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"This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard."—Hippolyta
See, Hermia and Lysander are in love. Trouble is, Hermia's father Egeus has betrothed her to Demetrius, whom she hates. (Oh, and Hermia's best friend, Helena, just happens to be in love with Demetrius, who won't even look at her because he wants Hermia -- having, mind you, wooed Helena until she fell in love with him.) They go to court, where Duke Theseus, who has more pressing matters on his mind (namely his own impending marriage to Hippolyta, an Amazon queen that he just captured in battle), rules in Egeus' favor; according to the law, she can marry Demetrius, be executed, or become a nun. So Hermia and Lysander run away together into the woods. Hermia tells Helena and asks her not to tell anybody, so naturally, Helena blabs to Demetrius in a last ditch attempt to get back into his good books, who follows after them, with Helena following after him.
Meanwhile, Oberon, King of the Fairies, has concocted a plan to get revenge on his bickering wife Titania, involving a certain flower whose nectar will, after being dropped into someone's eyes, cause them to fall in love with the first person they see. After eavesdropping on Helena and Demetrius and seeing how he spurns her, Oberon decides to kill two birds with one stone. He sends his servant Puck to fetch the flower and then gives him strict instructions to give the potion to a youth in Athenian garb, traveling in the woods with a woman, in such a set-up so that the first person he sees will be the woman. Oberon then finds Titania while asleep and applies the juice to her eyes.
And with that, Puck finds a young man in Athenian garb asleep in the woods near a young woman and gives him the potion. Great job, except for one mistake -- the guy is Lysander, and the woman who wakes him is not Hermia but Helena, and now Hermia's beau is madly in love with her best friend instead of her! Unaware of this error, Puck proceeds to the Alpha plot regarding Titania and finds an unwitting actor in the play to be performed at Theseus' wedding, turns his head into a donkey's, scares off the rest of the performers, and then arranges for Titania to see him upon waking.
Upon discovering that the wrong Athenian was hexed, Oberon tries to mend matters by next giving the potion to the intended victim, Demetrius... so now both of Hermia's former suitors are fighting over Helena who thinks that the other three are trying to play a trick on her, Titania is in love with the guy with a donkey's head (although Mr. Nick Bottom seems to be enjoying himself), Oberon is frustrated at the failure of his plans, and it's going to take some serious Deus Ex Machina to repair all this chaos.
Of course, it all gets straightened out in the end, everyone is paired off in a triple wedding, and the local tradesmen get to perform their hilariously awful play for the Duke and entourage.
This is the play that that kid killed himself over in Dead Poets Society. Like most of Shakespeare's famous plays, it's been adapted to film several times, most recently a 1999 Hollywood production set in 19th Century Italy: despite a star-studded cast (including Calista Flockhart, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christian Bale and several others) and high production values, it met with mixed reviews at best. There's also a version from the '30s in which James Cagney plays Bottom and a fourteen-year-old Mickey Rooney plays Puck, as well as a British production from 1968 that's notable mostly for dressing the fairies in its cast in vines and green body paint. The fairies feature largely in Poul Anderson's A Midsummer Tempest.
In 1993, Baz Luhrmann(known for Moulin Rouge and William Shakespeares Romeo and Juliet) produced a critically acclaimed opera based on the play, set in colonial India. His version of the fairies' dance (Now Until the Break of Day) was featured in his album "Something For Everybody"
This play includes examples of:
- All Amazons Want Hercules: "Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword/And won thy love, doing thee injuries..." Also specifically invoked when Theseus tries to impress Hippolyta with his hounds. She teasingly tells him that she went hunting with Hercules and his hounds were better. (In Greek mythology, Hippolyta was always paired with either Theseus or Hercules.)
- All Just a Dream: At the end of the play, the couples and Nick Bottom decide, with the help of The Fair Folk, that the night's events were just a dream, and in the epilogue spoken by Puck, he advises the audiences that if they were offended by the play, they should consider the play "no more yielding, but a dream."
- Anachronism Stew: The "crew of patches" putting on the "Pyramus and Thisbe" play are based on the Elizabethan-era working class, so their names and professions don't reflect the "ancient Greece" setting.
- And You Were There: In many productions, the actors playing Theseus and Hippolyta also play Oberon and Titania. Theseus' servant Philostrate is usually Puck as well.
- Some productions even go the whole nine yards and double Flute, Snug, Snout and Starveling as Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed (in no particular order).
- Applied Phlebotinum: The flower.
- Arbitrary Skepticism: Theseus -- slayer of the Minotaur, kinsman of Hercules, husband of the Amazon Queen -- doesn't believe in fairies, apparently.
- The Archer: Hippolyta's status as this in mythology is referenced when she likens the waning moon to "a silver bow/New-bent in heaven".
- Arranged Marriage: Demetrius and Hermia.
- Babies Ever After: Heavily implied by Oberon's speech at the end; his blessing on the three couples ensures that their future children will be free from birth defects.
- Baleful Polymorph: Bottom's head turned into that of an ass.
- Berserk Button: Don't call Hermia short. Just ... don't. She'll try to claw your eyes out!
- Best Her to Bed Her: Hippolyta: Theseus "wooed her with his sword"
- Beta Couple: At least two: Oberon & Titania, Theseus & Hippolyta
- Breaking the Fourth Wall: Puck's final speech.
- The Chessmaster: Oberon.
- Clingy Jealous Girl: Helena
- Cleaning Up Romantic Loose Ends
- Crystal Dragon Jesus: Apparently in mythological Greece, nuns served Diana.
- In Shakespeare's time, the Greek word for the maidens who served Diana was often translated as "nuns".
- Cue Card Pause: During the Prologue to "Pyramus and Thisbe".
- Dance Party Ending: For both the mortals and the fairies.
- Death by Childbirth
- Double Entendre: See entry for Best Her to Bed Her.
- Does Not Like Shoes: In some productions, one, some, most, or all of the fairies are played like this, Puck in particular.
- Elopement: Hermia and Lysander run off to do this, since Hermia is going to be forced into an Arranged Marriage to Demetrius (or put into a convent). However, events work out so that Demetrius cancels the wedding and the two are able to get married in Athens after all.
- Eternal Love: Oberon and Titania.
- The Fair Folk: Probably near-single-handedly responsible for ensuring a darkish version of the fairies was always remembered despite Victorian Bowdlerization, which is mildly ironic because one of Shakespeare's subversions in the show is that his fairies act more or less human and benevolently, vice the contemporary view that they were cruel and alien.
- Productions of the show are still sometimes done using The Fair Folk model instead of the Victorian bowdlerization. When they do, you realize what the fairies are actually saying.
- Within a century of this play, a woman had been burnt at the stake as a witch for dealing the Queen of Fairies. Shakespeare was probably consciously averting this trope; it is not for nothing that Oberon assures us that he can safely hear church bells.
- Final Speech: Parodied in the Show Within a Show. Bottom takes forever to die as Pyramus, and Hippolyta complains that he's such a bad actor, he doesn't deserve to have his Thisbe take forever to die for him: "I hope she will be brief."
- Fisher King
- The Fool: Puck plays the jester for Oberon, but the real Fool in this play is Bottom, whose accidental witticisms occasionally contain great insight (which goes right over his head).
- Great Gazoo: Puck
- Green-Eyed Monster
- Hollywood History: The Elizabethan version -- the lifestyles of the ancient Greeks look very
BritishEnglish. And since when did Athens have fairies?
- Actually, "fairy" was a common medieval and early modern translation for Greek νύμφη and Latin nympha.
- Hot Amazon: Hippolyta. Her courtship with Thesus was based on fighting and one of his first lines is how his marriage proposal was their duel.
- Horned Humanoid: Oberon is this in many productions.
- In the 1930s version, it looks less like antlers and more like he's suffering from a strange brachiating disease.
- Many productions also do this to Puck, most likely to play up his devilishness.
- I Gave My Word
- I Have No Daughter: In the 1999 movie version, Egeus quietly excuses himself from his daughter's wedding, flashing Hermia a Death Glare. With no added dialogue, he made it clear that he would never forgive Hermia for going against his wishes and marrying Lysander.
- It Amused Me: Puck's screwing up with the love potion. Sure it was a mistake but he's enjoying the results. "Then will two at once woe one. That must needs be sure alone. All these things do best please me, that which falls prepostperously."
- Jerk with a Heart of Jerk: Demetrius. Sure, he's sweet to Helena at the end--but it's the love potion talking.
- Karma Houdini: Oberon humiliates his wife for an extremely petty reason, and gets exactly what he wanted out of it. Titania doesn't seem to care at all once the spell is removed.
- Land of Faerie: Titania and Oberon would be the Queen and King of this.
- Large Ham: Bottom
- The Lost Woods: They're populated by fairies.
- Love At First Sight: The magic flower juice causes this. The consequences are hilarious.
- Love Makes You Crazy
- Love Martyr: Helena. At one point she claims she wouldn't mind if Demetrius treated her like a dog so long as she could be his dog.
- She also seems pretty unconcerned when he threatens to rape her. Granted, it's because she doesn't think he'd go through with it, but still...
- Love Potion
- Malaproper: Bottom, who is the poster boy for this trope, saying, for example, 'odious' for 'odours' and 'Ninny's tomb' for 'Ninus' tomb' (Ninus was the legendary founder of Nineveh).
- And then, Bottom goes onto say that the lion "deflowered my dear!" Instead of "devoured".
- Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Played with in many productions. In the end, the lovers are left with nothing but their dreams...which are startlingly consistent with one another and explain why Demetrius suddenly decided to come back to Helena. Theseus and Hippolyta lampshade this when they argue about it (Hippolyta thinks it's magic, Theseus thinks it's mundane).
- Meaningful Name: Bottom. He's an ass.
- All the mechanicals have meaningful names. The "bottom" was also a tool used in weaving, the "quince" a tool used in carpentry, "snout" in Elizabethan English meant simply "spout" (Snout is a tinker, and tinkers mended teakettles), "Starveling" sounds like "starving" (the stereotype about tailors was that they never had enough to eat), and "Snug" is a good name for a joiner, who should be able to fit everything together snugly.
- The name "Titania" is derived from "Diana", the Greek goddess of the moon. And considering how much the moon is mentioned in this play...
- "Helena" means "light" or "torch"--"Fair Helena, who more enguilds the night/Than all yon firey oes and eyes of light". This also, of course, an ironic wink at Helen of Troy and the many much-sought Helen's based on her.
- MST: During Pyramus and Thisbe. Possibly the Ur Example.
- My Girl Is Not a Slut: Demetrius wants Helena to stop following him because she's in danger of rape going out at night -- and this while he still hates her.
- Mythology Gag: Pyramus and Thisbe can be considered a spot on lampoon of Shakespeare's other famous play Romeo and Juliet, complete with Star-Crossed Lovers, spoilerific prologue, and sudden Downer Ending.
- No Guy Wants to Be Chased: Demetrius is doubly repulsed when Helena comes to him before she tells him the news.
- Not What It Looks Like
- Our Fairies Are Different: Many contemporary productions of this play portray the fairies with some variation of this. In fact the original play used this trope by making the fairies actually less sinister than they were commonly portrayed at the time.
- Overly Narrow Superlative: "It is the wittiest partition that ever I heard discourse, my lord."
- Pair the Spares
- Panthera Awesome: In the Show Within a Show, Thisbe is threatened by a lion.
- Parental Marriage Veto: Egeus
- Plot Parallel
- The Power of Friendship: Helena tries to use this trope to win over Hermia in the confusion in the woods when she thinks that Hermia betrayed her. It Doesn't Work. (Made worse in that Helena betrays Hermia first)
- Runaway Fiancee: Hermia, to avoid marrying Demetrius
- Shipper on Deck: Oberon really wants to see Helena's love for Demetrius reciprocated.
- Show Within a Show: Pyramus and Thisbe, from the myth told by Ovid.
- A Simple Plan
- Sirens Are Mermaids: Oberon's story of the magic flower for the love potion includes a mermaid's beautiful singing, though she calms the sea rather than allures anyone to death.
- Small Name, Big Ego: Nick Bottom is so confident of his abilities to the point that he believes that he can do anything. He can't, of course.
- So Bad It's Good: Pyramus and Thisbe, when things are taken too literally, the play slowly turns from a tragedy to a comedy. But everybody gets a good laugh at the end.
- Stealth Pun / Hilarious in Hindsight : A man whose name is Bottom gets given the head of an ass. There's some debate over whether "ass" was in common usage at the time, or if the play itself popularized the euphemism, or it evolved later.
- Stylistic Suck: The Show Within a Show
- Title Drop: The title comes from Nick Bottom's conclusion that the whole play was All Just a Dream.
- Tsundere: Hermia Type A. The only one she's tender with is her love interest. Given he has a certain problem with love potions, she gets a little irritated.
- Too Dumb to Live: Yes, Helena. Go run to the unknown woods, chasing after a guy that is very angry with your Yandere behaviour, who has a very short fuse.
- Demitrius openly states that it's "brave" of her and that he very well could "do [her] some mischief", which she doesn't seem nearly bothered enough by.
- Treated hilariously in the 90's movie - Demitrius clearly thinks threatening her with ravishment and ruin will send her racing back home, and when instead she is enthusiastic (Hey, it is Christian Bale) he back-pedals so fast he literally trips and falls on his ass. Helena's naive sure, but there don't seem to be any actual villains in her corner of the world, either.
- Demitrius openly states that it's "brave" of her and that he very well could "do [her] some mischief", which she doesn't seem nearly bothered enough by.
- Unspoken Plan Guarantee
- Viewers are Morons: What Bottom thinks that the audience of his So Bad It's Good play is and takes things too literally, because he thinks that they don't have a Willing Suspension of Disbelief
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Whatever happened to the Indian boy that Titania was so attached to that started this whole mess?
- Supposedly, he was given over to Oberon when he confronted her about being in love with a donkey-headed Bottom.
- Weddings for Everyone
- When the Clock Strikes Twelve
- You Are a Tree Charlie Brown: In Pyramus and Thisbe, Tom Snout plays a wall. Possibly the Ur Example.
- Quite possibly the wittiest partition of which I have ever heard discourse.
- Not to mention Robin Starveling wielding a lantern as "Moonshine".