As the play begins, Hermia refuses to marry her father Egeus’ chosen suitor, Demetrius, because she is in love with Lysander. Egeus’ brings the matter before Duke Theseus, invoking an ancient law that a daughter must marry as her father wishes or die. Theseus tells Hermia that she could also devote herself to the goddess Diana and live as a chaste nun. Hermia and Lysander plan to run away together, meeting in the woods at night. They share the plan with Hermia’s friend Helena, who unrequitedly loves Demetrius.
Meanwhile, a group of working-class men—the “rude mechanicals”—led by Peter Quince prepare to perform a play for the wedding of Duke Theseus to the Amazon queen Hippolyta. Their play is the “lamentable comedy” of Pyramus and Thisbe, with the enthusiastic and arrogant Nick Bottom as Pyramus.
In the forest, the king and queen of the fairies, Oberon and Titania, have come near Athens for Theseus’ and Hippolyta’s wedding. They are at odds over an Indian changeling child, the son of one of Titania’s worshippers, whom Oberon wants to be his knight. Upset that Titania will not yield, Oberon calls upon his servant Puck to use the magical love-in-idleness juice on Titania’s eyes to make her fall in love with a creature in the woods and shame her into giving up the changeling.
Hermia and Lysander flee to the forest, hoping to elope. Helena tells Demetrius, hoping to gain his favor, and they follow, with Demetrius continually rejecting Helena’s advances. Oberon sees this and tells Puck to apply the love-in-idleness to Demetrius so that he will love Helena. However, Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius, and when Helena wakes Lysander, he is in love with her.
Oberon is angry to see Demetrius still following Hermia, and sends Puck to get Helena while he enchants Demetrius’ eyes. As a result, both men are pursuing Helena, who thinks they are mocking her.
Hermia, confused by Lysander’s behavior, blames Helena for stealing him. Their arguments lead towards a duel between Lysander and Demetrius before Oberon and Puck intervene. Puck removes the charm from Lysander, so that he reverts to his love for Hermia, but Demetrius continues his pursuit of Helena.
While this is happening, the rude mechanicals rehearse in the forest, and when Puck spots Bottom, he magically gives him the head of a donkey. His appearance scares away the other men, and he sings, awakening Titania—who is under the influence of love-in-idleness. She falls in love with Bottom, instructing her fairies to pamper him. Oberon takes advantage of the opportunity to take the changeling from her. He then removes the magic from Bottom and Titania and enchants the lovers to believe that they dreamed the events of the night.
Returning to Athens, Theseus overrules Egeus now that Demetrius does not want to marry Hermia. They arrange a group wedding. Along with the lovers, Bottom imagines that he must have been dreaming. The mechanicals present their play for Theseus and Hippolyta and their guests, who offer snarky commentary on it. Afterwards, the fairies bless the home and Puck addresses the audience, offering to make amends for any offense and suggesting that the whole play could have been a dream.