puck apply the potion to Demetrius’ eyes as well as Titania’s and tells him to put it on the man in Athenian garments in the wood. Meanwhile, Titania falls asleep in the wood and Oberon applies the potion to her eyes. Elsewhere in the wood, Lysander and Hermia are tired and decide to sleep, but in order to preserve her honour, Hermia tells Lysander to sleep a short distance from her rather than right next to her. Puck comes upon them while they sleep and seeing a man in Athenian garments, applies the potion. Helena, still chasing after Demetrius, comes across Lysander, who immediately falls in love with her. Helena is convinced he’s playing a cruel trick on her and continues on her hunt for Demetrius with Lysander following her. Hermia wakes up and finds herself all alone and goes in search of Lysander. The troop of actors meet up in the woods and discuss the play and Puck takes a bit of a dislike to Bottom and gives him the head of an ass (literally, a donkey) which leads to a lot of jokes. Bottom, of course, stumbles over Titania who wakes up and immediately falls in love with him. Puck reports to Oberon about the night’s events thus far and the pair discover that Puck used the love potion on the wrong Athenian man when Hermia and Demetrius wander by. Demetrius falls asleep in the wood and Oberon has Puck apply the potion to Demetrius and then ensure that Helena is close by when he awakes so that he then falls in love with her too. Puck, in the desire to have a bit of fun, doesn’t remove the potion from Lysander just yet so that he can watch the fireworks. Helena faced with two men both proclaiming their love for her is convinced their in cahoots to humiliate her. Hermia is dismayed to find Lysander rejecting her. Hermia and Helena have a verbal spat and Helena runs away to avoid a physical fight. Lysander and Demetrius plan to duel to win the love of Helena. After having his bit of fun, Puck gets the four individuals to fall asleep, Hermia and Lysander together and Helena and Demetrius likewise. Puck then removes the spell from Lysander so that he’ll once again love Hermia. Oberon, after seeing how Titania dotes on Bottom, feels contrite, especially as she’s now handed over the desired Indian boy, and after the pair fall asleep, he removes the spell and wakes her. Titania and Oberon make up and Oberon has Puck remove the spell from Bottom. Theseus, Hippolyta, and Egeus come into the woods and find the two pairs of young lovers asleep. After it’s revealed that Demetrius now loves Helena, Theseus overrides Egeus, and decrees that the two young couples will be wed at the same time as himself and Hippolyta. At the wedding feast, Bottom and company present the most ridiculous tragedy and then the married couples head off to bed. Oberon and Titania send off fairies to bless the new couples and the play ends with Puck giving a speech that breaks the fourth wall.
Heroes and Villains: Award for favourite character goes to Puck, that troublesome fairy that causes all of the hijinks that makes the play so entertaining. This particular sprite, as embodied in the character created by Shakespeare, is also the reason we now have the word puckish. How can you not love a character that’s responsible for the coining of an adjective?
Insults with Style:
- you cankerblossom (III.ii)
- thou painted maypole (III.ii)
- The course of true love never did run smooth. (I.i)
- I am a man as other men are. (III.i)
- reason and love keep little company together (III.i)
- Thou art as wise as thou art beautiful (III.i)
- what fools these mortals be (III.ii)
- cheek by jole (III.ii)
Speech to Know: Theseus gives the following speech when discussing with Hippolyta the crazy stories the two young couples told of their night in the woods.
“More strange than true. I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
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:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;
That is the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That, if it would apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear?” (V.i)
View from the Pit: A Midsummer Night’s Dream has a liberal helping of the crazy sauce with warring fairies, love potions gone wrong, and Bottom wandering around with the head of an ass (oh, the jokes!). None of the women in this play are particularly strong, despite the fact that there’s an honest to goodness Amazon warrior queen amongst them. Helena specifically is a doormat who actually tells Demetrius she’d prefer him to treating her like a dog that he beats than to him ignoring her. Not exactly a role model there. However, the play is interesting in proving that the conversation between two women insisting that the other is beautiful and she herself is ugly is a really old one. The inclusion of such a large host of fairies, as the main impetus for much of the action makes for a great deal of entertainment and Titania and Oberon are intriguing as a couple. The play also takes a step into metatheatre, with Bottom and his cronies performing a play (very poorly but with hysterical results) within the play. Shakespeare pushes the envelope even further by having Puck address the audience in the closing speech of the play. It’s an interesting move but the speech itself is so sweet that you can’t help but love Puck and the play as a whole, despite some of its flaws.