A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of Shakespeare's early "festive comedies," written around 1595-6. Despite the many thematic references to "dreams" and the fantastic setting of the Athenian forest, the play also contains a fair amount of commentary on Shakespeare's contemporary English world. The play's title, for instance, refers to an English holiday custom: on "Midsummer Eve," or the night of the summer solstice on June 23, English men and women would spend the night outdoors around bonfires, telling supernatural tales of fairies and witchcraft. The play not only suggests this holiday, but also refers to "the rite of May," or "maying" - a similar English tradition that took place on the first night of May, when young men and women would engage in singing, dancing (and possibly more amorous pursuits) in the woods outside their towns. In other words, the play's title and plot recall English traditions in a way that suggests a combination of Halloween (Puck and the fairies) and a big rave (with love-juice instead of Ecstasy). At the time that the play was written, these traditions had come under attack by the English Puritans, who thought that they were "pagan" practices that gave the people too much opportunity for mischief. By making the play have a happy ending after all its midsummer madness, Shakespeare might seem to be defending such traditions against their critics, suggesting that they are actually benign, or even desirable.
It is thought that Shakespeare wrote this play to be performed first at the country house of a young nobleman, as part of his wedding festivities. If this is true, A Midsummer Night's Eve presents an astonishingly complex set of self-referential scenes. When Shakespeare's company performed Act V, for instance, the noble men and women in the first audience of the play would be watching other noble men and women (Hippolyta, Theseus, Helena, Demetrius, Hermia, and Lysander) doing on stage exactly what they themselves were doing in real life: watching a play meant to entertain them at a wedding.
One of the guests at this noble wedding, according to the theory, was Queen Elizabeth I of England - and the play is full of references to her. Both Hippolyta and Titania embody certain aspects of Elizabeth's royal mystique. Hippolyta, as the beautiful "Amazon Queen," recalls Elizabeth's reputation for military prowess, as well as her proud refusal to take a husband. Perhaps the play's notion of a "marriage" between Hippolyta and Theseus was meant to refer to the "League of Amity" signed between Elizabeth of England and the King of France at the time that the play was written. Elizabeth also has much in common with Titania, Queen of Fairies. Shakespeare represents Titania as a great patroness of music, dancing, and the arts, as Elizabeth famously attempted to be. Moreover, the very notion of a "Fairy Queen" refers unmistakably to another famous work of the period, Edmund Spenser's epic, the Faerie Queene, intended as an elaborate celebration of Elizabeth and her court.
Shakespeare's clearest allusion to the royal member of his first audience, however, comes in Act II, Scene 1, when Oberon describes to Puck the fateful flower, "love-in-idleness," that will produce the magic juice. According to the Fairy King, one night in the woods Cupid, "all armed," took aim at a "fair vestal, thronèd by the west." His arrow missed, and pierced the flower instead, while "th'imperial vot'ress passèd on, / In maiden meditation, fancy-free." This is hardly a mere bit of poetic fancy, but instead seems an elaborate compliment to the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth ("vestal" means "virgin"). Not only would Elizabeth avoid Cupid's arrow her entire life (she died proudly unmarried and without children), but she also managed to escape a plotted assassination in 1594. When Shakespeare was writing this play, then, a passage such as this once would not only praise Elizabeth for her famous virginity, but would also celebrate her recent miraculous escape from real physical harm.
Browse all book notes|
Points to Ponder
Did You Know