Samuel Pepys, the seventeenth-century diarist who left a detailed, if quirky, record of England’s Restoration period, ranked A Midsummer Night’s Dream as “the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.” To Pepys and his contemporaries, the “Restoration” meant more than the restoration of the English monarch to the throne; it also meant the restoration of classical standards to all that was good, true, and beautiful. In theatre, it meant evaluating plays according to Aristotle’s unities and rewriting those that seemed messy. Shakespeare’s seemed messy; what couldn’t be fixed was not performed.
Aristotle’s unity of place required one sequence of events revolving around one central character. Yet, Shakespeare’s works are rarely so “simple” as to have just one plot and one set of characters, but his plays are unified nevertheless: They have a central theme that may be illustrated by parallel situations among different characters in different families or social classes. A Midsummer Night’s Dream demonstrates Shakespeare’s genius for approaching a theme from different directions and connecting several plots into a single unified structure.
In the first scene Lysander comforts Hermia by saying, “The course of true love never [did] run smooth” (1.1.134). His words define the major theme of all of Shakespeare’s comedies, which usually introduce at least three sets of characters: a kind duke and his associates, high-born young lovers, and lower class servants or country folk. A Midsummer Night’s Dream has these, plus a fourth set--the fairies. Each group engages in love-at-first-sight, mistaken identities, jealousies, rivalries, and love triangles or chains--all standard elements of a love comedy, and all proof that “the course of true love never does run smooth.”
We then see five examples of how “unsmooth” love can be: Theseus and Hippolyta (the kind duke and associates) frame the story; Hermia-Lysander-Helena-Demetrius (the high-born young lovers) represent first love; Oberon and Titania (the fairies, but also a king and queen) display jealousy and obstinacy in marriage; Bottom and Titania (the fairies and the lower class) suffer enchantment; and Pyramus and Thisbe (the nobles played by the rustics) die for love gone wrong. In this play, Shakespeare tells five separate stories, so thoroughly interwoven that one cannot be extracted without diminishing the others.
One obstacle to true love is, of course, parental approval—much less an obstacle today than it was four hundred years ago. Often one of Shakespeare’s young lovers has a father or old counselor who is too strict. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hermia’s father, Egeus, displays his strictness in the opening scene by choosing her husband for her. By older community standards, parents must at least approve their child’s choice of a mate, and in Shakespeare’s time, disobedience to parents could be punished by law. Hermia’s disobedience not only upsets the social balance, but also brings on the events in the forest.
Bracketing the entire play are Theseus’ announcement of his wedding to Hippolyta and the celebration of three weddings, presumably four days later (though it seems like the next morning). Shakespeare doesn’t reveal much about the Theseus-Hippolyta match beyond the fact that they have been at war and now they’re marrying. In his only comment on the subject, Theseus confesses, “I woo’d thee with my sword, / And won thy love doing thee injuries” (1.1.16-17). Their names, for some of the audience, would identify them as the King of Athens and Queen of the Amazons, who married after he captured her in battle. For the rest of the audience, it wouldn’t matter much beyond his function of “kind duke,” who postpones judgement on Hermia’s disobedience to her father until the wedding day. At the end of Act 4, the duke’s sunrise hunting party discovers the couples asleep in the forest, and he invites them to join his wedding ceremony.
The main love story, based on the Babylonian tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, a sort of Romeo and Juliet story retold by Ovid in The Metamorphoses, occurs twice in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, each time with a different ending. In Ovid’s story, the fathers of Pyramus and Thisbe have built a wall to separate their houses and their children. Undaunted, Pyramus and Thisbe whisper through a crack and fall in love, promising to meet outside the city walls and run away. When Thisbe arrives, she sees a lioness and drops her veil as she runs for shelter in a cave. Pyramus finds the veil, which the lioness has stained with the blood of a recently eaten lamb. Thinking the lioness has devoured Thisbe, Pyramus stabs himself. Thisbe returns from the cave, finds the dying Pyramus, and, distraught, falls on his sword. They die in each other’s arms. This is the plot acted out by Bottom and the other rustics.
In Shakespeare’s version, after Hermia’s father forbids her love for Lysander, the young lovers agree to meet outside the city walls and thence to run away. Shakespeare also reveals the situation before the play opens: Demetrius and Helena have been in love, but Demetrius has changed his mind and now loves Hermia. Lysander and Hermia are in love, but her father approves of Demetrius instead. To escape the duke’s judgement called forth by Egeus, Lysander and Hermia flee to the forest, but three Shakespearean complications change Ovid’s plot: First, Hermia confides in Helena who in turn tells Demetrius, who both chase into the forest after love. Second, Lysander gets lost in the forest. Third, the fairies get into the act.
Also in the forest are the “hempen homespuns,” the rustics rehearsing their play in hopes of performing at the wedding party. Ovid’s tragedy becomes comic as the players find ways to act out every part--even the props and scenery. When Puck stumbles onto them, the complications blossom into all-out confusion before the couples are sorted out.
The fairies are responsible for the confusion in the forest, the magical resolutions of the conflict, blessings of peace, and their own love story. Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of fairies, are already married, but their “course of true love [doesn’t] run smooth” anyway. Throughout the play, each jealously accuses the other of infidelity--Titania with Theseus and Oberon with Hippolyta, among others. They fight over an Indian boy, and they seem willing to punish each other if sufficiently angered. Titania’s brief fling with the altered Bottom is love at another level--definitely not true, and certainly not smooth-running.
Every plot touches the frame, and the fairy plots at some point. The only plots that do not interact directly are the lovers in the forest and the rustics, but they come together in the final act as newlyweds and entertainers at the wedding. Shakespeare’s strategy is to alternate pieces from each story, emphasizing the connections. His plays are easier to study if you comprehend each story separately, then reshuffle them to study their dependence on each other.
Just because the plot is confused doesn’t mean that Shakespeare was either confused or incompetent. On the contrary, he used confusion in the plot to illustrate the confusion in the minds of the characters. People in love, says Shakespeare, behave most irrationally (Puck says, “Lord, what fools these mortals be” [3.2.115]). And the course of true love is exactly like the plot: confused, foolish—and magic.