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Twelfth Night — The Study Guide

Table of Contents

The Characters - Who's Who?

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Scroll through our slideshow to see some of the main characters in the play and costume designer Erin Amelia White's drawings of what they'll be wearing. Mouse over the image to read the characters' names.


In the middle of wedding preparations for Theseus, the duke of Athens, and his fiancé, Hippolyta, Egeus asks Theseus to intervene in a family dispute. Egeus wants his daughter, Hermia to marry Demetrius, though she wants to marry Lysander, instead. Theseus gives Hermia three options: to marry Demetrius, to become a nun, or to be put to death. Hermia and Lysander escape to the woods, intending to elope. Hermia?s best friend, Helena (who is in love with Demetrius), tells Demetrius of the plan. Demetrius runs after Hermia. Helena runs after Demetrius. All four lovers end up in the woods.

In the woods, Oberon, the king of the fairies, wants to help the lovers pair off correctly. He sends Puck, his mischievous jester and lieutenant, to fetch a magic flower that makes a person fall in love with the first living thing they see. Puck is supposed to use the flower on Demetrius, but he mistakenly uses it on Lysander, instead. The first living thing that Lysander sees is Helena, and he falls immediately in love with her. To correct the problem, Oberon directs Puck to use the flower on Demetrius, who also falls in love with Helena.

Back in Athens, a group of workers and craftsmen prepare a play in the hope that they will be chosen to perform for Theseus and Hippolyta on their wedding day. Rehearsing in the woods, they are secretly watched by Puck. To stir up trouble for his own entertainment, Puck casts a magic spell that gives the lead actor, Nick Bottom, the head of a donkey. Soon after, Oberon calls upon Puck to use the magic flower on Titania, the queen of the fairies and Oberon?s wife, with whom he is fighting. Titania wakes up, sees the bewitched Nick Bottom, and falls in love with him.

Seeing all the trouble that Puck has caused, Oberon decides to undo all of the magic that Puck did, except for Demetrius. Thoroughly confused by how she came to fall in love with a donkey, Titania forgives Oberon.

Meanwhile Lysander and Hermia are in love again, as are Demetrius and Helena, all of whom fall asleep after their bizarre night in the woods. Theseus, Hippolyta, and Egeus find the lovers. Despite Egeus?s protests, Theseus invites them to share his wedding day. In the woods, Nick Bottom wakes up alone, but completely human again. He finds his way back to his fellow performers, who inform Bottom that their play has been selected for the wedding feast. Though the play starts out rough, it ends a success, and the newlyweds leave in bliss.

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Love and its Difficulties

"The course of true love never did run smooth." (Act I Scene i) Nothing is truer for the romantic relationships in the play. At the beginning of the play, Theseus recounts how he won Hippolyta?s love, not through courtship and romance, but by claiming her as a prize in war. The relationship between Oberon and Titania is as troubled. The royal couple throw cruel words, as well as cruel magic back and forth at one another in their battle of wills over the orphan boy that each of them wants for their service. The difficulties of forbidden and spurned love send Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius, and Helena chasing each other in the woods. None of the four gets the one they love until they have endured a dose of pain.

Magic and Fate

"Lord what fools these mortals be." (Act III Scene iii) Without the magic, A Midsummer Night?s Dream would be a very different play. Some of the most important turning points in the play happen as a result of the magic flower. Lysander and Demetrius would never have fallen in love with Helena, nor would Helena finally get her beloved Demetrius. Titania would have most likely remained enraged at Oberon, since she never would have spent the night with Bottom, who in turn would not have the head of a donkey without Puck?s mischievous magic. None of the characters chose enchantment, though all are happy with their storybook endings. These characters' outcomes have little to do with what we think of as fate. Their fate is determined by Oberon and Puck, through the magic flowers and spells they cast upon their unknowing victims.


"I have had a dream—past the wit of man to say what dream it was." (Act IV Scene i) Though the play is called A Midsummer Night?s Dream, the play is composed of not one, but many dreams. Hermia has a dream in which Lysander abandons her in a time of need, only to awaken to find that he did just that. Both Titania and Bottom wake up from their night together believing it to have been a dream. When Theseus discovers the pairs of lovers, Lysander exclaims he is "half sleep, half waking." At some point, many of the characters are unsure of the line between dream and reality. Shakespeare even extends this to the audience; the play ends by telling the audience that if they did not like the play, it never happened, and it was all a dream.

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The Setting of A Midsummer Night's Dream

Shakespeare did not set A Midsummer Night?s Dream in an exact place and time. Though the place is called Athens, Hippolyta and Theseus are characters from Greek legend, and so are out of historical time altogether. Nick Bottom and his fellow performers—called "mechanicals"—are based on the workers and craftsmen of Shakespeare's London. The fairies—Oberon, Titania, and Puck—are from English folklore, which, like myth and legend, does not have an historical time. Over the centuries this ambiguity has allowed productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream to be set in many different times and places, each bringing out a different aspect of the play.

For this production, the setting remains Athens, not of legend, but of post-World War II Greece. During the war, Greece was controlled by Germany and its allies. Many groups fought for Greece?s independence from the Nazi regime. When they did finally liberate Greece, these groups began fighting with each other, resulting in the Greek Civil War. The production, then, is set against a backdrop of political tensions and almost constant fighting. Tensions are high, and war-time concerns over life and death intensify passions and make decisions of love and marriage more urgent.

The strict and conservative approaches to love and gender roles in late 1940s Greece, also heightens what is at stake in the play. Post-war Athens was dominated by the patriarchal society, according to Anthony Andrewes in The Greeks. Women were expected to be demure and innocent, while the men could be loud and boisterous. In this context, Helena and Hermia are quite brave to reject the protection and privilege of their homes to be with the men they love. Hermia defies her father, who should have ultimate say in all aspects of her life, while Helena has premarital sex, in both cases risking severe punishment or, possibly, death in post-World War II Athens. Though women were expected to be subservient to men in many ways, they did have some power, often running businesses, handling money matters, and raising families. The women of A Midsummer Night's Dream certainly show this strength, especially Ttiania, queen of the fairies, who is bold enough to stand up to Oberon, her husband and king.

It is out of these dangerous circumstances that the comedy emerges. Though the threat of death hangs over the proceedings from the very first scene, and though the mix-ups and complications seem impossible to undo, Shakespeare shows us characters fighting for love. And love, in fact, wins out in the end.

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Designer Interviews (podcasts)

To listen to the interviews with the production designers, click on the name below:

Erin Amelia White, Costume Designer

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Andrewes, Antony. The Greeks. New York: Knopf, 1967. Print.

Clogg, Richard. "Catastrophe and Occupation." A Concise History of Greece. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. 121-41. Print.

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