A Midsummer Night’s Dream Summary

An act-by-act summary of Shakespeare's magical comedy

William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is made up of several interlocking plotlines, particularly the convoluted love story of Hermia, Helena, Lysander, and Demetrius, and the disagreement between the fairy king Oberon and his queen Titania. Connecting these two storylines is Puck, Oberon’s mischievous fairy jester, who drives much of the action of the play. The frame narrative of Theseus’ marriage to Hippolyta in Athens is important, as its orderliness provides a contrast to the chaotic forest where magic reigns and the expected is constantly subverted.

Act I

The play begins in Athens, where King Theseus celebrates his upcoming marriage to Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons, which will take place in four days under the new moon. Egeus enters with Hermia, Demetrius, and Lysander; he explains that he has arranged for Hermia to wed Demetrius, but she has refused, citing her love for Lysander. For this reason, Egeus beseeches Theseus to invoke the Athenian law that a daughter must obey her father’s choice of husband or else face death. Theseus tells Hermia she can either choose to marry Demetrius, be put to death, or enter into a convent; she has until his wedding to decide. When Hermia and Lysander are left alone with Hermia’s childhood friend Helena, they tell her about their plan to elope. Helena, whom Demetrius had once loved but abandoned in favor of Hermia, decides to tell Demetrius their plan. If he goes after them to stop their elopement and she follows him, perhaps she will be able to win him back.

We also are introduced to a group of craftsmen who know nothing of acting but are nonetheless rehearsing a play they hope to put on for Theseus’ upcoming wedding. They decide on what they call The Most Lamentable Comedy and Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe.

Act II

Robin Goodfellow, known as Puck, meets a fellow fairy servant in the woods. He warns him to keep Oberon away from Titania, as the two are fighting; Titania, newly returned from India, has adopted a young Indian prince, and Oberon wants the beautiful boy as his own manservant. The two fairy monarchs enter and begin to argue. Oberon demands the boy; Titania refuses. When she exits, Oberon asks Puck to find a magic herb called love-in-idleness that, if spread on a sleeper’s eyes, will cause them to fall in love with the first person they see. Puck will use this juice on Titania so she falls shamefully in love with a ridiculous animal, and then Oberon can refuse to lift the curse until she gives up the boy.

Puck goes to find the flower, and Demetrius and Helena enter. Hidden, Oberon watches as Demetrius insults Helena and curses Lysander and Hermia. Helena proclaims her unconditional love but Demetrius rebuffs her. After their exit, Oberon, moved by Helena’s love, orders Puck first to put some juice on Demetrius’ eyes so he will fall in love with her. He tells him that the man in question will be identifiable by his Athenian clothing.

Oberon finds Titania sleeping on the bank and he squeezes the juice onto her eyes. After they exit, Lysander and Hermia appear, lost. They decide to sleep in the forest, and the maidenly Hermia asks Lysander to sleep at a distance from her. Puck enters and mistakes Lysander for Demetrius, judging from his clothing and his distance from the lady. Puck puts the juice on his eyes and departs. Demetrius enters, still trying to lose Helena, and abandons her. She wakes up Lysander and he falls in love with her. Assuming his advances are meant mockingly, she exits, offended. Lysander runs after her, and Hermia wakes up, wondering where Lysander has gone.

Act III

The players are rehearsing Pyramus and Thisbe. Puck watches on in amusement, and when Bottom steps out of the group, Puck playfully changes his head into that of an ass. When Bottom reenters, the other craftsmen run away in terror. Nearby, Titania awakens, sees Bottom, and falls deeply in love with him. Bottom is totally unaware of his changed appearance, and accepts Titania’s affections.

Puck and Oberon delight in the success of their plan. But when Hermia and Demetrius enter, having stumbled across each other, the fairies are surprised at her antipathy towards him, and realize their mistake. Hermia, meanwhile, grills Demetrius for Lysander’s whereabouts. Jealous of her affection for him, he tells her he does not know; Hermia gets angry and storms off; Demetrius decides to sleep.

Oberon applies the juice to Demetrius' eyes, hoping to fix the mistake, and Puck leads in Helena, who is followed by a fawning Lysander. When Demetrius awakens, he also falls in love with Helena. Both men ply her with affections, but she thinks they are mocking her and refuses them. Hermia reenters, having heard Lysander at a distance, and is stunned to see that they now both love Helena. Helena scolds her for teasing her, while Lysander and Demetrius ready themselves to duel over Helena’s love. Hermia wonders if it is because Helena is tall and she is short that Helena is suddenly so beloved. Furious, she attacks Helena; Demetrius and Lysander vow to protect her, but exit to have their own duel. Helena runs away, and Hermia is left to voice her amazement at the suddenly inverted situation.

Puck is sent to keep Lysander and Demetrius from dueling, leading the men apart so each becomes hopelessly lost. Eventually, all four Athenian youths wander back into the glade and fall asleep. Puck puts the love potion onto Lysander’s eyes: in the morning, his mistake will be corrected.

Act IV

Titania dotes on Bottom and falls asleep with him in her arms. Oberon and Puck enter, and Oberon recounts how earlier he taunted Titania about her love for the donkey, and promised to undo the spell if she gave up the Indian prince. She agreed, and so now Oberon reverses the spell. Titania wakes up and is amazed to see Bottom in her arms. Oberon calls for music and takes her to dance, while Puck cures Bottom of his donkey head.

Theseus, Hippolyta, and Egeus find the youths sleeping in the wood and wake them up. To the four of them, the events of the last night seem like a dream. However, Demetrius is now in love with Helena, and Lysander once again with Hermia. Theseus tells them they shall all head to the temple for a wedding feast. As they exit, Bottom wakes up and recalls his own fairy dream.

The players sit and voice their remorse about losing Bottom, wondering who will play Pyramus in their play. Snug enters with the news that Theseus has gotten married, alongside the pair of lovers, and the newlyweds want to see a play. Luckily, at that moment Bottom returns, and the gang gets ready for their performance.

Act V

The group of newlyweds is gathered at Theseus’ palace. They are read a list of plays and Theseus settles on Pyramus and Thisbe, suggesting that although it may be poorly reviewed, if the craftsmen are simple and dutiful there will be something good in the play. They take their seats.

The players enter and begin an awkward and stuttering performance. They have two players act as a Wall and as Moonshine, which elicits laughter from the audience. Snug enters as a lion threatening Thisbe and roars, though he reminds the ladies of the audience that he is not a real lion so as not to frighten them too much. Thisbe runs offstage, and Snug the lion tears her mantle. Pyramus, acted as Bottom, finds the bloody mantle and commits suicide, with an over the top “Die, die, die, die, die.” When Thisbe returns to find her dead lover, she also kills herself. Their performance of Pyramus and Thisbe ends with a dance and much hilarity.

Oberon and Titania enter to bless the palace. They take their leave and Puck gives the closing remarks to the audience. He says that if the events have offended, the audience should think of it just as a dream. He asks for applause, and then exits.