| Tales from Shakespeare|
|by Charles and Mary Lamb|
|First published in 1807, these simple retellings of the plots of Shakespeare's plays have delighted generations of children, while serving as an excellent introduction to the dramas of our greatest playwright. Shakespeare's own language is used as much as possible to accustom children to the English of the Elizabethan age and so make easier their transition to the reading of the plays themselves. Numerous black and white illustrations by Louis Rhead complement the text. Ages 10-14 |
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM
HERE was a law in the city of Athens which gave to its citizens
the power of compelling their daughters to marry whomsoever they
pleased; for upon a daughter's refusing to marry the man her
father had chosen to be her husband, the father was empowered by
this law to cause her to be put to death; but as fathers do not
often desire the death of their own daughters, even though they
do happen to prove a little refractory, this law was seldom or
never put in execution, though perhaps the young ladies of that
city were not unfrequently threatened by their parents with the
terrors of it.
There was one instance, however, of an old man, whose name was
Egeus, who actually did come before Theseus (at that time the
reigning Duke of Athens), to complain that his daughter Hermia, whom he
had commanded to marry Demetrius, a young man of a noble Athenian
family, refused to obey him, because she loved another young
Athenian, named Lysander. Egeus demanded justice of Theseus, and
desired that this cruel law might be put in force against his
Hermia pleaded in excuse for her disobedience that Demetrius had
formerly professed love for her dear friend Helena, and that
Helena loved Demetrius to distraction; but this honorable reason,
which Hermia gave for not obeying her father's command, moved not
the stern Egeus.
Theseus, though a great and merciful prince, had no power to
alter the laws of his country; therefore he could only give
 four days to consider of it: and at the end of that time,
if she still refused to marry Demetrius, she was to be put to
When Hermia was dismissed from the presence of the duke, she went
to her lover Lysander and told him the peril she was in, and that
she must either give him up and marry Demetrius or lose her life
in four days.
Lysander was in great affliction at hearing these evil tidings;
but, recollecting that he had an aunt who lived at some distance
from Athens, and that at the place where she lived the cruel law
could not be put in force against Hermia (this law not extending
beyond the boundaries of the city), he proposed to Hermia that
she should steal out of her father's house that night, and go
with him to his aunt's house, where he would marry her. "I will
meet you," said Lysander, "in the wood a few miles without the
city; in that delightful wood where we have so often walked with
Helena in the pleasant month of May."
To this proposal Hermia joyfully agreed; and she told no one of
her intended flight but her friend Helena. Helena (as maidens
will do foolish things for love) very ungenerously resolved to go
and tell this to Demetrius, though she could hope no benefit from
betraying her friend's secret but the poor pleasure of following
her faithless lover to the wood; for she well knew that Demetrius
would go thither in pursuit of Hermia.
The wood in which Lysander and Hermia proposed to meet was the
favorite haunt of those little beings known by the name of
Oberon the king, and Titania the queen of the fairies, with all
their tiny train of followers, in this wood held their midnight
Between this little king and queen of sprites there happened, at
this time, a sad disagreement; they never met by moonlight in the
shady walks of this pleasant wood but they were quarreling, till
all their fairy elves would creep into acorn-cups and hide
themselves for fear.
The cause of this unhappy disagreement was Titania's refusing
 to give Oberon a little changeling boy, whose mother had been
Titania's friend; and upon her death the fairy queen stole the
child from its nurse and brought him up in the woods.
The night on which the lovers were to meet in this wood, as
Titania was walking with some of her maids of honor, she met
Oberon attended by his train of fairy courtiers.
"Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania," said the fairy king.
The queen replied: "What, jealous Oberon, is it you? Fairies,
skip hence; I have forsworn his company."
"Tarry, rash fairy," said Oberon. "Am I not thy lord? Why does
Titania cross her Oberon? Give me your little changeling boy to
be my page."
"Set your heart at rest," answered the queen; "your whole fairy
kingdom buys not the boy of me." She then left her lord in great
"Well, go your way," said Oberon; "before the morning dawns I
will torment you for this injury."
Oberon then sent for Puck, his chief favorite and privy
Puck (or, as he was sometimes called, Robin Goodfellow) was a
shrewd and knavish sprite, that used to play comical pranks in
the neighboring villages; sometimes getting into the dairies and
skimming the milk, sometimes plunging his light and airy form
into the butter-churn, and while he was dancing his fantastic
shape in the churn, in vain the dairymaid would labor to change
her cream into butter. Nor had the village swains any better
success; whenever Puck chose to play his freaks in the brewing
copper, the ale was sure to be spoiled. When a few good neighbors
were met to drink some comfortable ale together, Puck would jump
into the bowl of ale in the likeness of a roasted crab, and when
some old goody was going to drink he would bob against her lips,
and spill the ale over her withered chin; and presently after,
when the same old dame was gravely seating herself to tell her
neighbors a sad and melancholy story, Puck would slip her
three-legged stool from under her, and down toppled the poor old
 woman, and then the old gossips would hold their sides and laugh
at her, and swear they never wasted a merrier hour.
"Come hither, Puck," said Oberon to this little merry wanderer of
the night; "fetch me the flower which maids call 'Love in
Idleness'; the juice of that little purple flower laid on the
eyelids of those who sleep will make them, when they awake, dote
on the first thing they see. Some of the juice of that flower I
will drop on the eyelids of my Titania when she is asleep; and
the first thing she looks upon when she opens her eyes she will
fall in love with, even though it be a lion or a bear, a meddling
monkey or a busy ape; and before I will take this charm from off
her sight, which I can do with another charm I know of, I will
make her give me that boy to be my page."
Puck, who loved mischief to his heart, was highly diverted with
this intended frolic of his master, and ran to seek the flower;
and while Oberon was waiting the return of Puck he observed
Demetrius and Helena enter the wood: he overheard Demetrius
reproaching Helena for following him, and after many unkind words
on his part, and gentle expostulations from Helena, reminding him
of his former love and professions of true faith to her, he left
her (as he said) to the mercy of the wild beasts, and she ran
after him as swiftly as she could.
The fairy king, who was always friendly to true lovers, felt
great compassion for Helena; and perhaps, as Lysander said they
used to walk by moonlight in this pleasant wood, Oberon might
have seen Helena in those happy times when she was beloved by
Demetrius. However that might be, when Puck returned with the
little purple flower, Oberon said to his favorite: "Take a part
of this flower; there has been a sweet Athenian lady here, who is
in love with a disdainful youth; if you find him sleeping, drop
some of the love-juice in his eyes, but contrive to do it when
she is near him, that the first thing he sees when he awakes may
be this despised lady. You will know the man by the Athenian
garments which he wears."
Puck promised to manage this matter very dexterously: and
Oberon went, unperceived by Titania, to her bower, where she was
preparing to go to rest. Her fairy bower was a bank, where grew
wild thyme, cowslips, and sweet violets, under a canopy of
woodbine, musk-roses, and eglantine. There Titania always slept
some part of the night; her coverlet the enameled skin of a
snake, which, though a small mantle, was wide enough to wrap a
He found Titania giving orders to her fairies, how they were to
employ themselves while she slept. "Some of you," said her
Majesty, "must kill cankers in the musk-rose buds, and some wage
war with the bats for their leathern wings, to make my small
elves coats; and some of you keep watch that the clamorous owl,
that nightly hoots, come not near me: but first sing me to
sleep." Then they began to sing this song:
"You spotted snakes, with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen;
Newts and blind-worms do no wrong;
Come not near our fairy queen:
"Philomel, with melody,
Sing in our sweet lullaby;
Lulla, lulla, lullaby; lulla, lulla, lullaby;
Never harm, nor spell, nor charm,
Come our lovely lady nigh;
So, good night, with lullaby."
When the fairies had sung their queen asleep with this pretty
lullaby, they left her to perform the important services she had
enjoined them. Oberon then softly drew near his Titania and
dropped some of the love-juice on her eyelids, saying:
"What thou seest when thou dost wake,
Do it for thy true-love take."
But to return to Hermia, who made her escape out of her father's
house that night, to avoid the death she was doomed to for
refusing to marry Demetrius. When she entered the wood, she found
her dear Lysander waiting for her, to conduct her to his aunt's
house; but before they had passed half through the wood Hermia
was so much fatigued that Lysander, who was very careful of this
dear lady, who had proved her affection for him even by hazarding
her life for his sake, persuaded her to rest till morning on a
bank of soft moss, and, lying down himself on the ground at some
little distance, they soon fell fast asleep. Here they were found
by Puck, who, seeing a handsome young man asleep, and perceiving
that his clothes were made in the Athenian fashion, and that a
pretty lady was sleeping near him, concluded that this must be
the Athenian maid and her disdainful lover whom Oberon had sent
him to seek; and he naturally enough conjectured that, as they
were alone together, she must be the first thing he would see
when he awoke; so, without more ado, he proceeded to pour some of
the juice of the little purple flower into his eyes. But it so
fell out that Helena came that way, and, instead of Hermia, was
the first object Lysander beheld when he opened his eyes; and
strange to relate, so powerful was the love-charm, all his love
for Hermia vanished away and Lysander fell in love with Helena.
 Had he first seen Hermia when he awoke, the blunder Puck
committed would have been of no consequence, for he could not
love that faithful lady too well; but for poor Lysander to be
forced by a fairy love-charm to forget his own true Hermia, and
to run after another lady, and leave Hermia asleep quite alone in
a wood at midnight, was a sad chance indeed.
Thus this misfortune happened. Helena, as has been before
related, endeavored to keep pace with Demetrius when he ran away
so rudely from her; but she could not continue this unequal race
long, men being always better runners in a long race than ladies.
Helena soon lost sight of Demetrius; and as she was wandering
about, dejected and forlorn, she arrived at the place where
Lysander was sleeping. "Ah!" said she, "this is Lysander lying on
the ground. Is he dead or asleep?" Then, gently touching him, she
said, "Good sir, if you are alive, awake." Upon this Lysander
opened his eyes, and, the love-charm beginning to work,
immediately addressed her in terms of extravagant love and
admiration, telling her she as much excelled Hermia in beauty as
a dove does a raven, and that he would run through fire for her
sweet sake; and many more such lover-like speeches. Helena,
knowing Lysander was her friend Hermia's lover, and that he was
solemnly engaged to marry her, was in the utmost rage when she
heard herself addressed in this manner; for she thought (as well
she might) that Lysander was making a jest of her. "Oh!" said
she, "why was I born to be mocked and scorned by every one? Is it
not enough, is it not enough, young man, that I can never get a
sweet look or a kind word from Demetrius; but you, sir, must
pretend in this disdainful manner to court me? I thought,
Lysander, you were a lord of more true gentleness." Saying these
words in great anger, she ran away; and Lysander followed her,
quite forgetful of his own Hermia, who was still asleep.
When Hermia awoke she was in a sad fright at finding herself
alone. She wandered about the wood, not knowing what was
of Lysander, or which way to go to seek for him. In the mean time
Demetrius, not being able to find Hermia and his rival Lysander,
and fatigued with his fruitless search, was observed by Oberon
fast asleep. Oberon had learned by some questions he had asked of
Puck that he had applied the love-charm to the wrong person's
eyes; and now, having found the person first intended, he touched
the eyelids of the sleeping Demetrius with the love-juice, and he
instantly awoke; and the first thing he saw being Helena, he, as
Lysander had done before, began to address love-speeches to her;
and just at that moment Lysander, followed by Hermia (for through
Puck's unlucky mistake it was now become Hermia's turn to run
after her lover), made his appearance; and then Lysander and
Demetrius, both speaking together, made love to Helena, they
being each one under the influence of the same potent charm.
The astonished Helena thought that Demetrius, Lysander, and her
once dear friend Hermia were all in a plot together to make a
jest of her.
Hermia was as much surprised as Helena; she knew not why Lysander
and Demetrius, who both before loved her, were now become the
lovers of Helena, and to Hermia the matter seemed to be no jest.
The ladies, who before had always been the dearest of friends,
now fell to high words together.
"Unkind Hermia," said Helena, "it is you have set Lysander on
to vex me with mock praises; and your other lover, Demetrius, who
used almost to spurn me with his foot, have you not bid him call
me goddess, nymph, rare, precious, and celestial? He would not
speak thus to me, whom he hates, if you did not set him on to
make a jest of me. Unkind Hermia, to join with men in scorning
your poor friend. Have you forgot our school-day friendship? How
often, Hermia, have we two, sitting on one cushion, both singing
one song, with our needles working the same flower, both on the
same sampler wrought; growing up
 together in fashion of a double
cherry, scarcely seeming parted! Hermia, it is not friendly in
you, it is not maidenly to join with men in scorning your poor
"I am amazed at your passionate words," said Hermia: "I scorn you
not; it seems you scorn me."
"Aye, do," returned Helena, "persevere, counterfeit serious
looks, and make mouths at me when I turn my back; then wink at
each other, and hold the sweet jest up. If you had any pity,
grace, or manners, you would not use me thus."
While Helena and Hermia were speaking these angry words to each
other, Demetrius and Lysander left them, to fight together in the
wood for the love of Helena.
When they found the gentlemen had left them, they departed, and
once more wandered weary in the wood in search of their lovers.
As soon as they were gone the fairy king, who with little Puck
had been listening to their quarrels, said to him, "This is your
negligence, Puck; or did you do this wilfully?"
"Believe me, king of shadows," answered Puck, "it was a mistake.
Did not you tell me I should know the man by his Athenian
garments? However, I am not sorry this has happened, for I think
their jangling makes excellent sport."
"You heard," said Oberon, "that Demetrius and Lysander are gone
to seek a convenient place to fight in. I command you to overhang
the night with a thick fog, and lead these quarrelsome lovers so
astray in the dark that they shall not be able to find each
other. Counterfeit each of their voices to the other, and with
bitter taunts provoke them to follow you, while they think it is
their rival's tongue they hear. See you do this, till they are so
weary they can go no farther; and when you find they are asleep,
drop the juice of this other flower into Lysander's eyes, and
when he awakes he will forget his new love for Helena, and return
to his old passion for Hermia; and then the two fair ladies may
each one be happy with the man she loves and they will think all
that has passed a vexatious dream. About this
 quickly, Puck, and
I will go and see what sweet love my Titania has found."
Titania was still sleeping, and Oberon, seeing a clown near her
who had lost his way in the wood and was likewise asleep, "This
fellow," said he, "shall be my Titania's true love"; and clapping
an ass's head over the clown's, it seemed to fit him as well as
if it had grown upon his own shoulders. Though Oberon fixed the
ass's head on very gently, it awakened him, and, rising up,
unconscious of what Oberon had done to him, he went toward the
bower where the fairy queen slept.
"Ah! what angel is that I see?" said Titania, opening her eyes,
and the juice of the little purple flower beginning to take
effect. "Are you as wise as you are beautiful?"
"Why, mistress," said the foolish clown, "if I have wit enough to
find the way out of this wood, I have enough to serve my turn."
"Out of the wood do not desire to go," said the enamoured queen.
"I am a spirit of no common rate. I love you. Go with me, and I
will give you fairies to attend upon you."
She then called four of her fairies. Their names were
Peas-blossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustard-seed.
"Attend," said the queen, "upon this sweet gentleman. Hop in his
walks and gambol in his sight; feed him with grapes and apricots,
and steal for him the honey-bags from the bees. Come, sit with
me," said she to the clown, "and let me play with your amiable
hairy cheeks, my beautiful ass! and kiss your fair large ears, my
"Where is Peas-blossom?" said the ass-headed clown, not much
regarding the fairy queen's courtship, but very proud of his new
"Here, sir," said little Peas-blossom.
"Scratch my head," said the clown. "Where is Cobweb?"
"Here, sir," said Cobweb.
"Good Mr. Cobweb," said the foolish clown, "kill me the red
humblebee on the top of that thistle yonder; and, good Mr.
Cobweb, bring me the honey-bag. Do not fret yourself too
 much in
the action, Mr. Cobweb, and take care the honey-bag break not; I
should be sorry to have you overflown with a honey-bag. Where is
"Here, sir," said Mustard-seed. "What is your will?"
"Nothing," said the clown, "good Mr. Mustard-seed, but to help
Mr. Peas-blossom to scratch; I must go to a barber's, Mr.
Mustard-seed, for methinks I am marvelous hairy about the face."
"My sweet love," said the queen, "what will you have to eat? I
have a venturous fairy shall seek the squirrel's hoard, and fetch
you some new nuts."
"I had rather have a handful of dried peas," said the clown, who
with his ass's head had got an ass's appetite. "But, I pray, let
none of your people disturb me, for I have a mind to sleep."
"Sleep, then," said the queen, "and I will wind you in my arms.
Oh, how I love you! how I dote upon you!"
When the fairy king saw the clown sleeping in the arms of his
queen, he advanced within her sight, and reproached her with
having lavished her favors upon an ass.
This she could not deny, as the clown was then sleeping within
her arms, with his ass's head crowned by her with flowers.
When Oberon had teased her for some time, he again demanded the
changeling boy; which she, ashamed of being discovered by her
lord with her new favorite, did not dare to refuse him.
Oberon, having thus obtained the little boy he had so long wished
for to be his page, took pity on the disgraceful situation into
which, by his merry contrivance, he had brought his Titania, and
threw some of the juice of the other flower into her eyes; and
the fairy queen immediately recovered her senses, and wondered at
her late dotage, saying how she now loathed the sight of the
Oberon likewise took the ass's head from off the clown, and left
him to finish his nap with his own fool's head upon his
Oberon and his Titania being now perfectly reconciled, he
to her the history of the lovers and their midnight quarrels, and
she agreed to go with him and see the end of their adventures.
The fairy king and queen found the lovers and their fair ladies,
at no great distance from one another, sleeping on a grass-plot;
for Puck, to make amends for his former mistake, had contrived
with the utmost diligence to bring them all to the same spot,
unknown to one another; and he had carefully removed the charm
from off the eyes of Lysander with the antidote the fairy king
gave to him.
Hermia first awoke, and, finding her lost Lysander asleep so
her, was looking at him and wondering at his strange inconstancy.
Lysander presently opening his eyes, and seeing his dear Hermia,
recovered his reason which the fairy charm had before clouded,
and with his reason his love for Hermia; and they began to talk
over the adventures of the night, doubting if these things had
really happened, or if they had both been dreaming the same
Helena and Demetrius were by this time awake; and a sweet sleep
having quieted Helena's disturbed and angry spirits, she listened
with delight to the professions of love which Demetrius still
made to her, and which, to her surprise as well as pleasure, she
began to perceive were sincere.
These fair night-wandering ladies, now no longer rivals, became
once more true friends; all the unkind words which had passed
were forgiven, and they calmly consulted together what was best
to be done in their present situation. It was soon agreed that,
as Demetrius had given up his pretensions to Hermia, he should
endeavor to prevail upon her father to revoke the cruel sentence
of death which had been passed against her. Demetrius was
preparing to return to Athens for this friendly purpose, when
they were surprised with the sight of Egeus, Hermia's father, who
came to the wood in pursuit of his runaway daughter.
When Egeus understood that Demetrius would not now marry his
daughter, he no longer opposed her marriage with Lysander, but
gave his consent that they should be wedded on the fourth day
from that time, being the same day on which Hermia had been
condemned to lose her life; and on that same day Helena joyfully
agreed to marry her beloved and now faithful Demetrius.
The fairy king and queen, who were invisible spectators of this
reconciliation, and now saw the happy ending of the lovers'
history, brought about through the good offices of Oberon,
received so much pleasure that these kind spirits resolved to
celebrate the approaching nuptials with sports and revels
throughout their fairy kingdom.
 And now, if any are offended with this story of fairies and their
pranks, as judging it incredible and strange, they have only to
think that they have been asleep and dreaming, and that all these
adventures were visions which they saw in their sleep. And I hope
none of my readers will be so unreasonable as to be offended with
a pretty, harmless Midsummer Night's Dream.
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