A Midsummer Night’s Dream takes place partly in the city of Athens, and partly in the forest that lies beyond the city’s walls. This split between city and forest is thematically significant. The city of Athens is depicted as a place of civilization, law, and order, while the forest is a place of wildness, anarchy, and chaos. As if to underline the idea of Athens as a place of law and order, the play opens with Egeus bringing a legal dispute before Theseus. As duke of Athens, Theseus stands as the city’s chief legal authority. His primary responsibility is to uphold the law, which he attempts to do when he rules that Hermia must obey her father and marry Demetrius instead of Lysander. In contrast to this display of Athenian rule of law, the forest appears decidedly unruly—which is to say, ruled by fairy mischief. The forest is a place where social norms break down, as exemplified in the increasing chaos and confusion that afflicts the Athenian lovers as well as Titania and Nick Bottom.
Even as Shakespeare sets up an opposition between city and forest, the events of the play complicate this opposition. Athens supposedly symbolizes civilization, and its system of law and order indicates a degree of rationality. Yet the grim punishment Theseus threatens in the event of Hermia’s disobedience seems completely out of proportion for her crime. Her crime, after all, is simply loving Lysander—a man, it should be noted, who possesses a similar status as her father’s favorite, Demetrius. Considering that from a socioeconomic perspective the two rivals are well matched, it makes rational sense that Hermia should be able to marry whichever suitor she wants. Thus, Egeus and the patriarchal law he cites can be seen as cruel, uncivilized, and irrational. A similar reversal occurs in the case of the forest. The forest is a space marked by chaos, and indeed, lots of chaotic events occur in the forest over the course of the play. Yet these events have the unexpected result of restoring proper order among the young lovers, ensuring them all a safe return to Athens. Where Athenian law and order fails, forest mischief ultimately succeeds.