A Midsummer Night's Dream | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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A Midsummer Night's Dream | Context

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Fairies and Changelings

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the fairy king Oberon and the fairy queen Titania quarrel over a changeling child. Titania will not give the child to Oberon despite Oberon's demands. The quarrel leads to disruptions in nature that affect both the fairy and human worlds. The idea of a changeling goes back to old beliefs and tales about the interactions between humans and fairies. While modern conceptions of fairies are often helpful—a "fairy godmother," for example—in folklore, fairies were not always benevolent. They were supposedly responsible for stealing children from their families and stealing souls from humans. One idea common to fairy myths is the changeling—a fairy child left in place of a human child who is taken to serve in the fairy world. Infants not yet baptized were thought to be most vulnerable to being stolen away and replaced. Most often, the term changeling referred to the fairy left as a replacement. But sometimes, as in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the word changeling refers to the stolen human child instead of the fairy.

May Day and Midsummer's Eve

Although the title of the play seems to indicate the action takes place at midsummer, that may not be the case. Shakespeare seems to have combined several traditions and festivals to form the setting of the play. The most important of these are May Day—a festival day celebrating youth, spring, and new life and associated with fertility and love—and Midsummer's Eve—the night before the summer solstice. Outside of the title, there are more references to May Day than to other festivals. For example, when Theseus and Hippolyta enter the woods, the text says they do so to observe the May Day rites. When they find the four lovers, Theseus and Hippolyta believe the four young Athenians are in the woods for the same reason. Festivities included bonfires, music, and dancing. In one custom called "bringing in the May," young people would foray into the woods just after midnight, collect branches and flowers, and bring these flowers home to decorate doors and windows. A time of singing would occur at dawn—presumably why Theseus and Hippolyta are up and about so early in the morning.

Midsummer did not occur at what we might call the middle or midpoint of summer but referred to the time of the solstice that took place toward the end of June. The celebration of Midsummer Night (renamed for John the Baptist by the Church) dates back to pagan times. Like May Day, this was also a festival time that involved bonfires and decorating homes with flowers and vines. In addition, this night was believed to be a time when the barrier between the spirit or fairy world and the human world was thin, allowing fairies and spirits to interact with humans.

Amazons

In Greek mythology, the Amazons were fierce female warriors who famously fought in the Trojan War. They were said to live apart from men, except for those times set aside for conceiving children. Hippolyta was an Amazon queen. Since the Amazon society was matriarchal, the inclusion of Hippolyta as a character in A Midsummer Night's Dream emphasizes the importance of the matriarchy in Athenian society. By marrying the strong, powerful warrior queen Hippolyta, Theseus makes her queen of a new land.

Sources and Early Performances

The main source Shakespeare used for A Midsummer Night's Dream is Ovid's Metamorphoses. Ovid (43 BCE–17 CE) was a Roman poet whose work was extremely influential on later writers, including Shakespeare. Ovid's long poem, Metamorphoses (written in 8 CE), retells many stories from mythology and folklore. The central idea of these stories is metamorphosis, or transformation, a plot device that plays a significant part in A Midsummer Night's Dream: Bottom, a common Athenian, is transformed into a donkey-headed man; the affections of Demetrius and Lysander are transformed by virtue of a magical flower. From Metamorphoses, Shakespeare also gleaned details of the effects of Cupid's arrows and the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, both of which play a significant role in A Midsummer Night's Dream: Cupid's arrow, gone astray, gives a flower the power to cause people to fall in love, and the "rude mechanicals" perform a version of Pyramus and Thisbe's tragic tale as entertainment for the newly wedded couples at the end of the play.

Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales (published in 1478) provides the story of Theseus and Hippolyta in "The Knight's Tale": "Stories of old have made it known to us / That there was once a Duke called Theseus, / Ruler of Athens, Lord and Governor ... He had subdued the Amazons by force .... Hippolyta, Their queen, he took to wife, and ... brought her home in solemn pomp and glory." Furthermore, in "The Knight's Tale," two men in love with the same woman come to blows in the woods outside of town. Greek author and biographer Plutarch (46 CE–119 CE) also provided some details of Theseus's story in his Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans.

Oberon and Titania are mentioned in 16th-century British author Robert Greene's The Scottish History of James the Fourth (1590) and in "The Merchant's Tale" in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer tells of a fairy king and fairy queen who quarrel about the fate of two human couples.

Scholars estimate the writing of A Midsummer Night's Dream at about 1595–96. The first printed publication was in the first quarto, in 1600. In that publication the play is noted as having been "sundry times publickley acted," performed by the Lord Chamberlain's Men. Some believe that the play was intended to be performed at a wedding celebration. It has sustained interest over time, being one of Shakespeare's most often performed plays and a favorite of his comedies.

Pyramus and Thisbe

According to Ovid's retelling, the young lovers Pyramus and Thisbe lived in ancient Babylon. They were forbidden from seeing each other by their families, but since they lived in adjoining homes they were able to communicate through a crack in the wall. The two made a plan to run off and elope. However, when Thisbe arrives at the agreed-upon location, she is frightened by a lioness, whose bloody jaws are evidence of a recent kill, and runs away in terror, leaving her cloak behind. When Pyramus arrives he sees the cloak, which is stained by blood from the lioness's mouth, and believes Thisbe is dead. He stabs himself in his grief, as does Thisbe when she returns only to find her lover's dead body. This story was part of the inspiration for Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and is performed by Bottom and the other mechanicals as part of Theseus's wedding celebrations in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

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