A Midsummer Night's Dream Setting: Analysis & Significance

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  • 0:04 Reading vs Watching
  • 1:32 Athens
  • 2:54 The Woods
  • 4:19 Order vs Chaos
  • 4:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Arielle Windham

Arielle has worked worked with elementary, middle, and secondary students in American and Japan. She has a bachelor's degree in English and a master's in Education.

In drama, the setting relies on the cast and crew to bring it to life, but that doesn't mean it is unimportant. In this lesson, we will look at the setting of Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' and how it helps us discover the deeper meaning hidden in this romantic comedy.

Reading vs. Watching

A good setting is more than just where the events of the story take place; it helps enhance the mood of a story by putting the reader in the right frame of mind, like the misty highland moors in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles. It causes tension and plot development, moving the story along, like the Overlook Hotel in Steven King's The Shining. In many cases, a good setting becomes a character in its own right, like Hogwarts Castle in the Harry Potter series. In literature, a good setting is one of the key elements to creating a good story.

However, when it comes to plays, it can be easy to overlook setting. After all, you read about it once at the start of the act or scene, and that's it. Because plays are meant to be watched, the author doesn't go into the details of setting that bring it to life in books. That's left to the cast and crew who bring it to life with set pieces, props, and acting. But just because it isn't spelled out in the script doesn't mean setting isn't important to understanding the overall story.

How the woods might have looked for the audience

In his play A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare uses two settings: ancient Athens and a wood nearby. Like other contrasting elements in the play, these two settings help him explore one of the play's major themes: the relationship between order and chaos. The rational order of Athens conflicts with the fantastic chaos of the woods to create some memorable scenes, but they also lead the audience to a deeper understanding of the play.


Shakespeare opens his play in the ancient city of Athens. Think about ancient Athens for a moment. What pops out to you? Maybe words like democracy, law, order, or government come to mind. Maybe you thought of Socrates, Plato, and the great philosophers. Maybe you saw temples, marble statues, and architectural marvels.

ancient athens

Like today, Shakespeare's audience would have seen Athens as the birthplace of much of their law, philosophy, and art. Other ancient cities were also pretty influential when it came to philosophy and art, but none are remembered for their contributions to law and order like Athens. This specific conception of Athens seems to be the one Shakespeare was after. He even makes it easy for his audience members who were having a little trouble making the connection. The first act is all about law and order in ancient Athens. Athenian law takes center stage in Scene 1 when Theseus, the embodiment of law and order, is asked to pass judgment on headstrong Hermia who won't obey her father.

Scene 2 gives us a peek at the order of Athenian society when we are introduced to the tradesmen who make up the acting troupe. Didn't you find it strange that their occupations were announced before their parts? Perhaps it's a bit heavy-handed with all the connections to law and order, but Shakespeare makes it pretty clear in Act 1 that Athens represents rational order and reality.

The Woods

Acts 2 and 3 take us out of orderly Athens and into the wild. Think about a forest this time. What comes to mind? Maybe trees and some fluffy forest creatures. Now, what about a forest at night? Do you hear wolves howling? Maybe something scarier is lurking in the dark? For Shakespeare's audience, the forest, especially at night, would be the antithesis of the law and order of Athens. What better setting to represent chaos?

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