In Act 2, Scene 1, Puck fetches a pansy (a.k.a. "Cupid's flower") so that Oberon can use its magic juice to make his victims fall head over heels in love. Here's how Oberon describes it:
The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees (2.1.176-178)
The stuff actually works and it wreaks havoc on several characters. After Oberon drops the love juice in sleeping Titania's eyes (2.2), the Fairy Queen wakes up and falls in love with an "ass" (3.1.1). Puck also squeezes the love potion in Lysander's eyes and, when he wakes up and sees Helena, Lysander forgets all about his girlfriend and becomes fixated on Helena. This goes on and on until Oberon and Puck take pity on their hapless victims and whip out an antidote, which is the "juice" of a different kind of flower – "Dian's bud" (2.1, 3.2, 4.1). The love juice is a lot like Love Potion Number 9.
Why does this matter? Well, the juice's fast-acting power seems to mimic what often happens in real life. As every hormone-driven teenager knows, love can be unpredictable and inexplicable. Falling in love often happens in an instant, without warning, and falling out of love can happen just as fast. We talk about this more in "Themes: Love."
Speaking of flowers, did you notice the way Theseus refers to lifelong chastity as "withering on the virgin thorn"? Well, we did and we think it's worth investigating. Check out what Theseus says to Hermia after informing her that she has only two options if she refuses to marry Demetrius: death or a nunnery:
But earthlier happy is the rose distill'd,
Than that which, withering on the virgin thorn,
Grows, lives, and dies in single blessedness. (1.1.78-80)
Basically, Theseus says that being a nun has its advantages and all (blessedness), but being a virgin is like being a flower blossom...that eventually withers and dies on a thorny rosebush. On the other hand, he suggests that a woman who gets married and has sex (and kids) is like a rose that's been "distill'd," or used to make some yummy-smelling perfume. In other words, Theseus thinks Hermia's life (and beauty) will be wasted if she becomes a nun, but, if she marries Demetrius and becomes a mother, her beauty will live on a lot longer (in her kids).
If you're a fan of Shakespeare's sonnets, Theseus's advice to Hermia probably sounds familiar. That's because it's pretty much the same advice the "Poet" gives to the "Youth" about getting married and having kids in Shakespeare's Sonnet 2 and Sonnet 4.
History Snack: Theseus's notion that virginity should only be a temporary state of being for young women is a typical 16th-century Protestant idea. As we know, unlike the Catholic Church, they broke away from, Protestants didn't think women should become nuns. (In 1538, King Henry VIII began the dissolution of all the monasteries and convents in England.) Instead, they thought girls should remain chaste until they got married, during which time they should give up their V-cards and remain faithful to their husbands. (By the way, Shakespeare's own "Virgin" Queen Elizabeth I defied this idea when she refused to marry and Shakespeare even makes a little joke about it in the play.)
Midsummer's Eve and May Day
We thought you might come sniffing around here for the lowdown on all the play's allusions to popular Elizabethan festivities like Midsummer's Eve and May Day. We talk about this in "What's Up With the Title?" See you there...
Pyramus and Thisbe
We talk about this in "Themes: Art and Culture," so head over there if you want the 411.
We can't emphasize enough how important the Moon is in A Midsummer Night's Dream – its image shows up all over the place. We're guessing that's why three of the planet Uranus's moons are named for characters in this play – Titania (the largest), Oberon, and Puck.
The Moon and Time
When we first hear about it in the play, the moon is used to mark the passage of time. In Theseus's opening speech, he complains that time is passing too slowly and he blames the moon because he has to wait four whole days for his wedding night:
Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace. Four happy days bring in
Another moon. But, O, methinks, how slow
This old moon wanes! she lingers my desires(1.1.1-4)
The Moon and Chastity
In other words, impatient Theseus really wants to sleep with his bride-to-be and so he accuses the moon of "wan[ing]" too slowly. It's fitting that Theseus blames the moon for his loveless nights – in Elizabethan popular culture and classical mythology, the moon is often called Diana (a.k.a. Artemis), the ancient virgin goddess, which means the moon is associated with chastity.
There are tons of references to this moon/virgin goddess connection in the play. When Theseus warns Hermia about becoming a nun, he warns her that it's no fun "To live a barren sister all your life / Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon" (1.1.75).
Remember how Oberon describes the time that Cupid's arrow accidentally hit the pansy and turned it into a magic, love-juice producing flower (2.1)? Well, Cupid's arrow was originally aimed at a "fair vestal throned by the west" (a.k.a. Shakespeare's very own virgin Queen Elizabeth I). Oberon tells us that Cupid's "fiery shaft" got lost in "the chaste beams of the wat'ry moon" and missed its original target. (We hope Queen Elizabeth found Shakespeare's little joke as amusing as we did.)
The Moon and the Lovers' Erratic Behavior
Even though the moon is often associated with virginity, it's also linked to sexual desire. Egeus tells us that Lysander has often serenaded Hermia "by moonlight" (1.1.31) and Shakespeare reminds us over and over again that, when the lovers chase each other around in the woods, the action occurs "in the moonlight."
There's also a sense that that the moon is partially responsible for the lovers' erratic behavior. Because the moon has different phases and it "waxes and wanes," Elizabethans thought of it as fickle and inconstant. (Remember from Romeo and Juliet: "Swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon"?) The moon's fickleness reflects the lovers' tendency to fall in and out of love like a bunch of madmen. At one point, Theseus declares that that "[t]he lunatic, the lover and the poet / Are of imagination all compact" (5.1.7-8). As we know, the term "lunatic" comes from the word "lunar," which means "of the moon."
The Moon in Pyramus and Thisbe
Last, but not least, Shakespeare manages to turn the moon into a joke about the use of theater props. During rehearsals for Pyramus and Thisbe, Peter Quince worries about whether or not the moon will shine during the night of the performance, because Pyramus and Thisbe are supposed to "meet by moonlight" (3.1.48-49). The Mechanicals resolve the issue by making the Man on the Moon a character (performed by Starveling) in the play. During the Mechanicals' bumbling performance of the play-within-the-play, Starveling holds up a lantern and declares, "This lanthorn doth the horned moon [re]present" (5.1.253), which is both ridiculous and amusing.
You probably noticed how we, the audience, have a lot more information about what's happening on stage than the characters do. Case in point: throughout the play, we know the fairies use magic to play pranks and to make the bewildered characters fall in and out of love, but the lovers have no idea what's happened to them. This is a classic case of "dramatic irony" (when the audience knows more than the characters do so that the characters' words and actions have a different meaning for us than they do for the characters on stage). It's a technique Shakespeare uses for comedic effects throughout A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Let's look closely at another example from the play. In Act 3, Scene 1, Bottom's head is transformed into that of an "ass" (a.k.a. donkey). Bottom doesn't know what's happened to him, so he's really confused when his pals flip out and run away in fear. Bottom thinks he's being punked and, when he's left alone on stage, he complains to us: "I see their knavery. This is to make an ass of me, to / fright me, if they could" (3.1.122-123). Of course, when Bottom accuses his friends of trying to "make an ass" of him, it's funny to us because we know something that Bottom doesn't – he literally has been made into an ass. (Also, his name, "Bottom," becomes very fitting.)