A Midsummer Night's Dream is a romantic comedy by William Shakespeare written sometime in the mid-1590s. It depicts the adventures of four young lovers and a group of amateur actors in a moonlit forest, and their interactions with the fairies who inhabit it. Today, the play is one of Shakespeare's most popular and is performed across the world.
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 an aristocratic wedding; numerous such weddings took place in 1596, while others suggest it was written for the Queen to celebrate the feast day of St. John, but no concrete evidence exists to link the play with either of them. In either case, it would also have been performed at The Theatre, and, later, The Globe in London.
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. A further, frequently ignored source is The Knight's Tale in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.
The play features three interlocking plots, connected by a celebration of the wedding of Duke Theseus of Athens and the Amazonian queen Hippolyta.
In the opening scene, Hermia refuses to comply with her father Egeus's wish for her to marry his chosen man, Demetrius; in response, Egeus quotes before Theseus an ancient Athenian law whereby a daughter must marry the suitor chosen by her father, or else face death or lifelong chastity worshipping Diana as a nun. Hermia and her lover Lysander therefore decide to elope by escaping through the forest at night. Hermia informs her best friend Helena, but Helena has recently been rejected by Demetrius and decides to win back his favor by revealing the plan to him. Demetrius, followed doggedly by Helena, chases Hermia, who, in turn, chases Lysander, from whom she becomes separated.
Meanwhile, Oberon, king of the fairies, and his queen, Titania, arrive in the same forest to attend Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding. Oberon and Titania are estranged because Titania refuses to give her Indian page-boy to Oberon for use as his 'Knight' or henchman', since the child's mother was one of Titania's worshippers. Oberon seeks to punish Titania's disobedience and recruits the mischievous Puck (also called Hobgoblin and Robin Goodfellow) to help him apply a magical juice from a flower called "love-in-idleness," which makes the victim fall in love with the first living thing they see when they wake up. Oberon applies the juice to Titania in order to distract her and force her to give up the page-boy.
Things then become more complex when Oberon encounters the Athenian lovers and tells Puck to use the magic flower to help them too. Due to Puck's errors, Hermia's two lovers temporarily turn against her in favor of Helena. The four pursue and quarrel with each other all night, losing themselves in the dark and in the maze of their romantic entanglements.
Meanwhile, a band of 'rude mechanicals' (lower-class laborers) have arranged to perform a crude play about Pyramus and Thisbe for Theseus's wedding, and venture into the forest, near Titania's bower, for their rehearsal. Nick Bottom, a stage-struck weaver, is spotted by Puck, who transforms his head into that of an ass (donkey). Titania is awoken by Bottom's singing, and she immediately falls in love with him. She treats him as if he is a nobleman and lavishes attention upon him. While in this state of devotion, she encounters Oberon and casually gives him the Indian boy.
Having achieved his goals, Oberon releases Titania and orders Puck to remove the ass's head from Bottom. The magical enchantment is removed from Lysander but is allowed to remain on Demetrius, so that he may reciprocate Helena's love. The fairies then disappear, and Theseus and Hippolyta arrive on the scene, during an early morning hunt. They wake the lovers and, since Demetrius no longer loves Hermia, Theseus over-rules Egeus's demands and arranges a group wedding. The lovers decide that the night's events must have been a dream. After they all exit, Bottom awakes, and he too decides that he must have experienced a dream "past the wit of man".
In Athens, Theseus, Hippolyta and the lovers watch the mechanicals perform 'Pyramus and Thisbe'. It is ridiculous and badly performed but gives everyone pleasure regardless, and after the mechanicals dance a 'Bergomask' (rustic dance), everyone retires to bed. Finally, as night falls, Oberon and Titania bless the house, its occupants, and the future children of the newlyweds, and Puck delivers an epilogue to the audience asking for applause.
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 1971. 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.
The Shakespeare play has inspired several movies. The following are the best known.
Incidental music: 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. Mendelssohn composed the ballet version as well (which contains the famous Wedding March (leaving of the church) performed at weddings around the world).
The ballet was later revived by the great choreographer Marius Petipa for the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg, Russia with additional music and adaptations to Mendelssohn's score by Léon Minkus. The revival premiered July 14, 1876.
Opera: 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.
Semi-opera: The Fairy-Queen by Henry Purcell consists of a set of masques meant to go between acts of the play, as well as some minimal rewriting of the play to be current to 17th century audiences.
Anime: In 2005, xxxHOLiC - A Midsummer's Night Dream was released in theaters. It shared slight similarities with the play.
Disney shorts: A Midsummer Night's Dream was recently adapted into a Disney short starring Mickey Mouse as Lysander, Minnie Mouse as Hermia, Donald Duck as Demetrius, and Daisy Duck as Helena. Featured in Disney's "Mickey Mouse Works" and "House of Mouse"
Disney's animated series "Gargoyles" featured many characters from Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, including Oberon, Titania, and, most prominently, Puck. In this series, Puck actually takes the form of Owen, loyal assistant to the main villain Xanatos. Later, Puck becomes the tutor for Xanatos' quarter-fae son, Alex. He is wily, sprightly, and willing to have fun at the expense of others.
Get Over It: The 2001 film stars Kirsten Dunst (Kelly Woods/Helena), Ben Foster (Berke Landers/Lysander), Melissa Sagemiller (Allison McAllister/Hermia) and Shane West (Bentley 'Striker' Scrumfeld/Demetrius) in a "teen adaptation" of Shakespeare's play. The characters are set in high school, and in addition to some similarities in plot, there is a sub-plot involving the main characters acting in a musical production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream".
The Suite Life of Zack and Cody: There was an episode in the 2nd season called "A Midsummer's Nightmare", in which the title twins' school put on this play, but it ends up a wreck because some students' characters have to kiss another student's boyfriend/girlfriend.