Midsummer Nights Dream
Scene by Scene Notes Available in Attachments for Paid Members Only
Sample: Act I, Scene 1 Notes
Theseus (the Duke of Athens) is marrying Hippolyta (the Queen of the Amazons) in 4 days; Theseus is really eager to be married and, to make the time pass faster, he asks his master of “fun” (Philostrate) to organize parties and games.
We can assume that Theseus met Hippolyta in battle – they fought and finally they fell on love (a very passionate love)
“Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword
And won thy love doing thee injuries.” (Theseus, Act I, Sc. 1) – Theseus won over Hippolyta by wounding her in battle but he wants to get married on a different note:
“With pomp, with triumph, and with reveling.” (Act I, Sc. 1 line 20)
As Theseus, Hippolyta and Philostrate are talking, enters Egeus, with a complaint:
Egeus has a daughter, Hermia, which he promised to Demetrius. But, Hermia loves Lysander and she refuses to marry Demetrius. Egeus says that Lysander won Hermia’s heart by giving her all sorts of gifts and reciting poetry to her.
Egeus talks about a very cruel system – or at least a system that is unfair to women – if a young woman refuses to marry the man her father chose for her, she may be either put to death or confined to a nunnery.
Egeus explains that he literally “owns” his daughter – he has full rights over her:
“I beg the ancient privilege of Athens:
As she is mine, I may dispose of her –
Which shall be either to this gentleman (Demetrius)
Or to her death – according to our law…” (Egeus, Act I, Sc. 1, line 45) – Egeus mentions that this is a very old law (ancient) in Athens – probably most people would be more modern (Theseus might be more modern too) and they might not invoke such cruel, old customs.
Theseus confirms that Egeus is in his rights:
“[Hermia] To you your father should be as a god,
One that composed your beauties, yea, and one
To whom you are but as a form in wax,
By him imprinted and within his power
To leave the figure or disfigure it.” (Theseus, Act I, Sc. 1. line 50)
Nice play on words: Hermia says she wishes her father would look with her eyes; Egeus says that it is she who has to look with her father’s eyes (line 59)
Hermia asks Theseus what are her options and the answer is not a happy one: either death or immediately becoming a virgin nun of the Moon goddess.
“Either to die the death, or to abjure
Forever the society of men.” (Act I, Sc. 1, line 65-70)
Theseus tells Hermia that living as a nun is a wasted life because she will never be able to have children and fulfill her role as a woman. Although Theseus says that those women who choose to be nuns are blessed, he mentions that their lives are quite empty and cold.
Theseus gives Hermia 4 days (until his wedding) to think about her options: either choose to die, marry or join the priestesses of Diana.
Lysander intervenes: he loves Hermia and he doesn’t understand why Hermia’s father would favor Demetrius. He argues that he and Demetrius are equal in wealth, prestige, rank, plus, he is the one Hermia loves. Besides, he brings another argument: Demetrius is a womanizer. He was already engaged to another woman – Helena – and he left her to woo Hermia.
“Demetrius, I’ll avouch it to his head,
Made love to Nedar’s daughter, Helena,
And won her soul; and she, sweet lady, dotes,
Devoutly dotes in idolatry,
Upon this spotted and inconstant man.” (Act I, Sc. 1, 110)
Should Demetrius be held accountable for stealing another young woman’s heart – making fake promises and then going back on his word? Theseus says he will think about this too.
Theseus leaves, taking Demetrius and Egeus with him; Lysander and Hermia are left alone.
The lovers talk and Hermia complains about how difficult love can be; how many obstacles lovers face. Lysander encourages her:
“The course of true love never did run smooth.” (Lysander, Act I, Sc. 1, line 135)
He says that often lovers find themselves facing things like: either the lovers come from different social classes, are of different ages, their guardians, parents or friends reject one of the lovers, etc. Even when lovers are together, too often life separates people – death, war, sickness, all can destroy love in a second. Hermia says that love then, must be predestined:
“If then true lovers have been ever crossed,
It stands as an edict in destiny.” (Hermia, Act I, Sc. 1, line 152-153) – Hermia says they need to leave love to fate. Should they leave their love to fate then?
Lysander has a more realistic plan – run away from Athens and go live with his aunt, in a city where they can get married and the laws are not this harsh. They decide to run and meet in the forest. As the lovers are making their decision to run, Helena enters. She is Hermia’s childhood friend – the two of them grew up like sisters. She is unhappy because Demetrius promised to marry her and is now pursuing her best friend. Still, Helena doesn’t hate Hermia – she says she just wishes she was more like Hermia, and then Demetrius would still love her.
“My ear should catch your voice, my eye your eye;
My tongue should catch your tongue’s sweet melody.
O, teach me how you look and with what art
You sway the motion of Demetrius’ heart!” (Act I, Sc. 1, lines 190-200)
Hermia and Lysander confide in Helena – they tell her they are running away. After they leave, Helena makes a ridiculous decision: she will tell Demetrius about the plan; he will be grateful to her and at least she will get to see him again.
DISCUSSION / ANALYSIS QUESTIONS FOR ACT I, SCENE i
What important event do the opening lines of the play forecast?
The wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta is supposed to be happening in four days – until then, the youth of Athens is supposed to be having fun and there would be ongoing festivities.
Why is Hermia expected to marry Demetrius against her wishes?
Because this is the tradition of Athens – the law says that children must obey their fathers’ wishes. Hermia’s father owns her – he can do whatever he wants with her and marry her with whomever he pleases.
Why does Lysander propose to run with Hermia at the home of his widowed aunt?
Because the aunt is rich and she loves Lysander – we can assume that she will leave him her fortune and they can live there forever. Also, the laws of Athens don’t apply there – Lysander and Hermia can get married there and Egeus cannot touch them.
Why does Helena envy her friend Hermia? Why does she decide to thwart Hermia’s plan?
Because Demetrius loves Hermia but, before he saw Hermia, he was swearing that he loved Helena. We can assume that Helena was expecting to marry Demetrius and all of a sudden he rejected her and tried to marry her best friend. Any woman would be angry that her lover is trying to marry her best friend – there are indications that Helena and Hermia grew up together, like sisters. Helena decides to tell Demetrius about Hermia and Lysander’s plan to run away and meet in the forest.