- Shakespeare’s comic target in this play is love and the crazy things it makes us do. For example, when you are confronted with two individuals who are alike in almost every way, love can make you hate one individual while you fall in love with the other. Love can also make you fall in love with an ass — someone who is unsuited to you in every way. Theseus falls in love with Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, a society of women who completely rejected men and were believed to mate with men and then kill them and who were thought to kill any male babies born to them.
- Shakespeare deals with the nonrational in this play. Some things are rational, such as mathematics and logic. Other things are irrational, such as putting your hand in a blender and turning it on just to see what it feels like. The realm of the nonrational is the realm of beauty, poetry, laughter, dance, sex, and love. Comedy is nonrational. The arts connect the world of the rational and the nonrational. Much intelligence goes into producing art, but much art explores the world of the nonrational.
- Love is nonrational. Suppose you are confronted with two individuals who are basically alike in beauty, form, character, and personality, but one individual is rich and the other individual is poor. Reason would tell you to fall in love with the rich individual, but you may fall in love with the poor individual.
- The world of the nonrational appears to be more powerful than the world of the rational. Theseus is a very rational man, but despite his best intentions, he cannot help breaking out into laughter at the bad acting and bad play of the craftsmen. And, of course, he falls in love with an Amazon.
- The fairies inhabit the world of the nonrational. They speak a dazzling variety of poetry, and they sing and dance. Puck likes to play jokes on people.
- The word “irrational” means completely opposed to reason. An insane person who believes that two plus three equals four is irrational. Irrationality plays no part in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is about the rational, the nonrational, and some of the places they intersect.
Cast of Characters
THESEUS, Duke of Athens
EGEUS, father to Hermia
LYSANDER, in love with Hermia
DEMETRIUS, in love with Hermia
PHILOSTRATE, Master of the Revels to Theseus
QUINCE, a carpenter
SNUG, a joiner, aka furniture-maker
BOTTOM, a weaver
FLUTE, a bellows-mender
SNOUT, a tinker
STARVELING, a tailor
HIPPOLYTA, Queen of the Amazons, bethrothed to Theseus
HERMIA, daughter to Egeus, in love with Lysander
HELENA, in love with Demetrius
OBERON, King of the Fairies
TITANIA, Queen of the Fairies
PUCK, or ROBIN GOODFELLOW, fairy
PROLOGUE, PYRAMUS, THISBY, WALL, MOONSHINE, LION are presented by QUINCE, BOTTOM, FLUTE, SNOUT, STARVELING, AND SNUG
Other Fairies attending their King and Queen
Attendants on Theseus and Hippolyta
— 1.1 —
In his palace, Duke Theseus of Athens was talking with Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, whom he had defeated in battle, fallen in love with, and was soon to marry.
Theseus said to Hippolyta, “Our wedding day is drawing near. Four happy days will bring in the new Moon, but how slowly the old Moon wanes! She prevents what I want most. She is like a stepmother or a widow who lives on a young man’s inheritance when the young man wants to spend, spend, spend.”
“Four days will quickly become four nights,” Hippolyta replied. “We will quickly dream away the four nights. And then the Moon, resembling a silver bow newly bent in heaven, shall behold the night of our wedding.”
Theseus said to Philostrate, his Master of the Revels, aka Director of Entertainments, “Go, Philostrate, encourage the Athenian youth to be merry. Awake the pert and nimble spirit of mirth. Let melancholy be reserved only for funerals. Melancholy, a pale companion, must not be present at our celebration.”
Philostrate left to carry out Theseus’ orders.
Theseus said, “Hippolyta, I wooed you with my sword, and I won your love, despite my doing you injuries, but I will wed you in another key, with pomp, with triumph, and with revelry.”
But Theseus was the Duke of Athens, and he had duties to attend to. Egeus, the father of Hermia, walked into the room with his daughter and the two young men who loved her.
Egeus started well with a greeting to Theseus: “Happy be Theseus, our renowned duke!”
Theseus, who knew Egeus, a respected citizen of Athens and a member of its aristocracy, well, replied, “Thanks, good Egeus. What is new with you?”
“I have a problem,” Egeus replied. “Full of vexation come I, with a complaint about my child, my daughter Hermia.”
Egeus said, “Stand forth, Demetrius.”
Demetrius came forward.
Egeus said to Theseus, “My noble lord, this man has my consent to marry my daughter, Hermia.”
Egeus said, “Stand forth, Lysander.”
Lysander came forward.
Egeus said to Theseus, “My gracious duke, this man has bewitched the bosom of my child.”
To Lysander, Egeus angrily said, “You, you, Lysander, you have given Hermia rhymes and love poetry, and you have exchanged love-tokens with my daughter. You have by Moonlight at her window sung, with your feigning voice singing verses of feigning love. You have made her fancy you with locks of your hair, rings, gaudy toys, trinkets, knickknacks, trifles, nosegays, and sweetmeats. All of these things can strongly influence an impressionable and inexperienced young woman. With cunning you have stolen my daughter’s heart. You have turned her obedience, which is due to me, into stubborn harshness. Because of you, Lysander, Hermia will not consent to marry Demetrius.”
To Theseus, Egeus said, “Therefore, my gracious Duke, I want you to enforce the ancient privilege of fathers in Athens. That privilege is my right to dispose of my daughter as I wish. And that will be either to this gentleman, Demetrius, or to her death. This is in accordance with our Athenian law.”
Theseus wanted daughters to obey their fathers. He said, “What do you say, Hermia? Fair maid, to you your father should be as a god. He is your parent and so gave you your life. It is as if you are his figure that he sculpted in wax. He can either leave the figure alone or disfigure it as he wishes.”
Theseus paused, and then he said, “Demetrius is a worthy gentleman.”
“So is Lysander,” Hermia replied, hotly.
“In himself he is,” Theseus said, “but he lacks your father’s approval, and therefore Demetrius must be considered the worthier of the two young men.”
Hermia said, “I wish that my father looked at Demetrius and Lysander with my eyes.”
“No,” Theseus said. “Instead, you must look at Demetrius and Lysander with your father’s eyes.”
Despite being angry, Hermia was polite. She said to Theseus, “Please pardon me. I know not by what power I am made bold, and I worry that I may compromise my reputation for modesty when I plead my thoughts in your presence. But please tell me what is the worst that can happen to me if I refuse to wed Demetrius.”
Theseus thought, The law of Athens says that Hermia must die if she disobeys her father and refuses to wed Demetrius, but the law is too harsh.
He told Hermia, “You must either be executed or become a nun and remain a virgin forever. Therefore, fair Hermia, think carefully. You are young. You feel passion. Think whether, if you do not obey your father and do not marry Demetrius, you can endure wearing the habit of a nun and be caged forever in a shady cloister. Can you live as a barren, virgin sister all your life and chant hymns to the cold, fruitless Moon? Nuns are three times blessed because they master their passion, and their maiden pilgrimage is rewarded in Heaven. But a married woman is happier on Earth and does not lack a man. She is like a rose whose essence is distilled into perfume and brings happiness. She is unlike a rose that grows, lives, and dies alone on a branch and is never enjoyed.”
“I prefer to grow, live, and die alone on a branch rather than marry someone whom I do not love,” Hermia said. “I prefer to remain single rather than give my virginity to someone whom I do not love.”
“Take some time to think this matter over, Hermia,” Theseus said. “By the next new Moon — when Hippolyta and I shall wed and be one forever — you will give me your final answer. At that time, you will either die because of your disobedience to the will of your father, or you will marry Demetrius, or you will become a nun and remain a virgin forever.”
Demetrius said, “Yield to your father’s will, Hermia, and marry me. And, Lysander, stop pursuing Hermia and allow her to marry me.”
Lysander replied, “You have her father’s love, Demetrius, so let me have Hermia’s. If you want to marry someone, marry Hermia’s father.”
“Scornful Lysander!” Egeus said. “True, Demetrius does have my love. And whatever is mine my love shall give to him. Hermia is my daughter, and I do give her to Demetrius.”
Lysander replied, “Egeus, my family is as good as the family of Demetrius. I have as much wealth as Demetrius. I love Hermia more than he does. My prospects are as good as those of Demetrius, if not better. And what is more important than anything that I have said so far is that Hermia loves me, not Demetrius. So why shouldn’t Hermia and I marry?”
He added, “What’s more — and I say this to Demetrius’ face — he pursued Helena, the daughter of Nedar, and he won her heart. Helena loves him. She loves him, devoutly loves him, loves him to the point of idolatry. She loves Demetrius, this morally stained man who is unfaithful to those who love him.”
Theseus said, “I must confess that I have heard that Demetrius pursued Helena and that she loves him. I have been busy with my own personal affairs and forgot about it; otherwise, I would have spoken to him about it. Still, that does not change the law. Demetrius and Egeus, both of you come with me. I want to talk to both of you. In the meantime, Hermia, make up your mind to obey your father and marry Demetrius, or else the law of Athens — which I can by no means extenuate — will either sentence you to death or to a single life in perpetuity.”
Theseus then said, “Come, my Hippolyta.”
Hippolyta had listened to the young lovers and did not look happy about Theseus’ ruling. Theseus noticed this and asked her, “Is something wrong?” She turned her back on him and did not answer him.
Theseus turned to Demetrius and Egeus and said, “Come with me. I must employ you in some business related to our wedding and also talk to you about some business of your own.”
“With duty and desire, we follow you,” Egeus replied.
All except Lysander and Hermia left the room.
“How are you, my love?” Lysander said, “Why is your cheek so pale? Why do the roses there fade so fast?”
“Perhaps because of lack of rain,” Hermia replied. “But I can well water the roses in my cheeks with my tears.”
“From everything that I have ever read or heard from tale or history, the course of true love never did run smooth,” Lysander said. “Either the lovers were different in family…”
“Too high a class to be in love with someone from a lower class.”
“Or else the lovers were mismatched in age.”
“Too old to be engaged to young.”
“Or else the marriage match was to be arranged by relatives.”
“Oh, Hell! To choose a lover by another’s eyes.”
“Or,” Lysander said, “if there were a sympathy in choice, then war, death, or sickness did lay siege to it, making it as momentary as a sound, as swift as a shadow, as short as a dream, as brief as the lightning in the blackened night, that, in a flash, reveals both Heaven and Earth, and before a man has time to say ‘Behold!’ the jaws of darkness do devour it. So quickly do bright things that are full of life come to ruin.”
“Since true lovers have always been opposed in their love, such opposition must be a rule of fate and destiny — and therefore, since our love is opposed, our love must be true. Let us then be perseverant and enduring as we confront our trial because the trial we face is customary for true lovers. Opposition is as necessary to true love as are thoughts and dreams and sighs and wishes and tears. All of these things accompany true love.”
“You speak truly,” Lysander said. “Therefore, listen to me, Hermia. I have a widowed aunt. She is a dowager of great fortune, and she has no children. Her house is twenty or so miles away from Athens, and she considers me her only son. If we go to her, Hermia, we can be married — the sharp Athenian law does not reach as far as her house. So if you love me, sneak out of your father’s house tomorrow night, and go into the forest outside Athens, where once I met you and Helena to celebrate the first of May. I will wait there for you.”
“My good Lysander!” Hermia said. “I swear to you, by Cupid’s strongest bow, by his best arrow with the love-causing golden arrowhead, by the simplicity of Venus’ sacred doves, by that which unites souls and prospers loves, and by that fire that burned Dido, the Queen of Carthage, when the unfaithful Trojan Aeneas sailed away from her, by all the vows that ever men have broken, in number more than women have ever spoken, in that same place that you have mentioned, tomorrow truly will I meet with you.”
“Keep your promise, love,” Lysander said. He looked up and said, “Look, here comes Helena.
Hermia said, “God bless you, fair Helena! Where are you going?”
“Call you me fair?” Helena said. “That fair again unsay. Demetrius loves your beauty, not my beauty. Oh, happy fair! Your eyes are as bright as the stars that guide sailors at night. The sweet sound of your voice is more beautiful than that of a morning lark to a shepherd’s ear. When wheat is green, when hawthorn buds appear in the spring, lovesickness is contagious. I wish that appearance and attributes were also contagious. If they were so, I would do my best to catch your appearance and attributes, Hermia, before I leave. My ear would catch your voice, my eye would catch your eye, my tongue would catch your tongue’s sweet melody. If I owned all the world, I would give it all to you if only I could be transformed into you and so be loved by Demetrius. Please, teach me how you look, and with what art you sway the motion of Demetrius’ heart.”
“I frown upon Demetrius, yet he loves me still,” Hermia said.
“I wish that your frowns would teach my smiles how to make Demetrius love me!”
“I give him curses, yet he gives me love.”
“I wish that my prayers could cause such affection for me in Demetrius!”
“The more I hate him, the more he follows me.
“The more I love him, the more he hates me.”
“His folly, Helena, is no fault of mine.”
“No fault, but your beauty — I wish that fault were mine!”
“Take comfort,” Hermia said. “Demetrius no more shall see my face; Lysander and myself will flee from this place. Before I did Lysander see, Athens did seem a paradise to me, but such graces in my love do dwell, that Lysander has turned a Heaven into a Hell! If I can’t marry Lysander in Athens, then Athens is a Hell to me.”
Lysander said, “Helena, to you our minds we will unfold. Tomorrow night, when the Moon beholds her silver visage in the watery mirrors of pools and lakes, and dews with liquid pearl the bladed grass, a time that conceals the flights of lovers, we plan to pass through Athens’ gates.”
“And in the wood,” Hermia said, “where often you and I upon pale primrose-beds were accustomed to lie, emptying our bosoms of their sweet secrets to each other, there my Lysander and I shall meet, and thence from Athens turn away our eyes, to seek new friends and the company of strangers. Farewell, sweet playmate. Pray for us, and may good luck give you your Demetrius! Keep your word to me, Lysander. We must now separate and starve our sight of lovers’ food until we meet in the forest tomorrow at deep midnight.”
“I will keep my word to you, my Hermia.”
Lysander said, “Helena, adieu. As you on him, may Demetrius dote on you!”
Helena said to herself, “How much happier than other people can some people be! For example, Hermia is much happier than me. Throughout Athens I am thought to be as beautiful as she. But so what? Demetrius does not think it so. He will not know what all but he do know. He wanders around, infatuated with Hermia’s eyes. I also wander around, admiring Demetrius’ qualities. Things base and vile, having no good quality, love can make appear to have form and dignity. Love looks not with the eyes, but with the heart, and that is why in art blindfolds make winged Cupid blind. Love has nothing to do with reason — the wings and blind eyes of Cupid symbolize the unheedy haste of lovers. That is why Cupid is said to be a child — because in choice he is so often beguiled. Many waggish boys in their games lie and falsely swear, and likewise male lovers perjure themselves everywhere. For before Demetrius looked at and loved Hermia’s eyes, he swore many oaths that he loved only mine. His protestations of his love for me rained down like hail, but when this hail felt some heat from Hermia, his protestations of love dissolved, and showers of his oaths did melt. I will go tell him of fair Hermia’s flight, and then to the forest will he pursue her tomorrow night. If for this information he tells me thanks, it is a dear expense for me, but herein mean I to enrich my pain: to have his sight thither and back again — if all goes well tomorrow night, Demetrius will stop looking at Hermia and instead will look again at me.”
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce
David Bruce has retold in today’s modern English all 38 of William Shakespeare’s plays.
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