Act Five, Scene One
In the palace where Theseus and Hippolyta reside, the guests are waiting for some form of after dinner entertainment. Theseus has Egeus read him a list of possible performances, and Theseus finally settles on 'A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus and his love Thisbe: very tragical mirth' as the play he wants to see performed. Egeus tries to dissuade him, telling him that the actors are workingmen will no talent, but Theseus is adamant that he watch them perform.
Quince delivers the prologue, a masterpiece of writing fraught with sentence fragments which serve to reverse the meaning of the actual phrases:
If we offend, it is with our good will. That you should think: we come not to offend But with good will. To show our simple skill, That is the true beginning of our end. Consider then we come but in despite. We do not come as minding to content you, Our true intent is. All for your delight We are not here. That you should here repent you The actors are at hand, and by their show You shall know all that you are like to know. (5.1.108-117)
The play is then performed, with numerous linguistic errors and incorrect references making it into a complete farce. Hippolyta condemns the play as being "silly" while Theseus defends it as being nothing more than imaginative. During the performance, Theseus, Lysander, Demetrius and Hippolyta add commentary which criticizes the action, and makes fun of the antics of the laymen.
At the end of the play both Bottom and Flute get up from where they are lying, supposedly dead, and offer to perform an epilogue or a bergamask (a type of dance). Theseus quickly intervenes and tells them they need no epilogue, but rather should only perform the dance, which they do.
Act Five, Scene Two and Epilogue
Puck enters with a broom and sweeps the stage. In a monologue he informs the audience that not even a mouse will disturb the lovers, and it can be inferred that he is protecting their bedchambers. Oberon and Titania arrive in order to bless the union of Theseus and Hippolyta. They perform a fairy dance and depart, leaving Puck alone on stage. Puck's epilogue begs forgiveness of the audience and says: If we shadows have offended, Think but this, and all is mended: That you have but slumbered here, While these visions did appear; (Epilogue, 1-4) indicating that if someone did not like the play, then he or she should imagine that it was all a dream.
This final act at first seems completely unnecessary to the overall plot of the play. After all, in Act Four we not only have the lovers getting married, but there has been a happy resolution to the conflict. Thus, the immediate question which arises is why Shakespeare felt it necessary to include this act.
The answer lies in the fact that Shakespeare is trying to drive home a point about theater; he wants to make it very clear that the ending to this play could just as easily have been tragedy, not comedy. The Pyramus and Thisbe play makes this very clear because it parallels the actual action of the lovers so closely. Pyramus and Thisbe decide to run away, a lion (one of the monsters in the forest) emerges and seizes Thisbe's cloak, and when Pyramus sees the bloodied cloak he rashly commits suicide. This ending could easily have been the ending to A Midsummer Night's Dream.
The final act also serves to challenge the audience's notions about reality and imagination. Seeing the pathetic acting of the artisans, Theseus remarks that, "The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact" (5.1.7-8). By this he means that it is imagination which makes people crazy, but it is also the imagination which inspires people. Without imagination it would be much more difficult to enjoy a play, as evidenced by the farce of Pyramus and Thisbe, about which Hippolyta comments, "This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard." Theseus helps her overcome this problem by saying, "The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them" (5.1.207,208). Thus, the imagination can solve all the problems.
Perhaps the most telling line of the last act is when Theseus asks, "How shall we find the concord of this discord?" (5.1.60). That is exactly what has happened in the play itself, namely there has been a resolution to the discord of the lovers in the initial scenes, which by the end has turned into concord.
Summary: Act V, scene i
At his palace, Theseus speaks with Hippolyta about the story that the Athenian youths have told them concerning the magical romantic mix-ups of the previous night. Theseus says that he does not believe the story, adding that darkness and love have a way of exciting the imagination. Hippolyta notes, however, that if their story is not true, then it is quite strange that all of the lovers managed to narrate the events in exactly the same way.
The youths enter and Theseus greets them heartily. He says that they should pass the time before bed with a performance, and he summons Egeus (or, in some editions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Philostrate) to read him a list of plays, each of which Theseus deems unacceptable. Egeus then tells him of the Pyramus and Thisbe story that the common craftsmen have prepared; warning that it is terrible in every respect, he urges Theseus not to see it. Theseus, however, says that if the craftsmen’s intentions are dutiful, there will be something of merit in the play no matter how poor the performance.
The lords and ladies take their seats, and Quince enters to present a prologue, which he speaks haltingly. His strange pauses put the meaning of his words in question, so that he says, “Our true intent is. All for your delight / We are not here. That you should here repent you,” though he means to communicate that “Our true intent is all for your delight. / We are not here that you should here repent you” (V.i.114–115). The other players then enter, including two characters performing the roles of Wall and Moonshine. They act out a clumsy version of the story, during which the noblemen and women joke among themselves about the actors’ strange speeches and misapprehensions. Bottom, in particular, makes many perplexing statements while playing Pyramus, such as “I see a voice...I can hear my Thisbe’s face” (V.i.190–191). Pyramus and Thisbe meet at, and speak across, the actor playing Wall, who holds up his fingers to indicate a chink. Snug, as the lion, enters and pours forth a speech explaining to the ladies that he is not really a lion. He roars, scaring Thisbe away, and clumsily rends her mantle. Finding the bloody mantle, Pyramus duly commits suicide. Thisbe does likewise when she finds her Pyramus dead. After the conclusion of the play, during which Bottom pretends to kill himself, with a cry of “die, die, die, die, die,” Bottom asks if the audience would like an epilogue or a bergamask dance; Theseus replies that they will see the dance (V.i.295). Bottom and Flute perform the dance, and the whole group exits for bed.Read a translation of Act V, scene i →
Summary: Act V, scene ii–epilogue
Think but this, and all is mended:
That you have but slumbered here,
While these visions did appear.
(See Important Quotations Explained)
Puck enters and says that, now that night has fallen, the fairies will come to the castle and that he has been “sent with broom before / To sweep the dust behind the door” (V.ii.19–20). Oberon and Titania enter and bless the palace and its occupants with a fairy song, so that the lovers will always be true to one another, their children will be beautiful, and no harm will ever visit Theseus and Hippolyta. Oberon and Titania take their leave, and Puck makes a final address to the audience. He says that if the play has offended, the audience should remember it simply as a dream. He wishes the audience members good night and asks them to give him their hands in applause if they are kind friends.Read a translation of Act V, scene ii–epilogue →
The structure of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is somewhat compacted in that the first four acts contain all of the play’s main action, with the height of conflict occurring in Act III and a happy turn of events resembling a conclusion in Act IV. Act V serves as a kind of joyful comic epilogue to the rest of the play, focusing on the craftsmen’s hilariously bungling efforts to present their play and on the noble Athenians’ good-natured jesting during the craftsmen’s performance. The heady tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe becomes comical in the hands of the craftsmen. The bearded Flute’s portrayal of the maiden Thisbe as well as the melodramatic (“Thou wall, O wall, O sweet and lovely wall”) and nonsensical (“Sweet moon, I thank thee for thy sunny beams”) language of the play strips the performance of any seriousness or profound meaning (V.i.174, V.i.261).
The story of Pyramus and Thisbe, which comes from an ancient Babylonian legend often reworked in European mythology, would have been familiar to educated members of Shakespeare’s audiences. The story likely influenced Romeo and Juliet, although Shakespeare also pulled elements from other versions of the Romeo and Juliet tale. In both stories, two young lovers from feuding families communicate under cover of darkness; both male lovers erroneously think their beloveds dead and commit suicide, and both females do likewise when they find their lovers dead.