The Athenian duke has recently defeated the Amazonian Queen Hippolyta in battle, and plans to marry her four days after the opening of the play. He is asked by Egeus, an Athenian father, to command a marriage between Hermia, Egeus' daughter, and Demetrius, a young Athenian man who loves her (and whose love is not returned). Theseus bids Hermia obey her father, or else be sent to a convent. In this command, as in his unorthodox manner of "wooing" Hippolyta by "doing her injury," Theseus seems to represent a rather unpleasant model of forced love. By the time Theseus reappears at the end of the play, however, he and Hippolyta seem genuinely and mutually happy together, and he presides over a magically resolved triple wedding in which everyone gains their heart's desire. The character of Theseus appears in Greek myth (he was a friend of Hercules and a giant-killer), but Shakespeare more likely got the idea for his character from Chaucer's Knight's Tale, which refers to Theseus and Hippolyta in the larger context of the story of Palamon and Arcite, two men in love with the same woman (a plot that resembles aspects of this play).
Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons
Theseus' betrothed at the beginning of the play is his former enemy in war. Strangely, she does not seem to resent her vanquisher, but rather seems just as impatient for their wedding day. In the play's final scene, however, when the three married couples watch the rustic play, Hippolyta argues (mildly) with Theseus over the nature of fiction. Theseus argues that the poet, like the lover and the lunatic, simply invents the impossible. Hippolyta counters with the more sympathetic idea that even impossibilities can be powerful and moving when they are represented well.
Egeus is a member of the Athenian nobility, but not as elevated as the Duke. He asks Theseus to arbitrate in his dispute with his daughter over her proper marriage. Hermia wishes to marry the man she genuinely loves, Lysander, while Egeus wishes Hermia to marry Demetrius. Egeus' preference seems arbitrary; as Hermia points out, Lysander is just as good a catch, equal in blood and wealth to Demetrius. Egeus is firm, however, and his refusal to hear his daughter's side leads her to elope with Lysander into the Athenian woods, where much of the play's confusion ensues. When Egeus discovers his daughter at the end of the play, he continues to insist that she marry Demetrius, only to discover that Demetrius has lost interest. In another of the play's remarkably unproblematic switches, Egeus ends up perfectly happy with his daughter's marriage to Lysander.
Egeus' daughter is a headstrong girl, willing to defy not only her father but also the Duke of Athens himself in the name of true love. Rather than marry a man she despises (Demetrius), Hermia elopes with her beloved Lysander, setting off into the Athenian woods, en route to Lysander's aunt's house where they can marry secretly. Unfortunately, the love-juice Puck mistakenly applies to her boyfriend's eyes (thinking that he is Demetrius) makes him fall in love with her best friend Helena instantaneously. Hermia is devastated, but luckily the magic is undone before long. She forgives Lysander for his inexplicable and temporary change, and apologizes to Helena after having accused her of stealing her man. In the end, Hermia gets what she wants: marriage to Lysander with the approval of her father and the Duke.
Before the start of the play, Helena has been jilted by her boyfriend, Demetrius, who has decided that he now loves her best friend, Hermia. Helena doesn't bear a grudge toward Hermia, nor does she react angrily to Demetrius. Rather, she follows Demetrius around like a dog, attempting to win him back by persistent whining. Helena doesn't understand why he has stopped loving her; after all, she points out, she is just as rich as Hermia, and is also considered just as pretty around Athens (we learn later that the two women represent very different kinds of beauty: Helena is tall and blond, Hermia is petite and brunette). Helena tells Demetrius about the elopement plans of Hermia and Lysander, thinking that he'll react with gratitude. Of course, his actual reaction is to take off in pursuit of Hermia, insulting Helena as she follows him into the woods. When Hermia's boyfriend, transformed by the love-juice, falls in love with Helena, she can hardly believe it, and thinks, in a typically self-pitying way, that she's being mocked by him. After the same thing happens to Demetrius, Helena concludes that all three of the others have joined forces to make her look ridiculous. Luckily, Lysander's spell is reversed, but Demetrius' isn't. By the end of the play, Helena simply accepts that Demetrius has fallen back in love with her, forgets all about his abusive behavior, and marries him.
Hermia's boyfriend, Lysander, is just as brave as Hermia herself; he stands up to Theseus and Egeus when they insist that his girlfriend marry another man, Demetrius. When these men refuse to listen to reason, Lysander doesn't take it lying down. Instead, he comes up with a plan by which he and Hermia can escape to safety and marry at his aunt's house outside Athens. When in the woods, Lysander is the first victim of Puck's love-juice mischief. He falls in love with Helena instantly, and abandons Hermia without a second thought - treating his former beloved quite cruelly when she asks why he's done so, and even offering to fight a duel with Demetrius when they both end up loving the other woman, Helena. Lysander's madness is reasonably short-lived however, and he is soon himself again. He marries Hermia, and seems just as reluctant as she is to ask himself why, for even a small period of time, he loved someone completely different.
At the beginning of the play, Demetrius comes across as kind of a jerk. He has dumped Helena for no good reason, follows Hermia around even though she doesn't love him, and even uses her father and the Athenian law to force her to marry him unwillingly. He uses Helena for information about Hermia, and speaks with unbelievable meanness toward her - not only does he not love her anymore, but he insults her at every opportunity. After following Hermia into the woods, he is made to love Helena once more, courtesy of Puck's love-juice. This spell is left in effect, and a "happy" ending results: Hermia gets to marry the man she loves, and Helena does too - apparently, Demetrius' days as a jerk are over.
The Queen of the Fairies is a beautiful and ethereal creature, fond of elegant song and dance and attended by a train of equally lovely spirits. When she first appears in the play, she is angry at her "husband," Oberon, who is continually demanding that she give him one of her attendants, an "Indian boy" whose mother had been one of her worshippers. Titania refuses to give the boy up, and refuses to sleep with Oberon until he stops asking. Unfortunately, Oberon decides to get his revenge on her by putting love-juice on her eyes so that she falls in love with something ridiculous. He is successful: with Puck's help, he makes the gorgeous and refined Titania fall hopelessly in love with Bottom the Weaver, who is not only a commoner but also has been temporarily given the head of a donkey. After letting her stay that way for a while, and getting the Indian boy from her, Oberon changes her back to herself - and their relationship returns to its former harmony.
The king of the Fairies bears a grudge against his Queen, who refuses to give up a boy servant to him when he asks. Perhaps Oberon really wants the boy, perhaps he's just being obstinate - but even more likely is that Oberon is jealous of Titania's love for the beautiful boy (at one point he even accuses her of cheating on him with Duke Theseus). When Oberon decides to put the love-juice on Titania's eyes, it's as if he is saying to himself, "Well, if she is going to love someone other than me, let's make it be someone really awful." However, Oberon can't bring himself to watch his beloved Titania adore the ass-headed Bottom for very long, and undoes his spell almost as soon as he knows of its success. Like Theseus and Hippolyta, the king and queen of Fairyland end the play by replacing strife with love.
Oberon's henchman, Puck - a nickname for "Robin Goodfellow" - loves mischief. In one of the most famous speeches of the play, he gleefully describes to another fairy all of the terrible pranks he pulls on humans, to whom he is invisible (these are pretty sophomoric: pulling the stool out from under people so that they fall down, etc.). Puck is given a task by his master as part of the revenge on Titania: find a flower that can make love-juice. Oberon also asks Puck to put some of this juice on the eyes of an "Athenian youth." After he mistakenly gives it to Lysander, rather than Demetrius, things become very complicated. Puck seems genuinely sorry for causing problems, but you get the sense that he also likes watching the fun of such mix-ups - after all, he was the one who gratuitously changed Bottom's head into a donkey's! In the end, though, Puck uses his invisibility to help Oberon repair the confusion among the pairs of Athenian lovers, and the entire play concludes with his speech apologizing to the audience for any "offence" the plot might have caused - "Robin," he offers, "shall restore amends."
One of Shakespeare's most memorable characters, Bottom the Weaver is an uneducated country man, and a member of the amateur theatre company that plans to perform at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. Though he clearly has no experience in drama, Bottom has a hugely conceited opinion of his own skill as an actor. At first, he insists to the other players that he is best suited to play every part himself -- once he settles on one part, he meddles in every aspect of the performance, and in rehearsals comes across as a major ham. Perhaps it's appropriate, then, when Puck - in a fit of mischief-making - changes Bottom into, literally, an "ass-head." The other actors flee in terror seeing the enormous transformation, but Bottom is unperturbed. He sings donkey songs to himself, and takes it in remarkable stride when the beautiful Fairy Queen, woken from her slumbers, falls madly in love with him. Some of the funniest scenes in the play are those in which Bottom, grossly fat and topped with the head of a donkey, sits in the fairy court wearing a crown of flowers and caressed by Titania and her attendants. By the end of the play, Bottom is returned to his regular shape (again, he takes this "dream" in stride), and resumes his role in the rustic play to the great amusement of the noble audience.
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