At the Duke's palace in Athens, Theseus and Hippolyta are attended by Philostrate, master of revels (a.k.a. royal party planner), and the usual train of lords and attendants.
Hippolyta notes to Theseus that the lovers' story is strange, and Theseus dismisses it as "more strange than true."
He points out that lovers, poets, and madmen have something in common – they're all nuts.
Hippolyta challenges Theseus's cynical view – the youths' stories all matched each other's without contradiction. The story seems to have no holes and she still thinks it strange but interesting.
The two young pairs – Lysander and Hermia, and Demetrius and Helena – enter the scene. All four lovers happily greet the Duke and Hippolyta.
Lysander says that they're all going to have an awesome wedding night because it's almost time for bed.
Theseus wonders what entertainment they can have to wear away the three hours that still stand between him and his wedding night.
He calls on Philostrate, who hands him a list of all the available entertainments for the evening.
Theseus reads the list: they won't hear the Athenian eunuch singing of the battle with the Centaurs because he's already told that story to Hippolyta about his kinsman, Hercules. (According to Plutarch's "Life of Theseus," Hercules and Theseus were related.)
Nor will they hear how Orpheus, the Thracian singer, was torn to bits by the Bacchanals (followers of the riotous god Bacchus) in the middle of an orgiastic frenzy, since Theseus saw this played when he last conquered Thebes.
Theseus doesn't want to hear the Muses mourn the death of Learning either, because it sounds like it requires some intellectual attention. He states that intellectualizing doesn't befit a wedding ceremony.
Finally, the Duke comes to the title of the Mechanicals' play: A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus and his love Thisbe; very tragical mirth. Theseus delights in how silly these opposites (tedious and brief; tragical and mirthful) seem, and chooses this as the night's entertainment.
Philostrate tries to convince Theseus that, though the play is ten words long, it's played so badly that it's ten words too much. The language is stupid, the actors are terrible, and worse, the tragic parts bring tears all right, but more from laughter than from sorrow.
Theseus asks Philostrate who will put on the play. Snobby Philostrate replies that it is to be performed by a group of Athenian workmen who have never labored their brains until now.
Brain Snack: Shakespeare's dad John was a craftsman (a glove maker, to be exact).
Theseus wants to hear the play and Philostrate can't sway him. Theseus thinks no play can be bad if it is done out of duty and love for him.
Hippolyta worries that they've stressed out Philostrate, and the play is bound to be terrible. Theseus soothes her: the worse the play, the kinder they'll be, and everyone will be better off for the lies and mutual deception. He honors the effort of commoners, even if it doesn't always pan out. He accepts their intentions graciously.
After Theseus's speech to Hippolyta, Philostrate enters to present Quince, who will deliver the prologue.
Quince butchers the prologue to the play by reading it as one big run-on sentence.
Quince tries to welcome the audience and ask their forgiveness for the humbleness of the play (as Shakespeare often did), but instead he introduces himself by telling the audience that the players offend with their goodwill. It only gets worse from there.
Theseus accepts Quince's fumbles in stride, saying the players don't stand on points (meaning punctuation, but also theatrical formalities).
Lysander and Hippolyta make some snarky comments, but again Theseus replies that the prologue was like a tangled chain, messed up but not really broken.
Pyramus, Thisbe, Wall, Moonshine, and Lion arrive on stage, and the prologue continues.
Quince introduces all of the players and the part they're meant to play. He also explains why each player is there: the wall through which they talk, the moonshine by which they see, etc.
Quince summarizes the play's action: Pyramus and Thisbe are two lovers who are kept apart, but they conference secretly through a hole in a wall and agree that by moonlight that they'll meet at Ninus's tomb. Thisbe arrives first, but is frightened off by a lion. In running away, she leaves behind her cape, and the lion bloodies it by tearing at it. Pyramus then shows up, a bit late, to find Thisbe's bloody cape. Pyramus is sure his lover is dead, so he draws his sword and kills himself. Thisbe then comes out of hiding in a mulberry bush and, finding her lover slain, pulls his sword out and kills herself too.
Now that he has finished the prologue, Quince will let the players take over.
Snout introduces himself as a Wall, who will help the lovers talk to each other through a little gap. (To be help the audience, he points out all the parts of his costume that indicate he's a wall.)
In the audience, Theseus mentions he couldn't ask for a wall to speak better. Demetrius agrees this is the wittiest wall he's ever heard talk, especially because it's the only one.
Bottom comes in as Pyramus, and though he doesn't mess up his lines, he doesn't need to since they're already so absurd. Example: "The night is very black, and is the time when it isn't day."
Pyramus asks the Wall to show him the little gap that he can speak through, and Snout holds up his fingers in an O shape to provide such a gap.
Seeing no Thisbe beyond the gap, Pyramus curses the Wall.
Theseus comments that perhaps the wall should curse back.
Bottom breaks character and says to the Duke that really Thisbe has just missed her cue, but she'll be there soon.
Sure enough, Thisbe comes up, lamenting that the wall separates her and Pyramus.
Pyramus recites his lines, which are all messed up. For example, the names Cephalus and Procris become Shafalus and Procrus, and Ninus's tomb is mistaken as Ninny's tomb.
When Pyramus asks Thisbe to kiss him through the hole in the Wall, Thisbe replies, "I kiss the wall's hole, not your lips at all." (Yep, Shakespeare is cracking a dirty joke here. Come to think of it, it's a lot like Chaucer's joke in "The Miller's Tale," where Absolon thinks he's going to give Alisoun a juicy smack on the lips but accidentally kisses her bare bottom instead.)
The lovers have agreed to meet at "Ninny's" tomb.
The Wall then speaks up and excuses himself – his part is over.
Hippolyta dismisses it all as the silliest stuff she's ever heard, but Theseus chides her that even the best in theater is only a shadow of reality. The worst don't need to be any worse than that, if we only lend them a little imagination. If we imagine the players as they imagine themselves, they might come out as excellent men after all.
Lion and Moonshine enter, and Lion admits that he doesn't mean to scare the ladies, who would be afraid of even a mouse. If the women are scared, they need only remember that he's actually Snug the joiner, not a real lion.
Theseus commends him for being so thoughtful about the ladies, and the rest of the crowd heckles Lion.
Moonshine speaks up, saying that the lantern he carries is meant to be the moon, and that he is the man on the moon.
Theseus notes that this is the worst blunder yet; if this is the man on the moon, then he should be in the lantern. As the nobles all say sarcastic things, Lysander bids the moon to continue his speech.
Moonshine repeats that he is the man on the moon, the thorn bush he has with him is his thorn bush, and the dog his dog.
Thisbe enters, Lion makes a little roar, and Thisbe runs off as the Lion chews on the cape she's left behind.
The royal company teases that the Lion has roared well, Thisbe has run well, and the Moon has shone extremely well.
Pyramus enters and thanks the sweet moon for its "sunny beams." Pyramus then delivers an overly dramatic monologue about finding Thisbe's bloody cape.
Theseus quips that this kind of feeling, combined with your best friend dying, could come near to looking like sadness.
Meanwhile, Pyramus is killing himself with much flourish. After delivering the brilliant line, "Now die, die, die, die, die," Pyramus dies.
There follow some more snarky play-by-play comments from the gallery of nobles and "Thisbe" comes in to end the play.
Thisbe is all "woe is me" in a comically tragic style, mourning her lover's lily lips, cherry nose, and yellow cheeks.
Thisbe kills herself with an "Adieu, adieu, adieu," and the peanut gallery notes that Moonshine, Lion, and Wall are left to bury the dead.
Bottom, who should be dead as Pyramus, sits up and assures the audience that Wall is actually down, and he asks if they'd like to hear the play's epilogue, or see a dance.
Theseus steps out of this quickly – really, no epilogue is necessary since everyone's dead and no one's to blame. He asks to see the dance instead, and so there's a dance (called the Bergormask).
Theseus says the clock has struck midnight, and sends the lovers to bed, declaring it's "almost fairy time."
Theseus says "nighty night" to everyone and announces that the marriage celebrations will continue on for a fortnight (two weeks).