Act One: Meet the Mortals

Act One, Scene One of A Midsummer Night’s Dream takes place in the Duke’s palace in Athens.  The Duke Theseus enters with his fiancée Hippolyta, the Philostrate (defined in the cast of characters as “Master of the Revels in the court”), and assorted others.  Theseus tells Hippolyta that only “four happy days” (I.i.2) stand between now and their “nuptial hour” (I.i.1).  He is impatient, but she says that their marriage will come quickly, as “four nights will quickly dream away the time” (I.i.8).

less than ten lines in, and already the concept of the dream is introduced…

Theseus then sends off the Philostrate to “stir up the Athenian youth to merriments” (I.i.12); he wants joyous celebrations.  And once Philostrate is gone, we learn why Theseus wants “mirth” (I.i.13) and–possibly–why Hippolyta is more patient than Theseus for their wedding night:

Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword,
And won thy love, doing thee injuries;
But I will wed thee in another key,
With pomp, with triumph and with reveling.

— I.i.16-19

So this isn’t a love match so much as a spoils-of-war wedding.  She is his captive (from his war against the Amazons–this is taken from myth, not explicitly stated by Shakespeare… at least not yet), and she remains silent to his statement… or if she wants to respond she is interrupted by the appearance of four Athenians: Egeus, his daughter Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius.

Egeus is unhappy and wants redress for another marriage matter.  It seems that Egeus has given Demetrius his approval to wed Hermia.  But Hermia doesn’t want to marry Demetrius, preferring Lysander.  Egeus says that Lysander has “bewitched the bosom of (his) child” (I.i.27) with “rhymes… (and) love tokens” (I.i.28 and 29).  Worst of all, however, Egeus accuses Lysander of “turn(ing) her obedience (which is due to [Egeus]) // To stubborn harshness” (I.i.37-38).  Egeus has come before Theseus for “the ancient privilege of Athens” (I.i.41): his daughter is his to “dispose of” (I.i.42) as he will.  And what is his will? Either she will marry Demetrius or “to her death” (I.i.44).

Theseus asks Hermia what she has to say, but she wants only Lysander, going so far as to say:

I do entreat your grace to pardon me.
I know not by what power I am made bold,
Nor how it may concern my modesty,
In such a presence here to plead my thoughts;
But I beseech your grace that I may know
The worst that may befall me in this case,
If I refuse to wed Demetrius.

— I.i.58-64

She has been emboldened (by what, she doesn’t know), she refuses Demetrius, and she is ready to jump to her punishment.  Theseus gives her two non-Demetrius options: she can “die the death” (I.i.65) her father has requested, “or to abjure // For ever the society of men… (and) endure the livery of a nun” (I.i.65-66, 70).  Death would be bad enough, but he sells the cloister as a fate somewhat worse with phrases like “mewed… live a barren sister… chanting…to the cold fruitless moon… withering” (I.i.71, 72, 73, and 77).  So Theseus softens the blow somewhat, but still demands her filial obedience.

She again refuses, but Theseus tells her to “take time to pause” (I.i.83) until his wedding night to make any decisions; he gives her time to rethink her decision. Demetrius begs Hermia to “relent” and Lysander to “yield” (both I.i.91), which only prompts Lysander to deliver the best two-line quip of the play:

You have her father's love, Demetrius;
Let me have Hermia's: do you marry him.

— I.i.93-94

Egeus is not amused, and reiterates his ownership of Hermia.  Lysander, however, isn’t through… he states his case — Hermia loves him, not Demetrius — and lays down the debate version of a haymaker: Demetrius has already “made love to” (I.i.107) another woman, Helena, who “dotes, // Devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry” (I.i.108-109).

does Theseus purposely leave Hermia and Lysander alone so they can plan their — SPOILER ALERT — escape into the woods?  it’s unclear… but clearly a possibility

We don’t know if this is news to Egeus, but it isn’t to Theseus, who admits that he has “heard so much, // And with Demetrius thought to have spoke thereof” (I.i.111-112).  Theseus warns Hermia again to reconsider, and leaves her with Lysander, while he takes his fiancée, Egeus, and Demetrius off stage to discuss something that concerns them both.

Hermia and Lysander bemoan their situation, then he tells her about his “widow aunt” (I.i.157), who treats him as “her only son” (I.i.160).  He suggests they go there, far from “the sharp Athenian law” (I.i.162), where they can be married.  They plan to meet in the woods the next night.  And into this planning session walks Helena, who bitterly outlines the way Hermia has sway over Demetrius.  Hermia repeatedly tells her friend that she doesn’t want Demetrius and has given him “frown(s)… curses… (and) hate” (I.i.194, 196, 198), all to no avail.  But now, Hermia says, Helena can “take comfort.  (Demetrius) no more shall see (Hermia’s) face” (I.i.202), and she outlines their plan to escape into the woods.  Lysander and Hermia leave, vowing to meet the next night in the woods; alone, Helena recounts Demetrius’ “hail… (of) oaths that he was only (hers)” (I.i.243), then outlines a plan of her own:

I will go tell him of fair Hermia's flight.
Then to the wood will he tomorrow night
Pursue her; and for this intelligence
If I have thanks, it is a dear expense.
But herein mean I to enrich my pain,
To have his sight thither and back again.

— I.i.246-249

Hermia now plans to tell Demetrius of Lysander and Hermia’s plan.  She hopes that he will be thankful to her; if not, she’ll follow him as he follows them into the woods, where at least she will be able to see him.

Act One, Scene Two is set in home of a director of one of the “merriments” (I.i.12) that the Duke wants for his wedding celebration.  Peter Quince, the Carpenter, welcomes his friends and other manual laborers (among them, a joiner, a weaver, a bellows maker, a tinker, and a tailor).  He has a

scroll of every man's name, which is thought fit, through all Athens, to play in (their) interlude before the duke and the duchess, on his wedding-day at night.

— I.ii.4-7

And what’s the name of this interlude? “The most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby” (I.ii.11-12).  Lamentable comedy?  Oh, this is going to be good.  If the title wasn’t (bad or) funny enough, we see what problems Quince is going to have corralling his actors, particularly Bottom the Weaver, who not only wants to play Pyramus, but other roles as well:

  • An I may hide my face, let me play Thisby too, I’ll speak in a monstrous little voice (I.ii.45-46)
  • Let me play the lion too: I will roar, that I will do any man’s heart good to hear me; I will roar, that I will make the duke say ‘Let him roar again, let him roar again’ (I.ii.64-67)

Bottom is not the only source of laughs in the troupe: poor Flute the Bellows Mender doesn’t want to play Thisby since he has “a beard coming” (I.ii.41-42), and Snug the Joiner needs to have the part of the lion written down for him as he is “slow of study” (I.ii.61).

This motley crew of actors, too, plan to meet the next night un the woods.

you think anything is going to happen in the woods tomorrow night?

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