Egeus is upset because his daughter, Hermia, has challenged his authority. When Egeus approaches Theseus at the beginning of Act I, he has just learned that Hermia rejected his preferred suitor, Demetrius. Presumably Egeus prefers Demetrius for reasons related to wealth and status. But, as Lysander points out, he possesses just as much wealth and status as his rival. What’s more, he also possesses Hermia’s heart. “Why,” he asks, “should not I then prosecute my right?” Yet Lysander’s rational and compelling argument does little to calm Egeus’s fury. Possibly Egeus’s anger derives less from Hermia’s preference for one lover over another, and more from her public rejection of his authority. By rejecting Egeus’s authority, Hermia spurns the patriarchal laws of Athenian society. Theseus indicates as much when he reminds her, “To you your father should be as a god” (I.i.).
The band of craftsmen want to perform a play at the Athenian nobles’ wedding because they hope their performance will win be rewarded with money. However, their motivation doesn’t become clear until Act IV. The group returns to Athens without Bottom, fearing that they’ve lost their chances at performing. Snug laments, “If our sport / had gone forward, we had all been made men” (IV.ii.). Flute says that Bottom has “lost sixpence a day.” Apparently, the craftsmen believe that their performance would have won them each an ongoing income from Theseus, and Bottom in particular would have performed so well that Theseus would have awarded him a pension of sixpence a day. This economic motivation for performing underscores the enormous class difference between the craftsmen and the nobles. Class difference also contributes to the subtle irony of Peter Quince’s prologue, which he recites with incorrect punctuation so that he ends up saying the opposite of what he means: “If we offend, it is with our good will” (V.i.). Although humorous, Quince’s mistake quietly suggests the tension between socioeconomic classes.
Oberon orders Puck to fetch the magic flower to get back at Titania. Oberon and Titania are estranged from one another for a couple of reasons. First, the fairy king and queen are both jealous of each other’s attraction to their counterparts in the human realm. Just as Oberon is attracted to Hippolyta, so Titania is attracted to Theseus, and in Act II the couple confronts each other with their jealous suspicions. But Oberon and Titania are also estranged due to a dispute about a human Indian child who was stolen by one of Titania’s worshippers and replaced with a fairy changeling. This Indian child has been left in Titania’s care, and she refuses Oberon when he asks to have the child as his “henchman.” Titania’s refusal is the last straw for Oberon, who in his anger makes the following pledge: “Thou shalt not from this grove / Till I torment thee for this injury” (II.i.). After making this vow Oberon turns to Puck and instructs him to fetch a magic flower whose juice “Will make or man or woman madly dote / Upon the next live creature that it sees” (II.i.).
Puck delights in causing chaos and confusion because he’s a fairy, and according to tradition causing mischief is exactly what fairies do. Puck in particular has achieved fame for his many mischievous exploits. The audience gets a sense for Puck’s legendary status in Act II, when an unnamed fairy recognizes him and talks excitedly about some of his most well-known tricks. Puck goes on to describe some of the other great tricks he’s played on unsuspecting humans. Although Puck never explicitly describes why chaos delights him so much, he does offer a hint when he exclaims, “And those things do best please me / That befall prepost’rously” (III.ii.). Puck’s use of the word “prepost’rously” is significant here. This word derives from two Latin words, one that means “in front of” (prae) and one that means “behind” (posterus). Preposterous would then mean something like “with the behind in front.” In other words, Puck loves to flip things around and turn them on their head. Although Puck’s antics may cause pain or frustration for his human targets, he and his fellow fairies take great delight in causing trouble.
Hermia and Helena have enjoyed a close friendship since they were young, but recently their friendship has come under strain due to their entanglement in a knot of desire and jealousy. Before the play begins, Helena and Demetrius were in a loving relationship, as were Hermia and Lysander. Everything changed, however, when Demetrius turned his amorous gaze from Helena in order to pursue Hermia. Suddenly, Hermia had two suitors, and Helena had none. Helena is left feeling cast aside and unappealing. At the beginning of the play, she makes a big deal about her jealousy of Hermia, saying, “Your eyes are lodestars, and your tongue’s sweet air / More tunable than lark to shepherd’s ear.” (I.i.)What starts out as mere jealousy becomes full-blown animosity by Act III. Lysander, charmed by fairy magic, abandons Hermia and pursues Helena instead. This reversal induces Hermia to rage and causes great torment for Helena. The friends’ heightened emotions cause them to argue spitefully and call each other cruel names. Although fairy mischief amplifies the animosity between Hermia and Helena, it’s important to emphasize that this animosity originated with Demetrius. Demetrius’s inconstancy drives a wedge between the two women.
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