A Midsummer Night's Dream: Protagonist & Antagonist

Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

Have you ever been in fierce competition with someone, or had anyone sabotage your plans just to mess with you? We'll look at protagonists and antagonists in ''A Midsummer Night's Dream.''

Protagonists and Antagonists in A Midsummer Night's Dream: An Overview

A protagonist is a major character in any narrative whose efforts to achieve their goals are central to the plot. An antagonist is a major character whose objectives are opposed to the protagonist's. There can be multiple protagonists and antagonists in a given story. In many narratives, the protagonist is the hero and the antagonist is the villain.

However, this isn't always the case, especially in works that portray human morality as complex and sometimes even paradoxical. For example, in the recent TV series Hannibal, the cannibalistic serial murderer Hannibal Lecter is a cultured, charming, attentive character with many admirable skills and interests. At times, it's difficult to see Hannibal as purely evil despite his heinous acts because he is a complex character. Whether he's the protagonist or antagonist is debatable.

Some characters in A Midsummer Night's Dream are easily identifiable as protagonists or antagonists as well as moral or amoral people. Others have roles more difficult to define. We'll look at both groups in order from clearest to most ambiguous.

Hermia, Lysander, and Helena: Clear Protagonists

Hermia, Lysander, and Helena are the main protagonists in the play. The play's main conflict pivots on their efforts to marry for love, and none of the three want to harm anyone else. Hermia and Lysander can be considered fairly heroic as well: rather than accepting the oppressive fate Egeus and Theseus want to impose on them, they risk prosecution to elope and create a future together.

Helena and Hermia in conversation on a stone bench
Helena and Hermia in conversation on a stone bench

Egeus, Theseus, and Demetrius: Clear Antagonists

Egeus is easily identifiable as a villainous antagonist. He treats Hermia like property, completely disregards her desire to marry Lysander, and heartlessly threatens her with execution or convent life---all without a very defensible reason. More importantly, Egeus' character primarily functions as an obstacle to Hermia and Lysander's happiness.

Egeus bringing Hermia before Theseus in court
Egeus bringing Hermia before Theseus in court

Although Theseus seems less aggressive overall, he's also an antagonist because he sides with Egeus in the beginning of the play. He's fully prepared to prosecute Hermia if she doesn't obey her father. He, too, is an obstacle to the couple's happiness. Even though he changes his mind at the end of the play, his early mandate causes the couple to flee to the forest where the mayhem unfolds.

Demetrius is a main character in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and he too seeks romantic happiness. However, he's both antagonistic and unreliable. He's engaged to marry Helena, but changes his mind and falls for Hermia. He doggedly pursues her even though she's betrothed to Lysander---all without the influence of potion. He mimics Egeus' violent temperament when he says he'd like to feed Lysander to his dogs, and his commitment to Helena at the play's end appears to be potion-induced, not genuine.

Puck: A Morally Ambiguous Antagonist

Puck is an antagonist insofar as he bungles Oberon's potion-giving instructions and finds the ensuing misadventures comical. This sets him in opposition to Oberon's intent as well as the lovers'. After enchanting Demetrius, he says, 'Then will two at once woo one; That must needs be sport alone. And those things do best please me That befall prepost'rously.' However, Puck isn't really malicious. He ultimately sympathizes with Helena and Hermia: 'Cupid is a knavish lad, Thus to make poor females mad.' He also corrects his mistakes as soon as Oberon commands he do so. He's not really a protagonist, though, since his actions are mostly limited to Oberon's orders.

A line drawing of Puck depicting him as a mischievous sprite
A line drawing of Puck depicting him as a mischievous sprite

Titania and Oberon: Morally Ambiguous Antagonist and Non-Antagonist

Titania and Oberon are perhaps the most difficult couple to understand in terms of morality and impact. Oberon is clearly a major antagonist in the play, since he capriciously interferes with his own wife's peaceful activities. He behaves cruelly toward Titania, drugging her so she'll fall in love with a donkey-headed workman and return the child he covets. Titania has also accused him of infidelity with Hippolyta and he doesn't deny it. Yet Oberon also corrects Puck's mischief and redirects Demetrius to love Helena again.

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