A Midsummer Night's Dream

A Midsummer Night's Dream is a romantic comedy by William Shakespeare written in the mid-1590s.



Missing image
Study for The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania by Joseph Noel Paton

The play features three interlocking plots, all of which are connected by a celebration of the wedding of Duke Theseus of Athens and the Amazonian Hippolyta. Two young Athenian men, Lysander and Demetrius, are both in love with the same woman, Hermia; Hermia herself loves Lysander, but her friend, Helena, is in love with Demetrius. When the father of Hermia forbids her to marry Lysander, the four pursue each other into the woods around the city, losing themselves in the dark and in the maze of their romantic entanglements. As usual with Shakespeare, the comedy has a bitter-sweet note, when Hermia's two lovers both, temporarily, turn against her in favor of Helena.

Meanwhile, Oberon, king of the fairies, and his estranged wife, Titania, arrive in the same woods to attend the upcoming nuptials. Titania refuses to lend her Indian page-boy to Oberon for use as his 'henchman', and Oberon seeks to punish her for her disobedience.

At the same time, a band of 'mechanicals' (lower-class artisans) have arranged to perform a crude pageant on the theme of Pyramus and Thisbe to stage for the wedding festivities, and venture into the forest for their rehearsal. Most notable among them is Nick Bottom the Weaver, one of Shakespeare's most admired comic creations.

Oberon recruits the mischievous Puck (also called Hobgoblin and Robin Goodfellow) to help him regain Titania's devotion, but his simultaneous attempt to help the young lovers goes wrong, resulting in confusion. Bottom finds his head transformed into that of an ass, and the fairy queen is made to fall in love with him.

Date and sources

It is not known exactly when A Midsummer Night's Dream was written or first performed, but it is assumed to be between 1594 and 1596. Some have theorized that the play might have been written for performance at the wedding of Sir Thomas Berkeley and Elizabeth Carey, in February, 1596.

There is no known source for the plot of A Midsummer Night's Dream, although individual elements can be traced to classical literature; for example, the story of Pyramus and Thisbe is told in Ovid's Metamorphoses and the transformation of Bottom into an ass is descended from Apuleius' The Golden Ass; Shakespeare would have studied both texts at school. In addition, Shakespeare would have been working on Romeo and Juliet at about the same time that he wrote the Dream, and it is possible to see Pyramus and Thisbe as a comic reworking of the tragic play.

The Dream on the stage

After the English Renaissance, A Midsummer Night's Dream was never performed in its entirety until the 1840s. Instead, it was heavily adapted in such forms as Henry Purcell's musical adaptation The Fairy Queen (1692), or in shortened versions that turned Bottom into the main character.

The Victorian Dream

In 1840, Madame Vestris at Covent Garden returned the play to the stage with a relatively full text, but padded it out greatly with musical sequences and balletic dances. Vestris took the role of Oberon, and for the next seventy years, Oberon and Puck would always be played by women. After the success of Vestris' production, nineteenth century theatre continued to treat the Dream as an opportunity for huge spectacle, often with a cast numbering nearly one hundred. Huge, detailed sets were created for the palace and the forest, and the fairies tended to be envisaged as gossamer-winged ballerinas. The much-loved overture by Felix Mendelssohn was always used throughout this period, with the text often being cut to provide greater space for music and dance.

Granville-Barker, Max Reinhardt and after

In the early twentieth century, a reaction against this huge spectacle emerged. Innovative director Harley Granville-Barker introduced in 1914 the modern way of staging the Dream: he removed the huge casts and Mendelssohn, using instead Elizabethan folk music. He replaced the huge sets with a simple system of patterned curtains. He used a completely original vision of the fairies, seeing them as robotic insectoid creatures based on Cambodian idols. This increased simplicity and emphasis on directorial imagination has dominated subsequent Dreams on the stage.

Max Reinhardt staged A Midsummer Night's Dream thirteen times between 1905 and 1934, introducing a revolving set. After he fled Germany he devised a more spectacular outdoor version at the Hollywood Bowl, in September 1934. The shell was removed and replaced by a "forest" planted in tons of dirt hauled in especially for the event, and a trestle was constructed from the hills to the stage for the wedding procession inserted between Acts IV and V crossed a trestle with torches down the hillside. The cast included John Lodge, William Farnum, Sterling Holloway, 18-year-old Olivia de Havilland, and Mickey Rooney, with Erich Wolfgang Korngold's orchestrations of Mendelssohn. (The young Austrian composer would go on to make a Hollywood career.) On the strength of this production, Warner Brothers signed Reinhardt to direct a filmed version, Hollywood's first Shakespeare event since Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford's Taming of the Shrew (1929). Rooney (Puck) and De Havilland (Hermia) were the only hold-overs from the cast.

Brook and after

Another landmark production was that of Peter Brook in 1970. Brook swept away every tradition associated with the play, staging it in a blank white box, in which masculine fairies engaged in circus tricks such as trapeze artistry. Brook also introduced the subsequently popular idea of doubling Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania, as if to suggest that the world of the fairies is a mirror version of the world of the mortals. Since Brook's production, directors have felt free to use their imaginations freely to decide for themselves what the play's story means, and to represent that visually on stage. In particular, there has been an increased amount of sexuality on stage, as many directors see the 'palace' as a symbol of restraint and repression, while the 'wood' can be a symbol of wild, unrestrained sexuality, which is both liberating and terrifying.

Movie adaptations

The Shakespeare play has inspired several movies. The following are the best known.

Other adaptations

An overture and incidental music for the play were composed by Felix Mendelssohn in 1826 and were used in most stage versions through the nineteenth century.

The play was adapted into an opera, with music by Benjamin Britten and libretto by Britten and Peter Pears. The opera was first performed on June 1, 1960, at Aldeburgh.

A Midsummer Night's Dream was adapted for comics by Neil Gaiman for his series The Sandman. The adaptation won several awards, and is distinguished by being the only comic that will ever win a World Fantasy Award (see Dream Country)

External links

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de:Ein Sommernachtstraum es:El sueño de una noche de verano fr:Le Songe d'une nuit d'été nl:A Midsummer Night's Dream sl:Sen kresne noči sv:En midsommarnattsdröm


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