The scene is the palace of Theseus, duke of Athens. He is preparing to wed Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, a famous tribe of women warriors. She had earlier been taken captive by Theseus. They are both legendary figures, and their speeches and actions have a kind of formality. But like any husband-to-be, Theseus is anxious for the wedding day, which will be marked by a new moon. It is still five days away, and Theseus complains about how slowly the old moon wanes. Hippolyta reminds him that the four nights will be filled with dreams that will quickly pass the time. Theseus sends Philostrate, his master of the revels (a kind of entertainment coordinator), to prepare the festivities for the wedding celebration.
NOTE: THE MOON From the very beginning, the moon shines forth as the main image of the play. Its mood and its mystical connections tie the various subplots together. The word moon appears twenty-eight times in the play, passing through its phases and working its magic. For Theseus and Hippolyta the moon is the means of measuring the time till their wedding day, and so, in a way, it is the light that illumines their marriage. It also lights the woods for the eloping lovers, Hermia and Lysander, and because of its nighttime appearance is associated with romance. Moonlight is the fairies\' proper illumination; they are creatures of the night world and revel under the moon\'s magic, spectral beams. Even for the rustics, the workingmen, the moon is important. It is, in fact, one of the \"characters\" in their play, as it shines over the garden in which Pyramus and Thisby secretly meet. And, especially, the moon symbolizes the night, in which dreams take place, as well as the mad, bewitching Midsummer\'s Eve, in which dreams and reality intermingle.
Egeus, an Athenian elder, enters, followed by his daughter Hermia and her two suitors, Lysander and Demetrius. Egeus is extremely upset. He tells Theseus that he has given consent to Demetrius to marry his daughter. However, Hermia is of a different mind. Egeus explains that Lysander has \"bewitched\" Hermia with poetry, song, and lovers\' trinkets so that she wants to marry him and not Demetrius. Athenian law says the father has the right to marry off his daughter as he sees fit--or have her put to death for her disobedience. Egeus asks Theseus to uphold that law. Notice how the sweet order of marriage established in the opening lines between Theseus and Hippolyta has immediately been disrupted. Now there is romantic discord instead of harmony, and the contrast between the two will run throughout the play. The conflict has been set up between love and law (or reason, as it is later called).
Theseus questions Hermia, explaining that a daughter must obey her father. Hermia, adamant in her refusal, says she wishes her father would look with her eyes, but Theseus chides her, saying that she must learn to see with her father\'s eyes. She asks to know the worst that can happen to her if she defies Egeus. Theseus explains that she must either give up men and enter a nunnery, or else be put to death. As you can see, the stakes in this romantic discord are very high. Put yourself in Hermia\'s position. Can you sympathize with her problem? The proper behavior in love is sometimes hard to decide; having to choose between a father and two different suitors makes the decision even harder. If Hermia were to ask your advice, what would you say to her?
NOTE: Shakespeare is a poet as well as a playwright, and that means much of his information is conveyed through imagery as well as action. Watch carefully the ways in which \"eyes\" and \"seeing\" function throughout the play. You may be reminded of the old saying, \"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.\" Our eyes are only one way of judging reality, and they can be easily fooled. Especially in romantic love, where appearances are so important, how can we be sure of what we\'re feeling (seeing)? A Midsummer Night\'s Dream is concerned with multiple layers of reality. Note the ways in which peoples\' eyes fool them.
Hermia absolutely refuses to marry Demetrius. Theseus gives her until the next new moon--his wedding day--to decide her own fate. Lysander protests that he is as worthy as Demetrius and is, in any event, loved by Hermia. He can\'t resist throwing in that Demetrius had previously sought and won the love of Helena. Therefore, why doesn\'t he marry her? But the law is the law. Theseus gives Hermia one more warning, and the rest exit, leaving her and Lysander alone.