Six things to look for when you watch “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

PHOTO: Bottom and the Mechanicals rehearse in the woods: the fairies Oberon and Puck watch.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Folger Theatre, 2016. Directed by Aaron Posner. Scenic Design by Paige Hathaway. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Editor’s Note: This blog post and all of the related productions linked below are from 2018, but these artists’ recommendations for what to look for when you watch the play are timeless! Don’t miss your chance to get tickets to Folger Theatre’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the National Building Museum, onstage July 12 – August 28, 2022.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. It features some of his most iconic characters—Robin Goodfellow, the mischievous “Puck;” Nick Bottom, the enormously overconfident actor; Helena, the frustrated lover—as well as some of his most famous lines:

“The course of true love never did run smooth” (1.1.136).
“Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind” (1.1.240)
“Over hill, over dale. . .” (2.1.2)
“Lord, what fools these mortals be” (3.2.117)!
“Reason and love keep little company together nowadays” (3.1.145).
“Give me your hands, if we be friends, / And Robin shall restore amends” (5.1.454-455).
If you’re seeing a production of Midsummer this season (and you should, because it’s a blast), what should you keep an eye out for? Maybe you’ve never seen Midsummer before and are looking for a way in. Maybe you’ve seen it a hundred times and want to take your relationship with the play to the next level. We asked some people who have thought a lot about Midsummer what they look for in a production. We reached out to artists at four of our theater partners, all of which have productions of Midsummer onstage now, as well as Folger Theatre Artistic Producer Janet Alexander Griffin and Casey Wilder Mott, the filmmaker behind a new film version of the play. Here’s what they told us:

1. Shakespeare’s setting

PHOTO: Actress Melora Marshall as Titania in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
Theatricum Botanicum’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Melora Marshall as Titania. Photo by Miriam Geer

“Shakespeare’s plays include references to over fifty different types of flowers, including garden plants, wild flowers, and herbs. A Midsummer Night’s Dream references a whopping twenty-four plants and flowers alone. Compare this to the one plant mentioned in the citified, political Julius Caesar and one can feel how the Bard chooses the words for his metaphors to create a specific mood. Nature, weather, and the power of the seasons reign in this fantastical romp of comic misadventures, mistaken identities, and unrequited love. In the play, everyone runs off to the forest, and in this land of fairies, madness ensues. Theatricum Botanicum is a match made in heaven for this play. Fairies emerge from within an oak grove, while lovers run along dirt paths groaning and sighing. Shakespeare’s common theme of nature versus city-life, and how the former unwinds the soul, is echoed by the mountains our production uses as a backdrop. See if you can count the plant and flower references he litters all over the text as you forget about your own worries enveloped in this outdoor sanctuary away from city-life.”

—Willow Geer, director of Theatricum Botanicum’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, onstage through September 3.

2. Textual variations

PHOTO: actor Imani Thompson, as Puck, talks to four fairies.
Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Imani Turner as Puck. Photo by Jean Thompson.

“In any Shakespeare play, the cutting of the script is always an extremely important part of the process. Everything from the characters we keep, plot points we adjust, and words we say can, in the end, alter the story we tell to our audience. One interesting aspect of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as is the case with many of Shakespeare’s plays, are the vast differences in the language between printed editions of the script. We can look at the First Quarto edition, printed during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and see a lot of differences in the word choice, line assignments, and characters involved in a scene in comparison to the First Folio edition, printed almost 8 years after Shakespeare’s death. In cutting the script for Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s 2018 production of Midsummer, I became very interested in this Quarto text. In a back-and-forth exchange between Lysander and Hermia during the first scene of the play, Lysander remarks that ‘the course of true love never did run smooth: but either it was different in blood…’ Generally, Hermia’s response to this line is, as we see in modern editions, ‘O Cross! too high to be enthralled to low.’ However, I like the line as it’s printed in earlier editions, including the Quarto and First and Second Folios: ‘too high to be enthralled to love.’ With just the single change in word choice, different images are evoked in the mind of the listener. For my money, I’m much more interested in the irony of Hermia characterizing the cross she’s bearing as being too high and afar to acknowledge love, while forgetting about the highest cross that bore the love and salvation for all humanity. The Quarto is filled with a plethora of little gems like that, which don’t translate as well in the Folio, such as Helena being present during the shaming of Hermia in the first scene, Quince having lines that are many times assigned to Puck, and Egeus exiting after Theseus’ forgiveness and not returning for the play within the play. I’m super happy to have been given the chance to work through the play from the perspective of the First Quarto. In the heightened language of Shakespeare, much of the meaning lies in the diction, rhyme, meter, and various metaphorical devices of that language. It is so important and refreshing to really grasp onto that language and let it lead you to action and storytelling.

—Gerrad Alex Taylor, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company Associate Artistic Director and director of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, onstage at the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park until July 29. Learn more about different early editions of Midsummer on our website

3. Worlds collide: how do the fairies and humans interact?

“One of the most interesting aspects I found in the Atlanta Shakespeare Company’s ongoing production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was director Tony Brown’s decision to draw the audience’s attention to the fairies through blocking and music. Tony highlights Oberon and Puck’s involvement in the fates of the four Athenian lovers through blocking; Oberon is almost omnipresent in the scenes, and Puck is consistently darting in and about the lovers. For me, the blocking encourages me to question when Puck is motivated by a desire to cause mischief and confusion and when he is trying to rectify his earlier mistake of putting the love potion of the eyes of Lysander instead of Demetrius. Tony has also composed new music for all of the fairies to sing between the two acts of our production.  The music contributes to the magical feel of the production and reinforces the importance of the fairies within the world of the play.”


Samantha Smith, Atlanta Shakespeare Company Education and Development Coordinator, and the cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, onstage July 7 – 29, 2018 at the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse.
PHOTO: three fairies dance with Bottom and Titania
Folger Theatre’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” 2006. David Marks as Bottom, Deborah Hazlett as Titania.

4. The surefire play-within-a-play

“Shakespeare’s penchant for putting a play-within-the-play is fully realized in Midsummer. While the excesses of the Nine Worthies in Love’s Labor’s Lost are trickier to carry off, the wonderful royal wedding entertainment at the end of Midsummer almost always delights. Bottom’s turn as Pyramus—with whatever struggling, beardless Thisbe he has been given as fabulous foil to his bountiful ego—gives the actor immense license to carry on. Such a ‘tedious brief scene,’ stuck at the end of the rollicking chase play, lets an audience pause and savor that delicious balance between the absurdity of the recounting of this classic tale and the enjoyment the actor so often gives and gets while chewing the scenery. One of my favorites was the charming performance by the irrepressible David Marks in our 2006 Folger production. Watching from a perch in the balcony during the last night of the run, I saw just what Shakespeare must have appreciated when his Bottom—probably Will Kempe—was let loose. In his final moments as the valiant Pyramus, Marks extended his exit by many, many extra miles! All in the house were on the edge of their seats, waiting for one more eruption from him.  Also, the simultaneous play between the ridiculous and the poignant was there too; the wound in the ‘pap where heart does hop’ was felt. This Mechanical scene almost always does its work—capping the complete pleasure of being in an audience, watching an audience, watching an actor so clearly enjoying acting.”
Janet Alexander Griffin, Director of Public Programs and Artistic Producer at the Folger Shakespeare Library. You can catch another Shakespearean play-within-a-play in Love’s Labor’s Lost, onstage at Folger Theater as part of our 2018/19 season.
Shakespeare Illustration by W. Heath Robinson
“Emptying our bosoms of their counsel sweet…” From “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Illustration by W. Heath Robinson. Folger Shakespeare Library

5. Hermia and Helena

Oberon and Puck conspire in San Francisco Shakespeare Festival’s 2018 Free Shakespeare in the Park production of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream."
The San Francisco Shakespeare Festival’s 2018 Free Shakespeare in the Park production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” runs through September 23. Stephen Muterspaugh (Oberon) and James Lewis (Puck). Photos: John Western

“I am always fascinated by the connection between Helena and Hermia. In a play about love and relationships, I think that the friendship and sisterhood between Hermia and Helena is often overlooked. Textually, their relationship quickly evolves from that of two close childhood friends to bitter enemies. How the actors and the director chose to portray this relationship and rationalize why it so quickly falls apart can be incredibly exciting and interesting. In the midst of the lovers’ fight in act 3, scene 2, Helena talks directly to Hermia and recalls their childhood days. She talks about how they grew up together, ‘Like to a double cherry, seeming parted, / But yet an union in partition, / Two lovely berries molded on one stem; / So with two seeming bodies but one heart…’

But they also say some cruel and terrible words to each other in the forest. They turn on each other so quickly and abruptly. Is some part of that because of the magic of the forest? How do the actors and the director rationalize the degradation of a relationship between two long-time childhood friends?

What happens after that night? How do they reconcile? Do they reconcile at all? In our production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hermia and Helena are played by two wonderful actresses who chose to create two close, childhood friends who frequently share their romantic relationship difficulties with each other. By the end of the play they choose to reconcile, while also recognizing and acknowledging the turmoil of the night before.”

Kalina Ko, Literary Intern, San Francisco Shakespeare Festival. Their free production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, featuring Lauren Spencer as Helena and Patricia Austin as Hermia, tours the San Francisco Bay Area through September 23.

6. The transformation from Bottom to ass

IMAGE: A silhouette image of Titania, the fairy queen, and Bottom, who has a giant donkey's head
“A series of silhouettes illustrating “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” by P. Konewka, 19th century. Folger Shakespeare Library. ART File S528m5 no.80 part 12.

“I’m always curious to see how a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will take on the task of changing Bottom into an ‘ass.’ For starters, the crucial moment itself (as so often happens with Shakespeare) takes place off stage. Despite this, many directors devise elaborate and imaginative on-stage transformations, which can be quite fun when done well! Second, the practical aspect of a (potentially) lavish piece of makeup can pose a significant challenge. Looking at how a production tackles this provides a keyhole onto how they’ve approached other technically difficult tasks. Lastly, and most importantly, while Bottom the ass is one of Shakespeare’s most famously goofy set pieces, it’s also thematically central to the play. The metamorphosis of man into beast, and the consequences of that transformation, encapsulate many basic concerns of Dream. These include: innocence and desire, sexual awakening, and rebirth through exposure to the natural world. How much thought was put into the ‘ass’ can be a strong indicator of how much thought went into the show as a whole.”

Casey Wilder Mott is the director of a new film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in theaters in select cities in July and August. The Folger hosted the film’s DC premiere in June. 

The Atlanta Shakespeare Company, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, and Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum are theater partners of the Folger Shakespeare Library. Note: this post was updated to reflect that both the First Folio and Quarto include “loue” at line 1.1.138. We also added a sixth thing.