At the beginning of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the tone is very serious. The opening scene follows Theseus as he makes a judgement about the fate of a young woman whose heart is in conflict with her father’s will. The way that Theseus approaches the situation creates a tone of grave severity and order, characteristic of the setting of Athens and the court. Because Hermia will not adhere to her father’s wishes and marry Demetrius, Theseus gives her a grave sentence. He says:
Upon that day either prepare to die
For disobedience to your father’s will,
Or else to wed Demetrius, as he would,
Or on Diana’s altar to protest
For aye austerity and single life
Theseus’s sentence—death, marriage to Demetrius, or life in a nunnery—is a harsh way to open the play. Its ungenerous position on love and the ways of the heart make the audience skeptical that the play will be lighthearted and comical. They see the world of the play as one that adheres to a strict order. However, once the lovers leave Athens, the play’s tone shifts dramatically. Chaos abounds in the forest, and the order and direction of the early court scene is eroded by absurdity and passion. Humor rules the rest of the play. The consistently humorous tone is created by dramatic irony. Because the audience knows what is about to happen and can anticipate the mistakes that characters make, they are rarely surprised by events that occur and are therefore free to enjoy the mix-ups and hilarity that ensues.