A Midsummer Night’s Dream
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
THE LITERARY WORK
A play set in Athens, Greece, during the twelfth century b.c.; first performed between 1595 and 1596.
Four Athenian youths, the victims of fairy magic, experience a night of confusion and love in the woods outside the city.
Shakespeare borrows from the history of ancient Greece for the framework of his play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Using the Greek legend of Athens’ king Theseus and the Amazonian woman Hippolyta, the play features Theseus as the Duke of Athens, which places the text historically during the twelfth century b.c., at the time of the Mycenaean rule of Greece.
Greece during the Bronze Age (1700-1000 b.c.)
The progression toward the well-known democratic model of government in fifth-century classical Athens involved a long and gradual process. Prior to this early democracy, the Mycenaeans, who were early Greek settlers, had established a society based on a royal hierarchy. The Mycenaeans ruled primarily in the Peloponnesus, a peninsula of southern Greece that included the towns of Mycenae, Pylos, and Tiryns. In central Greece, Athens and Thebes were the main Mycenaean outposts.
Shakespeare’s play depicts a time when this system of aristocratic rule was in place. According to this system of government, Theseus is able to dictate his wishes to his subjects. At one point in the play, for instance, he decides the fate of one of the young female characters—Hermia—with one command. Unlike the democracies that later evolved, in early Greek societies the king’s command was law.
The palace lifestyle
The scarcity of records detailing the names and accomplishments of Mycenaean kings makes it difficult to determine their actual role in the society. However, it is certain that the towns of Greece were governed in a highly aristocratic fashion during the Bronze Age, with higher nobles overseeing the major territories in each king’s district. This arrangement helps explain the familiarity that Hermia’s father, a prominent citizen of Athens, had with Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The epics of the Greek poet Homer indicate that the relationship between the king and his men was somewhat feudal in nature: The citizens retained control of their land in exchange for a portion of the goods they produced. Although most archaeological findings provide clues as to the nature of the aristocratic lifestyle, the majority of the Mycenaean citizens were probably of a much lower class. These free peasants held common plots of land allotted to them by the king. At the lowest end of the social scale resided the slave population. Handled like possessions, Mycenaean slaves were in fact sometimes skilled craftsmen, and such characters are found among the mechanicals (a term for persons in the lower, artisan class) of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The role of women
Women in ancient Greece were expected to bear male children for the community, which relied on such offspring to replenish their warrior ranks. Homer’s Odyssey suggests that a woman had some degree of choice in whom she would marry. Her rights were limited, however. Fathers might arrange a marriage to bond two powerful families together or, according to tales by Homer about the time, a man might capture a bride for himself or win her in a contest.
It is evident that most women in ancient Greek society were inferior in status to their husbands. Both royal and slave women depended on the men, and in daily life the two types of women performed similar household tasks. Men viewed even royal women as property—“the prizes of contests and the spoils of conquest” (Pomeroy, p. 25)—and domination of a woman increased a man’s prestige. Shakespeare’s play incorporates this view of the female gender; the maiden Hermia is treated like the property of her father.
The legend of Theseus
Shakespeare found his Theseus character in the pages of classical folklore. While many legends surround this hero, perhaps none is quite so remarkable as Theseus’s battle with the Minotaur. After his son has been killed by the Athenians, King Minos of Crete demands that the city send seven youths and seven maidens every year (or every nine years, depending on the source) as food for the Minotaur, a half-bull and half-human monster. Theseus sails to Crete to battle the monster. Upon arrival, though, Minos’s daughter promptly falls in love with him. Her love for Theseus proves valuable to the warrior in his encounter with the Minotaur. Because the Minotaur inhabits a maze (known as a “labyrinth”), the monster’s human victims usually become lost, quickly exposing themselves as prey. Minos’s daughter gives Theseus a ball of thread so that he can retrace his steps out of the labyrinth. Armed with this tool, Theseus is able to slay the monster and find his way out of the labyrinth. He begins his voyage back to Athens, which has been liberated from the threat of the Minotaur by his bravery. Unfortunately, the young warrior forgets a promise he made to his father Aegeus (or Egeus) when he departed—that he would signal a victorious expedition by raising white flags on his returning ship. After seeing the black flags on the incoming vessel, Aegeus draws the mistaken conclusion that Theseus was defeated and throws himself into the sea in grief. The body of water in which he drowned himself thus became known as the Aegean Sea. Theseus, the legend concludes, succeeds his father to the Athenian throne and rules for many years.
THE PYRAMUS AND THISBE MYTH
According to mythology, Pyramus was a young Babylonian youth in love with his neighbor, Thisbe. Because their parents forbade their marriage, they had to communicate with each other through a wall that separated their properties. One night they agreed to hold a clandestine meeting at the mulberry tree near the tomb of Ninus. Thisbe, the first to arrive, was frightened away by a lion whose bloody jaws bore the remains of a fresh kill. As she fled, however, she dropped her veil, and it was subsequently shredded by the lion. When Pyramus arrived to find Thisbe’s forn veil stained with blood, he was convinced that she had been killed. The heartbroken young man then took his own life with his sword. Thisbe returned to find her dead lover and killed herself with the same sword. Because their blood stained the nearby mulberry tree, its fruit was changed from white to crimson.
Hippolyta and the Amazons
At the outset of Shakespeare’s play, mention is made of the Amazon queen Hippolyta. The Amazons were a group of warrior women who, according to legend, lived east of Athens in Asia Minor, across the Aegean Sea. Their society was limited to warrior women and female children and was ruled by Queen Hippolyta. Legends of the Bronze Age describe a number of battles between male heroes and the Amazons. The male warriors ultimately win all these encounters, and the various accounts of the story of Theseus and Hippolyta are no different. One version tells of an attack led by Theseus against the Amazons. Defeating the warrior women, Theseus and Hippolyta are kidnaps her. The Amazons retaliate by attacking Athens but are driven back. Other accounts maintain that the queen accompanies Theseus willingly. All stories agree that Theseus later takes a second wife, Phaedra, who is Greek. Tales of the manner of Hippolyta’s death, however, vary. Some accounts say that after being discarded for another woman, Hippolyta attacks her husband at his wedding feast only to be killed by a guest. But others contend that she gave her life in defense of Theseus or was slain by Hercules.
The opening act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream presents the primary plot of the work. As the curtain rises, the audience finds Theseus, the Duke of Athens, anxiously awaiting his marriage to Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons. A conflict is quickly revealed when Egeus, an Athenian citizen, beseeches Theseus to reprimand his daughter Hermia. The distraught father explains that, although the girl has been betrothed to a young man named Demetrius, she wishes to marry Lysander. While both men seek her hand in marriage, the choice of a husband does not rest with Hermia, but with her father.
After listening to Hermia’s father, Theseus commands that Hermia choose to marry Demetrius, join a cloister of nuns, or be put to death. The young girl, though, decides to elope with Lysander and reveals the plan to Helena, her best friend. Helena, however, is in love with Demetrius. She plots to tell him of his fiancée’s planned elopement with Lysander in hopes of winning his favor.
The following scene finds a group of Athenians, “the mechanicals,” practicing a play they wish to perform for the court at the event of Theseus’s marriage. The skit is based on the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, but in the bumbling hands of these actors the drama becomes a comedy. This glimpse of the mechanicals establishes them as comic characters whose antics will affect the course of the play.
Hermia and Lysander, meanwhile, escape into an area of woods that houses a community of fairies. Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of the fairies, reign here. Because of a domestic dispute, Oberon plots with his attendant Puck to play a trick on Titania by placing in her eyes the juice of a “western flower.” This juice makes those who have been exposed to it fall in love with the first person he or she sees. But Oberon and Puck also overhear an argument between Helena and Demetrius. She has told him of Hermia’s betrayal, but instead of shunning Hermia as Helena had hoped, Demetrius is determined to find the couple and stop the elopement. Oberon feels pity for Helena and asks Puck to place the flower juice in Demetrius’s eyes so that he might fall in love with Helena.
Oberon drugs Titania with the flower’s juice. Afterward, Puck comes across the mechanicals as they practice their performance. The mischievous Puck alters one of the actors, Bottom, so that he possesses the head of an ass. Titania awakens and promptly falls in love with the “ass,” who is then treated like royalty.
The attempt to drug Demetrius fails, however. Puck makes the mistake of dropping the potion into Lysander’s eyes. Oberon realizes that an error was made and drops the juice into the eyes of Demetrius, creating a situation where both Demetrius and Lysander now love Helena instead of Hermia. When the four youths again fall asleep, Puck remedies the mix-up by squeezing an antidote into Lysander’s eyes. The lovesick fairy queen Titania receives a remedy as well.
After awakening, Titania tells Oberon of a dream she had in which she was “enamored of an ass.” The young Athenians stir, and it becomes clear that they too appear to believe that the romantic events of the recent past were only dreams. Because Demetrius was never remedied of his love for Helena, the two couples appeal to Theseus to take back his previous ultimatum that Hermia should marry Demetrius. The king consents, and the couples plan for their weddings. Not only will Theseus be wed to Hippolyta, but also Lysander to Hermia, and Demetrius to Helena.
At the same time, Bottom awakens from his ass-like state, believing that he too has had a fantastic dream. He quickly finds the other mechanicals to practice the play they are to perform at the approaching wedding feast. The final act of the play presents this performance to both the Athenian court and to Shakespeare’s audience.
The romantic comedy of the Athenian youths
A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens with the promise of a happy ending. Theseus complains that the slow moon “lingers [his] desires” (Shakespeare, Midsummer Night’s Dream 1.1.4) to wed Hippolyta. From the onset, the expectation of a union between the individuals is apparent. It is this trust in a satisfactory conclusion that Shakespeare’s audience bears in mind when confronted with the troubles facing Hermia and Helena. Perhaps due to the unmarried status of their queen, Elizabeth I, playgoers in Shakespeare’s time did not wish to see female characters in a play remain unloved. As one author explains, audiences were “loathe to see the charm of an attractive heroine ‘withering on a virgin throne’” (Holzknecht, p. 181).
In addition, Elizabethan audiences would not accept a romantic comedy in which all couples were not happily matched by the close of the curtain. Shakespeare hints to his audience early in the drama that they need not worry. Helena remarks in the opening scene of the play that “through Athens I am thought as fair as she [Hermia]” (Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1.1.227). Her suggestion of equality instills in the viewer a desire for both girls to marry their respective loves.
Sad Helena and distressed Hermia are eventually transformed into “lovers full of joy and mirth” (Midsummer Night’s Dream, 5.1.27), but the passage toward this happy destination is not direct or entirely natural. The play concludes with Demetrius still under the influence of the magical flower nectar. In order for the union between this character and Helena to work, he must remain under the spell of this power. Demetrius remarks, upon returning to the palace, “Are you sure / that we are awake? It seems to me / That yet we sleep we dream” (Midsummer Night’s Dream, 4.1.189-91). He is, indeed, the only character who does still sleep. The audience’s quest for a union of all the young lovers, though, as well as its ability to immerse itself in the fanciful plot, allow Shakespeare to employ the nectar as an effective matchmaking tool. After all, his Elizabethan audience’s primary desire was to see a happy ending.
Because of the centrality of the wedding theme, it is possible that Shakespeare composed the play with a specific marriage in mind—perhaps the marriage of Elizabeth Carey and Thomas Berkeley on February 19, 1596. The bride’s father was Lord Chamberlain, the patron who owned Shakespeare’s production company.
Shakespeare borrowed from Roman poet Ovid’s work Metamorphoses when he created A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The setting, theme, and several characters in Shakespeare’s drama were influenced by the Roman poem. Study of classic literature was a central element in the education of a young English male of Shakespeare’s era, and Ovid’s work was widely studied at the time.
Metamorphoses is a collection of more than two hundred Greek myths and legends. Included are elements such as the character of Theseus, the Pyramus and Thisbe myth, and concepts of physical transformation. Shakespeare’s character Bottom, for example, is given the ears of an ass, a fate also suffered by the fabled King Midas in Ovid’s work. In drawing on Metamorphoses, Shakespeare used a significant work. The collection has been called “the most important source of mythical lore for all writers since Ovid’s time” (Goold in Ovid, p. xii).
Shakespeare was also influenced by English poet Geoffrey Chaucer. Some 150 years earlier, Chaucer had told a story quite similar to A Midsummer Night’s Dream in “The Knight’s Tale,” one of the verse narratives in his book Canterbury Tales (also covered in Literature and Its Times). Shakespeare used Chaucer’s general plot as well as several character names.
|“The Knight’s Tale”||A Midsummer Night’s Dream|
|Theseus—Duke of Athens||Theseus—Duke of Athens|
|Hippolyta—Amazon Queen||Hippolyta—Amazon Queen|
|Palamon and Arcite—young knights||Demetrius and Lysander—male youths|
|Emily—female love interest||Hermia—female love interest|
|Egeus—Theseus’s father||Egeus—Hermia’s father|
|Philostrate—Arcite’s alias||Philostrate—palace official|
The cast of fairies can also be traced to several sources. When Henry VIII converted his nation from Catholicism earlier in the sixteenth century, he eased a fear among England’s citizens that a person might be labeled a heretic (a rebel against Catholic teachings) on the basis of statements that person made or the stories he or she told. This in turn allowed for a surge in fairy stories. Many English households blamed minor mishaps or lost possessions on the work of fairy magic.
In old English society the name Robin Good-fellow, or Puck, represented the figure of a mischievous spirit. He belonged to the second of four fairy classes: (1) trooping fairies, (2) hobgoblins, (3) mermaids, and (4) giants, monsters, or hags. Although hobgoblins could sometimes be endowed with evil traits, Shakespeare’s Puck retains the merry jesting qualities found in most ballads, legends, and dramas of the time. A similar character is found, for example, in Ben Jonson’s Love Restored, produced in 1616. Prior to the sixteenth century, fairies were considered to be of average or above-average human stature. The small size of later English fairies can be directly attributed to the inventions of Shakespeare. Quickly adopted by other writers, this notion of miniature size eventually developed into national folklore.
From her ascent to the throne in 1558 to her death in 1603, Queen Elizabeth I ruled England with a political genius that few monarchs before her had possessed. Although she has been described as difficult, pompous, and strong-willed, Elizabeth identified herself wholly with her nation. Unmarried, she used her single status to play her suitors off one another and do her bidding. Eventually Elizabeth would confess that England was her only spouse. She became totally identified with the nation and left it independent and united, though she had no heirs. Many scholars interpret Oberon’s mention of a “fair vestal throned by the west” (Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2.1.158) as a direct reference to the virgin queen. Bottom’s waking speech discusses the enticing yet impossible notion of possessing such a figure. For the population of England, Elizabeth was the ultimate, unattainable love.
Elizabeth’s court was not without its social intrigue, however. During her reign, royal patronage (support for select individuals favored by the queen) reached new heights. Elizabeth transformed local noblemen and gentry into advisors known as courtiers who depended on her favor to prosper. Still, she won an allegiance that few monarchs have equaled. This quality, combined with her lengthy rule, made her one of the century’s leading figures. In acknowledgement of her rate, the second half of the 1500s came to be known as the Elizabethan Age.
Shakespeare’s own company was not supported by the Elizabethan court but was privately employed. It still seems to have labored under certain obligations to the court, however, including the production of two new plays each year—a comedy and a tragedy (or historical play).
Both comedy and tragedy were composed of a mixture of classical and medieval traditions. Developed from earlier Latin models, comedies of the Elizabethan era involved the lives of noblemen, and their often romantic plots centered around confusion over love. Typically, actors representing the higher classes spoke in verse, while characters of a lower class had prose speeches, a method used in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. While the fairy nobles and the Athenian court members all speak in blank verse in the drama, the mechanicals speak only in prose.
Reception of the play
It is likely that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was first performed as a private production for nobility and occasionally performed publicly by Shakespeare’s company, Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Aside from this, little is known, as is true of most dramatic productions prior to the Commonwealth period that began in 1648. The existence of a separately published work or spin-off entitled “The Merry Conceited Humours of Bottom the Weaver,” however, indicates that the play was originally well received. A Midsummer Night’s Dream has since then taken its place as one of Shakespeare’s unfailingly successful plays. The popular comedy has been regularly staged over the years.
Elizabethans, confined by gender (in the case of women) as well as class expectations, did not exercise much control in marriage. That Queen Elizabeth defied Parliament and public opinion by refusing to marry and bear children set her apart from most Englishwomen. She shocked the world with her statement that “in the end, this shall be for me sufficient, that a marble stone shall declare that a Queen, having reigned such a time, lived and died a virgin” (Elizabeth I in Jones, p. 88). It would be some time, in fact, before the general public came to
According to Elizabethan lore, mustard supposedly contained a devil in its seed. Shakespeare was probably recalling this lore when he named one of Titania’s fairy attendants “Mustardseed.”
terms with her defiance of so-called female responsibilities.
The concept of marital duty ran deep throughout Elizabethan society. It taught that a man, according to the edict of God, should care for his wife as if she were a part of his own flesh; she, in turn, should consent to the rule of her husband. Furthermore, love for a spouse could only be earned through the proper enacting of one’s role. Passion, thought to render the mind senseless, was regarded as an emotion to be avoided and suppressed. Hermia’s father rebukes Lysander for an unearned and therefore false profession of love for his daughter, stating, “Thou hast by moonlight at her window sung / With feigning voice verses of feigning love” (Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1.1.30-1).
As in ancient Athens when the play is set, marriage in Shakespeare’s day was a social relationship involving the community as well as the couple. It was rarely desirable to marry out of love for one’s partner. Instead, families arranged marriages for their children, paying particular attention to matters of age, social rank, and, of course, wealth. Both the family name and the accumulation of property depended on a proper union. The couple, as adults, willingly recognized their role in this social institution. When Hermia denies her union with Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, she jeopardizes the future of her entire family. Therefore, her father’s anger is not entirely unwarranted. Until her marriage, a female child in Shakespeare’s day lived according to a code of obedience to the male head of the household. When, in the play’s setting of ancient Athens,
Shakespeare’s own wedding was not without elements of awkwardness and gossip. The Registry of the Bishop of Worcester shows that on November 28, 1582, William Shakespeare was wed to Anne Hathaway. Records also prove that in May of the following year, some six months after the ceremony, the couple christened their first child. The hasty wedding, however, did not mar the marriage or the reputation of the playwright. Anne survived her husband by seven years and is buried next to him. Although rumors persist about affairs Shakespeare may have had, both with a “Dark Lady” and a young boy, they remain unconfirmed.
Hermia’s father remarks that her acceptance of his wishes is “due to [him],” he is also stating a fact of Elizabethan society (Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1.1.36).
In the end, though, Hermia does win the right to marry the husband of her choice. Because Queen Elizabeth broke social protocol by refusing to marry, certain deviations from the standard became more accepted during her time. The queen’s independence perhaps inspired Shakespeare to have Hermia break with the past and attain a partner of her own choosing. These social issues—the unfairness of forced marriages and the idea of permitting young people to select their own mates—were tackled in other plays of the era, too, such as The Miseries of Inforst Manage, by George Wilkins.
Dream study in sixteenth-century Europe
In sixteenth-century England, there was a wealth of books on the topic of dreams. The most notable of these was Oneirocritica by a scholar named Artemidorus. He suggested that a dream might have a number of different meanings depending on the circumstances of the dream and the dreamer’s life. Artemidorus thus introduced the idea that a dream had to be interpreted, a belief that contrasted with earlier theories that a dream was by nature either good or evil. Another important work, the Dream Book of Daniel, was written by an unknown author. Printed in English in 1542, this book, like others of the era, focused on the difference between divine and devilish dreams. Going further, the scholar Macrobius attempted to classify dreams, paying most attention to those that led to higher knowledge or special insights. Church leaders also focused on “higher” dreams.
In Shakespeare’s play, the dream world is a transforming place, from which the dreamers return greatly changed and more in harmony with their world. Their dreams lead them toward an enlightenment of sorts, perhaps to a greater self-knowledge. This use of dreams in the play reflects the great degree to which dream study captured the popular English mind in the 1500s. In fact, the folk calendar included a few holidays related to prophecy and dreams. Among them was Midsummer Eve and Day (June 23-24), a holiday also associated with fairies, love, and madness. Midsummer Eve was sacred to lovers, who celebrated the holiday by dancing around bonfires, calling on spirits to aid them in matters of love, and trying in various ways to divine who their future mates might be. At noon on June 23, for example, a maiden might take a mirror to a water well and reflect the sun’s rays into the water. Such a maiden would be careful not to speak because that would break the spell. In a few minutes, the image of her future mate was supposed to appear.
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Camden, Carroll. The Elizabethan Woman. Houston: Elsevier, 1952.
Holzknecht, Karl J. The Backgrounds of Shakespeare’s Plays. New York: American Book, 1950.
Jones, Norman. The Birth of the Elizabethan Age. Cambridge, England: Blackwell, 1993.
Kay, Dennis. Shakespeare, His Life, Work and Era. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1991.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Edited by G. P. Goold. In Ovid in Six Volumes. Vol. 3. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984.
Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. New York: Schocken, 1975.
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Edited by R. A. Foakes. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.