The desire for well-matched love and the struggle to achieve it drives the plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The play opens on a note of desire, as Theseus, Duke of Athens, waxes poetic about his anticipated wedding to Hippolyta. The main conflict is introduced when other lovers’ troubles take center stage. The question of who the characters should love versus who they do love drives the plot from this point on. The audience may immediately understand that Hermia and Lysander belong together, as do Helena and Demetrius, but the characters’ inability to pair with the appropriate partner, and the fairies’ interference, complicate the conflict. Mirroring the drama among the Athenian nobility, the monarchs of the fairy kingdom also find themselves in a lovers’ tiff. Hoping to teach Titania a lesson, Oberon instructs the fairy Puck to apply a charm that will make Titania and Demetrius each fall in love with the next person they see. Lysander, under the spell of the fairies, abandons Hermia for Helena. Demetrius also falls in love with Helena, and Titania falls in love with Bottom, who now has the head of a donkey. Oberon’s jealousy mirrors the pettiness of the human characters, suggesting emotions like love, jealousy, and the desire for revenge are universal.
Instead of solving the human lovers’ problems, fairy mischief make the lovers’ problems worse, transforming friendships into rivalries. Helena and Hermia, childhood friends, become enemies, and Demetrius battles with Lysander for Helena’s affections. The play quickly (and temporarily) devolves from a love story to a story of hatred and ill-will, with all the characters fighting the people they once loved. The quickness with which characters fall in love with each other, and the ease with which they dissolve friendships, raises questions about the fickleness of emotional attachment. The action reaches a crisis point once all the characters have been separated from their appropriate partners, and the complications are at their limit. At this point in the play, no one is happy, except Bottom, who enjoys Titania’s affections. But the rest of the characters have been made miserable by love. Even Helena, who now is being pursued by both Lysander and Demetrius, thinks they are playing a cruel trick on her. In this way, the play explores the many ways love can bring about unhappiness as well as joy.
With the tension rising among the Athenian lovers and the night pushing toward dawn, Oberon orders Puck to reverse Lysander’s enchantment and set things right among the lovers. By the dawning of a new day, the night and its discord has resolved. Lysander, free of Puck’s enchantments, falls back in love with Hermia, while Demetrius remains enchanted, and in love with Helena. Helena’s father agrees to accept Lysander as a match for his daughter. Both the internal and external obstacles between the lovers have been removed, and the stage is set for weddings for all couples. The ease with which the events of the night dissolve in the light of day suggest that nothing that has come before should actually be taken seriously. However, the events of the play do make us question the depth and sincerity of the lovers’ devotion, especially since Demetrius only loves Helena as a result of Puck’s enchantment.
Meanwhile, the Mechanicals have been preparing to perform their adaptation of the tragedy of “Pyramus and Thisbe” for the duke and his bride to be. Shakespeare weaves this plot thread throughout the entire play, so that the bumbling attempt of these unrefined commoners to rehearse a high tragedy unfolds against the backdrop of the play’s tangle of erotic confusion. This melding of tragedy and comedy reinforces the sense that none of the action should be taken seriously, and that matters of the heart are ultimately of little consequence. By having the comical Mechanicals stand in for tragic lovers, Shakespeare pokes fun at the tragic genre, including his own Romeo and Juliet. We also understand that just as the Mechanicals’ play is ridiculous nonsense, all the action we are watching onstage is little more than a dream-like fantasy. The play closes with Puck reassuring the audience, “Think you have but slumbered here / While these visions did appear. / And this weak and idle theme / No more yielding but a dream”. (V.i.)