A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overview

Shakespeare’s Most Popular Comedy

A Midsummer Night's Dream, c
A Midsummer Night's Dream, c. 1846. Private Collection. Artist : Montaigne, William John (c. 1820-1902).

Heritage Images / Getty Images

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, estimated to have been written in 1595/96. It tells the story of the reconciliation of two pairs of lovers, as well as the wedding of King Theseus and his bride Hippolyta. The play is one of Shakespeare’s most influential works.

Fast Facts: A Midsummer Night's Dream

  • Author: William Shakespeare
  • Publisher: N/A
  • Year Published: Estimated 1595/96
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Type of Work: Play
  • Original Language: English
  • Themes: Perception, order versus disorder, play-within-a-play, challenging of gender roles/female disobedience
  • Major Characters: Hermia, Helena, Lysander, Demetrius, Puck, Oberon, Titania, Theseus, Bottom
  • Notable Adaptations: The Fairy-Queen, an opera by famous English composer Henry Purcell
  • Fun Fact: Once described by the famous early modern diarist Samuel Pepys as “the most insipid ridiculous play I ever saw!”

Plot Summary

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the story of the events surrounding the marriage of Theseus, king of Athens, and Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons. It follows the lovers Hermia and Lysander as they attempt to elope but are dogged by Demetrius, in love with Hermia, and Helena, in love with Demetrius. Parallel is the story of Titania and Oberon, monarchs of the forest, who are embroiled in their own fight. Puck, their fairy jester, functions as a liaison between the two parties, as Oberon orders him to use a love potion to make Demetrius fall in love with Helena. Oberon’s plan backfires, and it is Puck’s duty to right his wrong. As the play is a comedy, it ends with a many-part marriage between the happy lovers.

Major Characters

Hermia: A young woman from Athens, daughter of Egeus. In love with Lysander, she is headstrong enough to rebel against her father’s orders to marry Demetrius.

Helena: A young woman from Athens. She was betrothed to Demetrius until he left her for Hermia, and she remains desperately in love with him.

Lysander: A young man from Athens, who starts out the play in love with Hermia. Despite his alleged devotion to Hermia, Lysander is no match against the magic potion of Puck.

Demetrius: A young man from Athens. Once betrothed to Helena, he abandoned her to pursue Hermia, to whom he is arranged to marry. He can be brash and rude, insulting Helena and threatening her harm.

Robin "Puck" Goodfellow: A sprite. Oberon’s mischievous and merry jester. Unable and unwilling to obey his master, he represents the forces of chaos and disorder, challenging the ability of both humans and fairies to enact their will.

Oberon: The king of the fairies. Oberon shows a kind side in ordering Puck to give Demetrius a love potion that will make him fall in love with Helena. However, he still cruelly demands obedience from his wife, Titania.

Titania: The queen of the fairies. Titania refuses Oberon’s demand for the beautiful boy she has adopted. Despite her resistance to him, she is also no match for the magic love spell and falls deeply in love with the donkey-headed Bottom.

Theseus: The king of Athens. He is a force of order and justice, and is counterpart to Oberon, reinforcing the contrast between human and fairy, Athens and the forest, reason and emotion, and ultimately, order and chaos.

Nick Bottom: Perhaps the most foolish of the players, he is Titania’s brief lover when Puck is ordered to embarrass her.

Major Themes

Foiled Perception: Shakespeare’s emphasis on the inability of the lovers to make correct decisions based on their knowledge of the events at hand—symbolized by Puck’s magic flower—shows the importance of this theme.

Control Versus Disorder: Throughout the play we are shown how characters attempt to control that which they cannot, especially the actions of other people and their own emotions. This plays out in particular on the part of men attempting to control the women in their lives.

Literary Device, Play-Within-a-Play: Shakespeare invites us to consider the fact that while bad actors (like those of the poor players’ production) make us laugh at their attempts to fool us, we are hoodwinked by good actors. He also suggests this way that we are always acting, even in our own lives.

Challenging of Gender Roles, Female Disobedience: The women of the play offer a consistent challenge to male authority. Women embracing their power often suggests a challenge to male authority, and there is no better place for women to seize their power than in the chaos of the forest, where male authority has no place.

Literary Styles

A Midsummer Night’s Dream has had remarkable literary significance from its inception. Estimated to have been written in 1595/96, the play has influenced writers as varied as British Romantic Samuel Taylor Coleridge to modern writer Neil Gaiman. It is a comedy, which means it generally will end with a multi-part wedding. Shakespearean comedy also often places greater emphasis on situations rather than characters; it is for this reason that characters like Lysander or Demetrius are not as deep as one like the eponymous character of Hamlet.

The play was written during the reign of Elizabeth II. There are numerous early versions of the play still in existence; each, however, has different lines, so it is the job of the editor to decide which version to publish, and accounts for the many explanatory notes in editions of Shakespeare.

About the Author  

William Shakespeare is likely the highest regarded writer of the English language. Although the date of his exact birth is unknown, he was baptized in Stratford-Upon-Avon in 1564 and married Anne Hathaway at age 18. Sometime between the age of 20 and 30, he moved to London to start his career in theatre. He worked as an actor and a writer, as well as a part-time owner of the theatre troupe the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later known as the King’s Men. Since little information about commoners was retained at the time, not much is known about Shakespeare, leading to questions about his life, his inspiration, and the authorship of his plays.