Egeus orders his daughter Hermia to marry Demetrius; she refuses because she and Lysander are in love. Her friend Helena is in love with Demetrius, who once loved her but now does not. Under the law of Athens, Duke Theseus gives Hermia four days to obey her father on pain of death or confinement to a nunnery. Hermia and Lysander escape this harsh law by running away to the woods. Demetrius pursues them there, with Helena pursing him. In the woods, Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of fairies, have quarrelled because Titania refuses to hand over an Indian changeling boy to be Oberon's page. Oberon instructs the mischievous Puck, Robin Goodfellow, to press the juice of a magic flower on Titania's eyes as she sleeps; it will make her fall in love with the first being she sees on waking. In an attempt to reconcile Demetrius and Helena, Oberon orders that juice should be put on his eyes whilst he is sleeping and she is near, but Robin mistakenly puts it on Lysander, who thus falls in love with Helena. She thinks she is being mocked. Love-juice is then placed on Demetrius' eyes in order to rectify the mistake, but the result is that he too falls for Helena. The boys fight over her and the girls quarrel. While Titania has been sleeping, a company of Athenian artisans under the leadership of Peter Quince has come to the wood to rehearse a play for the ensuing wedding festivities of Duke Theseus and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. Robin puts an ass's head on Bottom the weaver and because of the love-juice Titania falls in love with him. Eventually all is restored to right and the artisans perform their comically tragic play of 'Pyramus and Thisbe'.
Sir Thomas Heneage, as Vice Chamberlainship of England, was second in command of a new theatrical troupe - the Lord Chamberlain's Men. On May 2, 1594, Heneage married Mary Browne Wriothesley - mother of the Earl of Southampton. Several references in the play suggest the play was written for events around the time of the wedding. There is a reference to young lovers observing the rite of May, suggesting the action takes place in early May. There is mention of inclement weather in the spring of 1594. Also, there is a reference to Venus in the morning sky, where Venus could be found in late spring of 1594.
The subplot talks of a marriage between a powerful gallant figure (Duke Theseus=Earl of Southampton) and with former mortal enemy (Hippolyta=Elizabeth De Vere). The alliance represents a truce between unfriendly clans. For the Earl of Southampton, the message would be that he should marry into the Cecil (and de Vere) clan. On May 9, 1594, Lucrece was published, again attempting to encourage Southampton to marry into the Cecil clan.
In another subplot, there is a theatrical group with a garrulous, malaprop-sprouting, limelight grabbing ham (Bottom=Will Shakspeare from Stratford on Avon) at the center. Bottom is transformed into an ass, with whom the fairy Queen Titania (=Elizabeth) inappropriately falls in love. Bottom experiences the life of a royal consort, but eventually the magic wears off, and Bottom and the fairy Queen return to normal. At face value, Queen Elizabeth may have taken a shine to Will Shakspeare from Stratford on Avon.
On January 26, 1595, Elizabeth de Vere married William, Earl of Derby. It is likely that the play was performed at their wedding as well. Events at the wedding are mentioned in the play. There is reference to "four happy days brings in another moon" i.e. January 26. In addition, the play ends with faeries being sent to bless "each several chamber ... through the palace'. The wedding took place in Greenwich Palace.
The central plot is a love triangle among Hermia (=Elizabeth de Vere), Demetrius (=Southampton) and Lysander (=Derby). Hermia's father Egeus (=de Vere) is embarrassingly enamoured with Demetrius. The play makes fun of his infatuation. Hermia and Lysander have eyes only for each other. In the end, Hermia marries Lysander, and Egeus stages a wedding play for the couple. Demetrius ends up marrying Helena (=Elizabeth Vernon). Elizabeth Vernon was a cousin of Essex, and one of the Queen's maids of honor. Demetrius is still under the love potion when the play ends. As such, it holds out the possibility that Southampton will break off the relationship with Vernon.