A Midsummer Night's Dream

Key characters

THE LOVERS

HELENA

How happy some o'er other some can be!

Act 1, Scene 1

Helena is a young Athenian woman, and in love with Demetrius. Helena is described as the tall, fair counterpart to the shorter, darker-featured Hermia. Helena describes the relationship between her and Hermia as incredibly close – “So we grew together / Like to a double cherry, seeming parted / But yet an union in partition…” (Act 3, Scene 2). However, within the four teenage lovers’ group – Helena, Hermia, Demetrius and Lysander – Helena certainly seems on the periphery.

In comparison to her friend, Helena seems to be unlucky in love while Hermia seems to effortlessly attract it. Helena is in love with a young Athenian named Demetrius, and we are told that Demetrius and Helena were once a couple. However, Demetrius is now firmly in pursuit of Hermia, to the dismay of Helena. To add insult to Helena’s injury, not only is Demetrius in love with her best friend, but Hermia has absolutely no interest in him. With both Demetrius and Lysander’s affections lying with Hermia, Helena feels utterly ignored and left out. As she seeks to understand why her friend is so beloved and she is so ignored, she is prone to making dramatic statements about her own self-worth:

Happy is Hermia, wheresoe'er she lies;
For she hath blessed and attractive eyes.
How came her eyes so bright? Not with salt tears:
If so, my eyes are oftener wash'd than hers.
No, no, I am as ugly as a bear;
For beasts that meet me run away for fear…

Act 2, Scene 2

Helena is obsessed with comparison – not only constantly comparing herself to Hermia in terms of physical features and beauty, but also comparing Demetrius’ treatment of Hermia to how he treats Helena. She goes as far as directly asking Hermia to teach her how to affect Demetrius’ affections – “O, teach me how you look, and with what art / You sway the motion of Demetrius' heart.” (Act 1, Scene 1)

Helena’s pursuit of Demetrius’ love is relentless, even though she tells us that it is painful to her: “But herein mean I to enrich my pain, / To have his sight thither and back again.” (Act 1, Scene 1) When Helena follows Demetrius into the forest, she declares herself to be his “spaniel”, willing to serve him and follow him everywhere, even if he spurns her. Her love, she says, is like a magnet – she has no power but to follow Demetrius. Despite his ill treatment of her, to Helena, Demetrius is “all the world.” (Act 2, Scene 1) However Helena does show that she is not willing to put up with Demetrius’ ill treatment completely and does stand her ground with him:

Ay, in the temple, in the town, the field,
You do me mischief. Fie, Demetrius!
Your wrongs do set a scandal on my sex:
We cannot fight for love, as men may do;
We should be wood and were not made to woo.

Act 2, Scene 1

In this, Helena acknowledges that her pursuit and “wooing” of Demetrius is an expected behaviour usually attributed to men, not women, within her society.

When Puck’s error with the magic flower causes both Lysander and Demetrius to suddenly fall in love with Helena, rather than enjoy their affections, Helena is entirely distrustful and confused. She is convinced that her friends, even Hermia, are playing a cruel joke on her. “Lo, she is one of this confederacy! / Now I perceive they have conjoin'd all three / To fashion this false sport, in spite of me.” (Act 3, Scene 2) She cannot bring herself to accept Demetrius’s sudden change of heart towards her, despite her own dogged pursuit of him.

In making Helena and Hermia similar, Shakespeare highlights the fickle nature of love – “And therefore is love said to be a child / Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.” (Helena, Act 1, Scene 1) The play closes with Demetrius’ love for Helena being restored via the magic flower juice from the fairy realm. Helena is unaware that the love from Demetrius is manufactured, and we the audience are left to ponder what is preferable – a hollow love, or no love at all?

HERMIA

I would my father look'd but with my eyes.

Act 1, Scene 1

Hermia is the life-long friend of Helena, and the lover of Lysander. She is referred to constantly in regards to her beauty and is adored by many, in particular, both Lysander and Demetrius. Hermia and Lysander are a couple and wish to marry, however Hermia’s father, Egeus, forbids their marriage. The play opens with Egeus entreating Theseus, Duke of Athens, to insist to Hermia that she must follow her father’s will and marry Demetrius, instead of Lysander. Hermia is told that if she refuses to marry Demetrius, she must become a nun, or lose her life. In the court, Hermia displays great courage and determination, speaking up to her father and the Duke: “My soul consents not to give sovereignty.” (Act 1, Scene 1) In this courtly Athens, young women are expected to behave as dutiful daughters to their father’s wills, and Hermia in refusing to marry Demetrius, enrages Egeus. Hermia wishes her father could see her point of view: “I would my father look'd but with my eyes.” (Act 1, Scene 1)

When Lysander offers Hermia the prospect of a new life together beyond the walls of Athens, she jumps at it with her whole heart:

My good Lysander!
I swear to thee, by Cupid's strongest bow,
By all the vows that ever men have broke,
In number more than ever women spoke,
In that same place thou hast appointed me,
To-morrow truly will I meet with thee.

Act 1, Scene 1

In a play consumed by the concept of dreams, Hermia has a seemingly foreshadowing dream in the forest. She awakes with a start in fear and tells Lysander that she dreamt he appeared to laugh at her death from a snake. Yet Hermia cannot find Lysander, as he is under the spell and already in pursuit of Helena:

[Awaking] Help me, Lysander, help me! do thy best
To pluck this crawling serpent from my breast!
Ay me, for pity! what a dream was here!
Lysander, look how I do quake with fear:
Methought a serpent eat my heart away,
And you sat smiling at his cruel pray.

Act 2, Scene 2

Hermia is bold, passionate and self-determined. While she cares deeply for her life-long friend, Helena, her commitment to Lysander is stronger. Her love for Lysander drives her to leave her family and home, defy the Duke’s law, and to elope into the mysterious forest towards an unknown future. Yet Hermia also demonstrates behaviours expected of young women in her society, particularly in rejecting Lysander’s physical advances when they are alone:

But, gentle friend, for love and courtesy
Lie further off; in human modesty,
Such separation as may well be said
Becomes a virtuous bachelor and a maid...

Act 2, Scene 2

However, when Puck mistakenly puts the love juice on Lysander’s eyes, Hermia is infuriated and suddenly rejects all niceties and ‘proper’ behaviour. The petite beauty becomes aggressive and combative, verbally and physically threatening her friends. It takes both Demetrius and Lysander to physically hold her back, such is her power and strength. Helena notes that she has always known Hermia to be capable of such acts: “O, when she's angry, she is keen and shrewd! / She was a vixen when she went to school; / And though she be but little, she is fierce.” (Act 3, Scene 2) The two friends within the same scene hark back to school memories of growing up together, as well as take aim at each other in verbal, emotional attacks. When the spell is lifted and order is restored, Hermia and Lysander reunite and her friendship with Helena is restored.

LYSANDER

The course of true love never did run smooth.

Act 1, Scene 1

Lysander is a young Athenian man, and the lover of Hermia. Lysander is described as of good social stature and of wealthy means, however he is denied the right to marry Hermia by her father, Egeus. Lysander pleads his case and true feelings for Hermia, though it is to no avail. It is Lysander who comes up with the plan to elope into the forest and start a new life together:

… hear me, Hermia.
I have a widow aunt, a dowager
Of great revenue, and she hath no child:
From Athens is her house remote seven leagues;
And she respects me as her only son.
There, gentle Hermia, may I marry thee;
And to that place the sharp Athenian law
Cannot pursue us.

Act 1, Scene 1

Lysander’s love and devotion to Hermia is unquestionable, and he is also prepared to flout Athenian law in order to be with her. In the forest as he and Hermia find a place to rest, Lysander tries to get closer to Hermia than she is comfortable with: “One turf shall serve as pillow for us both; / One heart, one bed, two bosoms and one troth.” (Act 2, Scene 2) Hermia insists he “lie further off” and while he proclaims his innocence, he agrees to her wishes.

Lysander’s keen love for Hermia shifts suddenly when he is enchanted by the magic flower juice:

Content with Hermia! No; I do repent
The tedious minutes I with her have spent.
Not Hermia but Helena I love:
Who will not change a raven for a dove?

Act 2, Scene 2

He pursues Helena and tries to fight Demetrius for her attentions, all the while pushing off a confused Hermia. Under the spell, he goes as far as to exclaim to Hermia:

…be out of hope, of question, of doubt;
Be certain, nothing truer; 'tis no jest
That I do hate thee and love Helena.

Act 3, Scene 2

In the chaos, Lysander challenges Demetrius to a physical fight for the hand of Helena. Once Oberon reverses the love enchantment, Lysander’s love for Hermia is restored and the two are married.

DEMITRIUS

I love thee not, therefore persue me not.

Act 2, Scene 1

Demetrius is Helena’s former lover, and in love with Hermia. He is of similar means and social stature as Lysander in regards to Athenian society. At the opening of the play, we discover that Demetrius is now in love with Hermia, despite Hermia’s mutual love with Lysander. Demetrius has the support of Hermia’s father, Egeus, for her hand in marriage. The fact that Hermia is already in love with another man and has no interest in marrying him, does not seem to be a concern to Demetrius. He is confident, arrogant and determined to have Hermia for his bride, and is prepared to fight Lysander for her. In fact, Demetrius exclaims that it is his “right” to marry Hermia:

Relent, sweet Hermia: and, Lysander, yield
Thy crazed title to my certain right.

Act 1, Scene 1

When Helena tells him of Lysander and Hermia’s elopement to the forest, Demetrius follows the lovers, with Helena in his tracks. Helena’s pursuit of him appears to be of great annoyance and obstacle for him: “I love thee not, therefore pursue me not.” (Act 2, Scene 1) He tells her in no uncertain terms that he has no interest in a relationship with Helena, and threatens her in a number of ways:

Tempt not too much the hatred of my spirit;
For I am sick when I do look on thee.

Act 2, Scene 2

Demetrius does not seem to acknowledge his former relationship with Helena, and treats her with contempt. In fact, it is Demetrius’ ill treatment of Helena that provokes Oberon to put the love spell on him, despite the fact that the spell does not happen as planned.

Demetrius continues to chase Hermia despite her disinterest in him, until he is charmed by the magic flower potion. Just as with Lysander, he then instantly falls in love with Helena: “O Helena, goddess, nymph, perfect, divine!” (Act 3, Scene 2) He continues his rivalry with Lysander, but this time in an attempt to gain Helena’s affections.

Importantly, when the love potion is reversed for Lysander, Oberon does not reverse Demetrius’ enchantment. This means that at the end of the play, Demetrius is still in love with Helena, even if it is only because of Oberon’s spell.

THE MECHANICALS

NICK BOTTOM

I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream — past the wit of man to say what dream it was.

Act 4, Scene 1

Nick Bottom is a weaver from Athens, and an amateur actor. He is the central character in the subplot of the tradesmen’s production of Pyramus and Thisbe. Bottom plays an archetypal clown role in the play, yet he is unaware of this fact. Bottom is overly confident of his abilities as a tragedian. He volunteers for every part in the play including the Lion and Thisbe, the female lead. His fellow thespians appear to be both impressed by Bottom, and at times supremely annoyed by him. Nevertheless, they seek his advice constantly, and he freely offers his own wisdom. Bottom displays a great confidence in the sound of his own voice, despite constantly using words incorrectly: “We will meet; and there we may rehearse most / obscenely and courageously.” (Act 1, Scene 2)

Bottom is the unwitting subject of Puck’s pranks, when Puck transforms his head into that of a donkey or “ass” (providing great opportunities for jokes and wordplay). Bottom is entirely unaware of his comical appearance and he happens to be the first thing Titania sees when she wakes with the magic flower juice on her eyes. She instantly falls in love with Bottom, to his confusion:

Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason
for that: and yet, to say the truth, reason and
love keep little company together now-a-days...

Act 3, Scene 1

Nevertheless, when Titania insists that Bottom come to her fairy bower and be waited upon by fairy attendants, he happily obliges and forgets all about the play rehearsal. Bottom is quite at home asking the fairies for food and to do ridiculous tasks for him: “… kill me a red-hipped
humble-bee on the top of a thistle; and, good / mounsieur, bring me the honey-bag.” (Act 4, Scene 1)

When Bottom is restored back to his former, fully-human self, he recalls what has just happened, but concludes that it must have all been a strange dream:

I have had a most rare
vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to
say what dream it was...

Act 4, Scene 1

He concludes that he will ask Peter Quince to write a play all about his dream. Bottom returns to his fellow thespians just in time to perform as Pyramus in the play for the royal wedding, to the great amusement of Theseus, Hippolyta and the Athenian lovers.

PETER QUINCE

Here is the scroll of every man’s name which is thought fit, through all Athens, to play in our interlude before the duke and the duchess, on his wedding day at night.

Act 1, Scene 2

Peter Quince is a carpenter from Athens, and the director of the tradesmen’s play. Peter Quince has taken it upon himself to direct the amateur production of Pyramus and Thisbe in celebration of the Duke’s wedding day. Quince is a somewhat nervous and frustrated director, particularly perturbed by Bottom and his constant attempts to change the play and play all the characters.

He convinces Bottom that he should stick to the part of Pyramus, but has to keep a close eye on his blundering acting during rehearsals. On the day of the performance, Quince delivers the play’s prologue and is ridiculed in snide comments by Theseus, Hippolyta, Lysander and Demetrius.

FRANCIS FLUTE

Nay, faith, let me not play a woman. I have a beard coming.

Act 1, Scene 2

Francis Flute is a bellows-mender and reluctant actor. He begrudgingly takes on the part of the female lead, Thisbe, even though Bottom offers to play both leads. Flute protests that he shouldn’t have to play the woman because he has “a beard coming.” (Act 1, Scene 2) Despite his earlier hesitations, Flute plays the role of Thisbe admirably.

THE FAIRIES

OBERON

Well, go thy way: thou shalt not from this grove
Till I torment thee for this injury.

Act 2, Scene 1

Oberon is King of the Fairies, husband of Titania, and master of the mischievous Puck. Referred to by Puck as the “King of Shadows” (Act 3, Scene 2), Oberon is powerful, jealous, quick-tempered and vengeful. His relationship with Titania, Queen of the Fairies, is a tumultuous one, with the couple’s ongoing arguments having an impact on the natural world. At the opening of the play, Oberon wants to use Titania’s adopted son, an Indian boy, as his henchman, but Titania denies his request. Furious, Oberon takes his revenge by playing a trick on Titania, to make her fall in love with the first living creature she sees. He tells us that he hopes she will fall in love with something “vile”:

What thou seest when thou dost wake,
Do it for thy true-love take,
Love and languish for his sake:
Be it ounce, or cat, or bear,
Pard, or boar with bristled hair,
In thy eye that shall appear
When thou wakest, it is thy dear:
Wake when some vile thing is near.

Act 2, Scene 1

Despite the pranks Oberon plays on Titania, he shows a softer side in relation to Helena’s plight. When he witnesses Demetrius treat Helena badly, he instructs Puck to place the love juice on Demetrius’ eyes:

A sweet Athenian lady is in love
With a disdainful youth: anoint his eyes;
But do it when the next thing he espies
May be the lady...

Act 2, Scene 1

Oberon is furious when Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius and mixes up the plan for the magic flower enchantment. He is similarly aggravated by Puck’s amusement at the lover’s chaotic situation. He ends the play by resolving both magic enchantments – taking the spell from Titania and Lysander, restoring the balance in the world.

TITANIA

I am a spirit of no common rate...

Act 3, Scene 1

Titania is Queen of the Fairies, and wife of Oberon. In the magical, forest world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream she is a powerful force to be reckoned with. At the beginning of the play, she is concerned that her constant arguing with Oberon is having a catastrophic impact on the environment:

The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which:
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.

Act 2, Scene 1

Titania refuses to hand over the “changeling boy” to Oberon, insisting that she has adopted the boy following the death of the child’s mother. In spite of Oberon’s anger, Titania remains unmoved and leaves with her fairy attendants. Titania is attended by a number of fairies, including Peaseblossom, Moth, Cobweb and Mustardseed.

After being enchanted by Oberon’s magic flower, she falls instantly love with Bottom. When Bottom is initially confused by her advances, she in no uncertain terms order him to do her bidding: “Out of this wood do not desire to go: / Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no.” (Act 3, Scene 1) Titania then spends the majority of the play devoted to Bottom’s every wish, and instructing her attendants to look after him. Oberon and Puck look on, highly amused by her blind, enchanted adoration.

When Oberon decides to lift the enchantment, at first Titania believes her experience to be a “vision” she has dreamed about. When Oberon points out Bottom, Titania is instantly repulsed by him:

How came these things to pass?
O, how mine eyes do loathe his visage now!

Act 4, Scene 1

While we do not see it in the play, we are left to understand that Titania and Oberon reconcile at the end of the play and are united once more.

PUCK

Thou speak’st aright.
I am that merry wanderer of the night.

Act 3, Scene 1

Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, is a magical, mischievous sprite and Oberon’s attendant. Puck is often considered to be the most important character in the play. He serves Oberonand in many ways plays his ‘fool’ or jester. His cheeky nature and quick wit permeate his speech, creating an atmosphere of magic and fun throughout the play. Puck triggers the play’s action through magic. He plays pranks on the human characters, such as when he transforms Bottom’s head into that of a donkey. He also mistakenly pours love potion on the eyelids of Lysander instead of Demetrius, making the wrong man fall in love with Helena, causing great chaos.

Puck is, to Oberon’s annoyance, a fairly unreliable servant. At times Puck will do Oberon’s bidding, yet often makes mistakes. Puck sometimes plays jokes for his own amusement, including Bottom’s transformation.

In terms of all the characters in the play, Puck appears to have the closest connection to the audience and at times appears as a pseudo-narrator. He comments on the action, sometimes questioning what his next step will be. He watches the Mechanical’s play and offers his own thoughts on the performance, even wondering if he should play a role: “What, a play toward! I'll be an auditor; / An actor too, perhaps, if I see cause.” (Act 3, Scene 1) In this way, Puck appears to have some control over the course of the story and foreshadows the plot:

Jack shall have Jill.
Nought shall go ill.
The man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well.

Act 3, Scene 2

At the end of the play, Puck delivers the epilogue, telling the audience that if they have not enjoyed the play, they should simply imagine they have been dreaming:

If we shadows have offended, 
Think but this, and all is mended, 
That you have but slumber’d here, 
While these visions did appear.

Act 5, Scene 1

THE COURT

THESEUS

The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.

Act 5, Scene 1

Theseus is the Duke of Athens, and husband-to-be of Hippolyta. Theseus is the most powerful of the courtly characters in the play. Although absent from Acts 2 and 3, he is very important to the plot due to his forbidding of Hermia’s marriage to Lysander. It is Theseus’ order that Hermia must marry Demetrius, become a nun, or die, that forces her to flee to the forest and for the entire play’s plot to unfold.

It is also Theseus’ wedding to Hippolyta that causes the Mechanicals to pursue their theatrical ambition of staging a play as entertainment for the royal wedding. As the ruler of Athens he enforces the strict laws of Athenian society in regard to Hermia’s behavior and disobedience towards her father. Although offering her options, the conflicted position in which he places Hermia confirms his role at the centre of Athenian power. Theseus sets out to present himself as a lover in the opening of the play by excitedly anticipating his “nuptial hour” (Act 1, Scene 1) with Hippolyta. However, he also boasts of “wooing” Hippolyta with his sword, suggesting a conquest and a gender struggle at the heart of the play, or at the very least an acknowledgement of an established patriarchal rule. Indeed, Theseus reinforces the power that men have over women in his society when he tells Hermia:

What say you, Hermia? be advised fair maid:
To you your father should be as a god...

Act 1, Scene 1

HIPPOLYTA

This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard.

Act 5, Scene 1

Hippolyta is Theseus’ conquest and his duchess-to-be. Hippolyta is a character from ancient Greek mythology. However, the Queen of the Amazons in this version of the story certainly lacks the female power that she is known for in other historical depictions. Although her history stems back to the story of Theseus’ conquering of the Amazons, Hippolyta at this point represents suppression by male authority, a recurring theme in the play. She is nonetheless outwardly anticipating the wedding herself: “Four days will quickly steep themselves in night… And then the moon… shall behold the night of our solemnities.” (Act 1, Scene 1)

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