Ironies abound in this play’s first two acts, perhaps the most notable being that the first scene is more disturbing than it is funny. Shakespeare’s comedies typically deal with marriages, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream is no exception. However, the circumstances of scene one are shockingly dark. Theseus is excited that his marriage draws near, and, in a moment of particularly dark mirth, he assures Hippolyta that while he “wooed with [his] sword,” and won “love” through dealing injuries, his wedding will be held “in another key/With pomp, with triumph, and with reveling” (1.1.16-19). Shakespeare’s choice of the word “sword” has an undertone of bawdiness, but also of surprising violence. The irony of this dialogue is that Hippolyta, until recently the sovereign Queen of the Amazon warriors, appears submissive, not offering a word of protest against her new patriarch. In contrast to Hippolyta’s puzzling silence, Hermia’s retorts seem downright outspoken. Her laconic response to Theseus’s insufferable speech -“So is Lysander”- is shocking in this violently sexist context (1. 1. 52). The implicit violence of the Athenian attitudes toward women is crystallized when Theseus tells Hermia what will happen if she does not submit. “Either to die the death, or to abjure/For ever the society of men” (1. 1. 65-66). Hermia faces death in either event: the death of the body in execution, or the death of sexuality in a nunnery.
Thankfully, Shakespeare relents in the second scene by introducing the troupe of bumbling artisans-turned-actors. This group is meeting to practice for the staging of The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe, a tragedy that the actors are too dense not to realize is inappropriate for the festive “key” of Theseus’s wedding. (Shakespeare is also mocking the pretentious titles of contemporary plays, clunky names that contrast with the sprightliness of A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Bottom, whose name will become hilariously appropriate in the coming acts, is immediately recognizable from his ridiculous manner of speech: he pompously recites some middling poetry, offers to play multiple parts at once, and brags of his ability to play a tyrant. The hilarity is that Bottom’s speech and style individuates him, even among the “mechanicals.” The readers knows Bottom immediately, whereas the higher class characters are nearly interchangeable. Demetrius and Lysander profess love for the same woman in similar styles. Hermia and Helena have nearly identical names and go through similar trials of love. And Shakespeare presents two royal couples that battle: Theseus and Hippolyta (just come from the battlefield), and Oberon and Titania (currently waging magical war on one another). Amid all this, Bottom and Puck will be the standout characters.
Finally, there is the irony of where love comes from. In Helena’s view, “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind/And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind” (1. 1. 234-235). This contrasts hilariously with Oberon’s explanation of the love potion: he saw the “bolt” of Cupid fall “upon a little western flower,” which makes it into an ingredient for a love potion (2.1. 165-166). And when one is under this spell of Cupid’s, what does one fall in love with? The first thing one sees!