Titania's fairies sing her a soothing lullaby as she prepares for sleep. While she rests, Oberon creeps up, squeezes the potion onto her eyelids and utters a spell to make her awaken when something vile is near.
When Oberon leaves, Lysander and Hermia wander into Titania's bower, but she is invisible to them. The lovers are lost, and Lysander suggests they stop to sleep for the night. Hermia agrees but won't let him sleep too close to her, even though Lysander claims that, because they are engaged, they can sleep innocently side by side. But Hermia insists on separation, so they sleep a short distance apart. After they have fallen asleep, Puck enters, searching for the Athenian whose eyes Oberon wanted him to anoint with the love juice. Seeing Lysander and Hermia lying apart from each other, he mistakes them for Demetrius and Helena and erroneously applies the magical juice to Lysander.
After Puck exits, Demetrius and Helena run into the bower. Helena is in frantic pursuit of her beloved, but he manages to flee his pursuer and sprints into the woods. Depressed and exhausted, Helena stops to rest and notices Lysander asleep on the ground. She wakes him and, thanks to Puck's potion, he immediately falls in love with her. When he claims to have abandoned Hermia, who he now describes as dull and unattractive, Helena assumes he is teasing her so she runs away. Lysander chases after her, and Hermia awakens. She has been dreaming about a fearful snake that ate her heart awake. Frightened that Lysander has disappeared, she, too, rushes into the woods.
With its entry into Titania's festive bower, the play fills with singing and dancing. The fairies sing a lullaby for Titania as they perform their duties of keeping all unpleasantness — spotted snakes, spiders, and beetles — away from their queen. Titania's world abounds with beauty, and her songs are filled with references to the natural world, over which she rules. While her fairies work to keep the insects and smaller beasts away, Oberon invokes larger animals into her bower: leopards or boars or bears. Notice that he, in particular, wants the love potion to make her fall in love with something "vile." This detail seems to suggest an element of maliciousness in Oberon's attempts to lure the Indian boy away, perhaps supporting the idea that he is jealous of the boy's relationship with Titania. In fact, his spiteful behavior toward Titania contrasts with his compassion for Helena and the other humans in the play. While he is a benevolent ruler where humans are concerned, his kindness does not necessarily extend to his own kin.
The worlds of the humans and fairies become further linked in this scene, as Puck applies the love potion to Lysander's eyes: The humans are now full participants in the fairies' magical world. Many performances of the play emphasize not only its obsession with love, but its focus on sexuality. Remember that in Act I, Scene 1, Theseus suggested that chastity was a fate almost worse than death, and Act II, Scene 1 listed all of Oberon and Titania's infidelities. Now Lysander and Hermia are spending the night together in the woods as they flee Athens. For them, the question is how close together they can modestly sleep.
Like most young men, Lysander believes that closer is better, arguing for "one bed, two bosoms, and one troth," but Hermia does not want him so near. Although Lysander emphasizes the innocence of his intentions, especially because of their engagement, Hermia believes that separation is necessary in order for them to maintain their virtuousness: For her, an external show of virtue is as important as internal innocence. Lysander accepts her logic, vowing that he will love her until he dies — but love is capricious, as the play soon shows, and such promises of fidelity are often no sooner spoken than they are broken. When Puck sees the two lovers sleeping separately, he does not interpret their distance as a sign of modesty. Instead, he assumes that Lysander is the "lack-love" Demetrius and that Hermia is not sleeping close to him because he's such a lout. For the fairies, modesty does not seem to be a virtue; they believe love should be expressed.
The language used in this scene once again suggests that love is a matter of vision. Puck puts potion on Lysander's eyes in order to "charm" his sight. Helena wishes she could be transformed into Hermia whose eyes are "blessed and attractive" (90) and believes her own ugliness lies in her eyes. How could her own teary eyes be compared with Hermia's, which are as sphery as the stars? When Lysander falls in love with Helena under the spell of the love-in-idleness, he applauds her transparency, which allows him to see into her heart. Similarly, he can see love's stories written in her eyes, which contain "love's richest book" (121). Apparently, love is based entirely upon looks, upon attractiveness, and the source of this attraction resides in the eyes, which, after all, are windows to the soul. The narrative of love is conveyed through the exchange of looks, through vision that reveals the soul. Helena longs for a "sweet look" (126) from Demetrius' eyes, a look that will reveal his attraction for her and that will allow him to see the story of her love for him. This scene also plays with the notion of love at first sight: While Romeo and Juliet presents this as a valid form of love, applauding their instant devotion, this play is more suspicious of such seeming love. Lysander's instant love at the sight of Helena seems more a sign of his lack of fidelity than of true love.
Linked to the emphasis on vision is Lysander's resort to logic, which is a form of clear-sightedness. While he had earlier declared his undying love for Hermia with the language of emotion, Lysander now explains his new, fickle preference for Helena in terms of reason, which says that she is "the worthier maid," yet he provides no reasons for this judgment. In fact, the characters of Hermia and Helena seem fairly interchangeable in the play, as are Lysander and Demetrius, so it is difficult for readers to know what might make Helena or Hermia a better choice as a lover. What is the source of his love for Hermia? Shakespeare never says, perhaps because he wants to emphasize love's arbitrary nature. Lysander claims he is now mature and his reason is better developed, allowing him to see Hermia's faults and Helena's strengths, yet the play gives no indication that Lysander has, indeed, changed. Similarly, it provides no detail to support these differences between the two women. Lysander's claims are particularly ludicrous to members of the audience, who know the reason for the change in his mood isn't his new maturity, but Puck's magic.
In this play, magic has the power to transform lovers, and dreams are prophetic of the future. The scene ends with Hermia awakening from a dream in which a crawling serpent ate at her heart, while Lysander watched and smiled. Serpents have numerous negative connotations in Western culture — they are associated with sexuality, with the betrayal in the Garden of Eden, and with Eve's movement from innocence to knowledge. All of these connotations are relevant in this context. Hermia is sleeping in a bower of bliss, but not the innocent paradise of Christian mythology; rather, she is in the more sexually potent bower of Titania and Oberon. While the natural world of the forest is often associated with innocence and the city with experience, this play reverses that dichotomy: Hermia appears to move toward experience following her night in the woods. No longer will she trust Lysander's vows of eternal devotion, after seeing how quickly his love changed following his encounter with Helena. She will soon move from innocent trust in male vows of love to a wary despair over men's unfaithfulness.
roundel (1) round dance.
reremice (4) bats.
Philomel (13) the nightingale (Philomela was a princess of Athens raped by Tereseus; the gods change her into a nightingale).
ounce (36) snow leopard.
Pard (37) leopard, or panther.
troth (48) faithfulness; loyalty.
beshrew (60) to curse, usually mildly.