Nearly a week ago I finished reading Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream but have only now found the time to sit down and write my review. I picked this play for several reasons. First, I love Shakespeare and am slowly working my way through all of his plays. Second, this is one of the most frequently performed of his plays and I wanted to correct this gap in my literary knowledge. Third, I wanted something short, quick, and entertaining. A Midsummer Night’s Dream definitely met the last requirement.
To say that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is about relationships would be a bit of an understatement. There are relationships piled on top of relationships in this particular play. There is Theseus, Duke of Athens, who is engaged to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. There is Hermia, and Athenian maiden whose father has pledged her to marry Demetrius but who loves Lysander. There is Helena, who loves Demetrius but cannot sway him from his desire for Hermia. There is Oberon, King of the Fairies and his queen, Titania. Finally, there is Pyramus and Thisbe, the main characters in a (supposedly) tragic play-within-the-play acted out by some humble Athenian craftsmen. These relationships frame the action throughout the play and offer many opportunities for comic misunderstanding.
These relationships form three plotlines that are woven together. The first plotline revolves around the Athenian lovers. Hermia wants to marry Lysander but has been pledged to Demetrius by her father. Her father uses an ancient Athenian law to force his daughter to choose between marrying Demetrius or death. Theseus, as duke, is forced to resolve the issue. He gives Hermia the choice between marrying Demetrius or becoming a nun in the service of Diana. Lysander and Hermia plot to flee Athens and get married in the woods outside of Theseus’ jurisdiction. Helena, in a fit of jealousy, informs Demetrius of the plans of his supposed bride in the hopes that he will be so grateful that he abandons Hermia in favor of Helena. Demetrius and Helena prepare to pursue Hermia and Lysander. While all of this is occurring, a group of simple Athenian craftsmen makes plans to rehearse a play in honor of the impending nuptials between Theseus and Hippolyta. Their chosen rehearsal location is the very same clearing in the woods at which Hermia and Lysander plan to wed (and Helena and Demetrius plan to confront them). Confused yet?
The action then moves to the woods, where we encounter Oberon, King of the Fairies. Oberon is in the middle of a dispute with Titania, Queen of the Fairies. Oberon is angry with Titania because she refuses to give an Indian changeling who was the son of one of her followers to Oberon to act as his knight. Oberon plots a bit of trickery to punish Titania for her obstinacy and sends his servant Puck to retrieve a magical flower whose juice can be applied to a person’s eyelids while they sleep, causing them to fall in love with whatever they see first upon awakening. His plan is to make Titania fall in love with a woodland creature and then shame her back into obedience. While plotting this revenge, he overhears Helena’s struggle to win Demtrius’ favor. He tells Puck to apply the juice to Demetrius’ eyes as well so that he will return Helena’s love. Puck accidentally applies the magic juice to Lysander’s eyes instead, who sees Helena when he awakes. When Oberon learns of the mistake, he charms Demetrius’ eyes and sends Puck to retrieve Helena. Demetrius falls for Helena and challenges Lysander to a duel to determine whose love is greater. Fortunately, Puck distracts the two men until all of the lovers fall asleep and Oberon removes the charm from Lysander. That leaves Lysander and Hermia paired, and Helena and Demetrius together.
While all of this is happening, the six craftsmen are practicing their play. Puck changes Bottom, a weaver playing the part of Pyramus, into a man with the head of an ass (my older brother has sported that look for years). Titania, under the influence of the magic flower, falls in love with the transformed Bottom (that would make a great name for an exercise program). While she is thus distracted, Oberon steals the changeling. He then transforms Bottom back to his natural state and lifts the spell from Titania. Puck arranges for the Athenian lovers to believe that everything was only a dream.
The action then returns to Athens, where the happy couples of Theseus and Hippolyta, Lysander and Hermia, and Demetrius and Helena are all married. The craftsmen act out their play, the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe. The lack of skill and rehearsal, and hypersensitivity to the women in the audience render the tragic play laughable. The newlyweds watch the play with glee and then retire to bed. Oberon and Titania, now reconciled, visit the house of the duke and bless the weddings. The play concludes with Puck apologizing to the audience for any offence and reminding them it all may have been just a dream.
I loved this play. Shakespeare is always a pleasure to read by virtue of his language, but this play was enjoyable because it is just plain fun. The plotline borders on the absurd and the characters are somewhat ridiculous, resulting in a play that is lighthearted and farcical. That said, it still explores the complex nature of relationships and the importance of love. The final act, in which the newlyweds laugh at the ridiculous tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, is a wonderful bit of irony. I would definitely recommend this play for anyone looking for a pleasant afternoon read.
The Current Count
21 Read, 79 To Go