Topic outline

  • Introduction

    Probably composed in 1595 or 1596, A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of Shakespeare's early comedies but can be distinguished from his other works in this group by describing it specifically as the Bard's original wedding play. Most scholars believe that Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night's Dream as a light entertainment to accompany a marriage celebration; and while the identity of the historical couple for whom it was meant has never been conclusively established, there is good textual and background evidence available to support this claim. At the same time, unlike the vast majority of his works (including all of his comedies), in concocting this story Shakespeare did not rely directly upon existing plays, narrative poetry, historical chronicles or any other primary source materials, making it a truly original piece. Most critics agree that if a youthful Shakespeare was not at his best in this play, he certainly enjoyed himself in writing it.

    Although the story in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is considered to be the original product of the playwright’s imagination, the range of references in the play is among its most extraordinary attributes: Shakespeare draws on sources as various as Greek mythology (Theseus, for instance, is loosely based on the Greek hero of the same name, and the play is peppered with references to Greek gods and goddesses); English country fairy lore (the character of Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, was a popular figure in sixteenth-century stories); and the theatrical practices of Shakespeare’s London (the craftsmen’s play refers to and parodies many conventions of English Renaissance theater, such as men playing the roles of women). Further, many of the characters are drawn from diverse texts: Titania comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Oberon may have been taken from the medieval romance Huan of Bordeaux, translated by Lord Berners in the mid-1530s.

    The main plot of Midsummer is a complex contraption that involves two sets of couples (Hermia and Lysander, and Helena and Demetrius) whose romantic cross-purposes are complicated still further by their entrance into the play's fairyland woods where the King and Queen of the Fairies (Oberon and Titania) preside and the impish folk character of Puck or Robin Goodfellow plies his trade. Less subplot than a brilliant satirical device, another set of characters—Bottom the weaver and his bumptious band of "rude mechanicals"—stumble into the main doings when they go into the same enchanted woods to rehearse a play that is very loosely (and comically) based on the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe, their hilarious home-spun piece taking up Act V of Shakespeare's comedy.

    A Midsummer Night's Dream contains some wonderfully lyrical expressions of lighter Shakespearean themes, most notably those of love, dreams, and the stuff of both, the creative imagination itself. Indeed, close scrutiny of the text by twentieth-century critics has led to a significant upward revision in the play's status, one that overlooks the silliness of its story and concentrates upon its unique lyrical qualities. If A Midsummer Night's Dream can be said to convey a message, it is that the creative imagination is in tune with the supernatural world and is best used to confer the blessings of Nature (writ large) upon mankind and marriage.