A Midsummer Night’s Dream is set in the city of Athens in Ancient Greece. The court of Athens is ruled over by Theseus, and is therefore a lawful and civilized place. Given that the play is set in antiquity, characters consistently reference Greek and Roman gods and use the guidance of their supernatural stories to inform their actions and opinions.
However, after the first act, the setting changes. As many of the Athenian characters escape into the woods outside of Athens, they encounter a new world. The woods are inhabited by fairies, and the structure of their magical world contrasts that of Athens. The introduction of many new characters—few of them human or even guided by human logic—characterizes the woods as a mysterious and confounding place. This dual setting complements the differences between Athens and the woods.
Because the play begins in Athens, the audience forms an expectation about the rules and structure of the world of the play. However, once characters cross into the alternate world of the forest, the logic of the initial setting falls away. This leaves room for the mischief and confusion that befalls the Athenians in the woods. The settings contrast the magical and the mundane and help exemplify how the characters that transgress the borders between these two worlds suffer the consequences. Notably, most of the play also takes place at night. Night in the woods is a lawless and magical experience, and when—at the play’s end—the audience returns to Athens, their understanding of Athenian order is altered.