The play opens at the court of Athens, where Duke Theseus is preparing to celebrate his marriage to his former enemy on the battlefield, Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. As the two discuss the entertainment they will have at their reception, another Athenian man arrives with his daughter and two young men. This man is Egeus, who wishes Theseus to decide a family dispute. Apparently, Egeus' daughter, Hermia, is in love with one of the young men, Lysander, but Egeus wishes her to marry the other one, Demetrius. Hermia angrily objects to her father's plan, pointing out to Egeus and Theseus that Lysander is just as good a man, and would make just as good a husband as Demetrius. Theseus takes her father's side, however, and tells Hermia that she must either marry Demetrius, or else pack her bags to spend the rest of her life as a nun (Theseus seems perhaps overconfident that love and marriage can result from force, as in his own case!). Hermia won't budge, nor will Lysander give up his wish to marry his beloved Hermia himself. Once the two are left alone, they hatch a plan: the following night, they will leave Athens and travel on foot through the woods until they get to the house of Lysander's aunt. They will marry there, and live happily ever after. Filled with excitement, the couple tells Hermia's best friend, Helena, about their plan. . . but there's one problem: Helena is Demetrius' ex, and still loves him, even though he now loves Hermia. Helena tells Demetrius about Hermia's escape, thinking he might love her in return. Instead, he takes off in pursuit of Hermia (and Lysander), with Helena pursuing him.
Meanwhile, another lover's quarrel is happening in the woods - or, to be more accurate, in the magical realm of fairies that exists somewhere in the woods. The Fairy King, Oberon, is angry at his Queen, Titania, who refuses to give him a "little changeling boy" who is part of her fairy train. Oberon is made so furious by Titania's refusal that he asks his servant Puck, an "impish sprite" who loves to make mischief, to help him get revenge on her. Oberon tells Puck that there is a special flower in the woods which can be made into a magical juice. This juice, if put onto a person's eyes while they sleep, will make them fall instantly in love with the first person, or thing, that they see when they wake up. Oberon intends to put this juice on Titania's eyes, and so humiliate her. While waiting for Puck to come back with the flower, Oberon witnesses Demetrius abusing the love-sick Helena as she follows him through the forest. Oberon sends Puck off with some of the juice, telling him to use it in order to make Demetrius love Helena. He describes Demetrius to Puck as a young man, dressed in "Athenian garments," not realizing that another man who fits that description - namely Lysander - is also in the woods nearby.
As Puck travels through the woods, he encounters a group of "rude mechanicals" (unlearned craftsmen) rehearsing a very bad play for the entertainment of Theseus' wedding guests. Chief among these is Bottom the Weaver, who is to play the role of the tragic hero, Pyramus. Puck decides to have some fun, and changes Bottom's head into the head of a donkey - the rest of the players are terrified, of course, and run off into the woods. Puck then finds the "Athenian youth" sleeping near a young lady - of course this pair is not Demetrius and Helena, but rather Lysander and Hermia. Puck thinks he has found the right man, and puts the love-juice on Lysander's eyes. Unfortunately, just at this very moment, Helena arrives at the same spot, and sits down to rest (Demetrius has outrun her). Lysander wakes up, and falls instantly in love with his girlfriend's best friend (we might compare this event to what happened before the play started, when Demetrius, equally inexplicably, broke up with Helena to chase Hermia). Helena thinks that Lysander is kidding when he starts telling her how much he loves her, and she runs away - with Lysander in hot pursuit. Hermia wakes up and realizes that her boyfriend is gone, and takes off into the woods to find him.
Meanwhile, Oberon finds Titania sleeping in the woods. He puts love-juice on her eyes, and she wakes up just in time to find the ass-headed Bottom singing to himself (so that he won't be afraid, all alone in the dark forest). She falls madly in love with him, much to his pleasant surprise. Puck witnesses all this, and tells Oberon. Oberon is happy with his work - that is, until he sees Helena arrive in pursuit of Demetrius, who insults her until she runs away from him. Oberon realizes that Puck has made a terrible mistake. He sends Puck off to find Helena, while he puts the love-juice on the right man. Demetrius is finally drugged into falling in love with Helena - who, of course, doesn't believe that he's telling the truth. Hermia arrives to find that the tables have turned, and that both men who once loved her now love her best friend. Each woman thinks that all the others are playing a joke on her; Helena and Hermia accuse each other of betrayal and begin to argue bitterly, while Demetrius and Lysander plan to fight a duel over Helena. Oberon tells Puck to lead Demetrius and Lysander to the same place, and to put some antidote (yes, apparently there is an antidote to love-juice!) on Lysander's eyes. That way, Demetrius will continue to love Helena, not Hermia (good), and Lysander will once again love Hermia, not Helena (good).
Oberon finally sees Titania and Bottom together; far from being thrilled, he is moved to "pity" her, and after getting her to give up the servant boy, administers the antidotes so that the Fairy Queen loves her Fairy King once more. Puck, in turn, removes the donkey head from the sleeping Bottom, who wakes up to imagine that his whole experience was a "most rare vision." Meanwhile, Theseus and Hippolyta, hunting in the forest along with Egeus, find the four young lovers asleep on the ground. When they wake up, all has gone according to plan: Hermia and Lysander love each other, as do Helena and Demetrius. Theseus offers to host a triple wedding, and they all return to Athens. In the play's final scene, the happily married couples, along with the invisible fairy company, watch and comment upon the ridiculous play performed ineptly by Bottom and his men. The last speech of the play, however, is spoken by Puck - who apologizes to the audience watching A Midsummer Night's Dream if they have taken any offense at the fantastic plot.
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