Midsummer Night’s Dream

Titania, Queen of the Fairies

No written source for the plot has been found for this play and it seems that the plot is Shakespeare’s original. However, there are influences from following: “Theseus and Hippolyta” from Plutarch’s Lives (c.46-120) that is from Thomas North‘s translation published in 1579, and Geoffrey Chaucer, (c.1340-1400) who wrote “The Canterbury Tales” in particular “The Knight’s Tale” (1400) probably sourced for the story of “Pyramus and Thisbe” and the name of Titania. Also aspects of Ovid (43 BC- AD18) found in “Metamorphoses” (Arthur Golding‘s English translation in 1567 dedicated to the Earl of Oxford) Oberon “Huon of Bordeau”, a 13th-century French adventure tale translated by Lord Berners (1534). The play was probably written from 1593-95 with later editions that include that first registered on the 8th of October, 1600 (Q1) with other editions in 1619 (Q2), and 1623 (F1). So, presumably the play written sometime between 1590 to 1596 and might have been commissioned to celebrate the marriage of someone at those times who intended to tie the knot. We must presume that the persons for whom this masque was written would also have some knowledge, interest and belief in English folklore, astrology and Greek mythology. Furthermore, that some aspect of the character’s lives or appearance parallels the couples for whom it was intended. The most obvious candidates so far suggested by the Shakespearean scholar A.L. Rowse being the Earl of Southampton’s mother, Mary Wriotheseley, the Countess of Southampton to Sir Thomas Heneage, Treasurer of the Chamber in May 1954. However, some additional research suggests other possibilities since the text specifies the night of a new Moon at midsummer; for example the wedding of Elizabeth Carey and Thomas Berkley (19/02/1596), that of William Stanley and the Earl of Oxford’s daughter, Elizabeth de Vere (26/01/1595) or that of Henry Percy and Dorothy Devereux in or around late 1594. The only new Moon to occur exactly at Midsummer was in 1594, so perhaps Edmund Spenser’s wedding to Elizabeth Boyle would be another suitable candidate. However, it seems highly unlikely that the play would have been written before that of Romeo & Juliet because the masque of “Pyramus & Thisbe” is a self-deprecating retrospective allusion to those lover’s dilemmas. David Wiles (Shakespeare’s Almanac ISDN 0859913988) suggests a betrothal ceremony of William Stanley and Elizabeth de Vere took place at the Savoy Chapel in the presence of the Queen but an official ceremony took place four days later at Greenwich followed by a reception at Burghley House. The poet and writing master John Davies of Hereford (1565-1618) wrote the “Epithalamion” for that occasion (English Epithalamies) and in his “Scourge of Folly” makes reference to Shakespeare as “our English Terence”. The original text for Midsummer Night’s Dream as a private masque was enlarged upon for public performance at some later date. However, for interesting comparisons in terms of plot and symbolism we cannot ignore Ben Jonson’s “Hymeneai” and John Donne’s own “Epithalamium”, in which he referred to his own marriage that took place on the 11th June that year (St. Barnabus’ Day 1594). Yet the wedding dates for those others suggested above are contradictory to the numerous chronological and character allusions in the text and some aspects of the Midwinter, St. Valentine’s Day, Midsummer and Mayday themes.

Bottom transformed into an ass

The Summer Solstice

The initial scene takes place in Athens and sets the stage or background of the theme prior to the royal marriage of the Greek hero Theseus to the Amazonian Queen Hippolyta due to take place on the next New Moon. This parallels an actual marriage between the god-daughter of Queen Elizabeth (Elizabeth Carey-grand-daughter to the Lord Chamberlain). The love-conflict occurs due to a magic potion employed by Puck which has disastrous if not amusing consequences. At the court of the Athenian Duke comes a certain Egeus who bemoans his daughter, Hermia who refuses to marry Demetrius (her father’s choice) because she is really in love with Lysander. According to the law of the time a maid who refuses the match of her father must either be killed or take holy orders and become a nun. Lysander pleads his case and points out that Demetrius is actually in love with another, namely Helena. Lysander and Hermia plan to meet in a forest grove outside Athens and secretly elope. They foolishly divulge their plans to Helena who wishing to gain favour with Demetrius secretly reveals the lovers’ intended rendezvous, hoping that he will come and assent to their union. Meanwhile back at the palace a play is being rehearsed for the benefit of the wedding feast of Theseus and Hippolyta.
We are then introduced to the characters of Bottom who plays the part of the tragic hero Pyramus in the theatrical sub-plot. With a little magic from Puck he is given an ass’s head to wear. Next we are presented with the magical intrigues of Puck and the players Oberon and Titania (King & Queen of the fairies), who are quarrelling over the fate of a little Indian changeling boy. Oberon conspires with Puck charging him to find a magical flower (“Love-in-Idleness), which he hopes to put on the eyelids of Titania, only freeing her from this charm when she has surrendered the changeling to him as a page-boy. The potion made from this flower is to be applied to the eyelids of someone while asleep. On awaking the first person they lay their eyes on becomes the sole object of their love and affection. Puck mistakenly applies the potion to Lysander’s eyes making him fall hopelessly in love with Helena. Hermia, meanwhile awakes to find herself alone and Titania awakens to the sight of Bottom who has been magically imbued with an ass’s head. Helena thinks Lysander is parodying or mocking her and withdraws. Lysander and Demetrius decide on a duel to decide the affections of their loved ones, but Puck stalls this with a thick, magical mist which makes the antagonists delay the fight. While Demetrius sleeps Oberon places the antidote on the eyes of Lysander and instructs Puck to hasten Helena to the scene. Similarly, while Bottom, complete with ass’s head is asleep with Titania, the King undoes the charm and they are reconciled. Bottom awakens, and recalling the amours of the Queen thinks it has all been a strange dream and returns to the business of the performance of the play. Theseus and Hippolyta enter to find Hermia with Lysander, Helena with Demetrius in perfect accord.

The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


Website: www.qudosacademy.org

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