English 304: Shakespeare: Major Plays (Prof. Boyer)
Reading Questions for A Midsummer Night's Dream
Keyed to The Norton Shakespeare
The best beginning procedure is always to familiarize yourself with the cast of characters and then to read the play (or at least an act or a scene) all the way through so that you know what's happening. The notes can help if you're stuck, but try to get the big picture of a scene before getting bogged down in details. Read through, then go back and clear up details. Then you're ready to think about the questions.

Act 1
Act 2
Act 3
Act 4
Act 5
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ACT 1

1.1

1.

What event are we waiting for as the play begins? How did Theseus win Hippolyta (1.1.16-19)? What do you know about these two?

2.

What complaint does Egeus bring before Theseus? Why does he claim the right to name the man his daughter Hermia will marry? What, according to the law, will happen to her if she refuses this marriage? Why is she willing to take the risk?

3.

What has been said against Demetrius, the man Egeus wants Hermia to marry? Other than that, how much difference is there between the two young men?

4.

What was the original matchup of young lovers? What is the matchup now that Demetrius and Lysander both love Hermia? (Keep the matchups clearly in mind; we're not done yet!)

5.

What do Hermia and Lysander plan to do? Where do they intend to go, and why will they be safe there? To whom do they tell their plans? Why?

6.

Notice the lightning metaphor in 1.1.143-149. (You might recognize it from Romeo and Juliet, e.g., 2.1.158-162.) Also notice the importance of the moon (1.1.3-4, 1.1.209-210). We'll meet it again at 1.2.83 and throughout the play.

7.

What does Helena plan to do with the news of the elopement of Lysander and Demetrius? Why? How does she describe love in her soliloquy (1.1.226-251)?

1.2

1.

These are the "rude mechanicals" (3.2.9) who want to perform a play for Theseus's marriage. What is the subject of their play? What do you know about this story? Does it have any echoes to what we've heard in 1.1?

2.

Which actor is going to cause Peter Quince the most problems? Why?

3.

What do the actors fear will happen if they frighten the ladies? Given what we've seen of Athenian law, how reasonable is their fear that they might do something wrong?

4.

When and where will they all meet to rehearse? Why can't they rehearse in town? How will they see to rehearse?

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ACT 2

2.1

1.

Why, according to Puck, are Oberon and Titania fighting (2.1.20-31)?

2.

Who is Puck/Robin Goodfellow? What sorts of things does he do, both according to the fairy he meets and according to himself?

3.

Based on what they say, do Oberon and Titania have reason to be jealous? What, incidentally, do we learn about the past history of Theseus (2.1.77-80)?

4.

What effect is their dispute having on the weather?

5.

Read Titania's version of the argument over the young boy carefully (2.1.121-137), noting the ship images and related echoes of 16th-century exploration and commerce. How does her version differ from Oberon's, as stated by Puck in 2.1.20-31?

6.

Read Oberon's description of love-in-idleness carefully (2.1.148-174), especially ll. 149-164, and note that this passage seems to refer to Queen Elizabeth and an entertainment she saw in 1591. Why would Shakespeare include a contemporary reference like this in a play set in mythological Athens?

7.

What does Oberon intend to do with the pansy juice (love-in-idleness is the pansy)?

8.

What does Oberon learn from overhearing Demetrius and Helena? What is happening to Helena? What is your reaction to her wanting to be Demetrius's spaniel? Is this merely an exaggeration of the assumed "proper" attitude of women to men in the play? Is this an Athenian problem, a cosmic problem, a 16th-century English problem, Shakespeare's problem, or some combination of all of these? Or isn't it anybody's problem?

9.

What does Oberon tell Puck to do while Oberon goes to anoint Titania's eyes with the pansy juice?

2.2

1.

What does Shakespeare do in the language of the fairies (as in Titania's speech 2.2.1-7) to make us feel that the fairies are tiny, even if they are actually played by normal-sized children?

2.

Notice that once Titania falls asleep, she remains on stage until she awakens. All the intervening action takes place around her. (Of course, she's probably not in the middle of the stage.) What effect might her presence have on other action?

3.

How successful are Lysander and Hermia in getting to Lysander's aunt? Why don't they sleep close to each other?

4.

What mistake does Puck make when he finds Lysander and Hermia, especially since they are sleeping far apart? Is the mistake his fault?

5.

Demetrius and Helena enter, but Helena is too tired to follow when Demetrius leaves. What happens when Lysander wakes up and sees her? Here is the first change in the relationship between the lovers. Stop to think about who now loves whom.

6.

What does Lysander say has caused him to stop loving Hermia and begin loving Helena? Given what we have seen, how much should we believe him? What does Helena think he is doing?

7.

Read Hermia's dream (2.2.151-162) carefully. Much attention has been paid to the dream by critics, especially psychoanalytical critics. What, at various levels of meaning, does the dream seem to say? How accurate is it? Are the Freudians right in seeing elements of Hermia's sexual fears in it? In a larger sense, are other critics perhaps right in seeing their night in the woods as representing a major coming-of-age for the lovers (especially the women) as they move from their female-female youthful friendships to adult female-male relationships? And then we might want to evaluate the accuracy of the assumptions here. This topic returns in 3.2 and was already hinted at 1.1.214-220.

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ACT 3

3.1

1.

What problems do Bottom and the others find with the play? How do they intend to solve those problems and meet what they consider to be the expectations of their audience?

2.

Who comes to watch the play?

3.

What happens to Bottom when he goes "backstage"? What reaction does he get from the others?

4.

Bottom sings to prove he is not afraid. What does his singing cause?

5.

How does Bottom respond to Titania's declaration of love? You might compare his wisdom in 3.1.126-130 with Lysander's more traditional "wisdom" at 2.2.121-128. Who makes more sense?

6.

Where does Titania take Bottom? What might we assume happens there?

3.2

1.

As Demetrius woos Hermia, what does Hermia fear he has done to Lysander?

2.

How does Puck expect to solve the problem once Demetrius sleeps (at 3.2.87.1)? What happens instead? We began the play with both men loving Hermia; now both love Helena, as Demetrius awakes (3.2.138). How many times have the women changed whom they love?

3.

What does Helena, still thinking they are all ganging up on her, say about the childhoods of the women (3.2.193-220)?

4.

From various descriptions in the arguments in 3.2, what can you say about the relative sizes and coloring of Helena and Hermia? (Notice, for example, 3.2.258, 264, 289-299, 305, 326-327, 329-331, 344). We'll see the same relationships appear in other plays; apparently the two young men playing young women for the company had these sizes and complexions. Keep watching for sizes.

5.

What two things does Puck do, on Oberon's orders, to keep Demetrius and Lysander from fighting?

6.

Where are the lovers at the end of the scene and what are they doing? (They'll stay on stage until they wake up at 4.1.135.1.)

3.3

(In many editions, 3.2 continues and there is no scene break.)

1.

What is Puck's attitude toward all this? (See especially 3.3.25-29, 45-47.)

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ACT 4

4.1

1.

Is Bottom as an ass any different than Bottom as a man (except, of course, for his ass's head)? In what humorous ways is he obviously an ass?

2.

What has happened to the changeling child? (See 4.1.56-58.)

3.

Once her vision has been cleared, what is Titania's response to Bottom? Notice that as order returns to the world of the play, we get real music as Oberon and Titania dance.

4.

When Theseus and Hippolyta (and the others) enter, it is morning. What in their part of the scene echoes the music of Oberon and Titania? Notice the reference to "so musical a discord" (4.1.115) and "this gentle concord" (4.1.140). This idea of concordia discors or "discordant harmony" runs from here to the end of the play, most notably in 5.1.60.

5.

How would you like to be awakened like the lovers are?

6.

What happens now to Egeus's complaint against Hermia? How does Demetrius explain the return of his love to Helena? Is there really any better way of explaining something like this? What will happen to the lovers? (See 4.1.174-178.)

7.

The last sleeper to awake is, of course, Bottom. How does he describe his experience? Why are the senses and sense organs confused in 4.1.204-207? And see the note to this passage (note 6): what is the significance of having Bottom echo St. Paul? The Bishops' Bible, quoted in the note, is the one read in churches until 1611.

4.2

1.

Why are the other actors so happy to see Bottom return?

2.

Bottom's assumed annuity of "sixpence a day during his life" for playing Pyramus in certainly exaggerated but does have a basis in reality. According to William Ingram (The Business of Playing, 1992), in 1595, the probable date of A Midsummer Night's Dream, John Garland, who had remained an actor with the Queen's company after that company had fallen on bad times in 1588, was granted "an annuity of two shillings per day, payable quarterly. This is a generous award, amounting to some £35 per year; a man might live quite comfortably . . . wherever he liked on such a sum" (52). Bottom's annuity would be one-quarter of Garland's (who earned it for a lifetime career, not for one evening). What is the effect of mentioning so large an annuity?

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ACT 5

5.1

1.

Read Theseus's first speech carefully (5.1.2-22), especially from "The lunatic, the lover, and the poet" (line 7). What point is Theseus making about poetry (actually all forms of imaginative literature, including drama)? How does the position Hippolyta presents in 5.1.23-27 differ from and respond to Theseus's position?

2.

Hippolyta is afraid of how the mechanicals will be treated, but Theseus gives her an assuring response (5.1.89-105). Is this the spirit in which the court party in fact takes Pyramus and Thisbe?

3.

The play of Pyramus and Thisbe is, of course, a mess. How do Theseus and Hippolyta respond to it at 5.1.207-212? What is most funny about the play? How does it relate to the play by Shakespeare that we are watching or reading?

4.

What is ironic about Theseus's line "Lovers, to bed; 'tis almost fairy time" (5.1.347)?

5.2

(In many editions, 5.1 continues and there is no scene break.)

1.

What sort of night world does Puck bring into the play in 5.2.1-20? His reference to "triple Hecate" (5.2.14) is more complicated and interesting than the note suggests. In the underworld she is Hecate (or Proserpina); on earth she is Diana (and occasionally Lucina); in the heavens she is Luna (or Phoebe or Cynthia). Interestingly, Lucina is a goddess of childbed, something certainly expected in later speeches. Luna is the moon, certainly not a new subject to the play at this point.

2.

What is the function and effect of the fairies' blessing of the house? Why does it appear at the end of the play?

Epi.

(In many editions, 5.1 continues and there is no scene break and thus no separate epilogue.)

1.

How does Puck, in his Epilogue, turn the ideas of the play back onto the audience?

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