A Midsummer Night's Dream

Creation of the play

A Midsummer Night’s Dream was probably created in 1595 or 1596. The play cannot be earlier than the baptismal feast for Prince Henry, eldest son of James VI of Scotland, in 1594. An account of the celebrations, A True Repertorie, was entered on the Stationers’ Register the same year and became one of Shakespeare’s sources. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is mentioned by Francis Meres in Palladis Tamia, published in 1598, and must have been performed by then. It is usually dated to the same period in the mid-1590s as Shakespeare’s Richard II, Romeo and Juliet, and Loves’s Labour’s Lost, all of which are similar in style.

Early performances

The title-page of the first quarto of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, published 1600, states that the play ‘hath been sundry times publickley acted’ by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Its first public performances were probably at the Theatre. However, it is generally agreed that the play was created to celebrate a wedding in a noble household.

There are two such occasions appropriate for this first performance. One is the wedding in 1595 of Elizabeth Vere, Lord Burghley’s granddaughter, to William Earl of Derby at Greenwich Palace. The other, considered more likely, is the wedding in 1596 of Elizabeth Carey to Thomas, son of Lord Berkeley at the Blackfriars house of the bride’s father, Sir George Carey. Elizabeth Carey was the granddaughter of Henry, Lord Hunsdon, Lord Chamberlain to Queen Elizabeth. Lord Hunsdon was the patron of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s company. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was probably performed at court on 1 January 1604.

Publication in quarto and folio

A Midsummer Night’s Dream appeared in four editions before 1642.

  • First quarto, 1600. Thought to have been printed from the final state (rather than a fair copy) of Shakespeare’s foul papers.
  • Second quarto, dated 1600 on the title-page but published in 1619. Printed from the first quarto.
  • First Folio, 1623. Printed from the second quarto, apparently annotated from a promptbook.
  • Second Folio, 1632. Printed from the first folio.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream was entered on the Stationers’ Register by Thomas Fisher on 8 October 1600. It was printed for him by Richard Bradock that same year. The second quarto appeared with the imprint ‘printed by Iames Roberts’ dated 1600. It was, in fact, one of a group of ten plays printed by William Jaggard for Thomas Pavier in 1619. These were apparently intended to form a collection of plays attributed to Shakespeare. The King’s Men may have protested against Pavier’s intentions, for the Lord Chamberlain subsequently wrote to the Stationers’ Company demanding that no more plays belonging to them should be printed except with their consent.

British Library copies of A Midsummer Night's Dream contains detailed bibliographic descriptions of all the quarto copies of the play.

Shakespeare’s sources

There are no specific sources for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but Shakespeare did draw on several works for various aspects of the play.

  • Plutarch, translated by Sir Thomas North, The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes (1579). Shakespeare took both Theseus and Hippolyta from this translation of Plutarch.

    Theseus, Duke of Athens, Plutarch, The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes
    Theseus, Duke of Athens, Plutarch, The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes, 1579. British Library, C.38.k.24, p.1 Larger image
  • Geoffrey Chaucer, ‘The Knight’s Tale’ from the Canterbury Tales, in The Workes of Geffrey Chaucer (1561). Shakespeare drew on Chaucer for some of his language, as well as the characters of Theseus and Hippolyta.
  • Ovid, translated by Arthur Golding, The .XV. Bookes of P. Ouidius Naso, Entytuled Metamorphosis (1567). This includes the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, and was also a source for the hunting scene in act 4.
  • The Boke of Duke Huon of Burdeuxe (1534), translated by John Bourchier, Lord Berners. Shakespeare’s Oberon was influenced by this source.
  • Apuleius, translated by William Adlington, The. XI. Bookes of the Golden Asse (1566). This provided Shakespeare with some aspects of Bottom’s transformation with an Ass’s head, and Titania’s infatuation with him.
  • Reginald Scot, The Discouerie of Witchcraft (1584). The source for Shakespeare’s Puck, and some aspects of Bottom’s transformation.

    Robin Goodfellow, or Puck. Reginald Scot, The Discoverie of Witchcraft
    Robin Goodfellow, or Puck. Reginald Scot, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, 1584. British Library, C.123.c.10, p. 85. Larger image

  • Edmund Spenser, The Shepheardes Calender (1579). Spenser’s work influenced Shakespeare’s language and his depiction of the friendly (rather than evil) fairies.
  • Seneca His Tenne Tragedies (1581), edited by Thomas Newton. Shakespeare used Seneca’s plays Medea and Hippolytus in particular for aspects of the Helena and Demetrius love-plot.

Story of the play

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is set in Athens and the surrounding woods.

(Act 1) In Athens, Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, look forward to celebrating their marriage. Theseus decrees that Hermia must marry Demetrius, although she is in love with Lysander. Hermia and Lysander agree to run away together in secret. Helena loves Demetrius, although he is in love with Hermia. She learns of the plans of Hermia and Lysander and decides to tell Demetrius. Bottom the weaver and his fellow craftsmen rehearse the play about Pyramus and Thisbe that they hope to present during the marriage celebrations.

(Act 2) In the woods outside Athens, night falls. The King and Queen of the Fairies have quarrelled. Oberon sends Puck for a love-potion, with which he can take revenge on Titania. He sees Helena unhappily pursuing Demetrius, and instructs Puck to use the love-potion on him. While Titania sleeps, Oberon uses the love-potion on her so that she will fall in love with the first creature she sees on waking. Hermia and Lysander are lost in the woods. Tired, they sleep and Puck uses the love-potion on Lysander by mistake. He awakes, sees Helena and instantly falls in love with her.

John Gielgud as Oberon, 'I know a bank where the wild thyme blows',
Listen  A Midsummer Night's Dream. Act 2, Scene 1. British Library Sound Archive, 1931

(Act 3) Bottom and his fellows meet for another rehearsal. Puck transforms Bottom with an ass’s head, and the others run away in fear. Titania awakes to see Bottom and is immediately enamoured. Oberon and Puck see Demetrius pursuing Hermia and discover Puck’s error. Hermia flees and the tired Demetrius lies down to sleep. Oberon uses the love-potion on Demetrius just as Helena arrives, pursued by Lysander. Demetrius awakes, and falls in love with Helena. Hermia enters to find Demetrius and Lysander quarrelling over Helena. She and Helena quarrel as well. Oberon commands Puck to put things right. Puck leads the lovers through the woods until all are tired, once he has Hermia alongside Lysander and Helena alongside Demetrius, he lets them settle down to sleep. Puck uses an antidote to the love-potion on Lysander.

John Gielgud as Puck, 'My mistress with a monster is in love',
Listen  A Midsummer Night's Dream. Act 3, Scene 2. British Library Sound Archive, 1931

John Gielgud as Oberon, 'Thou see’st these lovers seek a place to fight',
Listen  A Midsummer Night's Dream. Act 3, Scene 2. British Library Sound Archive, 1931

(Act 4) Titania dallies with Bottom, still wearing his ass’s head. They fall asleep together. Oberon uses the antidote to the love-potion on Titania. She awakes and is repelled by Bottom. Oberon and Titania are reconciled. Day breaks as Theseus and Hippolyta arrive with a hunting party. They discover and awake the sleeping pairs of lovers. Theseus decrees that Hermia will marry Lysander, and Helena will marry Demetrius. Bottom, restored by Puck to his natural appearance, awakes. He is convinced that his amorous adventures with Titania were a dream.

(Act 5) Back in Athens, the three couples, Theseus and Hippolyta, Hermia and Lysander, and Helena and Demetrius have each been married. Bottom and his fellow craftsmen play the story of Pyramus and Thisbe before the newly-weds. The three couples leave to enjoy their wedding-nights. Oberon, Titania, and Puck come to bless the house and all its occupants.

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