StageNotes: A Midsummer Night's Dream

A Glimpse into the inspiration behind A Midsummer Night’s Dream

By Skye Robinson Hillis, Assistant Dramaturg

Pyramus and Thisbe. Artist: Lucas van Leyden, 1489-1533
Pyramus and Thisbe. Artist: Lucas van Leyden, 1489-1533

Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream at some point between 1594 and 1596, around the same time as Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, and The Comedy of Errors. England was recovering from a season of natural disasters, and London’s theatres were just re-opening following a forced closure during the plague. The play may well have been composed to commemorate a royal or aristocratic wedding, though it cannot be confirmed whose. The play takes us on a journey from the ordered court of Athens a few days before a wedding, out into the forest beyond, and back to civilization in time for the celebration.

The Dream is one of only two plays in which Shakespeare largely creates his own plot, drawing piecemeal from a number of sources, as he vividly delineates a number of different realms. We begin in Athens at the Court of Theseus, just days away from his upcoming nuptials to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. Their story is drawn from Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, a clear influence for Shakespeare as he revisits part of this story in his last play, Two Noble Kinsmen.

Four young Athenians – Hermia, Lysander, Helena, and Demetrius –caught up in their own romantic tribulations, first transport us from Athens into the forest outside the city. Deep in this enchanted wood, Shakespeare introduces us to the fairy realm, whose rulers, Oberon and Titania, are embroiled in a tempestuous year-long conflict concerning a young changeling boy, i.e. a mortal child brought into the fairy realm. This royal conflict has wrought havoc upon the land, causing destructive changes in the weather. Elizabethan astrologist Simon Forman recalled this time in history, from which Shakespeare likely drew his inspiration: “June and July were very wet and wonderfull cold like winter, that the 10 dae of Julii many did syt by the fyer, yt was so cold; an so was yt in Maye and June…There were many gret fludes this summer, and about Michelmas, thorowe the abundance of raine that fell sodeinly.”

To celebrate the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta, numerous local bands of amateur Athenian thespians are invited to audition a play to be performed at court. The play’s Mechanicals, a group of working class Athenians, have decided to retell the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, whose story is drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. These star-crossed lovers, not at all unlike Romeo and Juliet, meet a heart-breaking end due to a misunderstanding that involves, of all things, a lion. There was, at the time, an anecdote from the Scottish court of King James circulating London. At Prince Harry’s Baptismal feast, a lavish chariot had been drawn by a moor instead of a lion, for fear the lion would prove too alarming for the crowd.

Out of these diverse worlds – the aristocratic court, the troubled young lovers, the fairies, and the Mechanicals – Shakespeare wove what many consider his most perfectly constructed play, and one of his strongest investigations of love and madness; “A visionary play,” scholar Harold Bloom calls it, due in part to “its unusual variety of meters, verse forms, and the lunar spirit that dominates the play.”