Summary and Analysis
Act I: Scene 1
This scene opens in Theseus' palace in Athens. It is four days before his wedding to Hippolyta, the former queen of the Amazons, and Theseus is impatient with how slowly time is moving. Hippolyta assures him that the wedding day will soon arrive.
As Theseus and Hippolyta plan their wedding festivities, Egeus and his daughter, Hermia, arrive on the scene with Lysander and Demetrius. Egeus is angry because his daughter refuses to marry Demetrius, the man of his choice, but is instead in love with Lysander. Egeus accuses Lysander of bewitching his daughter and stealing her love by underhanded means. Agreeing with Egeus, Theseus declares that it is a daughter's duty to obey her father. Hermia demands to know the worst punishment she will receive for disobedience. Death or spending her life in a nunnery comprise Hermia's choices. Lysander joins the argument, arguing that he is Demetrius' equal in everything and is, indeed, more constant in his affection than Demetrius, who was recently in love with Helena. These proceedings upset Hippolyta, because the prospect of Hermia's death upsets her plans for a happy, festive wedding day.
Finally, everyone except Lysander and Hermia leave the stage. Lysander reminds Hermia that the course of true love has never run smoothly, so they must view their difficulties as typical for lovers. He has a plan for eluding Athenian law: The two lovers will run away from Athens and live with his childless widow aunt to whom he has always been a surrogate son. Living with her, they will be outside of Athenian jurisdiction so that Hermia can avoid Theseus' death sentence and can marry. Having few other options, Hermia is enthusiastic about Lysander's idea and declares her undying love for him.
Just as the lovers have completed their plan for escape, Helena enters the scene. What charms does Hermia possess, Helena wonders, that have so completely captivated Demetrius? Hermia swears that she has no interest in Demetrius, that he actually seems to thrive on her hatred of him. Hermia and Lysander confess their intention of fleeing Athens, and Helena decides to tell Demetrius about it in a final attempt to win his love.
Set in ancient Athens, the play is associated with the gods and goddesses of the Greek pantheon, mythical creatures who often manifested themselves to humans in strange, sometimes terrifying, and often magical ways. Most literary critics believe the play was written to be performed at a private wedding, so while it has a satiric edge, commenting on the difficulties of love, it is also a joyful, festive play, filled with dancing and singing, fairies and enchantment. Drenched in moonlight and filled with dreamers, this play is meant to mesmerize its audience. This scene, for example, opens with Theseus and Hippolyta planning the festivities for their upcoming wedding. Love itself is associated with fantasy and magic, according to Helena. She says thoughts, dreams, sighs, wishes, and tears are all love's minions. Both love's happy and sad aspects are present is this opening scene, which establishes all of the major themes and topics of the drama, including the emphasis on magic and mystical transformations, the often difficult course of true love, and the conflict between imagination and reason.
As its title suggests, this is a play about dreams, and their often illogical, magical, and sensual character. Midsummer's Night is a time of craziness, of mirth and magic. This magic is enacted in the play through the concept of transformation, both personal and general: Helena would like to be "translated" into Hermia, but, more generally, she claims that love transforms everything it looks upon. While Midsummer is the primary setting of the play, references to May Day also abound. For example, Helena and Hermia are supposedly doing "observance of a morn in May" (167). Pagan rituals of May have generally celebrated sexuality and fertility, and this play does not take a Puritanical stance on either subject: The love in this dream is overtly sensual, linked to the songs, dances, and physical pleasures introduced by the fairies. Together these two framing ritual times provide a tone for the play: love and sexuality within a realm of crazy, magical fantasy.
The thematic emphasis on transformation and magic is intensified by the key images of the play, in particular, the recurring references to the moon. Like the moon, which constantly metamorphoses, shedding its old self for something new, the lovers will go through several phases before returning, refreshed and slightly altered, to themselves in Act V. Cyclical, constantly transforming itself in the night sky, the moon is an apt image for the dreamy, moonlit scenes of the play in which characters are constantly transformed. In her three phases — the new, virginal moon of the goddess Diana; the full, pregnant moon of the goddess Luna; and the dark, aging moon of Hecate — the moon is linked with all of the various moods of the play.
In line 3, Theseus connects his wedding to the changes in the moon by assuring Hippolyta that their marriage will occur in four happy days, with the arrival of a new moon. Here Theseus characterizes the moon as a "step-dame" keeping her heir waiting for her death so that he can claim his inheritance. Theseus wants the moon to hurry to her death so he can begin enjoying his "inheritance": marriage to Hippolyta. Hippolyta also associates the moon with love and marriage, declaring it will be "like to a silver bow/ New bent in heaven" (9-10) on the day of their wedding. From stepmother, the moon is transformed in the course of a few lines into the image of fruitful union contained in the "silver bow," an implicit reference to Cupid's arrow, which draws men and women together. Later in the scene, the moon transforms once again, moving into her role as Diana, the chaste goddess of the hunt. Theseus vows that if Hermia does not marry Demetrius as her father wishes, she will live a barren life, "[c]hanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon" (73). Theseus says Hermia has until the next new moon to make her decision, so the new moon becomes both a symbol of his happy union with Hippolyta and of Hermia's potential withered life as a nun (or even a corpse), if she does not comply with her father's whim.
Most of Shakespeare's images have similarly multiple layers of significance: Their relevance changes with their context, so no symbol maps simplistically onto a single meaning (in this play, for example, notice also the transformations in the relevance of Cupid and his arrow — sometimes he is a merry matchmaker, while other times he blindly draws people unhappily together). By the end of the scene, the moon presents herself into another of her many names: Phoebe, the queen of moonlit forests. In this role, her "silver visage" will both light and conceal the flight of Lysander and Hermia from Athens, leading them to a happy future beyond the severe authority of Theseus and Egeus. As the play progresses, the moon will continue her transformations, accompanying all of the characters through their magical sojourns.
Love is the primary concern of the play, which begins as Theseus and Hippolyta lament the four long days of waiting before their marriage. But the picture painted of love is not necessarily romantic or simplistic; instead, the play charts the heartaches and the arbitrariness of desire along with its depth, its sighs and tears along with its dreams and wishes. As Lysander tells Hermia, the course of true love never did run true. Often swift, short, and brief, love is besieged by class differences, by age differences, by war, by death, and by sickness. Helena's love is plagued by a different demon: indifference. The more ardently she loves Demetrius, the more thoroughly he hates her. And there seems to be no reason for his disdain: She is as beautiful as Hermia, his new love, as wealthy, as similar to Hermia as "double cherries" on a single stem. Helena's meditations reveal love as arbitrary and, in fact, blind: The childish, blindfolded Cupid, a constantly repeated image in this dream, playfully transforms the vile into something pure and dignified.
Even when love is mutual, it is often hampered by family disapproval. For Lysander and Hermia, love is problematic because of her father's desire for her to marry Demetrius. The law is on his side. All of the relationships in the play, but this one in particular, emphasize the conflict of love and imagination with reason and law. The "ancient privilege of Athens" allows Egeus to "dispose" of his daughter as he wishes: She is his property, so he can "estate" her to anyone.
As is obvious in his choice of words, Egeus views his daughter as little more than an object that he feels he can command as he sees fit. His words also show the violence that often undergirds law or reason: This contrast shows a discord within the seeming concord of love (to paraphrase a saying of Theseus' in Act V). For example, Theseus, the voice of reason and law, wooed Hippolyta with a sword and won her love by "doing her injuries." Although Hippolyta seems subdued, even passive, in the play, the violence that led to their love is a constant presence. This dream of love is not the saccharine view we often see on prime-time television; instead, the play returns us to our animal natures, displaying the primitive, even bestial side of human desire.
While Egeus' willingness to condemn Hermia to death if she refuses to marry Demetrius is astonishing, the arbitrariness of his choice of a son-in-law is even more problematic. Lysander points out that he is as rich, as good-looking, and as successful as Demetrius. In addition, his love of Hermia is true, while Demetrius' love is more fickle, having recently been cruelly transferred to Hermia from his previous lover, Helena.
Theseus' judgement on Hermia isn't as harsh as her father's — marry Demetrius, spend her life in a nunnery or die — yet she has little opportunity for happiness. Notice the military imagery used in the exchange between Theseus and Hermia: For example, Hermia needs to "arm" herself against her father's wishes. She needs to fit her "fancies" to her father's "will" (118), suggesting that Hermia's love and imagination need to be combated by her father's authority or will; otherwise, the law of Athens will sacrifice her on the pyre of reason. Yet, as noted earlier, her father's choice of Demetrius seems as fanciful and arbitrary as Hermia's choice of Lysander. Fortunately, Theseus is less willing than Egeus is to condemn Hermia to death or to celibacy.
In this play, which celebrates love, magic, and sexuality, the choice of a single life is, perhaps, worse than death. Although this play presents the difficulties of love and, in particular, of women's lack of choice in marriage (shown especially strongly through the character of Hippolyta, who appears to have lost all of her spirit following her defeat by Theseus), its goal is to celebrate love and sex; it prefers passion over pedagogy, relationship over celibacy, and life over death.
stepdame (5) stepmother.
dowager (5) an elderly woman of wealth and dignity.
faining voice (31) desirous voice.
gauds (33) cheap, showy trinkets, playthings.
filch'd (36) to steal, pilfer.
mew'd (71) to confine in or as in a cage; shut up or conceal.
Diana's altar (89) the altar belonging to the virgin goddess of the moon and of hunting: identified with the Greek Artemis.
spotted (110) morally stained.
Beteem (131) grant.
misgraffed (137) ill-matched.
collied (145) blackened, as with coal dust.
Carthage queen (173) Dido; founder and queen of Carthage: in the Aeneid she falls in love with Aeneas and kills herself when he leaves her.
false Trojan (174) Aeneas, son of Anchises and Venus, and hero of Virgil's Aeneid: escaping from ruined Troy, Aeneas wanders for years before coming to Latium: he is considered the forefather of the Romans.
lode-stars (183) stars by which one directs one's course.
translated (191) transformed.
Phoebe (209) Artemis as goddess of the moon: identified with the Roman Diana.
waggish (240) playful.
eyne (242) eye.