The Play and its Context:
A Midsummer Night’s Dream was probably composed after August 1594, when, at the baptismal feast of Prince Henry, in Scotland, a chariot was drawn by a blackamoor, rather than a lion, for fear the audience might find it too frightening, or the lion might lose its tameness. The parallels with the Mechanicals’ fear of what a lion among ladies might cause, seem hard to ignore. The academic consensus appears to be that it was published by early 1596, at the latest.
Shakespeare had become a member of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men in the summer of 1594, and so had become much more involved with playing and writing for the group, as evidenced by the sub-plot of the Mechanicals’ Interlude for Theseus and his guests.
Some have suggested that the play might have been written for an aristocratic wedding (for example that of Elizabeth Carey, Lady Berkele. No concrete evidence exists to support this attractive theory. Others suggest that it was written for to celebrate the feast day of St. John.
Shakespeare had completed Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594) . Perhaps the poetry of A Midsummer Night’s Dream owes some of its quality to his work on those poems, and to the set of lyrical plays he produced around this time, including Richard II, Romeo and Juliet,and Love’s Labour’s Lost.
For once, the plot is mainly Shakespeare’s. Of course he uses sources: Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale; North’s translation of Plutarch’s Life of Theseus; Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorpheses provides him with the story of Pyramus and Thisbe; and of course Apuleius’ The Golden Ass for the story of the man transformed into an ass.
But this is really Shakespeare’s story and, as a celebration of young love consecrated in marriage, it seems very likely to be a ‘wedding play’, composed for some wedding. The most likely occasion seems to be the marriage of Elizabeth Carey and Thomas, son of Henry, Lord Berkeley, on 19th February 1596. It is likely that Queen Elizabeth was there – Elizabeth Carey was her god-daughter.
The play is a farce – a farce with fairies. Two sets of lovers run away from parental and civic rule and get lost in the forest, and confused in their love by ill-placed love potions applied by Puck.
The mechanicals have also gone to the forest to rehearse a play for Theseus’ forthcoming marriage to Titania. Their leading man gets transformed into an ass, with whom the Queen of the Fairies falls in love.
The fairies (Oberon and Puck) work hard to make things right. Theseus mollifies the angry father, and the three couples celebrate their marriages together by watching the mechanicals’ ‘Interlude’.
As the couples retire to bed, the fairies return to bless the house, the couples, and their future offspring.
It is all the most sublime nonsense, brought off by the most extraordinary lyric verse. Perhaps the best word to describe the play’s power and popularity is ‘enchantment’.
Needless to say, it is one of the best-loved of Shakespeare’s plays.
C21 performance considerations:
I have been lucky enough to see three enchanting performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I am too young to have seen Peter Brooks’ famous production, but lucky enough to have seen the Lindsay Kemp production (in the Theatre Royal, Brighton) where Titania and Oberon were on stilts, and Puck, if I remember rightly, spent most of his time on a swing. More recently, Propeller’s production in the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh and elsewhere (see review at http://players-shakespeare.com/review-propellers-a-midsummer-nights-dream-and-the-comedy-of-errors/) was equally enchanting. And finally, the recent Globe production, directed by Dominic Drumgoole, with Michelle Terry (now their artistic director), had the required level of enchantment.
The trick for anyone trying to put on this play is to maximise the enchantment. How you do that? I don’t know – I’ve never directed the play – but if you succeed, you will create a magical night of theatre. There are some thoughts in other sections of our edition (see our index) which give some suggestions about how to play some scenes of the play.