Duke Theseus rejoices at his upcoming wedding to the Amazon Hippolyta four days hence. Instead of festivity, however, the royal couple is greeted by strife: A local man named Egeus complains that his daughter, Hermia, refuses to marry Demetrius, his choice for her. She loves Lysander instead. Egeus wants Theseus to uphold an Athenian law that states that a girl who refuses her father’s choice of suitor must face death. Not wanting to blight his own marriage with this gruesome prospect, Theseus gives Hermia another option—to live ever after as a virgin and worship the goddess Diana. He gives her four days to decide: death or nunnery.
Neither choice appeals to Hermia. She confides in her friend Helena about her plan to elope with Lysander to a neighboring forest. Helena, recently rejected by the man of her dreams (who happens to be Demetrius), decides to use the information to try to win him back. Predictably, this strategy backfires—Demetrius, intent on winning Hermia, pursues her into the forest, trailed by a lovelorn Helena.
In the forest, Titania and Oberon, the King and Queen of the fairies, are squabbling over possession of a changeling boy. Angry Oberon orders the fairy Puck to wipe a love potion over Titania’s eyelids while she sleeps, so she’ll fall in love with the first vile creature she sees.
The two plots converge when Oberon witnesses Demetrius cruelly spurning Helena. He attempts to correct this unkindness by commanding Puck to apply his potion to Demetrius. But Puck gets the wrong man—Lysander. He tries again, and soon both young men are pursuing Helena, while Hermia is now the outcast. Exhausted, the lovers fall asleep on the forest floor, and Oberon orders Puck to undo his mistake.
Meanwhile, a motley crew of woodsmen rehearse a tragedy they hope to perform for the Duke and his bride at their wedding. Puck mischievously contrives for one of them, Bottom, to wear the head of an ass. Titania awakens, and, behold! She is in love with an ass! Eventually, the potion is used to heal the harm it has caused.
When Theseus and Hippolyta come to the forest for a morning hunt, they awaken the young lovers. Since the lovers are now united with their appropriate partners, Theseus overrules Egeus’ edict. At the wedding feast, they jibe at the woodsmen’s ridiculous performance of the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe. The play concludes with the lovers musing on just how “comic” this tragedy is.
e-Luminations: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The following edited version is reprinted from OSF’s 2013 Illuminations, a 64-page guide to the season’s plays. For more information, or to buy the full Illuminations, click here. Members at the Patron level and above and teachers who bring a school groups to OSF receive a free copy of Illuminations.
Christopher Liam Moore’s production opens in a parochial school, set in the early 1960s. This was the time just following Vatican II, when the Catholic Church had made its rituals more publicly accessible, and yet the Church itself was still very much enshrined in the unquestioned codes of faith. There was no talk of nuns or priests marrying—a nun was a bride of Christ and a priest, as spiritual “father,” was God’s representative on earth. Hippolyta first emerges as a nun, and Theseus, a priest and headmaster of the school, has “won” her as both his subject and his bride. She will surrender her vocation to the Church in acquiescing to marriage, and he, in turn, will surrender his heart to her.
“We’re going to do some small word substitutions that indicate that she’s a nun,” says Moore. “She has a position of authority in a society of women. There have been some struggles in their match and falling in love with each other. They will be active clergy who are deciding that, with this step, he is leaving the priesthood, she is leaving the sisters. He will be a brother instead of a priest. I went to a Catholic boys’ school, and so that culture is very interesting to me. I think could translate in interesting and resonant ways for the piece.”
He adds, “The frame of the Catholic school provides a hierarchical structure that is grounded not just in a code of conduct for an educational institution but in a code of morality and ethics. That provides a frame that resonates with Shakespeare original in an immediate way.”
Shakespeare’s woodsmen (also called “rustics, or “rude mechanicals”) in this production are faculty and staff at the school: Bottom is the football coach, Peter Quince—who will be played by a woman—is the drama teacher. Others include the cafeteria lady, the groundskeeper and the science teacher. Then they all come together to put on this play for their headmaster.
And the four young lovers have grown up in the school—but what they’ll discover in the four moons following can never be learned in a schoolhouse.