Act One, Scene One
Theseus, the Duke of Athens, is preparing the city for a large festival to mark his imminent marriage to Hippolyta. Egeus, a nobleman, enters the stage accompanied by his daughter Hermia, the man she loves named Lysander, and the man Egeus wants her to marry named Demetrius. He begs Theseus for the ancient Athenian right to either make his daughter marry Demetrius or have the power to kill her.
Theseus offers Hermia only two options: she must marry Demetrius or join a nunnery. He then departs with the other men, leaving Hermia and Lysander behind on stage. Lysander quickly convinces Hermia to sneak into the woods the next night so that they may get married at his aunt's house outside of Athens. She agrees to the plan.
Helena arrives and laments the fact that Demetrius only has eyes for Hermia, even though she loves him far more than Hermia ever could. Lysander tells her to not worry since he and Hermia are sneaking away that night. Helena, in a final soliloquy, indicates that she will tell Demetrius about Hermia's plans because that might make him start to love her again.
Act One, Scene Two
The assembled artisans gather and Peter Quince hands out several parts to a play they want to perform for the Duke's wedding. The play is based on Pyramus and Thisbe, and is meant to be a comedy and a tragedy at the same time. One of the actors, Nick Bottom, is afraid that if the make the lion in the play too real, it might frighten the ladies and get them all hung. They finally all agree to meet in the woods outside of the city the next night to rehearse their parts.
Two themes present in many of Shakespeare's plays, the struggle of men to dominate women and the conflict between father and daughter, form a large part of the dramatic content of A Midsummer Night's Dream. In the first act both forms of tension appear, when Theseus remarks that he has won Hippolyta by defeating her, "Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword" (1.1.16), and via the conflict between Egeus and Hermia. Adding to this war of the sexes are Lysander and Demetrius, both wooing Hermia away from her father.
It is therefore necessary to realize that A Midsummer Night's Dream is really a play about finding oneself in order to be free of these authoritative and sexual conflicts. The forest therefore quickly emerges as the location where all of these struggles must be resolved. Hermia will try to seek her freedom from Egeus in the woods, in the process fighting a battle against arranged marriages and for passionate love. The buffoons, in the form of the artisans, add an undercurrent of comedy which at first masks the very real events unfolding on the stage. Yet later they will provide a terrifying (albeit funny) vision of what could have happened in A Midsummer Night's Dream, in the form of their Pyramus and Thisbe play.
Recalling Romeo and Juliet, Theseus offers Hermia the choice of the nunnery or death. As always in Shakespeare (note Juliet), this is not a viable option for a young woman who is beautiful. Hermia therefore decides to run away rather than face the certainty of death.
A remarkable aspect of A Midsummer Night's Dream is that it contains a play within a play. The story of Pyramus and Thisbe serves to not only show the tragedy that might have occurred if the fairies had not intervened, but also to comment on the nature of reality versus theater. Nick Bottom, afraid the lion will frighten the ladies, get them to write a prologue in which the lion is explicitly revealed as only being an actor. Adding to this, Pyramus must further provide a commentary in which he informs the audience that he is not really committing suicide, but is only acting.
This play within a play is therefore used by Shakespeare to make a subtle point about theater, namely the fact that it is only acting. Elizabethan times were not so far removed from the medieval past that actors lived with impunity, regardless of their roles. The threat of censorship was very real, a fact that Shakespeare makes laughable in Pyramus and Thisbe. A further purpose of pointing out the distinction between theater and reality could have been to try and convince the public that it does not matter what is put on stage, since the audience clearly knows that it is only a facade. However, Shakespeare throws all of this into doubt with his suggestion in the epilogue that the play has only been a "dream."