Vocabulary in A Midsummer Night's Dream

Vocabulary Examples in A Midsummer Night's Dream:

Act I - Scene I 7

"Made love to Nedar's daughter, Helena,..."   (Act I - Scene I)

The expression “made love” here could refer to sexual intercourse, but this meaning came into play in the mid-to-late 16th century. Another meaning of this phrase at that time meant to express a declaration of love, or to make one’s love known to their object of desire. Regardless of the meaning, Lysander’s point is that Demetrius had previously been in love with Helena, and now he is changing his mind.

"Devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry, Upon this spotted and inconstant man...."   (Act I - Scene I)

In order to make his point about love, Lysander employs several key word choices here. The word “dote” is repeated with increasing intensity to show the depth of Helena’s love for Demetrius, which Lysander depicts as too devout. Meanwhile Lysander calls Demetrius “spotted,” or impure, and “inconstant” because he has changed his mind about whom he loves. Therefore, Lysander not only depicts Demetrius negatively, but he also appears to mock Helena’s affection because it is too devout. For him, it seems, love and romance must exist somewhere between these two extremes.

"eyne..."   (Act I - Scene I)

This is an archaic, obscure form of the plural of “eye” and is only used today in some forms of poetry, rather than in everyday speech.

"Your eyes are lode-stars and your tongue's sweet air..."   (Act I - Scene I)

Helena uses several expressive metaphors here to emphasize the qualities that Hermia has that have made Demetrius fall in love with here. In this case, Hermia’s eyes are called “lode-stars” and her tongue is “sweet air.” Both cases refer to Hermia’s ability to inspire, enchant, or guide, in the sense that her eyes and words have led Demetrius to her. A “lode-star” refers to a guiding star, like the North Star, and the noun “air” here refers to the musical quality of her voice and words.

"But earthlier happy is the rose distill'd Than that which, withering on the virgin thorn Grows, lives, and dies, in single blessedness...."   (Act I - Scene I)

The term “distill’d,” or “distilled,” means to be purified. In Shakespeare’s time, for a woman to be “pure” she was expected to either remain celibate and virginal or to choose to love one person whom she would marry. When Hermia asks Theseus what will happen if she refuses to marry Demetrius, he replies that she can either become a nun or be executed. Since there was incredible value placed on romantic love and marriage during this time, Theseus suggests that Hermia marry Demetrius. He says that her life as a nun would resemble that of “the rose” that simply “grows, lives, and dies”—or in other words, it would involve no “meaningful” life changes.

"the livery of a nun..."   (Act I - Scene I)

Theseus states that Hermia will face death or a life in solitude and prayer as a nun should she refuse to comply with her father’s wishes. The word “livery” means the particular clothing or accessories of a particular profession or station. In this sense, Theseus uses clothing as a symbol of status, or one’s position in life.

"The pale companion is not for our pomp...."   (Act I - Scene I)

The “pale companion” that Theseus refers to here is “melancholy,” or sadness. Theseus means that his and Hippolyta’s wedding shall be a joyful celebration even though the wait feels long and wears on his patience.

"Either I mistake your shape and making quite, Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite Call'd Robin Goodfellow...."   (Act II - Scene I)

When the fairy identifies Robin Goodfellow, it does not initially say his name, but rather describes him by his attributes, “shrewd and knavish.” The term “knavish” means mischievous and “shrewd” means cunning, immediately characterizing Goodfellow as impish and sly in nature. Note too that even Goodfellow’s name is deceptive and tricky, as a “goodfellow” refers to a pleasant and agreeable ally, which strongly contrasts with a slick knave.

"changeling..."   (Act II - Scene I)

A “changeling” generally refers to a child that has been secretly replaced with another during infancy. In European folklore, a changeling specifically refers to a child that has been left by fairies in exchange for one stolen.

"adamant..."   (Act II - Scene I)

Adamant was a very strong kind of rock, otherwise unidentified, that was originally believed to be unbreakable. During Shakespeare’s time, adamant was also associate with lodestone, a rock made of magnetite. So, when Helena compares Demetrius to “hard-hearted adamant” she is saying that she is drawn to him like metal to a magnet.

"Some to kill cankers in the musk-rose buds..."   (Act II - Scene II)

Titania begins to instruct her fairies to perform certain duties in her part of the forest. One of the duties is to kill the “cankers,” an archaic word for caterpillars who are in the “musk-rose buds.” The musk rose is usually white with varieties of pink and pale yellow. It was very popular among Elizabethans because of its unique scent among the rose family. Since she wants the caterpillars removed from these flowers in particular, we can infer that these are among her favorite flowers.

"By'r lakin, a parlous fear. ..."   (Act III - Scene I)

Having heard Bottom say that women might not be able to cope with his character killing himself on stage, Snout utters this oath to express his agreement. The expression “by’r lakin” is a shortening of “By our lady,” (a reference to the Virgin Mary) and the adjective “parlous” means “perilous.” Snout is therefore saying that Bottom has pointed out a real problem with their play, which the audience will know is not a real issue. As the clowns continue to practice their play, they continue to make errors and demonstrate their ineptitude with carrying on a performance.

"No, make it two more; let it be written in eight and eight...."   (Act III - Scene I)

Here, the men are arguing about the meter of the play. When Quince says that the play’s prologue should be “written in eight and six,” he is referring to the traditional English ballad meter that featured alternating lines of eight and six syllables rhyming ABAB. Bottom suggests that they write in the style of “eight and eight,” thinking that the extra syllables would make the meter more grand. However, this actually illustrates Bottom’s lack of familiarity with poetic forms, since he does not seem to understand Quince’s reference.

"odious..."   (Act III - Scene I)

Bottom means to say “odorous,” which today generally describes anything that gives off a scent, but which originally meant sweet-smelling and pleasantly fragrant. However, he botches his line and describes Thisbe as “odious” meaning hated, again emphasizing the lack of acting talent these men have.

"canker blossom!..."   (Act III - Scene II)

As mentioned earlier in Act II, scene ii, a “canker" is a kind of insect which eats through the blossoms of plants. More generally though, it can refer to something that destroys or makes bad things happen. The word "blossom" refers to plant blossoms, but the context here tells us that it means a “blossom of love.” Therefore, Hermia is calling Helena a destroyer of Hermia’s and Lysander’s blossoming love.

"Or russet-pated choughs..."   (Act III - Scene II)

“Russet-pated” is a term that means reddish brown or red-haired. A chough is a bird of the crow family, often formerly referring to any of the small chattering birds, especially the Jackdaw.

"Out, tawny Tartar, out!..."   (Act III - Scene II)

Lysander, under the effects of the love juice, uses this racist insult, along with “Away, you Ethiope!”, to rebuke Hermia so he can continue expressing his love for Helena. At the time of writing, non-Europeans were considered undesirable, and Lysander’s insults focus on how Hermia has darker features, like her hair and skin color, than Helena does. The adjective “tawny” means that something has a light brown to brownish orange color.

"Opening on Neptune..."   (Act III - Scene II)

Neptune is the Roman god of freshwater and the sea. Neptune here refers to the sea itself, and Oberon is describing his love for the way the sun hits the water and changes its color from “salt green” to “gold.” After Puck claims the night is a kind of liberating time for fun and mischief, Oberon corrects him, saying that they are not dark and sinister creatures who only really come out at night. However, note that we rarely do see Oberon out during the day, and his mischievous plots take place in the night. Although Oberon may like to believe that he is very different from Puck, they, and all supernatural creatures, are actually quite similar in some ways.

"confederacy!..."   (Act III - Scene II)

One of the definitions of a "confederacy" is a group of people united to commit an unlawful act, similar to a conspiracy. In this case, Helena is accusing Hermia of having joined Lysander and Demetrius in mocking Helena with false declarations of love.

"high Taurus' snow..."   (Act III - Scene II)

The Taurus Mountain range is located in Asia Minor, or today’s southern Turkey. The range is noted for its high peaks which are covered in snow year round. Since the mountains are so high and eternally white, Demetrius invokes them to emphasize Helena’s purity and virtue, like the snow on the mountains.

"mechanicals..."   (Act III - Scene II)

As we can see from context, this word refers to the group of men, called clowns in the stage direction, who are practicing for their performance at Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding. The word “mechanicals” therefore refers to craftsmen or manual workers considering their professions.

"provender..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

When Titania asks what Bottom would like to eat, he replies that he would like oats, hay, and “provender” which is an archaic term for feed or fodder. Now that Bottom has been magically given the head of a donkey, he starts to behave like one, requesting food that a donkey would eat. Titania does not notice because the spell from the love potion has entranced her completely.

"vaward..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

This is an archaic word that means the “foremost part” or the “vanguard.” Theseus is using it to mean that they still have much of the day left to them.

"Cavalery..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

Bottom probably means to use the noun “cavalier,” rather than “Cavalery.” During Shakespeare’s time, cavalier was used as a title of address for a courtly gentlemen similar to “sir” or “master.”

"we had all been made men..."   (Act IV - Scene II)

“Sport” here refers to putting on their play, and the expression “had all been made men” likely means that they would have become men of status or of a higher position. So, what Snug is saying here is that had the laborers been able to perform, they would have made a lot of money.

"You must say ‘paragon.’ A paramour is..."   (Act IV - Scene II)

Flute corrects Quince, saying that he must use the word paragon, meaning a model of excellence or perfection, to describe Bottom’s voice. However, he also incorrectly defines paramour, which means a lover. Shakespeare incorporates such linguistic mishaps to provide comedy and better illustrate these laborers ineptitude.

"able to discharge Pyramus..."   (Act IV - Scene II)

The verb “to discharge” in this context means to play the role of someone, in this case Bottom playing the part of Pyramus in the play.

"Out of doubt he is transported...."   (Act IV - Scene II)

The men worry that without Bottom their play with fail. When Starveling says that he thinks Bottom “is transported,” he is saying that Bottom must have been kidnapped.

"but not in government...."   (Act V)

While the word government refers to an organization of people who create and enforce laws, Hippolyta uses it in a more general sense to say that the sounds are not harmonious, that they are not working together towards the same purpose.