When we talk about "tone," we're referring to the author's and/or the play's attitude toward its subject matter.
At the beginning of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the tone is pretty dark, wouldn't you say? After all, Hermia faces the death penalty or life as a nun if she doesn't obey her father and marry the man of his choosing. This suggests a bleak outlook, don't you think?
Still, this darkness quickly gives way to a lighthearted tone that reveals Shakespeare's sense of humor about the pitfalls of love. Case in point: When the young lovers (some of whom have been drugged by Oberon's magic love potion) go chasing each other around the wood, falling in and out of love at the drop of a hat (or the drop of some magic love juice), Shakespeare pokes fun at how erratic and foolish we can all be when it comes to romance. Just ask Titania, who falls head-over-heels in love with a (literal) jackass.
P.S. If you're feeling all emo and want to read one of Shakespeare's darker, more cynical plays, check out Measure for Measure, where a wannabe nun faces the death penalty if she refuses to sleep with a corrupt deputy.
A Midsummer Night's Dream is a classic example of Shakespearean comedy. What, you don't believe us? We'll prove it to you. We've got a checklist that details all the typical conventions and features of the genre so you can see for yourself:
Light, humorous tone: Check. The play features fairy magic (like Oberon's love potion), silly pranks (like the transformation of a guy's head into that of a jackass), and the botched performance of a play-within-a-play by a bunch of wannabe actors. Need we say more?
Clever dialogue and witty banter: Check. Shakespeare is a huge fan of puns and snappy wordplay, so naturally his characters know how to get their witty repartee on. Shakespeare reserves some of the best dialogue for his warring lovers, especially Oberon and Titania, and even the "rude mechanicals" manage to wow us with their clever banter.
Deception and disguise: Let's see… Hermia and Lysander try to sneak away from Athens to elope (behind Egeus's back). Also, Titania and the young lovers have no idea they've been drugged by Oberon and his magic love juice. So, check.
Mistaken identity: Check... sort of. In most of Shakespeare's other comedies, someone usually runs around in a disguise to mask his or her identity. (Sometimes, a lover is even tricked into sleeping with the wrong person by mistake.) This isn't necessarily the case in A Midsummer Night's Dream, unless we count the fact that the love juice causes Titania to fall head over heels in love with an "ass." In other words, Titania mistakes Bottom for a creature who is worthy of her love and affection. The same can be said of the other lovers who are dosed with Oberon's magic love potion.
Multiple plots with twists and turns: Check. There are several lines of action in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Shakespeare invites us to sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride. The first plotline involves Theseus and Hippolyta's upcoming wedding. The second plotline involves the young Athenian lovers who run around the wood in confusion. The third follows Oberon's tiff with his wife, Titania. And as a fourth plotline, Shakespeare works in a bunch of craftsmen (the Mechanicals), who plan to perform a play at Theseus's big, fancy wedding.
Love overcomes obstacles: Check. From the play's very beginning, Shakespeare beats us over the head with this idea. Seriously. The only reason Theseus is even engaged to Hippolyta is because he conquered her people (the Amazons) and basically won her in battle. Just a few moments after we hear about Theseus and Hippolyta, we learn that Hermia and Lysander must also overcome a major obstacle if they want to be together because Hermia's dad wants her to marry someone else. Never mind the fact that we've got a bunch of mischievous fairies running around the wood sloshing magic love juice into the eyes of hapless humans, causing them to fall in and out of love with the first creature that comes into view. In the end, though, love wins out and Theseus and the four young lovers all hook up with a steady partner. Keep reading...
Marriage: Check. This is important so pay attention, Shmoopsters. No matter what else happens, Shakespeare's comedies ALWAYS end with one or more marriages (or the promise of marriage). This is Shakespeare's way of restoring social order to the world of his plays (after turning order on its head for a few hours). At the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Theseus finally gets to marry Hippolyta and spend the night with her (which he's been talking about since the play's opening lines). As for the four humans who have been chasing each other around the forest and falling in and out of love, they finally settle down and hook up with a steady partner: Hermia weds Lysander and Demetrius gets hitched to Helena.
Family drama: Check. If you read the very first scene, you know that Hermia and her dad Egeus go toe-to-toe about whom she should and shouldn't marry. Egeus is so worked up about his daughter's disobedience that he wants Duke Theseus to uphold the Athenian law that says daughters have to do what their fathers say or else they get sentenced to death. Yeesh. It's a good thing A Midsummer Night's Dream isn't a tragedy, otherwise this ugly little domestic dispute would end badly. How badly? Think Romeo and Juliet badly.
(Re)unification of families: Check. Like we said earlier, Egeus would rather see his daughter dead than witness Hermia marry Lysander. Still, A Midsummer Night's Dream is a comedy so Egeus eventually backs down and gives in to the idea that Hermia is going to marry for love. We should point out that Egeus only changes his mind after Duke Theseus orders him to back off (4.1), but still, Egeus sticks around for his daughter's wedding, so we're counting that as a family reunion.
The title suggests an atmosphere of fantasy, whimsy, and imagination, which is a pretty accurate description of the magical wood where characters experience events that seem more like a dream than reality. Poor Bottom can't even begin to describe what's happened to him in the wood: "I have had a most rare / vision. I have had a dream past the wit of man to say what / dream it was" (4.1.214-216).
Shakespeare also knows that, after watching the play, we, the audience, might also experience some uncertainty about the difference between reality and illusion. (This is why Puck invites us to think of the play as a nothing more than a "dream" during the Epilogue. Go to "What's Up With the Ending?" for more about this.)
The title is also a pretty obvious shout-out to Midsummer's Eve (June 23), or the summer solstice. Elizabethans would have heard this title and thought "party time!"—in Shakespeare's day, Midsummer's Eve was all about celebrating fertility (not just the successful planting and harvesting of crops, but also the kind of fertility associated with dating and marriage). It was an excuse to party outdoors and the holiday involved dancing, drinking, and collecting medicinal herbs. For a lot of partiers, Midsummer's Eve was also supposed to be a time of mystery and magic, when spirits ran around causing mischief and teenage girls had dreams about the guys they'd eventually fall in love with and marry.
Our point? Shakespeare's title captures the festive vibe of the play and even enacts some of its rituals.
While we're on the subject of festivities, we should point out that Shakespeare also works some May Day festivities into his play. Remember when Theseus stumbles upon the sleeping Athenian youths in Act 4, Scene 1? He thinks they're passed out on the ground because they got up early and went into the wood to "observe / The rite of May" (4.1.137-138). (Note: The rites of May—games, festivities, etc.—were performed throughout May and June, not just on May 1.) "Maying" involved going into the woods in the early morning to gather up blooming tree branches (for decoration) and putting up "Maypoles" to dance around. In the play, Lysander mentions that he once met Hermia and Helena in the wood to "do observance to a morn of May" (1.1.169). May Day revelers also celebrated with big feasts and even elected a "Lord of Misrule" to preside over the festivities. Check out Puck's "Character" page to learn about how he fits the role of a Lord of Misrule.
At the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Puck steps out on stage to deliver an epilogue, where he begs us, the audience, to "pardon" the actors if they didn't enjoy the show:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended:
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles do not reprehend.
If you pardon, we will mend. (5.1.440-447)
This whole "aw, shucks, we sure hope you liked our sorry play" routine is pretty standard in Elizabethan epilogues. Still, when Puck invites the audience to think of the play as nothing more than a "dream," Shakespeare makes an important statement about the nature of the theater. Like dreams, plays aren't real – they're the product of imagination and fantasy and involve the momentary suspension of reality. Come to think of it, this seems like an accurate description about life in general. At times, the real events that make up our own human story can seem as fleeting and fantastic as our dreams. Go to "Themes: Art and Culture" for more on this.
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.
A Midsummer Night's Dream contains a fair amount of regular old prose (how we talk every day), but it's famous for its dazzling displays of verse, or poetry. The three most common types of verse in the play are:
Catalectic, huh? Don't worry Shmoopsters. It's all pretty simple once you break it down, so don't ever let the fancy names scare you.
In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the noble characters often speak in unrhymed "iambic pentameter" (also called "blank verse"). This is considered a fancy way to talk and it helps separate upper class characters from the commoners or everyday Joes of the play. Don't let the fancy names intimidate you—it's simple once you get the hang of it. Let's start with a definition of iambic pentameter.
An "iamb" is an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one. "Penta" means "five," and "meter" refers to a regular rhythmic pattern. So "iambic pentameter" is a kind of rhythmic pattern that consist of five iambs per line. It's the most common rhythm in English poetry and sounds like five heartbeats:
da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM
Here's an example from Theseus's speech to Hippolyta:
hippOLyTA, i WOO'D thee WITH my SWORD,
and WON thy LOVE, doING thee INjurIES;
Every second syllable is accented (stressed), so this is classic iambic pentameter. Since the lines have no regular rhyme scheme we call it unrhymed iambic pentameter, a.k.a. blank verse.
When the young Athenian lovers (also members of the nobility) speak passionately about love, their lines of poetry tend to rhyme, like when Helena goes on about the nature of love. Notice that the rhyme scheme below follows this pattern: AABBCC.
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind; (A rhyme)
And therefore is wing'd Cupid painted blind: (A rhyme)
Nor hath Love's mind of any judgment taste; (B rhyme)
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste: (B rhyme)
And therefore is Love said to be a child, (C rhyme)
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled. (C rhyme)
By the way, we've got three "heroic couplets" here. (Heroic couplets are just rhyming pairs of verse in iambic pentameter.)
The fairies also speak in verse, but it's done in a way that sets them apart from the other characters. Many of their lines are delivered in what's called "catalectic trochaic tetrameter." That's a mouthful, but, again, it's actually pretty simple once you wrap your brain around it. Let's take a closer look.
A "trochee" is the opposite of an "iamb." It's an accented syllable followed by an unaccented syllable that sounds like DUM-da. "Tetra" means "four" and "meter" refers to a regular rhythmic pattern. So "trochaic tetrameter" is a kind of rhythmic pattern that consist of four trochees per line. It sounds like this:
DUM-da, DUM-da, DUM-da, DUM-da
When the last syllable of the line is cut off, it's called catalectic trochaic tetrameter. Here's an example where Puck addresses Oberon:
CAPtain OF our FAIry BAND,
HELeNA is HERE at HAND;
Shakespeare's a big fan of using trochaic verse for supernatural beings like fairies (and the Witches in Macbeth) because it's light and airy. Let's face it, it's also kind of fun.
Ordinary folks like the Mechanicals (craftsmen) usually don't talk in a special rhythm—they just talk. Check out this passage, where Bottom and his pals talk about the play they want to perform:
There are things in this comedy of Pyramus and
Thisbe that will never please. First, Pyramus must
draw a sword to kill himself, which the ladies
cannot abide. How answer you that? (3.1.9-12)
Prose makes sense for this scene, because it's a very practical way to talk. Notice, though, that when the Mechanicals perform the play Pyramus and Thisbe, their lines are spoken in rhymed verse, which has a comical effect. Check out these lines where Flute (playing the role of Thisbe) tries to be poetic about Pyramus's beauty:
Most radiant Pyramus, most lily-white of hue,
Of color like the red rose on triumphant brier,
Most brisky juvenal and eke most lovely Jew,
As true as truest horse that yet would never tire, (3.1.92-95)
It's obvious that Peter Quince (the guy who wrote the play script) tried really, really hard to come up with a rhyme for "hue," but the speech just sounds silly and absurd. This suggests that Quince and the other "rude Mechanicals" aren't actually capable of writing or speaking in verse like the nobles and fairies.
In Act 2, Scene 1, Puck fetches a pansy (a.k.a. "Cupid's flower") so that Oberon can use its magic juice to make his victims fall head over heels in love. Here's how Oberon describes it:
The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees (2.1.176-178)
The stuff actually works and it wreaks havoc on several characters. After Oberon drops the love juice in sleeping Titania's eyes (2.2), the Fairy Queen wakes up and falls in love with an "ass" (3.1.1). Puck also squeezes the love potion in Lysander's eyes and, when he wakes up and sees Helena, Lysander forgets all about his girlfriend and becomes fixated on Helena. This goes on and on until Oberon and Puck take pity on their hapless victims and whip out an antidote, which is the "juice" of a different kind of flower – "Dian's bud" (2.1, 3.2, 4.1). The love juice is a lot like Love Potion Number 9.
Why does this matter? Well, the juice's fast-acting power seems to mimic what often happens in real life. As every hormone-driven teenager knows, love can be unpredictable and inexplicable. Falling in love often happens in an instant, without warning, and falling out of love can happen just as fast. We talk about this more in "Themes: Love."
Speaking of flowers, did you notice the way Theseus refers to lifelong chastity as "withering on the virgin thorn"? Well, we did and we think it's worth investigating. Check out what Theseus says to Hermia after informing her that she has only two options if she refuses to marry Demetrius: death or a nunnery:
But earthlier happy is the rose distill'd,
Than that which, withering on the virgin thorn,
Grows, lives, and dies in single blessedness. (1.1.78-80)
Basically, Theseus says that being a nun has its advantages and all (blessedness), but being a virgin is like being a flower blossom...that eventually withers and dies on a thorny rosebush. On the other hand, he suggests that a woman who gets married and has sex (and kids) is like a rose that's been "distill'd," or used to make some yummy-smelling perfume. In other words, Theseus thinks Hermia's life (and beauty) will be wasted if she becomes a nun, but, if she marries Demetrius and becomes a mother, her beauty will live on a lot longer (in her kids).
If you're a fan of Shakespeare's sonnets, Theseus's advice to Hermia probably sounds familiar. That's because it's pretty much the same advice the "Poet" gives to the "Youth" about getting married and having kids in Shakespeare's Sonnet 2 and Sonnet 4.
History Snack: Theseus's notion that virginity should only be a temporary state of being for young women is a typical 16th-century Protestant idea. As we know, unlike the Catholic Church, they broke away from, Protestants didn't think women should become nuns. (In 1538, King Henry VIII began the dissolution of all the monasteries and convents in England.) Instead, they thought girls should remain chaste until they got married, during which time they should give up their V-cards and remain faithful to their husbands. (By the way, Shakespeare's own "Virgin" Queen Elizabeth I defied this idea when she refused to marry and Shakespeare even makes a little joke about it in the play.)
We thought you might come sniffing around here for the lowdown on all the play's allusions to popular Elizabethan festivities like Midsummer's Eve and May Day. We talk about this in "What's Up With the Title?" See you there...
We talk about this in "Themes: Art and Culture," so head over there if you want the 411.
We can't emphasize enough how important the Moon is in A Midsummer Night's Dream – its image shows up all over the place. We're guessing that's why three of the planet Uranus's moons are named for characters in this play – Titania (the largest), Oberon, and Puck.
When we first hear about it in the play, the moon is used to mark the passage of time. In Theseus's opening speech, he complains that time is passing too slowly and he blames the moon because he has to wait four whole days for his wedding night:
Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace. Four happy days bring in
Another moon. But, O, methinks, how slow
This old moon wanes! she lingers my desires (1.1.1-4)
In other words, impatient Theseus really wants to sleep with his bride-to-be and so he accuses the moon of "wan[ing]" too slowly. It's fitting that Theseus blames the moon for his loveless nights – in Elizabethan popular culture and classical mythology, the moon is often called Diana (a.k.a. Artemis), the ancient virgin goddess, which means the moon is associated with chastity.
There are tons of references to this moon/virgin goddess connection in the play. When Theseus warns Hermia about becoming a nun, he warns her that it's no fun "To live a barren sister all your life / Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon" (1.1.75).
Remember how Oberon describes the time that Cupid's arrow accidentally hit the pansy and turned it into a magic, love-juice producing flower (2.1)? Well, Cupid's arrow was originally aimed at a "fair vestal throned by the west" (a.k.a. Shakespeare's very own virgin Queen Elizabeth I). Oberon tells us that Cupid's "fiery shaft" got lost in "the chaste beams of the wat'ry moon" and missed its original target. (We hope Queen Elizabeth found Shakespeare's little joke as amusing as we did.)
Even though the moon is often associated with virginity, it's also linked to sexual desire. Egeus tells us that Lysander has often serenaded Hermia "by moonlight" (1.1.31) and Shakespeare reminds us over and over again that, when the lovers chase each other around in the woods, the action occurs "in the moonlight."
There's also a sense that that the moon is partially responsible for the lovers' erratic behavior. Because the moon has different phases and it "waxes and wanes," Elizabethans thought of it as fickle and inconstant. (Remember from Romeo and Juliet: "Swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon"?) The moon's fickleness reflects the lovers' tendency to fall in and out of love like a bunch of madmen. At one point, Theseus declares that that "[t]he lunatic, the lover and the poet / Are of imagination all compact" (5.1.7-8). As we know, the term "lunatic" comes from the word "lunar," which means "of the moon."
Last, but not least, Shakespeare manages to turn the moon into a joke about the use of theater props. During rehearsals for Pyramus and Thisbe, Peter Quince worries about whether or not the moon will shine during the night of the performance, because Pyramus and Thisbe are supposed to "meet by moonlight" (3.1.48-49). The Mechanicals resolve the issue by making the Man on the Moon a character (performed by Starveling) in the play. During the Mechanicals' bumbling performance of the play-within-the-play, Starveling holds up a lantern and declares, "This lanthorn doth the horned moon [re]present" (5.1.253), which is both ridiculous and amusing.
You probably noticed how we, the audience, have a lot more information about what's happening on stage than the characters do. Case in point: throughout the play, we know the fairies use magic to play pranks and to make the bewildered characters fall in and out of love, but the lovers have no idea what's happened to them. This is a classic case of "dramatic irony" (when the audience knows more than the characters do so that the characters' words and actions have a different meaning for us than they do for the characters on stage). It's a technique Shakespeare uses for comedic effects throughout A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Let's look closely at another example from the play. In Act 3, Scene 1, Bottom's head is transformed into that of an "ass" (a.k.a. donkey). Bottom doesn't know what's happened to him, so he's really confused when his pals flip out and run away in fear. Bottom thinks he's being punked and, when he's left alone on stage, he complains to us: "I see their knavery. This is to make an ass of me, to / fright me, if they could" (3.1.122-123). Of course, when Bottom accuses his friends of trying to "make an ass" of him, it's funny to us because we know something that Bottom doesn't – he literally has been made into an ass. (Also, his name, "Bottom," becomes very fitting.)
Hermia's father, Egeus, asks Theseus to enforce the Athenian punishment of death on Hermia for disobeying him and refusing to marry Demetrius. Alienated from her own father, Hermia chooses self-exile from Athens in order to be with Lysander. This obviously alienates Hermia from her father's love. Helena, we could argue, is a prisoner of love, as she follows Demetrius into the woods and begs to be treated as his dog. She is also alienated from her friend Hermia by Demetrius's lack of love. She can't relate to Hermia's happiness and feels herself less worthy than she once did because of Demetrius's scorn.
This is kind of a backwards character revelation, or at least a twisted one, because Oberon's potion from the pansy turns the young men's feelings away from their natural feelings. Lysander is the only one given the remedy, so Demetrius is stuck in the enchantment, which is a complicated reason for him to love Helena. Cured of the pansy enchantment, Lysander is revealed to again love Hermia. Demetrius, still under the enchantment, has made a change for the better (at least as far as the plot is concerned) by falling in love with Helena, but this is more related to magic than to his personal character. Further, the women are transformed into catty and petty creatures, though they are not enchanted. It's only when the right guys come back around to loving them that the girls seem to be their old selves again. This is disconcerting, but ignored for the sake of the romance.
Oberon orchestrates Titania's enchantment so that he can get what he wants. Now that he has the changeling boy, he frees Titania from the spell of love. She falls out of love with Bottom, and she and Oberon are reconciled and together again. Theseus comes into the wood with Hippolyta and Egeus. It's his wedding morning, so he's in good spirits. This sets a good tone for the lovers, who will awaken to their right senses. Lysander announces his honest intention to run off with Hermia (to escape the death situation) and Demetrius surprises Egeus by announcing he is taken with Helena. Thus, the four couples of the story are all in good stead with each other.
The youth have made their personal decisions about whom to pair off with, but this doesn't resolve the fact that Hermia's father has forbidden her to love Lysander—on pain of death. Theseus, on his wedding morning, enters back into the plot and fixes this problem by overriding Egeus's wishes. Theseus's actions cement the pairs and bind them up in all the warm and fuzzy feelings we have about Theseus and Hippolyta's union, resolving any unrest we might've had about the youths being a bit foolish. Everyone gets married, which is a nice way to wrap up.
About twenty lines into the play, we hear Egeus's complaint against his daughter Hermia, and we know the initial situation is a conflict itself. The play will definitely be about resolving this pickle.
Further conflict arises in yet another set of main characters: Oberon and Titania. The fairies' fight (over a relatively small thing) has very serious consequences on the entire natural world. In contrast, the young lovers are worried about a serious thing (love), but the way they deal with it only matters to themselves and their families. The scene is set for our Athenian heroes to get involved in this other conflict. As Titania and Oberon announce that the natural world is all mixed up, the four lovers go wandering into that very natural world, with predictably zany results. We're all set for the young Athenians' problems to become even more complicated, reflecting the conflict that brews in the wood around them.
Puck's mistaken enchantment of Lysander further complicates an already difficult situation. True love has betrayed itself (Lysander leaves Hermia) and, with the addition of Demetrius's enchantment, false love appears to be true (Demetrius claims to love Helena). Now the pendulum has swung from loving Hermia to loving Helena. Elsewhere in the forest, Puck has interfered with the Mechanicals' rehearsal by transforming their main character into a beast and sending the others off screaming into the woods.
This is an ugly resolution to the whole love-juice situation. Demetrius and Lysander would've fought over Hermia anyway, but now they fight over Helena, which inspires Hermia to try to fight Helena. During this row in the woods, some pretty harsh words are thrown around, and ugly things get brought up from the past (like how Helena thought Hermia was a vixen when they were younger). It's especially hard to hear the girls say things like this when you know they aren't under any kind of spell (only the guys are). Titania's love for Bottom is climactic insofar as it lets us know there will be a turning point. Eventually, Oberon will have Titania released from the spell (once he gets the Indian child) and likely he'll have everything fixed with the lovers by then, too. Until then, we can enjoy the madness at the peak of the play.
This part of the play would be a bit worrisome if we didn't know already that comedies end nicely. Demetrius and Lysander haven't resolved their quarrel and, even as they fall asleep, they're vowing to kill each other. Even more frightening is the emotional quarrel that's occurred between two formerly dear friends, Hermia and Helena. Helena runs away from a fuming Hermia, and the Jerry Springer-esquethings they said to each other leave open the distinct possibility that, no matter what, their friendship might never recover.
Oberon has gotten the Indian child that he wanted from Titania, so he no longer has any beef with his wife. When she wakes up from her enchantment, the couple goes back to normal, which restores harmony to the natural world. Puck solves the problem of Lysander loving Helena by putting the potion's remedy on Lysander's eyes. He solves the problem of Demetrius not loving Helena by leaving the pansy-juice on Demetrius's eyes. Thus, when everyone wakes up, the couples have neatly paired off. Finally, the transformation and return of a normal-headed Bottom to Athens solves the Mechanicals' worry that they couldn't put on the play.
All the Mechanicals' hard work finally pays off—they get to perform a play that touches on the severity of what could have happened to two doomed lovers (Pyramus and Thisbe here serve as a tragic reflection of the happier Lysander and Hermia). While the humans leave the play in party hats, the fairies come out and close the play, saying matters in the world are really more serious than all this might suggest. Puck reminds us that everyone will die, which is a nice conclusion. Oberon and Titania offer the real conclusion by promising that the characters are all busy (even while they speak) making babies, which is a good way to preserve yourself from death. Also, Oberon promises the couples will be happy and in love for the rest of their lives.
Egeus takes Hermia, Demetrius, and Lysander to Theseus's court. Theseus gives Hermia until his wedding to choose her husband. Lysander and Hermia tell Helena of their plans to run away; Helena tells Demetrius in hopes of earning his love back. He plans to follow Hermia and Lysander into the wood, and Helena plans to follow him. The workmen theater troupe enters the wood to practice Pyramus and Thisbe, starring Bottom. Oberon instructs Puck to smear the love potion on Titania's eyelids later that evening.
By this point in the story, all the dominoes are set up—it's just a matter of time for one to fall. Nothing crazy has happened yet to our three groups of characters, but each group is in place for the story's main conflicts to occur.
Let the trouble commence! Lysander and Hermia enter the wood en route out of Athens, Demetrius follows them, and Helena follows him. Oberon witnesses Helena chasing Demetrius and tells Puck to give the young man the potion as well. Puck gives Lysander the potion by accident, making the young man fall in love with Helena. Puck turns Bottom's head into a donkey head; Bottom then wakes up Titania by singing and she falls in love with him instantly. Puck smears some potion on Demetrius in an effort to right his earlier mistake; Demetrius falls in love with Helena as well. The boys fight over Helena's love, and Hermia chases Helena around. Pretty much, at this point, our characters' lives couldn't be more muddled up.
Of course, being king of the magical world, Oberon takes it upon himself to fix this mess. He orders Puck to 1) un-enchant Titania while Bottom's getting the full fairy treatment, 2) cast a shadow over the wood so that the lovers don't hurt one another, and 3) give Lysander the potion antidote, so he'll wake up back in love with Hermia. Everything is still all messed up, technically, but at least it's on the way to being sorted out. Night falls on the wood.
The next morning, Theseus and Hippolyta discover the two pairs of lovers sleeping in the wood and take them back to Athens to be married, since Demetrius still loves Helena and Lysander loves Hermia again. Bottom (sans donkey head) shakes himself off after the craziest night of his life and heads back to Athens where he finds his friends. After the weddings, the Mechanicals perform Pyramus and Thisbe for the court. Puck closes the play by promising that everyone will be happy and protected.