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A Midsummer Nights Dream takes place in Athens. Theseus, the Duke of Athens, is planning his marriage with Hippolyta, and as a result he is a planning a large festival. Egeus enters, followed by his daughter Hermia, her beloved Lysander, and her suitor Demetrius. Egeus tells Theseus that Hermia refuses to marry Demetrius, wanting instead to marry Lysander. He asks for the right to punish Hermia with death if she refuses to obey.


Theseus agrees that Hermias duty is to obey her father, and threatens her with either entering a nunnery or marrying the man her father chooses. Lysander protests, but is overruled by the law. He and Hermia than decide to flee by night into the woods surrounding Athens, where they can escape the law and get married. They tell their plan to Helena, a girl who is madly in love with Demetrius. Hoping to gain favor with Demetrius, Helena decides to tell him about the plan.


Some local artisans and workmen have decided to perform a play for Theseus as a way to celebrate his wedding. They choose Pyramus and Thisbe for their play, and meet to assign the roles. Nick Bottom gets the role of Pyramus, and Flute takes the part of Thisbe. They agree to meet the next night in the woods to rehearse the play.


Robin Goodfellow, a puck, meets a fairy who serves Queen Titania. He tells the fairy that his King Oberon is in the woods, and that Titania should avoid Oberon because they will quarrel again. However, Titania and Oberon soon arrive and begin arguing about a young boy Titania has stolen and is caring for. Oberon demands that she give him the boy, but she refuses.


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Oberon decides to play a trick on Titania and put some pansy juice on her eyes. The magical juice will make her fall in love with first person she sees upon waking up. Soon after Puck is sent away to fetch the juice, Oberon overhears Demetrius and Helena in the woods.


Demetrius deserts Helena in the forest, leaving her alone. Oberon decides that he will change this situation, and commands Robin to put the juice onto Demetriuss eyes when he is sleeping. He then finds Titania and drops the juice onto her eyelids. Robin goes to find Demetrius, but instead comes across Lysander and accidentally uses the juice on him.


By accident Helena comes across Lysander and wakes him up. He immediately falls in love with her and starts to chase her through the woods. Together they arrive where Oberon is watching, and he realizes the mistake. Oberon then puts the pansy juice onto Demetriuss eyelids, who upon waking up also falls in love with Helena. She thinks that the two men are trying to torment her for being in love with Demetrius, and becomes furious at their protestations of love.


The workmen arrive in the woods and start to practice their play. They constantly ruin the lines of the play and mispronounce the words. Out of fear of censorship, they decide to make the play less realistic. Therefore the lion is supposed to announce that he is not a lion, but only a common man.


Bottom also feels obliged to tell the audience that he is not really going to die, but will only pretend to do so. Puck, watching this silly scene, catches Bottom alone and puts an asses head on him. When Bottom returns to his troupe, they run away out of fear. Bottom then comes across Titania, and succeeds in waking her up. She falls in love with him due to the juice on her eyes, and takes him with her.


Lysander and Demetrius prepare to fight one another for Helena. Puck intervenes and leads them through the woods in circles until they collapse onto the ground in exhaustion. He then brings the two women to same area and puts them to sleep as well.


Oberon finds Titania and releases her from the spell. He then tells the audience that Bottom will think is all a dream when he wakes up. He further releases Lysander from the spell. Theseus arrives with a hunting party and finds the lovers stretched out on the ground. He orders the hunting horns blown in order to wake them up.


The lovers explain why they are in the woods, at which point Egeus demands that he be allowed to exercise the law on Hermia. However, Demetrius intervenes and tells them that he no longer loves Hermia, but rather only loves Helena. Theseus decides to overbear Egeus and let the lovers get married that day with him. Together they return to Athens.


Bottom wakes up and thinks that he has dreamed the entire episode. He swiftly returns to Athens where he meets his friends. Together they head over to Theseuss palace. Theseus looks over the list of possible entertainment for that evening and settles on the play of Pyramus and Thisbe. Bottom and the rest of his company perform the play, after which everyone retires to bed.


Puck arrives and starts to sweep the house clean. Oberon and Titania briefly bless the couples and their future children. After they leave Puck asks the audience to forgive the actors is they were offended. He then tells the audience that if anyone disliked the play, they should imagine that it was only a dream.


Compared to the technical theaters of today, the London public theaters in the time of Queen Elizabeth I seem to be terribly limited. The plays had to be performed during daylight hours only and the stage scenery had to be kept very simple with just a table, a chair, a throne, and maybe a tree to symbolize a forest. Many say that these limitations were in a sense advantages. What the theater today can show for us realistically, with massive scenery and electric lighting, Elizabethan playgoers had to imagine. This made the playwright have to write in a vivid language so the audience could understand the play. Not having a lighting technician to work the control panels, Shakespeare had to indicate wether it was dawn or nightfall by using a speech rich in metaphors and descriptive details.


Shakespeares theater was far from being bare, the playwright did have some valuable technical sources that he used to the best of his ability. The costumes the actors wore were made to be very elaborate. Many of the costumes conveyed recognizable meanings for the audience such as a rich aristocrat wearing silk clothes with many ruffles. Many times there were musical accompaniments and sound effects such as gunpowder explosions and the beating of a pan to simulate thunder.


The stage itself was also remarkably versatile. Behind it were doors for exits and entrances and a curtained booth or alcove useful for actors to hide inside. Above the stage was a higher acting area which symbolized a porch or balcony. This was useful in the story of Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo stood below Juliet and told her how he loved her. In the stage floor was a trap door which was said to lead to hell or a cellar, this was especially useful for ghosts or devils who had to appear and disappear throughout the play. The stage itself was shaped in a rectangular platform that projected into a yard that was enclosed by three story galleries.


The building was round or octagonal in shape but Shakespeare called it a wooden O. The audience sat in these galleries or else they could stand in the yard in front the stage. A roof and awning protected the stage and the high-priced gallery seats, but in the case bad weather, the groundlings, who only paid a penny to stand in the yard, must have gotten wet.


The Globe theater was built by a theatrical company in which Shakespeare belonged. The Globe theater, was the most popular of all the Elizabethan theaters, it was not in the city itself but on the south bank of the Thames River. This location had been chosen because, in 1574, public plays had been banished from the city by an ordinance that blamed them for corrupting the youth and promoting prostitution.


A playwright had to please all members of the audience. This explains the wide range of topics in Elizabethan plays. Many plays included passages of subtle poetry, of deep philosophy, and scenes of terrible violence. Shakespeare was an actor as well as a playwright, so he new well what his audience wanted to see. The companys offered as many as thirty plays a season, customarily changing the programs daily. The actors thus had to hold many parts in their heads, which may account for Elizabethan playwrights blank verse writing style.


A Midsummer Nights Dream contains some wonderfully lyrical expressions of lighter Shakespearean themes, most notably those of love, dreams, and the stuff of both, the creative imagination itself. Indeed, close scrutiny of the text by twentieth-century critics has led to a significant upward revision in the plays status, one that overlooks the silliness of its story and concentrates upon its unique lyrical qualities. If A Midsummer Nights Dream can be said to convey a message, it is that the creative imagination is in tune with the supernatural world, and is best used to confer the blessings of Nature (writ large) upon mankind and marriage.


The setting/action is first set in Medieval Athens, where Theseus is referred to by the medieval title of Duke and not as King. His forthcoming marriage with Hippolyta sets the merry mood of the play. Later the action shifts to the woods nearby Athens, which is inhabited by fairies and their King Oberon and Queen Titania. It is an appropriate setting for a play where fairies and mortals jostle with each other like in a dream.


The prevailing mood of this comedy is light and romantic. Throughout the play, there is love, humor, music, song, and dance. The presence of the fairies and a general atmosphere of fantasy add to the charm and light-hearted nature of the play.


The major theme of A Midsummer Nights Dream is love in its various forms. The play opens with Theseus professing his love for Hippolyta. The days when they both fought as enemies are over, and now they are under the overpowering spell of love, both eagerly awaiting their marriage. Theseus declares, Hippolyta I wooed thee with my sword / And won thy love doing thee injuries. Now, however, Theseus and Hippolyta have conquered hatred and enmity and have surrendered themselves to the purer emotions of love and passion.


The love of Hermia and Lysander is the idealistic love, born out of clear understanding, respect, and emotion. They are so deeply committed to one another that they are willing to put up a fight against anyone who opposes their love, be he an unwilling and obstinate father or a ruler of the city-state. When no one will grant them permission to marry, they take matters into their own hands, deciding to run away to a place where Athenian law cannot forbid them to marry.


Demetrius is the typical inconstant lover. He has been in love with Helena but then dotes on Hermia. Before the end of the play, and with the help of the fairies, he abandons Hermia and again loves Helena. In contrast to him, Helena is the constant lover who suffers but still continues to love. In spite of desertion and the ensuing cruelties she suffers, she remains faithful to Demetrius and feels she has won a jewel of a man when he proposes to her near the end of the play.


Additionally, there is the humorous love caused by magic spells, which makes people fall in love with the most unlikely partners. Titania, the fairy queen, falls in love with Bottom, a commoner dressed in an asss head. Lysander falls in love with Helena, the


best friend of Hermia, his true love. Demetrius falls in love with Helena--again - after previously deserting her for Hermia.


In the end, all the love described in the play turns out well. Titania is released from her spell and she allows Bottom to return to Athens in time for the interlude. The other three couples are happily united in matrimony. Only the interlude, the play within a play, has an element of tragic love, but even this ends in tragic mirth and lamentable comedy, which causes merriment and laughter rather than heartbreak and tears.


In this atmosphere of overpowering love, there is not much room for the development of minor themes. The sub-plot of the craftsmen deals somewhat with the fall of Bottom. Though his pride is temporarily punished, his story does not have a serious


moralistic tone. Bottom is really just a light-hearted diversion, and his short fall from grace is passed off, even by him, as a strange dream. This thought leads to the other minor theme, that life is sometimes like a dream and dreams are sometimes very life-like. Throughout the play, entitled as a dream, the characters wander in and out of both real and fantasy worlds.


The minor theme is that the course of true love never runs smoothly. This is seen when Hermia is forbidden to marry Lysander and when Demetrius deserts Helena.


Language and theatre. In the play we hear dialogue used


• for narration of past events,


• for description,


• and for comment.


But more importantly, it carries the action of the drama.


By narrating events, Shakespeare is able to shorten the time directly represented on stage while providing the audience with necessary background information. Good examples of this would be Pucks account to the fairy of his masters quarrel with Titania, or Titanias own account of how she came by the changeling child. Where a tale may be already known to most of the audience, the narration can be very brief, as in Theseuss I wooed thee with my sword/And won thy love, doing thee injury. More immediate events not directly shown may also be narrated, as when Puck tells the audience he has gone through the forest But Athenian found I none, or when Oberon tells Puck how he has met Titania, Seeking sweet favours for this hateful fool (Bottom) and that she has given up the child. Description, often with an element of narration, is essential to this play.


Description


Imagination is an important theme, and the playwright boldly initiates a debate about imagination in the latter part of the play. The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them, to which comes the retort that in watching Pyramus and Thisbe the audience must compensate for the defective imaginations of the performers. In the Dream, as elsewhere, Shakespeare depends upon, but successfully excites, the audiences imagination. Things that cannot possibly be shown on stage are described vividly to us. These include


• Oberons celebrated bank whereon the wild thyme blows


• Lysanders and Hermias description to Helena, in 1.1, of the moonlight and the wood;


• Helenas description in . of her school-days friendship with Hermia, with its repeated images of union in partition,


• and Pucks description of night terrors at the end of the play (Now the hungry lion roars/And the wolf behowls the moon) contrasted with the security of those in Theseuss house (...not a mouse/Shall disturb this hallowd house).


A sense of the fairies magical power and of exoticism is established in references to remote places (the farthest steppe of India or the spiced Indian air) or Pucks ability to circle the earth in forty minutes (much less on stage). The wood, too, is exotic and ambiguous it is beautiful but dangerous. The description of these things contrasts with the more homely and familiar elements the native English flowers and herbs, and the folk traditions reflected in Pucks account of his mischief.


Often narration and description are mixed. This is true of the example cited above of Titanias account of the votaress of her order, as well as of her account of the disruption in the natural world caused by her quarrel with Oberon. Oberon, in his account of the fair vestal, throned by the west also mixes narration with descriptive detail, as does Puck when he explains to his master how Titania wakd and straightway loved an ass. The frequent references to the wood and the moon instruct us to keep thinking of what we cannot directly see, while a line such as weeds of Athens he doth wear explains Pucks mistaking Lysander for Demetrius. What the playwright conveys here is not sartorial information but the nature of Pucks error. Lysander could be wearing any style of clothing and we will accept what Puck says.


This play is a comedy. Shakespeare first informs the audience of the (very serious) problems of the young lovers, and of the fairy king and queen, counterpointed by the less serious (to us) problems of the mechanicals in presenting their play. By bringing the different groups of characters together in the wood, the author is able to show how the characters become more confused, before Puck, at the end of Act separates the young lovers, the antidote to the love-in-idleness juice is given to Lysander, and in 4.1 Titania is also cured before the lovers are found by Theseus, and Bottom wakes with a hazy recollection of his dream (which may be no less articulate than the lovers attempts to recall what has happened in the wood).


Most of Act 5 is superfluous to the main plot, but indispensable as comic comment on the potential for tragedy in the love of passionate young couples. Act 5 is not just an epilogue, however the action of the three principal fairies in blessing the newly-weds, and the children to be conceived is a necessary conclusion to the misunderstandings which have gone before. Here, as in Theseus kindly advice to Hermia in 1.1 (Know of your youth, examine well your blood...), in Titanias long exposition of the results of her quarrel with Oberon (.1) and in the joy with which the fairies rock the ground whereon these sleepers be (4.1), we see the plays real and serious concern with fertility in the natural world, and in the world of men and their rulers, a concern which the Elizabethan audience would feel very strongly.


Shakespeare wrote plays to be seen in a complete performance which would, for A Midsummer Nights Dream, last about two and a half hours. The play would be performed by daylight (between about two and four oclock) in the purpose-built open air theatres, or with artificial light (lanterns and candles) in private houses of wealthy patrons (The Tempest may well have been originally written for private performance many of the special effects work best indoors and under artificial light; both Hamlet and A Midsummer Nights Dream show plays-within-the-play which are performed indoors, at night).


The plays were not written to be read or studied and (hand-written) copies of the text were originally made only for the use of the performers. It is important to remember this when you study the play as a text (with extensive editorial comment) on which you will be examined.


Shakespeares company was the most successful of its day, and his plays filled the theatres. Many (most?) of the audience in a public performance would lack formal education and be technically illiterate (this does not mean that they were unintelligent). But these were people for whom the spoken word was of greater value than is the case today they would be more attentive, more sensitive in listening to patterns of verse and rhyme, and aware of imagery (word pictures).


The intervals between Shakespeares scenes represent changes in time or place, but not of scenery, which would be minimal or non-existent. Basic stage furniture would serve a variety of purposes, but stage properties and costume would be more elaborate and suggestive. A range of gestures and movements with conventional connotations of meaning was used, but we are not sure today how these were performed.


In order to understand a play, we have to work harder than did the Elizabethan or Jacobean audience. To see a play entire (in the theatre or on film), without interruption apart for the interval, may be needed for us to appreciate Shakespeares strong sense of narrative drive, and to see how the text is not the play but a (loose) blueprint for performance.


In watching Shakespeare in performance we are not likely ever to enjoy the instant pleasure of experiencing a work of art (like a feature film or soap-opera or first-person novel) which uses conventions and a range of cultural references which we at once understand. What is amazing is that so much is still accessible, and that by adapting the delivery of lines, and giving some visual clues, performers can make the plays work today.


The division of plays into five acts is more apparent to the dramatist (to whom it gives an idea of how the plays narrative structure will appear in performance) than to the audience (though modern audiences often know act and scene numbers). For the audience, the numbering of acts and scenes is of enormous importance in identifying a given point in the narrative.





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