So, we're talking about A Midsummer Night's Dream. It's a typical crazy Shakespeare comedy but with a greater than usual dose of magic in it, and it has fairies, which is very exciting. It also has a certain self-awareness of itself as a play, which is interesting - we'll talk more about that closer to the end of the lesson.
You know how Romeo and Juliet is about people who fall in love with the wrong people? And it's a tragedy, so they all die at the end? A Midsummer Night's Dream is like the comedy mirror version of that. Everyone is in love with the wrong person, at least in the beginning, but it's a comedy, so at the end they all get married - which is actually the difference between tragedy and comedy: in a tragedy everyone dies, and in a comedy everyone gets married at the end.
The basic idea of this play is that there are three groups of people who all interact in this forest on one magical night - perhaps in midsummer - falling in and out of love and having slapstick adventures. It shares this premise with a lot of teen comedies. I would say Superbad might even owe a lot to A Midsummer Night's Dream. They're on a mythical quest for alcohol, they run into the cop dudes, and end up with the women. There's something about this idea of one night of revelry and weirdness to sort everything out that I think is present in more things than just A Midsummer Night's Dream.
But it takes place not in wherever they were in Superbad. It takes place in Greece a long time ago, around Athens. The men and women falling in and out of love with each other do so in the presence of some fairies (yes, like magical fairies.)
The Athenian characters involved in a love quadrangle
So who are these people? We've got group number one, the Athenians. There, we've got Hermia, who is a young woman in love with Lysander, who is a young man who loves her back, so this is sounding great so far. They like each other. But then we've got Helena, who is in love with Demetrius, who is in love with Hermia. So uh-oh, it's not working out so well; we've got a little bit of a love quadrangle. It's kind of like the latest season of Gossip Girl, which I shouldn't watch (and neither should you!) where Chuck still loves Blair, and Blair is vaguely into Dan, and she's fighting with Serena because Serena likes Dan too, and Dan kind of wants Blair. See, Dan is the Hermia of this situation, which is weird if you watched the show from the beginning because he was such a loser at the start. Anyway, that's the romantic setup.
Then we've got Theseus, who is the Duke of Athens, and we've got Hippolyta, who is his betrothed wife. She was the queen of the Amazons, who were fighting women, and he conquered her people and now he gets to marry her.
So then we've got the fairies, who are hanging out in the woods. We've got Oberon, who is their king, Titania, who is their queen and Puck, who is Oberon's servant. He's also known as 'Robin Goodfellow', so he's got two names.
Then the third group of people are known as the Rude Mechanicals, who are laborers and what they're doing is trying to put on a play. There's a bunch of them and the most famous and important one is known as Bottom, who ends up being turned into a donkey.
So those are the people we're going to be dealing with. So what do they do? They interact with each other.
Act I: Love Quadrangles and Greedy Thespians
So Hermia is in love with Lysander, and he likes her back, as I mentioned. So this does not seem to be a problem at all, except that her dad wants her to marry Demetrius, who also likes her. But she doesn't like Demetrius. So Hermia's got a real love-buffet going on, but Helena does not at all. Helena is kind of sad and left on her own, like a sad, unpopular friend in any teen movie. We also know that she's taller than Hermia, so I also wonder if it has something to do with her being taller than Demetrius. Maybe she wore heels around him once and he's never gotten over it. Like Nicole Kidman and, well, anybody, but especially Tom Cruise. I guess everyone's taller than Tom Cruise.
So that's problematic for them, but the other problem is that Hermia's dad is really not happy that she wants to be with Lysander instead of Demetrius. He actually goes to Theseus who, remember, is the Duke of Athens, to sort it out. I'm really glad that my parents wouldn't call up President Obama when they were upset with me and tell him to figure it out, but that's what this guy seems to think is appropriate.
So Theseus says, 'Hermia, you've got options. You can marry Demetrius, you can go be a nun or you can die.' She thinks no, no, those are terrible options, I don't like that. And then they explain that Demetrius maybe isn't the best choice because he had been in love with Helena, but now he was throwing her aside and being a bad dude. Theseus listens to this and says, 'Well, yeah, maybe he is a bad dude. I'll tell you what. You figure this out by the time I get married to Hippolyta (soon) and you do what you want.'
She's planning on skeedaddling off with Lysander to go elope and get married at his aunt's house, because she lives outside of Athens and they won't get caught. Helena decides to tell Demetrius that they're doing this, because she hopes that he'll run after them as they go off into the woods to the aunt's house, and then Helena will go after him and somehow get him to love her again.
Theseus tells Hermia she must marry Demetrius, be a nun, or die
So her plan is like this: Tell Demetrius that Hermia and Lysander are planning to elope, follow them into the woods…profit. We don't really know how it's going to work, but this is how they all end up in the forest with the Fairies and the Rude Mechanicals.
The Rude Mechanicals are a bunch of workers who want to put on a show for Theseus' wedding to Hippolyta. They're not professionals. It's kind of like Waiting for Guffman - they do not know what they're doing, but they're really enthusiastic about it. We've got Peter Quince, who is a carpenter who is trying to organize everyone. Bottom is a weaver who is being really disruptive, and he insists that he can play every part in the play. They're going to put on Pyramus and Thisbe, which is basically a Romeo and Juliet variant, with people who try to fall in love but aren't able to and die at the end. Peter Quince wants Bottom to play Pyramus, but when Thisbe gets assigned to another dude, Bottom butts in:
And I may hide my face, let me play Thisbe too,
I'll speak in a monstrous little voice.
'Thisne, Thisne;' 'Ah, Pyramus lover dear!
Thy Thisbe dear, And lady dear!'
He wants to be Thisbe too. It's kind of like when I act these things out. I get to play everyone. That's what Bottom wants to do. Then Peter assigns the lion part to someone else, and Bottom interrupts again:
Let me play the lion too: I will roar, that I will
Do any man's heart good to hear me; I will roar,
That I will make the duke say 'Let him roar again,
Let him roar again.'
Peter Quince is having none of it and repeatedly tells Bottom to shut up and play Pyramus and no one else. So that's the end of Act I, this Rude Mechanicals scene.
Act II: Oberon's Scheme
Oberon and Titania (King and Queen of Fairies, respectively) are fighting over who gets to keep the young Indian prince they've kidnapped, which is a strange thing to fight about. Oberon wants to make him a knight, but Titania just likes him and wants to keep him. They're acting like he's a puppy or a new toy or something that they're fighting over. They don't resolve it, but Titania still wants Oberon to come do some fairy dancing with her, but Oberon says no because he's butthurt about the whole Indian prince situation.
Not only does he not want to go fairy dancing with Titania, he also gets his servant, Puck, to go find this special flower called 'love-in-idleness' that if you squeeze it and put it on someone's eyelids, they fall in love with whomever they see first when they wake up. For me it would probably be be my cat licking my face, but Oberon hopes it's going to be something even funnier when this happens to Titania.
So he sends Puck off on that task, and we're back to our favorite Athenians!
Oberon sends his servant Puck to find a special flower called love-in-idleness
Helena's followed through on her plan to creep on Demetrius as he follows Hermia and Lysander who are trying to elope. It's not working out very well, because he tells Helena to cut it out and stop following him, and please go away. Then he starts being really mean to her and tells her:
Tempt not too much the hatred of my spirit;
For I am sick when I do look on thee.
Then she says:
And I am sick when I look not on you.
Ouch! That's not very nice. Oberon's watching this whole spectacle and feels really bad for Helena.
So when Puck comes back with the special love-flower, Oberon says that in addition to spreading that on Titania to play a trick on her, why don't you put some of it on Demetrius' eyelids too. Make sure that Helena's nearby, and then he'll fall in love with her. Problem solved. Sounds great.
Fairies are pretty meddlesome - first they're kidnapping Indian princes, now they're messing with the Athenians. Puck goes off to find Titania to juice her eyelids. Hermia and Lysander wander into a glade and Lysander says he realizes that he's lost. He says they should sleep in the woods, and that he wants to sleep close to Hermia.
This whole 'Ooh, I can't find my aunt's house, we'd better get to sleep' thing is starting to sound a bit suspicious to me. Hermia says 'No, get away, you horny horndog!' (That's a direct quote.) So they sleep far apart from each other.
So after Oberon juices Titania, he comes looking for the Athenian that Oberon wants him to put the juice on, and he comes across Hermia and Lysander. Since they're sleeping far apart, and he has no idea what Demetrius looks like, he figures this is the guy, and the girl who wants him. So he juices Lysander's eyelids.
I think you can see where this is going.
Helena's still pursuing Demetrius through the woods. It's turning into a Scooby Doo chase. He's still hurling abuse at her over his shoulder. She gets tired from all this running and unrequited love and she sees Lysander sleeping - and wakes him up! And now he falls in love with Helena, because he's had the special eyelid juice.
She doesn't get it at first. She thinks he's just upset because Demetrius is also after Hermia, and she doesn't understand what's going on. She says:
Yet Hermia still loves you: then be content.
Content with Hermia! No; I do repent
The tedious minutes I with her have spent.
Not Hermia but Helena I love:
Who will not change a raven for a dove?
Wherefore was I to this keen mockery born?
When at your hands did I deserve this scorn?
She thinks Lysander's making fun of her, and pretending to like her just to add to her misery. So she runs away. He follows her, and Hermia wakes up and there's no Lysander nearby.
Act III: The Ass Head
It's time for the Rude Mechanicals' rehearsal. We know we're in for a good time because they're the best people in the play. They're worrying that the ladies might be scared or offended by the fact that Pyramus kills himself.
Bottom thinks he has the solution: he says they should write a prologue explaining that it's all pretend, like when you take a five-year-old to the movies. (This five-year-old got so scared she had to leave the Muppet Treasure Island.) They're also worried about the lion for the same reason.
Bottom thinks the guy playing the lion should introduce himself and say he's not really a lion before he does any roaring. I'm sure they had the special effects to really fool those ladies into being terrified. Then they turn to the practical concerns of the production.
There has to be moonlight, and there has to be a wall. So they get some dudes to play those things - to 'present wall' and 'present moonlight'.
(Holding fingers up to symbolize a wall with a small crack) 'Let him hold his fingers thus, and through that cranny shall Pyramus and Thisbe whisper'.
They start to rehearse in earnest. Puck turns up and watches, thinks the whole thing is hilarious and awful, and he decides that it will be even more hilarious if he turns Bottom's head into the head of an ass. (Ass just means donkey, chill out. As a friend explained to me long ago, 'If it's in the Bible it's not a swear.' Actually, his seven-year-old brother then yelled out 'JACKASS!' Really loud.)
So Bottom comes back onstage and suddenly he's got an ass-head - not to be confused with a butt-chin - and all of his friends run away.
You might remember that a long, long time ago Puck put the flower juice on Titania's eyes. She wakes up, right now at this perfect moment, and sees ass-headed Bottom. She falls in love with him and leads him off to her bower, which is a fairy bedroom in the forest, for some quality alone-time.
Meanwhile, Hermia's stalking around looking for Lysander. She runs into Demetrius, who's upset that she still loves Lysander best even though he's abandoned her. He says, 'Screw this, I'm going to sleep.' (Another direct quote.) These people should figure out that going to sleep in the forest is a terrible plan, right? Things always happen that are out of their control when they do this.
So Puck swoops in and juices Demetrius' eyelids, thinking that he's got the right guy this time. Helena's still running away from Lysander. (You feel like they could just not text each other like civilized people when they don't like each other.)
The noise of their fighting wakes up Demetrius, who now falls in love with Helena as soon as he sees her, because he's got the juice. It would be funnier if he fell in love with Lysander, but I guess it's not that kind of play. Lysander and Demetrius fight over who loves her the most. Helena still thinks they're all making fun of her.
Hermia turns up and is horrified that Lysander loves Helena. Helena thinks Hermia's in on the joke, and they all start to have a big fight.
Puck runs in and distracts them all by calling out names and mimicking their voices and confuses and separates them all. They all get lost and they all fall asleep again. They're like those people who can sleep on planes even when there are howling babies, except you know those people are on Xanax. I don't know what these guys' excuse is.
Puck juices Lysander's eyelids, hoping to get him back in love with Hermia, and then we're in Act IV.
Act IV: Breaking the Spell
Titania's braiding Bottom's ass-head-hair and generally lavishing love upon him.
Oberon wanders in and makes fun of her then tells her he'll lift the spell if she'll give him that Indian kid. So she gives him back and wakes up with ass-headed Bottom, and is totally disgusted and horrified. Puck changes Bottom's head back, and now it's time for Theseus' wedding!
Wandering around, they find the sleeping Athenian kids, and everything's all sorted out now, because Puck finally juiced all the right eyelids. Everything's fine. They're all like, 'We had the strangest dreams - and you, and you and you were there!'
So now that the love-problems are all resolved, Theseus says 'Great, this is fantastic. Come to the wedding feast and we'll all get married today.'
Act V: The Rude Mechanicals' Play
And now it's the moment we've all been waiting for! The wedding feast is over, and it's time for the Rude Mechanicals to put on their play.
Theseus' assistant warns them that it will be awful, but he wants to see it anyway. Kind of like a so-bad-it's-good type of thing. Basically, the plot of this play-within-a-play is that Pyramus and Thisbe can't meet and have talk to each other through a wall, but they love each other. Then Pyramus thinks she's been eaten by a lion and kills himself. Then Thisbe kills herself when she finds Pyramus dead. Kind of like Romeo and Juliet.
But the play is so god-awful that Theseus et al. snark all through it, like those two old-man Muppets who heckle everything:
'What was that?'
'It's called the medium sketch.'
'The medium sketch?'
'Yeah, it wasn't rare, and it certainly wasn't well done! BWAHAHAHAHAHA!'
That's what's going on during this whole thing. Then it's over, the Rude Mechanicals do a little dance, and everyone goes to sleep again.
And Puck (or 'Robin Goodfellow') gives the final word, encouraging the audience to think it was all like a dream (just like the people in the play felt about their time in the woods!)
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
If you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue,
We will make amends 'ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.
Basically he's reminding everyone that this was a play, and that if anything bothered you, 'if we shadows have offended,' you can think of it just like a dream and forget about it. It didn't really happen. It's interesting in the context of the play-within-a-play that the Mechanicals put on. They too are concerned about not offending - they're worried that people will think the lion was real or that Pyramus dying was real.
And you can see in these parallels that A Midsummer Night's Dream is a play that's really conscious of itself as a play. People fall in and out of love with each other all the time in Shakespeare plays. It's a common occurrence. Twelfth Night is a great example - there's lots of gender-bending going on there. But in this one it's the fairies' direct meddling, literally determining who loves who by putting magic juice on their eyelids, that seems like a metaphor for the playwright's arbitrary deciding who loves each other. He can change it - it's magic and the characters are totally unable to fight it. It seems like Shakespeare is saying something about the nature of love in plays.
So not only is A Midsummer Night's Dream hilarious, it's also thought-provoking. Hermia, Lysander, Helena and Demetrius are at the fairies' mercy in their love quadrangle. Oberon and Titania have their own thing going on that ends up affecting them. The Rude Mechanicals give a metaphor for the whole situation by putting on a play of their own!