In the forest outside Athens, a fairy meets with Robin Goodfellow. They discuss the conflict between Oberon, king of the fairies, and Titania, the queen of the fairies, about which of them should get to keep a beautiful Indian changeling boy as their attendant. The fairy suddenly asks if Robin is the mischievous fellow who goes by the nickname "sweet puck." Puck happily admits it, and brags a while about his mischief.
Puck quiets as Oberon and Titania enter. Oberon tells her, "ill met by moonlight, proud Titania" (2.1.62). They immediately begin to argue, and accuse one another of adultery.
Oberon objects to Titania's "pride" because she should be obedient to him. Adultery is the surest sign of love's inconstancy.
Titania tells Oberon that their fight has disordered nature, resulting in floods, fogs, dead livestock, and mixed-up seasons. Oberon responds that she could fix the problem by submitting to him and giving up the changeling. But Titania says she wouldn't give up the child for all of fairyland. The boy's mother was a worshipper of Titania's, and died giving birth to him. She raises him for her sake. She invites Oberon to go with her through the forest, but he refuses unless she gives him the changeling. She exits.
Titania's reasons for wanting to keep the changeling all seem perfectly reasonable, but they counter the "natural order" of women as subservient to man and so Oberon will not listen. The fairies magical power is obvious in the fact that their fights cause disorder in nature, though there's never any actual indication of this disorder in the play.
Once Titania is gone, Oberon vows to punish her for not obeying him. He calls to Puck, and reminds him of the time when Cupid aimed to hit the virgin queen of a land in the West, but his arrow missed its mark.
The virgin queen refers to Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare's queen and patron.
Oberon continues that he saw where that arrow landed: on a little flower that turned from white to "purple with love's wound" (2.1.167). This flower is called the love-in-idleness, and has magical properties. If the juice of the flower is placed on someone's sleeping eyelids, they will fall madly in love with the next living thing they see. Puck promises to circle the world in forty minutes and bring Oberon the flower. He exits.
Already in the play both Hermia and Helena have commented on how love affects the eyes, and love has been described as a kind of external force that overwhelms a person. So while the love juice is magical, it's also a symbol of how love is already viewed in the play.
Oberon, alone, muses on his plan: he'll wait until Titania is asleep and then place the juice on her eyes. When she wakes she'll fall in love with the first thing she sees, and he will not free her from the charm until she gives him the changeling.
Just then, Oberon hears voices. Since he's invisible, he decides to spy. Demetrius and Helena enter, walking through the woods. Demetrius tells Helena to stop following him since he does not love her, and promises to kill Lysander. When Demetrius again demands Helena leave him, Helena says "I am your spaniel . . . The more you beat me I will fawn on you" (2.1.203-204). After more back and forth, an exasperated Demetrius threatens to run from her and hide, leaving her "to the mercy of wild beasts" (2.2.235). Helena promises to chase him, though she says that women were meant to be wooed, not to woo.
The dark-side of an unequal love—love has so enslaved Helena that she describes herself as a dog to her master, who, not returning her love, treats her with disrespect. While the play seems to support subservience of women to men, this subservience is not simple dominance. Men must win subservience through wooing, and maintain it through shows of love, such as Theseus promises Hippolyta at the play's opening.
After they exit, Oberon promises that soon Demetrius will seek Helena's love. Once Puck returns with the love-in-idleness flower, Oberon tells him that "A sweet Athenian lady is in love with a disdainful youth" (2.1.268-269), and instructs Puck to find the man and put the love potion on his eyes when it is certain that the next thing he'll see is the lady. He adds that Puck can recognize the man from his "Athenian garments" (2.1.264).
Oberon has decided to use the love juice to "rewrite" the tragedy developing between Helena and Demetrius into a comedy in which everyone marries happily. But his "actors" in this play are real people. What's another word for a play in which the actors have no control over what happens? A dream.