Vince Cardinale as Puck. Carmel (CA) Shakespeare Festival, 2000
Credit: Pacific Repertory Theatre, Wikipedia Commons
Lord, what fools these mortals be!" (A Midsummer Night's Dream, III.ii.117)
For all its playfulness, A Midsummer Night's Dream concerns itself with serious conflicts inherent in relationships between friends and lovers, parents and children, governors and the governed. As Peter Quince and his friends engage in their series of pratfalls and slapstick, so do those in the fairy world, as well as the characters who come from Athens' court. However, all suffer more serious discord as well. In each realm, the characters infuriate and abuse one another, compete, and eventually kiss and make up. The activities in this lesson invite students to focus on the characters from Athens in particular (though they can be applied to all the characters in the play), to describe and analyze their conflicts, and then to watch how those conflicts get resolved.
At the end of this lesson students will be able to
The especially fun part of this lesson derives from encouraging students to invent and predict how various situations might develop and go forward in the play from any particular moment. Their predictions may often be outrageous and ridiculous—and sometimes eerily spot-on. In discussion, you can tease out parallels between students' hopes that a band of government agents or extraterrestrial beings might descend and what Shakespeare, often quite similarly, executes instead. To help students have a sense of the world from which Shakespeare was writing—and why, for example, a father's prohibition against his daughter's marriage really mattered—some historical context is important. Students can get an easily accessible overview of the culture of the Renaissance through an interactive project at Learner.org. Much more detail about the period—including what people ate, what they wore, what they did for fun—delivered in a non-academic, affable tone, can be found at the following site available via the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library: Life in Elizabethan England: A Compendium of Common Knowledge. The entries on love and marriage, on masters and servants, and on virtue and vice might be especially relevant and entertaining.
An online complete text of A Midsummer Night's Dream can be found at MIT's The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, reached through Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet. From that site you can also access Charles and Mary Lamb's retelling of the play, which adds a little 19th-century dash to its summary. A more recent synopsis, along with plenty of photographs of past productions, can be found at the Royal Shakespeare Company's site, reached through the British Academy Portal.
What informs characters' desires and decisions needs to be accounted for. You might assign a few students to each main character or, depending on how much time you want to allow for this project, have each student keep track of each main character.
At the end of particularly informative and relevant scenes, use Worksheet 1 to update information by offering a few character-defining attributes and aspects of behavior. Initial tracking of Hermia, for example, would include the information that she is Egeus' daughter; and that, as Egeus informs the king, though he has given her permission to marry Demetrius, she is in love with Lysander and has refused. She seems careful and demure (as she says to Theseus, "I do entreat your Grace to pardon me. / I know not by what power I am made bold" [I.i.58-59]), though also wise and brave; threatened with a life as "a barren sister," she embraces it rather than "yield my virgin patent up / Unto his lordship whose unwished yoke / My soul consents not to give sovereignty" (I.i.80-82). She is a close friend to Helena, but Helena loves Demetrius and is, therefore, jealous of Hermia. Hermia's character chart can be updated after reading III.ii to note her fierce devotion to Lysander ("If thou hast slain Lysander," she insists to Demetrius, "plunge in the deep, / And kill me too" [III.ii.48-49]); her humiliation (she asks after a barrage of insults from Helena, "Are you grown so high in his esteem / Because I am so dwarfish and so low?" [III.ii.294-95]); and so on. (Note that her conflict with Helena becomes acute in the middle of the play; it can be as fruitful to follow as her conflicts with the men.)
A filled-in Worksheet 1 on Hermia might look something like this: Basic biographical information: Hermia is Egeus' daughter, Lysander's lover, and Helena's friend.
|Plot situation||Updated plot||Attributes / Behavior||Updated Attributes / Behavior|
|Egeus wants her to marry Demetrius. she wants to marry Lysander, who wants to marry her too. Her best friend Helena loves Demetrius and is jealous.||Thanks to Puck, Lysander shifts his attentions to Helena. Hermia is ridiculed by all of her friends and abandoned briefly in the woods. (Etc.)||Initially demure, though also very brave. See passages I.i.58-59 and I.i.80-82 for textual support.||Fiercely devoted to Lysander; profoundly upset by her humiliation. See passages III.ii.48-49 and III.ii.294-95 for textual support.|
Once you have enough initial information about plot and character in place, students can suggest happy outcomes, even before they suggest possible routes to those ends (using Worksheet 2 to keep track). To pursue Hermia as an example, her happy ending would apparently be in marriage with Lysander. Students might conjecture that Demetrius, therefore, will need to withdraw or be withdrawn; and/or Egeus will need to change or have his mind changed; and/or the king, Theseus, will have to side with Hermia and against her father. (Her happy ending might also come from renewed friendship with Helena and a return to peaceful relations with her father.)
To address what could happen in order for the character to have a happy ending, ask the students to be as creative as possible. You are unlikely to have to prod students, but you can always offer an option or two if necessary. In Hermia's case, for example, you could suggest that Demetrius could be eaten by a pack of wolves, that thanks to a magic trick performed in Theseus' court, Egeus could be persuaded to allow Hermia to marry Lysander, that she and Lysander could move to another country, or that Egeus could get distracted by the young and lovely Helena and let Hermia do as she pleases.
A filled-in worksheet 2 on Hermia might look something like this:
What would constitute a happy ending for Hermia?
What could make that possible? List your own and your classmates' ideas:
Once students have offered some possibilities (a few outrageous ones will spur even more outrageous ones), all of which can be written on the board, you can then choose a few to discuss with some seriousness. Ask them to identify the roots of the conflict and to characterize their solutions, using Worksheet 3 to help structure their thoughts. Again in Hermia's case: Why can't she do as she pleases? Because her father has authority over her. To get what she wants, his authority will have to be undone, which either his death or his distraction would accomplish.
As you get further into the play, note what happens to characters to make them either happier or less happy. By II.ii, Hermia and Lysander have fled to the woods. They are, at first, happier; they are flirtatious and respectful of one another. However, by the end of the scene, Puck has applied his potion to Lysander's eyes, and Lysander has fallen in love with Helena.
Ask students: how are these plot shifts like or unlike the students' suggestions from Activity 1? All sorts of parallels will likely emerge. If someone has hoped that Hermia and Lysander would move to another planet, you can point out that they did in essence do so by leaving Theseus' court. Then look for significance in the act. Why is moving away important? Because it removes Hermia from both Egeus' and Theseus' immediate authority. Worksheet 3 should be used here as well.
A filled-in Worksheet 3 might look like this:
|Root of conflict||Proposed plot twist||Why it would or would not work||Actual plot twist||Why it does or does not work|
|Father has legal authority over his daughter||A space ship takes them to another planet||Egeus can't control her there||They run away to the woods||They escape Egeus' (and Theseus') authority, but get manipulated by Oberon's authority|
By the end of the class' reading of the play, students should be prepared to address whether they think the play has ended happily or unhappily. How so, how not, and for whom? Have characters' conflicts been truly resolved or only repressed, forgotten, or ignored? In Hermia's case, for example, she gets permission to marry Lysander from Theseus, but has had to endure humiliation in order to reach that point. Her final words—"Me thinks I see these things with parted eye, / When everything else seems double" (IV.i.88-89)—suggest she is as much confused as anything else.
Her conflict with her father has only been resolved insofar as Theseus overrides Egeus' authority, so one could argue that that conflict has not been truly resolved. She only gets what she wants because Theseus' authority remains intact. Her conflict with Lysander (in the body of the play, when Lysander is under the effects of Puck's potion) is resolved only when Lysander is returned to his senses, but students might note that this dream could happen again with another whim of Oberon's. Hermia may now see how vulnerable they all are to "double" visions of the truth.
Students' worksheets can be collected as a portfolio and assessed for evidence of detail and commitment. The use of textual support and careful analytical thinking could be highlighted.
Students could also write a brief essay addressing the question or questions asked in Activity 5.
In small groups, students could script and perform their alternative plot suggestions. These performances could be done while you are reading the play together or once you have finished.
5-10 class periods