At his palace in Athens, Duke Theseus is hanging out with his bride-to-be, Hippolyta, the Amazon queen who was recently defeated by Theseus and his army. Theseus is VERY excited about getting hitched (in just four days) and spending his wedding night with Hippolyta. He promises her that getting married will a lot more fun than being conquered in battle. (Well, we sure hope so.)
Egeus, an Athenian citizen, arrives at Theseus's palace with a crisis. He's made plans for his daughter, Hermia, to marry Demetrius, but this other guy named Lysander has managed to steal his daughter's heart. Now Hermia refuses to marry Demetrius. Egeus is outraged and wants Theseus to give Hermia the death sentence for her disobedience, per Athenian law. (Yikes! Somebody needs to stop being such a control freak.)
Duke Theseus wants to be reasonable, so he advises Hermia to be a good girl and listen to her father. Hermia flat-out refuses, so Theseus gives her two alternative options: 1) accept the death penalty as punishment for disobedience, or 2) become a nun and remain a virgin forever. Hermia has four days to decide her fate. (Yep, that's Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding day. Weird.)
Demetrius and Lysander bicker over who should get to marry the lovely Hermia. Demetrius thinks he should have dibs because Hermia's dad likes him the best and has already given him permission to marry his daughter. Lysander argues that he should get Hermia because Hermia actually loves him. Plus, Demetrius has way too much baggage – he used to go steady with Hermia's friend Helena, who is still in love with Demetrius.
Secretly, Hermia and Lysander make plans to meet in the nearby wood. Once there, they'll run off to Lysander's aunt's house (which is outside of Athenian jurisdiction) and get married. Just as the couple decides to elope, Hermia's friend Helena trips in. Helena is a mess because she still loves Demetrius – she's crushed that he wants to marry Hermia. The young lovers assure Helena that she has nothing to worry about because they're planning to elope, which means that Demetrius will be single and ready to mingle.
After the happy couple leaves, Helena decides to squeal to Demetrius about Hermia and Lysander's plan to run away. That way, Demetrius is sure to follow the runaway lovers, and then Helena can follow Demetrius, which will be fun and cost her nothing but her dignity. With that, we have the makings of a romantic chase.
Meanwhile, a group of Athenian craftsmen (called "the Mechanicals") are preparing to perform a play for Theseus's upcoming wedding. The play will be the tragic tale of two young lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe (think Romeo and Juliet storyline). However, it's clear the Mechanicals are horrible actors and are clueless about how to stage a play. The group decides to practice the play in the wood.
Cut to the woods, where we meet Puck (a.k.a. Robin Goodfellow), a mischievous sprite known for the tricks he likes to play on women in the nearby village. This charismatic sprite serves Oberon, King of the Fairies. Titania, the Queen of the Fairies, and Oberon also show up; they're in a fight, which has turned the entire natural world upside down. (We're talking seriously bad weather that's caused flooding and famine, which is something Shakespeare's original audience dealt with in the 1590s.)
The source of the quarrel is a "lovely" Indian boy that Titania has been raising as a foster son. Oberon is jealous and wants the boy to be his personal page (errand boy). Oberon refuses to dance, revel, or otherwise engage with Titania until she agrees to give up the child. Titania flat-out refuses and says that she'll raise the boy as her own as a favor to the kid's dead mother, who was chummy with Titania back in India.
Oberon makes plans to enchant Titania that evening with a magic love "juice" that will make her fall in love with the first creature she sees. Oberon hopes that when Titania wakes up, she'll see a monstrous beast and fall in love. Hopefully, Titania will be so crazy in love that she'll lose interest in the little boy and hand him over to Oberon. Also, Titania will be totally humiliated.
That evening, Helena and Demetrius wander into the woods. Demetrius tries desperately to get rid of Helena. The problem is that Helena won't leave him alone because she wants to be his one true love. Watching Helena's pathetic display, Oberon declares that, before the pair leaves the forest, their roles will be reversed: Demetrius should be fawning over Helena. Mischief is afoot! Oberon leaves to enchant Titania with the love potion. He also instructs Puck to find this young man in Athenian clothes (traveling with a girl) and enchant the heck out of him. Little does Puck know that there is more than one young Athenian man in the woods tonight.
Elsewhere in the forest, Lysander and Hermia are lost. It's about time they went to bed, and Lysander suggests that they share a bed on the forest floor. Hermia isn't having it, and tells Lysander to lie a good distance from her. The two fall asleep.
Puck runs into the sleeping pair and, seeing that Lysander is a young man dressed in Athenian clothes, Puck dumps the love juice in his eyes. (Whoops.) Then Helena shows up and accidentally trips over the sleeping Lysander while pursuing Demetrius. Lysander wakes up, immediately declares his love for Helena, and follows her further into the woods.
Meanwhile, Hermia has slept through the love-juice dumping, the tripping and falling, and the declaring of love. When she wakes up and realizes Lysander is gone, she heads off into the woods in search of him, clueless that her boyfriend has fallen in love with her friend Helena.
As the four young lovers chase each other around the forest, the Athenian craftsmen (the Mechanicals) practice their play nearby. It's immediately clear that our crew of amateur actors is pretty incompetent, which amuses Puck, the mischievous sprite who is watching the rehearsal from the sidelines. Puck decides to play a joke on Bottom, one of the worst actors, by transforming the guy's head into that of a donkey.
Once Puck completes his little prank on Bottom, the Mechanicals are terrified of Bottom's donkey head and run away in horror. Bottom, who is oblivious to his transformation, declares that his friends are just trying "to make an ass" of him. (Hehe.) The commotion awakens Titania, who's been sleeping nearby and has been dosed with the magic love juice. She takes one look at Bottom and instantly falls in love.
Meanwhile, Oberon comes across Demetrius and Helena and dumps some love juice in Demetrius's eyes. Uh-oh. Trouble Alert! When Oberon finds out that Titania has fallen in love with an ass, he's thrilled. Then Demetrius and Hermia show up, though, and Oberon soon figures out that Puck sprinkled the love juice in the wrong Athenian's eyes. (Remember, Puck put the potion in Lysander's eyes instead of Demetrius's.)
Puck returns, leading Helena, who is followed by the lovesick Lysander. Demetrius wakes up and immediately declares Helena to be his goddess. Just in time, Hermia wanders in, lured by the sound of Lysander's voice. Now that the four are together, Lysander declares that he too is in love with Helena. (Poor Hermia. Before the four humans entered the woods, both men were in love with her and now Lysander and Demetrius are hot for Helena.) Helena thinks it's just a prank and begins to argue with Hermia. Then the boys fight some more over Helena and challenge each other to a game of fisticuffs. They run off to duke it out somewhere in the wood. Helena decides to take off before Hermia gets violent and scratches her eyes out or something. Hermia chases after her.
Puck and Oberon have been watching all of this. Oberon instructs Puck to cast a shadow over the night, so the feuding boys can't find each other. Once the boys are asleep, Puck is to apply the remedy for the love potion on Lysander's eyes, so that he will fall back in love with Hermia. The hope is that lovers wake up in happy pairs. Puck follows all of these instructions.
Meanwhile, Titania is still having fits of love over Bottom, who is happily being tended to by fairies and the Fairy Queen. Oberon, easily got the Indian boy from the love-crazed Titania earlier that evening. Now he sees Titania as pitiful, and reasons that its time to bring her back to her senses. He asks Puck to transform Bottom to his natural self as well. Oberon un-enchants Titania, and she awakens as if from a dream. Oberon points to donkey-faced Bottom beside her and promises to explain later.
The next morning, Theseus shows up in the woods with Hippolyta (his bride), Egeus (Hermia's dad), and a hunting party. Theseus discovers the four Athenian youths sleeping on the ground in the woods. He wakes them up and wonders what could've brought them all together. Lysander admits his plan to elope with Hermia, and Demetrius also explains that he's now in love with Helena. So both couples are happily in love and seem to have forgotten last night's events. Egeus demands that the death sentence be carried out, but Theseus overrides him, declaring that the youths will all be married alongside him and Hippolyta this evening.
After the older folks leave, the foursome talks about the previous night, admitting it was dreamlike. Bottom wakes up as the young lovers exit and speaks of the strange dream he had. He then hurries back to Athens, where he pleasantly surprises all the Mechanicals with his presence. By this time, the Duke and other couples have all been married, and it's about time for them to seek their celebratory entertainment. The Mechanicals get ready to perform their play.
The play begins. It is the well-known tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, two lovers separated by a wall. They speak through a hole in said wall, and decide to meet by moonlight at Ninus's tomb. Thisbe gets there early, but encounters a lion, which makes her run off, accidentally leaving her cape behind as a chew toy for the lion. Pyramus finds Thisbe's cape all torn and looking like a lion mauled it. He stabs himself, assuming his girl is dead. Thisbe then shows up and also chooses suicide. So everyone's dead, but the audience doesn't take it too seriously because it was so poorly performed. Following the entertainment, Theseus wishes the couples to bed.
Puck returns to the stage to talk about the scary things of night, and to sweep the doorstep, promising the couples will be happy and the house protected. He ends the play by saying that if you feel the play (A Midsummer Night's Dream) was absurd, you need only applaud and imagine the whole thing was a dream.