A Midsummer Nights Dream abbreviated

We learn promptly in this very long ago story that Theseus is the duke of Athens and that he is preoccupied with his near-term plans to marry Hippolyta. Theseus is the city’s principal authority.  He’s judge and jury.  His wedding plans, noted early and only briefly, are not to be forgotten.  As the play opens, Theseus is approached by an angry Egeus, a father seriously upset with his daughter Hermia, who wants to marry Lysander, a ne’er-do-well in her father’s eyes.  Egeus says Lysander has had the audacity to “give her rhymes and interchange love tokens with my child, and stol’n her fantasy with bracelets, rings and other trifles.”  Egeus wants her to marry Demetrius, but for whatever reasons, Demetrius has only of late shown an interest in eye-catching Hermia. Egeus presents his case passionately and directly to Theseus. (Chauvinism, Act 1, Scene 1)

A young woman named Helena enters. Helena and Hermia have been close friends since childhood.  However, with Demetrius’ sudden interest in Hermia, she is now quite angry and perhaps justified. She and Demetrius are engaged to be married. She is, however, envious of her beautiful friend Hermia, saying to Hermia “O, teach me how you look and with what art you sway the motion of Demetrius’ heart.”  When confronted by Theseus, Demetrius claims that he broke his engagement to Helena when he first saw Hermia.  We’re led to believe, however, that Hermia’s prosperous and well-connected father’s thoughts on this marriage-of-his-daughter matter may have influenced Demetrius’ sudden interest in Hermia.  How Demetrius could have been engaged to Helena and not been well aware of Hermia remains unaddressed.  The explosive interchange among these few leaves Helena feeling terribly deceived and betrayed not only by Demetrius, but as well by Hermia.  Helena feels that Hermia must have effectively used her charms to gain Demetrius’ sudden attention.  Understanding why Egeus believes Demetrius would make the more worthy husband for his daughter also remains a mystery.  But amidst all the verbal sparing and emotional wounds inflicted, Shakespeare leads us to believe that Hermia and Lysander are very much in love, Lysander wisely noting “the course of true love never did run smooth.” 

To escape this interference in their personal lives, Lysander and Hermia make plans to elope the next night; to leave through the woods; to travel to his aunt’s house, near Athens, where they can be married.  Being sympathetic to Helena’s dilemma, well-meaning Hermia tells Helena of their plans. (Envy, Act 1, Scene 1) Defying Hermia’s confidence, Helena lets Demetrius in on their secret plan to elope, feeling certain he will pursue them, which he does.  Helena then follows Demetrius into the woods, seeking to track him down as he chases after Hermia and Lysander.  A frightened Helena, worried for her future and the breakdown of her engagement, begs for his attention. (Spurned, Act 2, Scene 1)

At about this time, deep inside the woods, we learn that Oberon, the king of the fairies, is jealous of Titania, his queen, for showing interest in an “Indian boy.”  Seriously, this is how the story goes. Upset as he is with his queen, Oberon instructs his aide, Robin Goodfellow (who is also known as Puck) to secure the flower (the pansy) with the magic “juice,” the flower Cupid’s arrow struck when his arrow missed its mark, Cupid having intended to “pierce a hundred thousand hearts.”  (Fantasy, Act 2, Scene 1) We believe this to be the best Cupid story ever told. 

As the story goes, when the “nectar” (the juice from the struck flower) is placed on one’s eyelids, it causes the person when wakened to instantly fall in love with the creature he or she first sees.  Oberon plans to place the pansy’s magic nectar on Titania’s eyelids, and asks Robin to place some of the nectar on Demetrius’ eyelids; romantic Oberon wanting things to work out between Helena and Demetrius.  He also wants things to work out between himself and Titania. Oberon tells Robin “Thou shalt know the man by the Athenian garments he hath on.”  As we shall see, Oberon’s instructions to Puck are not specific enough, a moment central to the story.

All the while, Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius and Helena are rushing through the woods, Lysander and Hermia eager to get to his aunt’s house.  Sometimes the four of them are together; sometimes they are alone, often exhausted.  At this time they are separated.  They lie down independently and fall asleep.  As planned, Oberon places the magic nectar on Titania’s eyelids, knowing she sleeps where “the wild thyme blows, where oxlips and the nodding violet grows.” But Robin mistakenly applies the nectar to Lysander’s eyelids, rather than Demetrius’, Oberon’s instructions having been less than clear.  Lysander wakens, sees Helena, and excessively declares his love for her, saying things like “Content with Hermia?  Who will not change a raven for a dove?  Reason says you are the worthier maid.” (Love, Act 2, Scene 2)

Helena thinks he is taunting her and responds angrily, saying “Wherefore was I to this keen mockery born?  When at your hands did I deserve this scorn?”  She exits. Later, still under the nectar-of-the-pansy’s spell, the flower having been known as “what the maids called love-in-idleness,” (before Cupid’s arrow changed it forever) Lysander sees Hermia asleep and says to himself “Hermia, sleep thou there, and never mayst thou come Lysander near.” He moves on. Hermia soon wakens, alone in the woods and seriously frightened.

About this time, a group of tradesmen from Athens have come into the woods to practice their play-skit, named Pyramus and Thisbe; a mini-play they plan to perform at the reception following the planned wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta.  Robin, puckishly, observing the men practicing their skit, believes Bottom, the weaver, to be terribly inept as an actor and converts his head to that of a jackass. Puck has great skills. Titania wakens, having been asleep where “oxlips and the nodding violet grows.”  By happenstance this flowery spot is near the spot where the tradesmen were practicing their mini-play.  She immediately falls for the very odd looking Bottom; she of course being subject to the magic nectar of the pansy. Bottom loves the attention Titania and her fairy aides’ offer, all treating him beautifully in a most charming way.  It takes a willing imagination to stay with this. (Fantasy, Act 3, Scene 1)

At this point Hermia and Demetrius uncomfortably find themselves together in the woods.  She angrily accuses him of slaying Lysander and then exits. Unperturbed Demetrius falls asleep. Having observed the angry outburst from Hermia towards Demetrius, Oberon says demonstratively to Robin: “This is the same Athenian.”  Robin responds “This is the woman, but not this the man.” (Anger, Act 3, Scene 2.1) Realizing their error, Oberon instructs Robin to apply the nectar to Demetrius’ eyelids, his original objective.  Robin does.

Helena and Lysander enter.  Demetrius wakens, sees Helena and promptly tells her how much he loves her.  A baffled Helena says to the two of them “you both are rivals and love Hermia, and now both rivals to mock Helena.  None of noble sort would so offend a poor soul’s patience, all to make you sport.” (Anger, Act 3, Scene 2.2) At this point Hermia enters. Feeling betrayed, she cries out at Lysander “Why unkindly didst thou leave me so?”   Helena lashes out at her, blaming her for stealing Demetrius from her, saying things like “O, she is one of this confederacy!”  (Anger, Act 3, Scene 2.3) (Anger, Act 3, Scene 2.4) The action here is quick. The women then take it out on each other, Hermia saying to Helena “you trickster, you cankerblossom, you thief of love!”  Helena comes back with “Have you no modesty, no maiden shame, no touch of bashfulness? You counterfeit, you puppet, you.”  (Anger, Act 3, Scene 2.5) These two are really angry with each other.

The four lovers are separated.  Overhearing the turmoil, calm and steady Oberon instructs Robin to cause a heavy fog to roll into the woods and then to apply the nectar to Lysander’s eyelids, believing that step will neutralize things.  Robin does. The four principals fall asleep; none knowing the others are nearby, being so fogged-in. (Fantasy, Act 3, Scene 2)

The play then shifts to Bottom who wakens and declares what a wonderful midsummer night’s dream he’s had. Oberon instructs Robin to remove the jackass head from Bottom, and he does.  (Fantasy, Act 4, Scene 1) Oberon places the nectar for a second time on a sleeping Titania’s eyelids.  She wakens and sees Oberon.  She’s in love. Life is good. They hold hands and dance, Oberon saying “Come, my queen, take hands with me, and rock the ground whereon these sleepers be.”

At dawn, Theseus, Hippolyta and Egeus enter the woods and almost stumble over the four young people, waking them. When Lysander awakens he sees Hermia and lets her know how much he loves her.  Demetrius wakens, reaffirming his love for Helena.  Listening to these declarations, Theseus, deferring to Egeus, asks if it is okay with everybody, he’d like to have the two couples join Hippolyta and him for a common wedding ceremony in Athens.  All agree.  This is the moment of inspiration for Felix Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March,” opening with perhaps the most famous four notes in music. The beautiful triple wedding ceremony comes off just as planned. (Joy, Act 5, Scene 1) All three couples have an absolutely fabulous time at their reception, enjoying each other’s company and the performance of the tragedy, Pyramus and Thisbe, a skit that comes off as a silly farcical comedy, presented by the tradesmen, the wonderful amateur actors.  Puck ends the show with “So good night unto you all. Give me your hands, if we be friends.” 

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