Richard Dadd: Titania Sleeping, 1841 (detail)
Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using The Complete Works of Shakespeare Updated Fourth Ed., Longman Addison-Wesley, ed. David Bevington, 1997. Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of his commentary.
Overall Impression: I found this play exceptionally enjoyable and moving, the language rich and the characterizations and imagery very fine.
Per Bevington: Written c. 1594-1595. Involves four subplot elements: the courtly marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta, the four young lovers, Titania, Oberon, and the other fairies, and the rude mechanicals and their play.
Setting: Athens in classical era; Theseus is the duke. [He was the legendary king, contemporary of Hercules and national Athenian hero prior to the Trojan War—they had fought the Amazons together and he brought back their conquered queen Hippolyta (in some versions Antiope) to be his bride.]
Theseus' court. The wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta is to be held in four days with the coming of the new moon. Egeus, whose dark-complexioned daughter is Hermia, requests of Theseus the ancient privilege of selecting Demetrius as her husband rather than Lysander, despite their expressed love for each other. Theseus explains the Athenian law to Hermia: that she must marry as her father requests, become a nun, or be executed. Lysander reminds the duke that Demetrius had previously wooed the fair-skinned Helena and then rejected her. Lysander and Hermia resolve secretly to flee Athens to his aunt, and will meet in the woods outside the town then following night. Helena arrives and berates her old friend Hermia for stealing the affections of Demetrius, but Hermia denies responsibility and reveals their plan to elope. Helena resolves to tell Demetrius of the elopement [inexplicably, but perhaps to convince him to give up on Hermia].
Athens. The rustics Quince the carpenter, Snug the joiner, Bottom the weaver, Flute the bellows mender, and Snout the tinker join up to plan their "interlude" they wish to perform before the duke in celebration of his wedding. It will be a depiction of the tragic demise of Babylonian neighbors and lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe [derived from Ovid]. Bottom will play Pyramus and Flute his lover. Bottom wishes to have more roles and more action to depict. They resolve to rehearse secretly in the palace woods the following day's night.
The woods, presumably the next day's night. Puck (named Robin Goodfellow), encounters a fairy in the woods. He works for Oberon, the fairy king, and the other for Titania, the fairy queen—they have arrived for the royal wedding. Puck warns not to let Titania encounter Oberon: he is angry because she has denied to him the Indian changeling child now under her protection (his mother was one of Titania's worshippers and died in childbirth). They discuss Puck's various mischievous roles (e.g., misleading night travelers [as Jack o' Lantern and Will o' the Wisp]). Titania encounters Oberon and they exchange barbs about their past love for Theseus and Hippolyta, resp. Their antagonism is causing contagious fogs, rheumatism, and other regional problems. Oberon wants the child to be his own henchman, but Titania again refuses. Oberon plots revenge on Titania, and instructs Puck to gather the magical love-in-idleness flower, on which Cupid's arrow once landed. Demetrius arrives chased by Helena, whom he rudely rejects. Oberon instructs Puck to place the magic drops on the disdainful Athenian's eyelids, i.e., Demetrius'.
Titania prepares to retire, and her fairies sing her to sleep. Oberon steals in and squeezes the flower onto her eyelids. Lysander and Hermia arrive [they do not see Titania]. They have lost their way and decide to sleep till morning. She modestly rejects his amorous intentions and asks that they sleep apart. Puck applies the juice mistakenly to Lysander's eyelids. Helena and Demetrius reappear, he exits, she is seen by Lysander who falls immediately in love with her (rejecting the sleeping Hermia) and pursues her. Hermia awakens to find herself alone.
The woods. The rustics assemble and begin their inexpert rehearsal. Bottom suggests they need a prologue to keep from frightening the ladies. Players will act out a Wall with a chink and Moonshine as well as the lion. With Pyramus/Bottom offstage, Puck transforms his head into an ass' head. The players are frightened off. Titania awakes and is instantly in love with Bottom. She instructs her fairies to lead him to her bower.
Puck tells Oberon what he has done to Titania, and he is initially pleased. But Demetrius arrives still chasing Hermia, who spurns him and accuses him of murdering Lysander. Oberon realizes the juice was applied to the wrong Athenian male. Oberon instructs Puck to bring Helena so Demetrius can be made to love her. He is treated with the magic drops and awakens in love with Helena. But she thinks he and Lysander are merely mocking her with their professions of love. Hermia arrives and accuses Helena of enchanting Lysander—they begin to fight but are separated. Oberon berates Puck for his mistake, and instructs him to obscure the night with fog so the male rivals do not hurt each other and to treat Lysander with drops to restore his love for Hermia before the dawn arrives. Helena and Hermia also arrive in the fog and the four lovers eventually lie down near each other in exhaustion. Puck treats Lysander's eyes.
Titania is still with Bottom, who is being treated royally but only wants oats and hay. She has given her changeling child to Oberon and he decides to release her from her spell with an herb. She awakens, is repulsed by Bottom, and dances with Oberon, their amity renewed. They plan to bless the Duke's house together. Puck removes Bottom's ass head. Dawn arrives, the fairies disperse for distant darkness, and Theseus' hunting party arrives to discover the lovers asleep. Egeus is initially angry to learn of the plan for elopement, but Demetrius explains that he now loves Helena and Theseus declares a triple wedding will be held. Demetrius asks if they are really awake or dreaming. Bottom awakens and notes that he has had a most rare vision, a dream "past the wit of man to say what dream it was"—he resolves to write a ballad about his experience.
Athens. The sad artisans lament the "transporting" and disappearance of Bottom, but he arrives and they joyfully welcome him.
The palace. Theseus and Hippolyta discuss the story the lovers have told of the encounters in the woods—Theseus dismisses the tales with worldly skepticism, though she is not so disbelieving. The lovers join them. Philostrate (the master of revels) informs them of the competing entertainers, and Theseus chooses the Pyramus story over Philostrate's objections. The performance begins, with frequent mocking interjections made by the royal party. Quince gives the Prologue and the lion and moon introduce themselves. Wall separates Pyramus and Thisbe, the lovers resolve to meet at Ninus' tomb. She flees a lion and leaves behind her mantle. He arrives, sees her bloodied mantle, assumes she is slain, and kills himself with his sword. She returns, finds Pyramus dead, and kills herself. Theseus declines an epilogue which Bottom offers and accepts instead a dance. They decide to retire for the night. Puck arrives to sweep the floor. Oberon and Titania sing and dance and announce that they will bless the marriages that have taken place. Puck turns to the audience and asks forgiveness if they have offended, saying it has all been like a dream, and bids goodnight.