The play opens in Athens, where Duke Theseus is preparing to celebrate his wedding to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. The wedding, we learn, will take place in four days - but the play's eventual thematic notion that "the course of true love never did run smooth" begins even here, since Theseus defeated Hippolyta in fierce battle before deciding to marry her (we might want to ask why Hippolyta does not object to her upcoming nuptials!).
Theseus sends his servant, Philostrate, to "stir up the Athenian youth to merriments" so that there will be entertainment for their wedding party. At this point, another Athenian, Egeus, enters with his daughter Hermia and two young men, Lysander and Demetrius. Egeus declares that he is "full of vexation" because Hermia loves Lysander - accusing the young man of having "bewitched the bosom of my child" with "rhymes" and "love-tokens," not to mention "bracelets of hair, rings, gauds, conceits/ Knacks, trifles, nosegays, sweetmeats. . ."(apparently, Lysander has been busy!) Egeus wants his daughter to forget Lysander and marry Demetrius, who loves Hermia even though she despises him. Egeus asks Duke Theseus to grant him "the ancient privilege of Athens:" the father's right to put his daughter to death if she will not marry his choice of husband. Theseus doesn't like the idea of putting Hermia to death, but warns her that if she refuses to change her mind and marry Demetrius by the day of his own wedding to Hippolyta, she will either be executed or else sent to a convent. The headstrong Hermia debates with Theseus - when he tells her that "Demetrius is a worthy gentleman," she immediately shoots back "So is Lysander," and when she hears his ultimatum, she concludes that she would rather be a nun than marry the loathsome Demetrius.
Demetrius, meanwhile, tries to get Lysander to "yield his title" to Hermia, but Lysander won't hear of it - responding "you have her father's love, Demetrius . . . marry him!" Lysander points out to Theseus and Egeus that he is just as well-born as Demetrius, and that he is "beloved of beauteous Hermia." He also points out that Demetrius recently had another girlfriend, a woman named Helena, whom he callously jilted in order to chase Hermia. Theseus doesn't seem to care very much about these objections, and leaves with Egeus and Demetrius to talk wedding plans. (At this point, the Duke's offhanded question to Hippolyta, "What cheer [what's wrong], my love?" seems to suggest that his own future wife doesn't approve of his rather brutal ultimatum to Hermia!)
Hermia is left alone with Lysander, and the lovers reflect upon the bad outcome of the meeting with the Duke. Lysander reminds Hermia that in all the books he has read, "the course of true love never did run smooth." Helena, however, will not be consoled: "Oh hell!" she cries, "to choose love by another's eyes!" Lysander, who never wants to see his lady cry, hatches a plan: they will run away the following night, traveling through the woods to the house of Lysander's aunt where they will secretly marry in a place where "the sharp Athenian law / Cannot pursue" them. Hermia swears "by Cupid's strongest bow" that she will meet him at the appointed place so that they can leave together.
After settling on this course of action, the lovers meet Hermia's childhood friend - Helena (yes, that same Helena), who is devastated because her beloved Demetrius (yes, the same Demetrius) has abandoned her to chase her best friend. Helena wonders what appeal her has in the eyes of Demetrius, asking Hermia to "Teach me how you look, and with what art / You sway the motion of Demetrius' heart." Hermia reassures Helena that she had nothing to do with Demetrius' attraction: "I frown on him, yet he loves me still!" she claims, adding that "The more I hate, the more he follows me!" Helena sadly responds, "The more I love, the more he hateth me." Hermia comforts Helena by telling her of her plans to elope with Lysander, assuring her that Demetrius will soon "no more see my face." Once she is gone, Hermia reasons, Demetrius will soon return to his first affections for Helena.
Hermia and Lysander leave Helena alone onstage, where she speaks a rather self-pitying soliloquy comparing herself to Hermia and envying her friend's happiness. "Through Athens I am thought as fair as she," Helena laments, "But what of that? Demetrius thinks not so." Helena concludes that "love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind," and that there's no accounting for love on the basis of looks. Helena remember how Demetrius "hailed down oaths that he was only mine," and then when he "some heat from Hermia felt," he "dissolved, and showers of oaths did melt." Helena decides that she will inform Demetrius of Hermia's plan in a bizarre and somewhat pathetic attempt to earn some small gratitude. "Then to the wood will he tomorrow night / Pursue her, and for this intelligence, / If I have thanks, it is a dear expense." In other words, Helena still loves Demetrius so much that she will even help him chase another woman if that will make him happy enough to thank her.
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