What I’m Reading: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

I haven’t read Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream since I was a freshman in college, and when my father recently told me he was re-reading it, I decided to follow suit. It’s a short play, but packs a lot of plot and characters into those relatively few pages. To refresh your own memory: Duke Theseus and Hippolyta (from Greek mythology) are to be married three days hence in Athens. Meanwhile, beauteous Hermia and young Lysander are in love with each other, but Hermia’s father has ordered Hermia to marry Demetrius. As Athenian law requires Hermia to obey her father’s wishes, Theseus decrees that if she won’t marry Demetrius, she must decide whether to be put to death or join a nunnery. For his part, Demetrius is pursued by Hermia’s childhood friend Helena, to whom he had previously proposed, but whom he now despises.

These are the characters of the main plot, but there are two other sets of characters that weave in and out of the story. The first are the fairies, led by King Oberon and Queen Titania, who are having a bit of a marriage spat. The second are the “mechanicals,” a group of rough Athenian workmen, led by the charmingly buffoonish Bottom, who are have a play they would like to perform at the wedding of Duke Theseus and Hippolyta.

This is all set up in the first act, but it’s in the second act where things get going. Hermia and Lysander agree to meet that night in a wood near Athens, intending to run away and marry in some other place. Helena overhears the plan, and reveals it to Demetrius, who runs off to confront Lysander, with Helena following with professions of her love. The mechanicals also decide to meet in the wood that night to rehearse their play. Finally, as part of his quarrel with his wife, Oberon charges his chief fairy helper, Puck, to rub the eyelids of Titania with a love potion if he can find her sleeping, so that when she awakens, she will fall in love with the first living being she sees. Overhearing Demetrius rejecting Helena’s advances, and feeling sorry for her, he also tells Puck to wait until the Athenian man is sleeping and to coat his eyelids as well, hoping that when he awakens he will fall in love with Helena.

Of course, Puck coats the eyelids of the wrong Athenian man. Of course, the mischievous fairy Puck decides for fun to change Bottom’s head into that of an ass, so that when Titania awakens, it is Bottom she falls in love with. Of course, this all results in a confusing and fairly hilarious spectacle, with wrong people falling in and out of love with each other as Puck flits around desperately trying to repair the damage he caused with fresh applications of the love potion, and Bottom, despite having an ass’s head, enjoying his new-found status as consort of Titania and ordering the other fairies around. I won’t reveal how it all ends, and whether the right lovers end up with each other, but I will simply point out this is a Shakespeare comedy, and thus must have a happy ending.

A couple things struck me on this re-read. One is how good-hearted the characters are. They may be willing to have a little fun at the expense of the others, but in the end, they really genuinely want what’s best for the other characters. I think this is shown best in Act V, when the mechanicals finally put on their play for the entertainment after the multiple nuptial ceremonies. The play is quite ridiculous, and the other characters have some sport in mocking it (though not so the actors can hear them). But in the end, Theseus’s judgment of the play is that “never anything can be amiss when simpleness and duty tender it.”

Another thing I noticed is how genuinely funny the play is. Often I find that older, humorous works from past eras don’t translate well to modern times. Humor just seems to have a shorter shelf-life than tragedy. But there were a number of scenes in AMSN’sD that had me laughing. Simply the idea of Bottom, already a pompous character, running around with a donkey head, not knowing what’s going on, is good stuff. And the earnestness of the mechanicals putting on their play within the play, with a ton of enthusiasm but no skill whatsoever, is played perfectly.

It seems a little silly to discuss who might like this or if I should recommend it. It’s one of the most beloved of Shakespeare’s plays–of course you should read it! If you’re an adult and you never have, now’s the time. In fact, as one of his shorter plays, and a real crowd-pleaser, as well, I’m giving this my No Excuses tag, meaning a short, important book that’s so easy to read that there’s no excuse for never tackling it. And if you have read it before, but not for a while, maybe you should join my father and me in reacquainting yourself with it!

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