The play begins in (ancient) Athens, where Duke Theseus and Hippolyta are preparing for an elaborate wedding. Despite the upcoming nuptials and festivities that surround a nobleman's marriage, Athens is also a place for law and order. Here, a father can demand the death penalty for a disobedient daughter who refuses to marry the man of his choosing (1.1).
It's no wonder, then, that the young Athenian lovers hightail it into the enchanted wood, where fairies reign over a gorgeous and lush natural world of magic, wonder, and mischief. The wood is the perfect space for the suspension of man-made rules: Bottom, a lowly workman, can cavort with the Queen of the Fairies; the Athenian lovers can fight and love as lovers do; and, most importantly, fairy magic (not the rule of law) can reign supreme.
Still, the human characters can't make a permanent home in the wood and so they all return to Athens in the end. Once everyone is back at Theseus's pad in Act 5, the setting looks less like an ancient Greek palace than an Elizabethan nobleman's estate. After their elaborate wedding, Duke Theseus and Hippolyta enjoy the kind of courtly entertainments that Elizabethan nobles and royals would have experienced.
We also want to talk about the time of year during which the action of the play is supposed to take place. Like we've said before, the play's title suggests that things go down some time around Midsummer's Eve. Go to "What's Up With the Title?" for more on this.