Hippolyta and Theseus discuss the "strange" story told by the young lovers in a famous exchange. Theseus doubts the truth of their tale about love and confusion in the woods. He comments that "the lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact [composed]." All three, he believes, have "such seething brains, / Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend / More than cool reason ever comprehends." All three, moreover, do nothing but invent miracles and describe impossibilities - the poet in particular giving "to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name." Hippolyta is more charitable, pointing out that the story involved "all their minds transfigured so together," suggesting something more than mere fantasy. What matters, she points out, is not the "truth," but rather the ability to tell the story with skill so that it "grows to something of great constancy" uniting the teller and the members of the audience in a moment of shared fantasy. It is a moment at which Shakespeare seems to comment on his own profession as an inventor of fantastic stories in the theater.
The lovers enter, and everyone discusses what they wish to see as the evening's post-wedding entertainment "to wear away this long age of three hours / Between our after-supper and bed time." They have several options: a song, a masque, a satirical play, and finally what is described as "a tedious brief scene of young Pyramus, and his love Thisby; very tragical mirth." The noble couples are intrigued by the oxymorons in this last description (Tedious brief? Tragical mirth?) and ask for further information. Egeus warns them that he has seen the play, and that it "made my eyes water," but with "merry tears" rather than the tears elicited by tragedy - he warns them further that it is the work of "hard-handed men that work in Athens" rather than professional actors. Egeus finally insists that the play is definitely not appropriate for royal entertainment, and that it is in fact "nothing, nothing in the world / Unless you can find sport in their intents." Nevertheless, Theseus announces "I will hear that play," adding that "never anything can be amiss / When simpleness and duty tender it." At this point, it does not seem that Theseus is going to make fun of the play; when Hippolyta worries that it might be painful to watch incompetent players on stage, Theseus responds that he prefers "tongue-tied simplicity" to "the rattling tongue / Of saucy and audacious eloquence."
Enter the rustic players, who present an outrageously inept performance. The "Prologue" enters first, and addresses Theseus alone. In stroke of comic genius, Shakespeare has Peter Quince utter a perfectly coherent speech but mangle it by a failure to follow punctuation. What Quince means to say, for instance, is "Our true intent is all for your delight. We are not here that you should here repent you. The actors are at hand. . . "etc. Here is what he actually says: "Our true intent is. All for your delight, we are not here. That you should here repent you, the actors are at hand." Theseus comments, dryly, that "This fellow does not stand upon points," meaning that he doesn't bother about nit-picking politeness - or that he doesn't follow punctuation marks! Lysander adds that he speaks "like a rough colt: he knows not the stop."
The rest of the actors then file in to perform the actual play, and Quince as the Prologue introduces each of them. Bottom is to be Pyramus, Flute is Thisby, Snout is the "Wall," Starveling is "Moonshine" (it is, of course, hysterically funny that someone should act the role of light ), and finally Snug is the terrifying "Lion." Each actor prefaces his performance with a small self-introduction. Snout, for instance, announces that he is performing the part of a Wall, which has a hole, or "chink," through which Pyramus and Thisby "did whisper often, very secretly." Bottom's Pyramus is unsurprisingly over the top: arriving at the "wall" to meet Thisby, he speaks a piece of incredibly bad poetry: "O grim-looked night! O night with hue so black! / O night which ever art when ever day is not! / O night, O night, alack alack alack, / I fear my Thisby's promise is forgot." Thisby, of course, show up, causing Pyramus to announce (absurdly) "I see a voice! Now will I to the chink, to spy if I can hear my Thisby's face." The two lovers speak through the hole in the wall, after which the Wall announces that he has performed his part and leaves the stage (Hippolyta comments that "This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard!").
Moonshine enters next, accompanied by the "Lion" who, as promised, announces that "I as Snug the Joiner am / A lion," so that the "Ladies" do not fear him. The play proceeds: Thisby arrives at "Ninny's Tomb" to meet Pyramus, but encounters the lion and runs away. The lion takes her mantle in his teeth, and when Pyramus arrives, he fears that Thisby has been eaten - "O dainty duck! O dear!" he exclaims. He takes out his sword, bidding it "wound / The pap [breast] of Pyramus. / Ay, that left pap / Where heart doth hop, / Thus die I, thus thus thus." As if that death speech weren't silly enough, he continues, announcing "Now I am dead, / Now I am fled / My heart is in the sky. / Tongue, lose thy light, / Moon, take thy flight, / Now die, die, die, die, die." (Theseus cracks, "with the help of a surgeon, he might yet recover and prove and ass"- an unwittingly apt comment to make about Bottom!). Finally, Thisby returns and finds the dead body of Pyramus. After mourning the loss of his "lily lips," "cherry nose," and "yellow cheeks" (think about those descriptions for a second - pretty ugly!), Thisby stabs herself, the "palpable-gross" play ends, and the actors depart. Theseus comments that it is "almost fairy time," and the newlyweds depart for bed soon thereafter.
Sure enough, once the human characters leave the stage, the fairies remain. Puck sweeps the stage with a broom, announcing that it is now the time for the spirits to "frolic." Oberon and Titania enter with their attendants, bidding them to "give glimmering light" as they sing and dance, and "each several chamber bless / Through this pallace with sweet peace / And the owner of it blessed / Ever shall in safety rest." As is fitting for the night of a wedding, the fairies will bless the beds of the newly-married Theseus and Hippolyta, as well as those of the other couples, so that they will "ever true in loving be," and have no deformed or ill-fated children. The last figure onstage is Puck, whose concluding speech suggests that he and the fairies have put the entire play on for us. "If we shadows have offended," he explains, "Think but this, and all is mended: / That you have but slumbered here / While these visions did appear." In other words, if we as members of the audience did not like the play we've just seen, all we need to do is imagine that we - like Titania, Lysander, Demetrius, Bottom and the rest - simply dreamed the entire thing. Just as the men and women in the play were, in a sense, made to perform a drama by fairy magic, Puck suggests that we too may be in the magical thrall of powers we do not understand. This, however, is not something we should fear, but instead something we should enjoy. After all, didn't the fairies see to it that the characters in the play eventually had a happy ending to their dreams? So, too, we the audience - willing victims of the enchantment that is theater - will be made happy if we allow ourselves submit to its magic. "Give me your hands if we be friends," Puck concludes, "And Robin shall restore amends."
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