A Midsummer Night's Dream was written in a highly creative period in Shakespeare's career, when he was moving away from the shallow plots that characterized his earlier drama and discovering his more mature style. Most critics believe the play was written for and performed at an aristocratic wedding, with Queen Elizabeth I in attendance. Scholars estimate the play was written in 1595 or 1596 (when Shakespeare was 31 or 32 years old), at approximately the same time as Romeo and Juliet and Richard II. Obvious plot links exist between A Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet, and critics disagree about which play was written first. Not only do both dramas emphasize the conflict between love and social convention, but the plot of "Pyramus and Thisbe," the play-within-the-play of A Midsummer Night's Dream, parallels that of Romeo and Juliet. Critics have wondered if Romeo and Juliet is a serious reinterpretation of the other play, or just the opposite: Perhaps Shakespeare is mocking his tragic love story through the burlesque of "Pyramus and Thisbe."
Sources and Allusions
Unlike most of Shakespeare's dramas, A Midsummer Night's Dream does not have a single written source. The story of "Pyramus and Thisbe" was originally presented in Ovid's The Metamorphosis, making it one of many classical and folkloric allusions in the play. Other allusions include Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding, which is described in Chaucer's "Knight's Tale" in The Canterbury Tales, while the theme of a daughter who wants to marry the man of her choice despite her father's opposition was common in Roman comedy. The fairies that dance and frolic throughout this play were most likely derived from English folk tradition. On the one hand, these creatures have a sinister side — Puck, for example, is also known as Robin Goodfellow, a common name for the devil — but they can also be viewed as fun-loving nature spirits, aligned with a benevolent Mother Nature. The interaction of this eclectic array of characters — from the classically Greek royalty such as Theseus (derived from Plutarch's tale of "Theseus" in his Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans) to more traditionally Celtic fairies such as Puck — emphasizes Shakespeare's facility in using elements of the old to create something completely new.
The first Quarto edition of the play, printed in 1600, announces that it was "sundry times publickely acted, by the Right honourable, the Lord Chamberlaine his seruants." Indeed, this drama has seen "sundry" performances over the past 400 years. Its spectacle and its emphasis on dance and magic and song have led it to be interpreted and performed in a variety of ways. For example, numerous composers have been inspired by Shakespeare's Dream. In 1692, Purcell wrote an operatic version, The Fairy Queen, although it contains little of Shakespeare's original story line. In 1826, Mendelsohn composed an overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, which is still popular. The play has also seen many famous, and often infamous, interpretations. For example, the 1900 Beerbohm Tree production had live rabbits hopping around the stage, while Peter Brook's 1970 production was presented on a bare stage that looked like a big white box. Most modern productions of the play, including the 1999 film, emphasize its erotic, savage undertones.
Structure of the Play
Showing his usual dexterity in creating coherent dramatic frameworks, Shakespeare here interweaves four separate plots and four groups of characters. Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons and Theseus' fiancée, are the first characters introduced. Theseus is a voice of law and reason in the play, as shown by Egeus' entrance into the drama: Egeus needs Theseus to adjudicate a dispute he is having with his daughter, Hermia. The second plot features Hermia and her three friends, Helena, Demetrius, and Lysander. These young lovers stand on the boundaries of the law; like many adolescents, Lysander and Hermia rebel against authority, in this case, by refusing to accept Theseus' laws and, instead, planning to escape from Athenian tyranny. Although the lovers have one foot in the conventional world of Athens, the play forces them to confront their own irrational and erotic sides as they move temporarily into the forest outside of Athens. By the end of the play, though, they return to the safety of Athens, perhaps still remembering some of the poetry and chaos of their night in the forest. This irrational, magical world is the realm of the play's third group of characters: the fairies. Ruled by Titania and Oberon, the enchanted inhabitants of the forest celebrate the erotic, the poetic, and the beautiful. While this world provides an enticing sojourn for the lovers, it is also dangerous. All of the traditional boundaries break down when the lovers are lost in the woods. Finally, the adventures of Quince, Bottom, and the other amateur actors compose the play's fourth plot layer.
Shakespeare dexterously weaves these four worlds together, by having characters wandering in and out of each other's world, by creating echoes and parallels among the different groups. For example, the themes of love and transformation reverberate through all levels of the play, creating coherence and complexity. Coherence is also produced by the play's emphasis on time. The action is associated with two traditional festivals — Midsummer Eve and May Day — both allied with magic, mayhem, and merriment. To emphasize further the connections between the different groups, many modern directors of the play cast the same actor for the roles of Theseus and Oberon, and for those of Hippolyta and Titania.
While the play rejoices in the magical power of love to transform our lives, it also reminds us of love's excesses and foolishness. More ominously, it tells of the violence often perpetrated in the name of lust: Mythological references to the tales of Philomela and Perogina, for example, remind us that desire results not only in happy, consensual union, but also in rape. In addition to love's combat with violence, the play shows passion's conflict with reason. For example, Egeus' rigid, patriarchal view of the world clashes with his daughter's notion of love and freedom. Another important theme is the duality between fantasy and reality. Indeed, the play highlights the imagination and its inventions: dreams, illusions, and poetry.
One of the central quotes in the play is Theseus' statement that lovers, madmen, and poets share the same propensity to fantasize (V.1, 7-8). Shakespeare is concerned with the relationship between imagination and reality and with the way our emotions alter our perceptions. Early in the play, for example, Egeus accuses Lysander of bewitching Hermia with love charms and intriguing songs (I.1, 27-32), but the perceptive reader knows this is simply Egeus creating a fantastic excuse to justify his cruel treatment of his daughter. Similarly, Helena recognizes love's blindness and fickleness when she argues that strong emotions such as love can make the vile beautiful (I.1, 232-236) — our perceptions are too often skewed by capricious emotion.
Besides weaving together various themes, the play is also intriguing as a spectacle of dance, music, and costume. Numerous critics have noted the important role of dance in this drama, suggesting that the rhythm of the play's poetry and the movement of the characters in and out of scenes have an underlying dance rhythm.
The Elizabethan Theater
Attending the theater in Shakespeare's time was quite unlike attending a professional performance today. First, the theaters were of two distinct kinds: public and private. The government closely regulated both, but particularly the public theaters. Public theaters such as the one in which Shakespeare made his livelihood were fairly large open-air structures, able to hold about 3,000 people.
In order to compete with rival theaters, as well as the popular pastimes of bullbaiting and bearbaiting, acting troupes changed their show bills often, generally daily. They introduced new plays regularly, helping partially explain why about 2,000 plays were written by more than 250 dramatists between 1590 and the closing of the theaters in 1642. Public performances generally started in the mid-afternoon so spectators could return home by nightfall.
Because of weather, plague, Puritan opposition, and religious observances, theaters often advertised on a day-to-day basis (unlike today when we know in advance the dates a show will run). One of the most memorable advertising techniques troupes employed involved running a specific flag atop the theater to signal a performance that day (a black flag for a tragedy, a red flag for a history, and white flag for a comedy). Scholars estimate that during the first part of the seventeenth century, performances in public theaters took place about 214 days (about 7 months) each year.
Although we commonly associate elaborate lighting and scenery with producing plays, in the public playhouses of Elizabethan England, the only lighting came from natural sources. All action took place in front of a general three-tiered façade, eliminating the need for elaborate sets. Public theaters varied in shape (circular, octagonal, square), yet their purpose was the same: to surround a playing area in such a way as to accommodate a large number of paying spectators. Most theaters had tree-roofed galleries for spectators, one above the other, surrounding the yard. Each theater was also made up of three distinct seating areas, each increasingly more expensive: the pit (standing room only, used primarily by the lower classes), the public gallery (bench seats for the middle classes), and the box seats (appropriate for the Puritan aristocracy).
The private theaters of Shakespeare's day offered a definite alternative to the more common public playhouse. These venues were open to the public, but special considerations made it unusual for commoners to attend. First, the private playhouses accommodated only about 300 spectators. In addition, they provided actual seats for patrons, helping to justify a considerably higher admission than the public theaters. Unlike the open-air theaters, private theaters were roofed and lit by candles, allowing for evening performances (a time when most commoners needed to be doing chores around their own homes). During performances, too, the private theaters would often separate the acts with musical interludes rather than performing the entire play without any intermissions, as they did in the public theaters.