In the forest, two fairies, one a servant of Titania, the other a servant of Oberon, meet by chance in a glade. Oberon’s servant tells Titania’s to be sure to keep Titania out of Oberon’s sight, for the two are very angry with each other. Titania, he says, has taken a little Indian prince as her attendant, and the boy is so beautiful that Oberon wishes to make him his knight. Titania, however, refuses to give the boy up.
Titania’s servant is delighted to recognize Oberon’s servant as Robin Goodfellow, better known as Puck, a mischievous sprite notorious for his pranks and jests. Puck admits his identity and describes some of the tricks he plays on mortals.
The two are interrupted when Oberon enters from one side of the glade, followed by a train of attendants. At the same moment, Titania enters from the other side of the glade, followed by her own train. The two fairy royals confront one another, each questioning the other’s motive for coming so near to Athens just before the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta. Titania accuses Oberon of loving Hippolyta and of thus wishing to bless the marriage; Oberon accuses Titania of loving Theseus. The conversation turns to the little Indian boy, whom Oberon asks Titania to give him. But Titania responds that the boy’s mother was a devotee of hers before she died; in honor of his mother’s memory, Titania will hold the boy near to her. She invites Oberon to go with her to dance in a fairy round and see her nightly revels, but Oberon declines, saying that they will be at odds until she gives him the boy.
Titania storms away, and Oberon vows to take revenge on her before the night is out. He sends Puck to seek a white-and-purple flower called love-in-idleness, which was once hit with one of Cupid’s arrows. He says that the flower’s juice, if rubbed on a sleeper’s eyelids, will cause the sleeper to fall in love with the first living thing he or she sees upon waking. Oberon announces that he will use this juice on Titania, hoping that she will fall in love with some ridiculous creature; he will then refuse to lift the juice’s effect until she yields the Indian prince to him.
Act II serves two main functions: it introduces the fairies and their realm, and it initiates the romantic confusion that will eventually help restore the balance of love. The fairies, whom Shakespeare bases heavily on characters familiar from English folklore, are among the most memorable and delightful characters in the play. They speak in lilting rhymes infused with gorgeous poetic imagery. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play dominated by the presence of doubles, and the fairies are designed to contrast heavily with the young lovers and the craftsmen. Whereas the lovers are earnest and serious, Puck and the other pixies are merry and full of laughter; whereas the craftsmen are bumbling, earthy, and engage in methodical labor, the fairies are delicate, airy, and indulge in effortless magic and enchantment.
The conflict between Oberon and Titania imports into the fairy realm the motif of love being out of balance. As with the Athenian lovers, the eventual resolution of the tension between the two occurs only by means of magic. Though the craftsmen do not experience romantic confusion about one another, Bottom becomes involved in an accidental romance with Titania in Act III, and in Act V two craftsmen portray the lovers Pyramus and Thisbe, who commit suicide after misinterpreting events.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream was probably performed before Queen Elizabeth, and Shakespeare managed to make a flattering reference to his monarch in Act II, scene i. When Oberon introduces the idea of the love potion to Puck, he says that he once saw Cupid fire an arrow that missed its mark:
That very time I saw, but thou couldst not, Flying between the cold moon and the earth Cupid, all armed. A certain aim he took At a fair vestal thronèd by the west, And loosed his love-shaft smartly from his bow As it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts. But I might see young Cupid’s fiery shaft Quenched in the chaste beams of the wat’ry moon, And the imperial vot’ress passèd on, In maiden meditation, fancy-free (II.i.155–164).
Queen Elizabeth never married and was celebrated in her time as a woman of chastity, a virgin queen whose concerns were above the flesh. Here Shakespeare alludes to that reputation by describing Cupid firing an arrow “at a fair vestal thronèd by the west”—Queen Elizabeth—whom the heat of passion cannot affect because the arrow is cooled “in the chaste beams of the wat’ry moon.” Shakespeare celebrates how Elizabeth put affairs of state before her personal life and lived “in maiden meditation, fancy-free.” He nestles a patriotic aside in an evocative description, couching praise for the ruler on whose good favor he depended in dexterous poetic language. (Audiences in Shakespeare’s day would most likely have recognized this imaginative passage’s reference to their monarch.)
Because many of the main themes and motifs in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are very light, even secondary to the overall sense of comedy and the dreamlike atmosphere, it is perhaps more important to try to understand not what the play means but rather how Shakespeare creates its mood. One technique that he uses is to embellish action with a wealth of finely wrought poetic imagery, using language to work upon the imagination of the audience and thereby effect a kind of magic upon the stage: “I must go seek some dewdrops here,” one fairy says, “And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear” (II.i.14–15). The fairies conjure many of the play’s most evocative images: Oberon, for instance, describes having heard
a mermaid on a dolphin’s back Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath That the rude sea grew civil at her song And certain stars shot madly from their spheres To hear the sea-maid’s music (II.i.150–154)
a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, Quite overcanopied with luscious woodbine, With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine. There sleeps Titania sometime of the night, Lulled in these flowers with dances and delight (II.i.249–254).
This technique extends even to the suggestive names of some of the characters, such as the craftsmen Snug, Starveling, Quince, Flute, and Snout, and the fairies Cobweb, Mustardseed, Mote, and Peaseblossom.