A Midsummer Night's Dream
Summary and Synopsis

A Midsummer Night's Dream Setting

The play is set in two “worlds” that overlap and interact with each other. First, the natural world is the world of humans. Second, there’s the fairy world, inhabited by magical and mythical creatures that influence events in the human world.

A Midsummer Night's Dream Plot Timeline

A Midsummer Night's Dream Summary

A Midsummer Night's Dream Act 1 Summary

Act 1, Scene 1

The duke Theseus, upholder of authority and order in Athens, is set to marry the Queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta. He has won his bride-to-be after the Athenians defeated Hippolyta’s all-women warrior tribe.

Egeus interrupts, scurrying into Theseus’s court and begging him to reinstate order. His daughter Hermia is stubbornly in love with Lysander, even though Egeus insists she marry Demetrius. The couple, Lysander and Hermia plead their case but Theseus lays three options out for Hermia: marry Demetrius as her father wishes; forfeit lover altogether by becoming a nun; or die (according to Athenian law that sentences a disobedient daughter to death).

After this, Lysander and Hermia linger behind mulling over their options. They resolve to elope and live with Lysander’s aunt, somewhere far away from the cruel Athenian law. Helena enters and jealously laments the fact that Demetrius loves the beautiful Hermia instead of her. To set her friend’s mind at ease, Hermia assures her that she and Lysander are eloping. Helena decides to double-cross Hermia by sharing this intel with Demetrius, in the hope that he like her more. (She’s desperate at this point).

Act 1, Scene 2

A bunch of working-class craftsmen meet. They are amateur actors rehearsing a play, Pyramus and Thisbe, to perform as part of Theseus’s wedding festivities. The director, Peter Quince reads out the cast list. Bottom is playing the lead of Pyramus (a lover who kills himself) and Flute (who unfortunately has a beard coming) plays his lover, Thisbe.

Bottom loves the sound of his own voice. He interrupts Quince and asks to play nearly every part at once: Pyramus, and Thisbe, and the lion too of course. The “Mechanicals” show a fumbled understanding of theater: this tragedy might well turn into a comedy. They set a time to meet and rehearse in the woods the following night.

A Midsummer Night's Dream Act 2 Summary

Act 2, Scene 1

Still fuming, Oberon orders Puck to fetch a special flower with love inducing properties. He recounts its origin: Cupid’s arrow once accidentally missed its target. The flower it hit turned purple and had the ability to make a person fall in love with the first thing they set eyes on. He hatches a plan: they will use this flower to get revenge on the stubborn Titania and to make her give up her changeling to him.

Demetrius interrupts Oberon’s schemes. He is charging through the forest in pursuit of Hermia—and being chased in turn by the lovestruck Helena. To Demetrius’s exasperation, Helena relentlessly begs Demetrius to return her feelings. Even when Demetrius verges on cruelty, Helena only loves him more ardently.

When Puck returns from his excursion around the world, a new plan brews in Oberon’s mind. He will use the flower to pour into Titania’s eyes as she sleeps in her bower. But he will also do a bit of match-making: he orders Puck to pour the love juice into the Athenian man’s eyes so he will fall in love with the Athenian woman. Little does he know there is more than one Athenian man in the forest…

Act 2, Scene 2

To send her off to sleep, Titania’s train of fairies encircle her with song and dance. When the coast is clear, Oberon secretly applies the juice from the enchanted flower to her closed eyelids. He chants a spell for her to “Wake when some vile thing is near!”

Act 2, Scene 3

Meanwhile, Lysander and Hermia have settled down for the night after a long journey through the forest. In spite of Lysander’s pestering, Hermia insists that her lover sleep at a distance to preserve her modesty. But Puck misunderstands. When he finds the sleeping couple, he concludes from their distance that they are not lovers and hence the Athenian man is Demetrius. Mistakenly, he applies the love juice to Lysander’s closed eyelids.

Just as Puck scurries off (to cause havoc elsewhere), Helena and Demetrius burst in. Demetrius shakes poor Helena off and, alone, she bemoans her bad luck: “Happy is Hermia.” Spotting his body, Helena wakes Lysander who—you guessed it—falls instantaneously and madly in love with Helena under the influence of the love potion. Helena assumes that Lysander is mocking her misfortune in love and Lysander chases after her into the forest. Waking from an ominous nightmare (in which Lysander watched a snake eat her heart), Hermia finds herself alone and afraid.

A Midsummer Night's Dream Act 3 Summary

Act 3, Scene 1

At this point, the Mechanicals gather to rehearse Pyramus and Thisbe in the forest (close to Titania’s bower in fact). Puck watches, amused at their nonsensical play. In case the ladies are too shocked by Pyramus’s death and too frightened by the lion, they intend to write a disclaimer into the prologue: the play isn’t real and nobody has really died. In place of props, they cast Starveling as Moonshine and Snout as the Wall through which the lovers talk. And Bottom is most inept of all: he forgets his lines, uses malapropisms, and turns the whole rehearsal haywire.

Puck can’t resist. Offstage, he turns Bottom’s head into that of a donkey. In horror, the actors flee. Piqued Bottom thinks they are pranking, or “mak[ing] an ass of [him]”. Perfectly timed: Titania wakes, and she—hook, line and sinker—falls in love with the half-man, half-donkey fool. She seduces her “angel” and summons her fairies, Peaselossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed to shower him with jewels, serenade him, and attend to his every whim. A true buffoon, Bottom is oblivious to what’s going on. He laps up the attention without question, because of course he totally deserves the lavish praise of the Queen of the Fairies.

Act 3, Scene 2

Puck catches Oberon up to speed. Titania’s in love with a donkey-headed fool, Bottom. The Athenian man is in love with the woman as per Oberon’s orders (though Puck has got the wrong man).

Demetrius has caught up to Hermia. A distraught Hermia accuses him of killing Lysander (“It cannot be but thou has murdered him”) and storms off. Overhearing this, Oberon realizes Puck has mixed up Lysander and Demetrius. He has Puck lure in Helena and applies the love juice to sleeping Demetrius’s eyes. On waking, Demetrius is immediately love struck with Helena and showers her with hyperbolic praise. Lysander (finding them) does much the same. Puck has now turned the situation on its head: now both men are in love with Helena, not Hermia. Poor Helena again believes she is the butt of some cruel prank: “I see you are all bent / To set me against for your merriment.”

By following his voice, Hermia finally finds Lysander again—but the latter pushes her aside and declares his hatred for her. Demetrius and Lysander challenge each other to a fight to win Helena’s heart. Lysander insults Hermia’s dark complexion (“tawny Tartar”) and shortness (“dwarfish”) and Helena accuses her friend of betraying her with this mockery. Stunned, Hermia questions her reality: “Am I not Hermia? Are you not Lysander?” and prepares for a cat fight with Helena.

Oberon scolds Puck for causing this pandemonium. It was a mistake, Puck assures his master (but nonetheless enjoys the spectacle): “What fools these mortals be”! Before things turn ugly, Oberon orders Puck to undo the mistakes and set the chaos right so that “all things shall be at peace”. Puck casts a dark mist through the forest so the Athenians cannot see. He imitates the voices of the young rivals, taunting both men to fight and luring both to the edge of the forest where they grow drowsy and fall asleep.

Likewise, Puck lures Hermia and Helena to the same spot to sleep. He then applies an antidote to the love potion to Lysander, ending his affliction of love so he will wake happily in love with Hermia once again. “Jack shall have Jill… and all shall be well.”

A Midsummer Night's Dream Act 4 Summary

Act 4, Scene 1

At daybreak, the chaos is finally resolved. But first, Oberon watches as Titania dotes on Bottom. The ignorant fool is taking great pleasure in ordering around the fairy servants. Absurdly, the donkey-headed weaver falls asleep in the ethereal Titania’s arms. In her infatuation with Bottom, Titania has gladly given up her changeling to Oberon.

Now that he has humiliated her sufficiently, Oberon pities his queen and vows to return her former sight. Oberon restores Titania’s sight with the herbal remedy. Titania awakes, confused, and horrified to see Bottom in her arms. Puck returns Bottom’s head so that he and the other Athenians may “all to Athens back again repair / And think no more of this night’s accidents”. With a dance, the Fairy Queen and King are at last reconciled: “Now thou and I are new in amity.”

Theseus and Hippolyta are up early with a hunting party. At the edge of the forest, they discover the sleeping lovers. In his festive mood (it’s his wedding day after all), Theseus deduces that the youngsters must have risen early to observe the rite of May and meet his hunting party that morning. 

Dazed, the lovers are unsure about what happened the night before: “Are you sure / That we are awake? / It seems to me / That yet we sleep.” They muster up some explanation: that Hermia and Lysander tried to elope; that Demetrius chased them but fell in love with Helena instead; and that all is now well. Ignoring Egeus’s protests, Theseus settles that there will be three weddings that day: they shall all be married to the person that they love.

Not to be forgotten, Bottom too wakes and writes the world of the fairies off as a dream: “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was!”

Act 4, Scene 2

The mechanicals worry over Bottom’s disappearance. Without their star actor playing the lead of Pyramus, their play is no more. But thank the stars: Bottom arrives, head intact, in his splendor and theatricality. He dishes out some directions (including a disturbing misreading of Pyramus and Thisbe as a “sweet comedy”) and they head off to Theseus’s palace—the show must go on!

A Midsummer Night's Dream Act 5 Summary

Act 5, Scene 1

*This act has sometimes been regarded as irrelevant: the four acts feel complete by themselves. Act 5 consolidates the restoration of order. The play-within-a-play in this act also means that the two storylines finally cross as the Mechanicals and the aristocrats meet.

Three weddings later, the celebrations begin. Theseus shrugs off the fantastical stories of the lovers in the forest as “more strange than true”: lovers have capacity for wild invention. Hippolyta on the other hand is more disposed to believe them: the “strange and admirable” stories are consistent after all.

Theseus summons Philostrate for entertainment. The duke peruses a menu of options: “The Battle of the Centaurs”, “the riot of the tipsy Bacchanals”… But Theseus picks “A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus and his love Thisbe”, poking fun at the oxymora in the inscription (“tragical mirth”, “tedious and brief”). Despite Philostrate’s reservations (he knows Bottom), Theseus very generously allows the Mechanicals to perform the play and urges the aristocrats to respect the time and effort they’ve put into the play.

When the play is over, all go to bed and in the fairy’s hour, the supernatural creatures rise. The fairies enter with more song and dance. Oberon recites a traditional-style epilogue. Then Puck becomes narrator and ushers out the play. He addresses the audience directly with an epilogue that bridges the world of imagination (the play) to our reality: “If we shadows have offended, / Think but this, and all is mended: / That you have but slumbered here / While these visions did appear”.

Kathryn is a teacher and writer from Cape Town, South Africa. In her spare time, she likes to run far distances, consume cat videos, and pretend she’s on ‘The Great British Bake Off’.