The two locations of Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' are essential to the development of the plot, although their presentation relies wholly on the characters we meet there, their adventures and their descriptions of these places. Athens is not an accidental choice of location: although much of the detail of the play is quintessentially English, the classical setting enables Shakespeare to introduce the notable lawgiver, who has had his own problems in love; it makes plausible the reference to the severe law, and it allows Oberon to refer seriously to Cupid and Diana without the play's seeming blasphemous.
Theseus is an enlightened ruler, notable for his wise judgement but there is a limit to his abilities: the problem Egeus gives him seems incapable of solution, so he tries to buy time and work on Egeus and Demetrius. But there seems little hope that the "harsh Athenian law" will produce a solution acceptable to all parties.
The wood is mentioned first by Lysander, who has been there with Hermia and Helena on May Day, and in the following scene by Bottom. Neither seems to have any inkling of what they may meet there. The wood may be unremarkable in the daytime but at night it is a place of danger and confusion. The young lovers experience the confusion but do not know its cause. The mechanicals go to the Palace Wood because they wish to rehearse unseen, little knowing that the wood is full of spirits (not to mention the four young lovers).
Lysander's literal losing of his way anticipates his metaphorical losing of his way, in pursuing the wrong woman. Demetrius speaks to Helena in a manner no gentleman would care to use ...
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...men's own strange standards the device is flawed, since Thisbe is left to find the dead Pyramus by (imagined) "starlight". The performance of Starveling also gives Theseus and Hippolyta the chance to crack some very topical jokes about changing and waning.
The play opens in Athens. We see how the young lovers and the mechanicals leave (for different reasons) this known and familiar place and enter the wood. This is the proper domain of the fairies, and no place for men, who enter at their peril. In the symmetry of the play, we see this process reversed in Act 5. Here the fairies come into Athens into the home of Theseus. But they are in no danger, not even of discovery. While they can promote the general fertility of the natural world in the wood, the importance of Theseus and Hippolyta requires a more direct overseeing of the conception of their heir.
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