Act Three, Scene One
The rustics and artisans arrive in the woods and discuss their play, Pyramus and Thisbe. Bottom is afraid that if Pyramus commits suicide with his sword, it might seem too real and cause the ladies to be afraid. As a result, they agree to write a prologue which tells the audience that Pyramus is really only Bottom the Weaver and that he does not really kill himself.
Next, Snout becomes afraid that Snug's role as the lion will cause a similar fear. Thus, they undertake to write another prologue to tell the audience that it is not a lion, but only Snug the joiner. The men further decide that Snug should speak to the audience directly and that half his head should be visible through the costume.
Finally they start to rehearse the play, with the puck eavesdropping in the background. Each of the actors makes several word mistakes, giving the phrases completely different meanings. The puck leaves when Bottom goes offstage, and reappears with Bottom, who now wears an asses head which the puck put on him. Bottom is blissfully unaware that he is transformed into an ass, and humorously asks the others why they run away from him.
At this point Titania wakes up and sees Bottom, with his asses head, and falls in love with him. She begs him to keep singing and making jokes for her, and entreats him to remain in the forest with her. She then calls four fairies in to take care of Bottom and lead him to her garden.
Act Three, Scene Two
Robin Goodfellow, the puck, returns to Oberon and tells him what has happened to Titania. Oberon is overjoyed that Titania is being humiliated in this way. He then asks about the Athenian he wanted to fall in love with Helena. At this point Demetrius and Hermia enter the stage.
Hermia is convinced that Demetrius has killed Lysander in his sleep, and in her fury she curses Demetrius for his actions. She finally storms away, leaving Demetrius to fall asleep in front of Oberon. Oberon, furious that Robin has ruined his plan to make Demetrius love Helena, sends Robin off to get her. The puck soon returns with both Helene and Lysander.
Helena believes that Lysander is only mocking her with his words of love, and tells him that his phrases have no substance. Inadvertently she wakes up Demetrius, on whose eyes Oberon has applied his pansy juice. Demetrius sees her and also falls in love with Helena, saying, "O Helen, goddess, nymph, perfect, divine!" (3.2.138).
In the midst of this quarrel over which man loves Helena more, Hermia arrives. She is shocked by Lysander's words and does not believe that he could possibly love Helena. Helena assumes that Hermia is part of the mockery, and chastises her for violating the close friendship which they have enjoyed since childhood.
Demetrius and Lysander begin to quarrel over Helena even more intensely, at which point Hermia breaks in and tries to stop Lysander. He spurns her, calling her a serpent and a dwarf, and finally leaves with Demetrius to fight over which man should get Helena.
Oberon and Robin step forward, having watched the entire spectacle. Oberon is furious about the mess that Robin has created and orders him to separate Demetrius and Lysander. He then tells the puck to make the men fall asleep, and to rub the juice on Lysander's eyes and make him see Hermia when he awakes. Robin mimics the mens' voices, causing them to follow shadows and sounds and effectively separating them.
Act Three, Scene Three
Robin leads both men until they fall asleep on the ground. He then finds the two women and brings them close to their "lovers" before letting them fall asleep as well. His last act is to sprinkle the juice into Lysander's eyes so that he will fall in love with Hermia when he awakes and sees her.
What is interesting in this scene is the interchangeability of the characters. Lysander and Demetrius, Helena and Hermia, each of them switches roles and becomes the other person. One of the primary ways that Shakespeare indicates maturity is to make his characters distinct. Thus, at this stage of the play the lovers are clearly not yet mature enough in their love to escape from the forest. Puck makes this clear by the way he leads them around in circles until they all collapse in exhaustion. It is this interchangeability that must be resolved before the lovers can fully exit from the forest.
The nature of this interchangeability is further evidenced by the characters themselves. Helena says to Hermia:
"We, Hermia, like two artificial gods Have with our needles created both one flower, Both on one sampler, sitting on one cushion, Both warbling of one song, both in one key, As if our hands, our sides, voices, and minds Had been incorporate. So we grew together, Like to a double cherry" (3.2.204-210).
"Like to a double cherry." This line sums up the reason why they are lost in the forest: it is necessary for them to become distinct from one another. After all, Lysander and Demetrius have been able to shift their love to Helena without noticing any difference whatsoever. Therefore, the forest is not only a place of maturation, but also of finding one's identity.
Perhaps the most famous line from A Midsummer Night's Dream is when Puck remarks, "Lord what fools these mortals be!" (3.2.115). His exclamation, directed at the ridiculous antics of Lysander, is also a direct jibe towards the audience. The nature of human love is challenged in this line, which implies that people will make fools of themselves because of love.
Shakespeare's challenge of what is real versus what is only dreamed emerges in full force in this scene. Oberon decides that he will resolve the conflicts once and for all, saying, "And when they wake, all this derision / Shall seem a dream and fruitless vision" (3.2.372-3). Thus the lovers are expected to wake up, each loving the correct person, and each having found his or her own identity.