A Midsummer Night's Dream | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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A Midsummer Night's Dream | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

At his palace, Theseus, the duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, former queen of the Amazons, discuss preparations for their wedding, which is to take place in four days. Egeus, one of Theseus's lords, arrives with his daughter, Hermia, and two men who are in love with her, Demetrius and Lysander. Hermia loves Lysander, but Egeus wants her to marry Demetrius. Egeus thinks Theseus should follow old Athenian law and force Hermia to obey her father or die. Theseus instead says that she must obey her father or vow never to be with any man. Hermia says this vow would be better than having to marry Demetrius. Lysander makes his case for marrying Hermia, noting that another woman—Helena—is in love with Demetrius. Theseus says he will talk to Egeus and Demetrius further on the matter.

When the others leave, Lysander tells Hermia that they can run away together, and they make a plan to meet in the woods the following evening. Then Helena enters. She says she loves Demetrius but her love is not reciprocated. Hermia and Lysander reveal their plan to her.

After they exit, Helena is left alone. To gain Demetrius's favor, she decides she will tell Demetrius about Hermia and Lysander's plan. Then when Demetrius follows Hermia and Lysander, she will follow him.

Analysis

This opening scene introduces several main characters and sets up the central conflict of the play. The four lovers—Hermia, Helena, Lysander, and Demetrius—and what happens to them when they enter the woods are central to the main storyline. The situation summarized in this scene provides the plot's conflict: Hermia is loved by two men; Helena's love is unreturned; Egeus demands his daughter's obedience, causing her to flee in secret to the woods to meet Lysander.

The scene also introduces important themes. First, it introduces the idea of love as a magical force that makes people act irrationally. Love is not something that comes from within a person but from without: Egeus accuses Lysander of putting a spell on his daughter, Hermia, with his gifts, singing by moonlight, and cunning: "This man hath bewitched the bosom of my child." Helena also remarks on the irrational nature of love as she describes her feelings of love for Demetrius despite the fact that he has treated her terribly: "And, as he errs, doting on Hermia's eyes, / So I, admiring of his qualities. / Things base and vile, holding no quantity, / Love can transpose to form and dignity." Another way that the love theme plays out is in the way that love directly opposes law and order. Lysander's idea suggests their love can survive, but only if they escape the laws of Athens.

Another important theme concerns gender roles. Theseus has won Hippolyta not by wooing her with affection but by besting her in battle. Yet she seems happy enough with the arrangement, and Theseus doesn't seem to think it odd that he transitions from violence to celebrating a marriage: "Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword / And won thy love doing thee injuries, / But I will wed thee in another key, / With pomp, with triumph, and with reveling." Egeus, as Hermia's father, expects her to obey him, and Theseus agrees that she owes her father her obedience.

As the lovers escape to the woods, both of these themes continue to develop not only by the relationships between the lovers, but in the characters of the fairy world as well.

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