Tales From Shakespeare
A Midsummer Night's Dream
There was a law in the city of Athens which gave to its citizens the power of compelling
their daughters to marry whomsoever they pleased; for upon a daughter's refusing to
marry the man her father had chosen to be her husband, the father was empowered by this
law to cause her to be put to death; but as fathers do not often desire the death of their
own daughters, even though they do happen to prove a little refractory, this law was
seldom or never put in execution, though perhaps the young ladies of that city were not
unfrequently threatened by their parents with the terrors of it.
There was one instance, however, of an old man, whose name was Egeus, who actually
did come before Theseus (at that time the reigning Duke of Athens), to complain that his
daughter whom he had commanded to marry Demetrius, a young man of a noble
Athenian family, refused to obey him, because she loved another young Athenian, named
Lysander. Egeus demanded justice of Theseus, and desired that this cruel law might be
put in force against his daughter.
Hermia pleaded in excuse for her disobedience that Demetrius had formerly professed
love for her dear friend Helena, and that Helena loved Demetrius to distraction; but this
honorable reason, which Hermia gave for not obeying her father's command, moved not
the stern Egeus.
Theseus, though a great and merciful prince, had no power to alter the laws of his
country; therefore he could only give Hermia four days to consider of it: and at the end of
that time, if she still refused to marry Demetrius, she was to be put to death.
When Hermia was dismissed from the presence of the duke, she went to her lover
Lysander and told him the peril she was in, and that she must either give him up and
marry Demetrius or lose her life in four days.
Lysander was in great affliction at hearing these evil tidings; but, recollecting that be had
an aunt who lived at some distance from Athens, and that at the place where she lived the
cruel law could not be put in force against Hermia (this law not extending beyond the
boundaries of the city), he proposed to Hermia that she should steal out of her father's
house that night, and go with him to his aunt's house, where he would marry her. "I will
meet you," said Lysander, "in the wood a few miles without the city; in that delightful
wood where we have so often walked with Helena in the pleasant month of May."
To this proposal Hermia joyfully agreed; and she told no one of her intended flight but
her friend Helena. Helena (as maidens will do foolish things for love) very ungenerously
resolved to go and tell this to Demetrius, though she could hope no benefit from
betraying her friend's secret but the poor pleasure of following her faithless lover to the
wood; for she well knew that Demetrius would go thither in pursuit of Hermia.