Study Guide

A Midsummer Night's Dream

A Midsummer Night's Dream Introduction

Girl meets boy. Girl falls in love with boy. Girl loses boy when mischievous fairy sprinkles love "juice" on boy's eyelids, making him fall for another girl. Girl wins boy back (with the help of a little fairy magic).

No, it's not the latest romantic comedy to hit theaters near you; it's a play that was dreamed up by William Shakespeare toward the end of the 16th century. Like the modern-day romantic comedy genre it's helped to shape and influence, A Midsummer Night's Dream features young lovers who fall comically in and out of love in a ridiculously brief period of time (over the course of a single, enchanted midsummer night).

A Midsummer Night's Dream (c. 1595) was written around the same time Shakespeare whipped up his famous play about two "star-cross'd" lovers, Romeo and Juliet. In Dream, a group of craftsmen (the "Mechanicals") bumble their way through a ridiculous performance of Pyramus and Thisbe (a story taken from Ovid's Metamorphoses). The Mechanicals' play is widely considered to be Shakespeare's light-hearted and silly mock-up of Romeo and Juliet.

Over the years, there's been a lot of speculation about the occasion for which Shakespeare might have written the play. Did he write Dream to be performed at a nobleman's big, fancy wedding? Some scholars think so. This is a nice idea and it makes sense because plays were often commissioned for these kinds of fancy shindigs. (In the play itself, a group of amateur actors puts together a performance to celebrate the marriage of the Duke Theseus and Hippolyta.) It's too bad there's no real evidence to support the idea. Still, it's fun to imagine that Shakespeare created the piece to help a couple of happy newlyweds "dream away the time" before their much-anticipated wedding night (1.1.8).

What is A Midsummer Night's Dream About and Why Should I Care?

… and after the teenagers chased each other around the woods for a night, they all lived happily ever after in perfect marital bliss. The End.

Call us crazy, but does anyone out there wonder whether true happiness in this play exists? Happiness seems to arrive only with the help of magic. Let's examine:

  • Peace between the four lovers is restored only because Demetrius remains drugged up on magic and infatuated with Helena.
  • Bottom adores being loved by Titania so much (even with the whole donkey-transformation thing) that he delivers a monologue about it (and a famous one at that).
  • Stormy Titania is happy as a clam (happier than we've ever seen her) with Bottom-turned-donkey in her bower.

We want to be satisfied with this play's happy ending, but enchantment gets in the way.

So now we turn to you, Shmoopster. Help us out. What is true happiness, and is it real if it's induced by magical potions?

A Midsummer Night's Dream Resources

Movie or TV Productions

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935)
The Warner Brother USA production directed by Max Reinhart and starring James Cagney as Bottom, Olivia de Haviland as Hermia, Mickey Rooney as Robin, and Dick Powell as Lysander

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1968)
This film adaptation includes a variety of British stars, including Judi Dench as Titania and Helen Mirren as Hermia.

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1982)
Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival production, directed by James Lapine and starring William Hurt as Oberon.

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999)
This  film was written and directed by Michael Hoffman.  The cast included Kevin Kline as Bottom, Rupert Everett as Oberon, Michelle Pfeiffer as Titania, Sophie Marceau as Hippolyta, Christian Bale as Demetrius, Dominic West as Lysander, and Calista Flockhart as Helena.  This adaptation relocates the play's action to Tuscany in the late 19th century.

A Midsummer Night's Rave (2002)
This film adaptation, directed by Gil Cates Jr., changed the setting to a modern rave. Puck is a drug peddler, the magic flower is replaced with magic ecstasy, and the King and Queen of Fairies are the host of the rave and the DJ. 

Video

Hermia Refusing to Marry Demetrius
Helen Mirren plays Hermia in the 1968 production. This is the scene where Hermia hears from Theseus that she must marry Demetrius or suffer death, or celibacy.

Shakespeare, The Animated Tales: A Midsummer Night's Dream
Check it out online (in parts), compliments of YouTube.

A Midsummer Night's Trailer
Here is the trailer for the 1999 film. Check out Christian Bale as Demetrius in his pre-Batman days.

Audio

Listen to the Play
Listen to knighted English actor Sir John Gielgud read from A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Images

A Midsummer Night's Dream in Watercolors
William Blake's fairly surreal work Oberon, Titania, and Puck with Fairies Dancing, circa 1786.  (It's the third image down.)

Titania and Bottom
Henry Fuseli, the master of the nightmare painting, depicts a fanciful and at once eerie Titania and Bottom, circa 1790.

Historical Documents

Full Online Text
A clean, accurate copy of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

An Analysis of the Play
Here's a little bit from 1906 on the reception of the play, detailing whether it actually had any merit or was just a frothy bit of nonsense.

Pyramus and Thisbe
Book 4 of Ovid's Metamorphoses (Ovid started the project around 2 C.E.) contains the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, which is the source of the Mechanicals' play.

Apuleins's The Golden Ass
This is the literary source for Bottom's transformation.  Keep it real by reading a 1566 English translation here.  (This is an edition Shakespeare's original audience would have had access to.)

Websites

A Midsummer Night's Dream Performance Details
This is an interesting link from Emory University, exploring how many times the play was put on, and where, in large-scale production.  It gives us a good sense of when the play was popular, and then gives very specific details on the particulars of the performances in that that period.

Images, Paintings, and More
This is an absolutely fascinating site that collects a cross-section of paintings referencing or relying on A Midsummer Night's Dream. The site links you to images of the paintings, but its real strength is the neat information about each painting. There's content, contextual information, and a lot of opportunity to think about some artistic metaphors in the play—really compelling stuff.