“This is magnificent…and it’s true! It never happened, yet it is still true! What magic art is this?”
Robin Goodfellow, Sandman #19
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays and one of my favourites. It is classed as a comedy and is part of the First Folio collection printed after Shakespeare’s death.
Date Written: 1595 or 1596
First performed: 1595 or early 1596
Setting: Athens, Greece
The play consists of four interconnecting plots, all connected to the marriage of Theseus, the Duke of Athens, to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons and takes place in both the forest and in Fairyland. From the start it’s a complex plot, two sets of couples (Hermia & Lysander and Helena & Demetrius), whose romantic affections are complicated enough already, enter the forest and find themselves in the realm of King Oberon and his Fairy Queen Titania. Also entering the forest are a band of amateur actors (known as the Mechanicals) who wish to rehearse their play. Throughout all of this a mischievous fairy known as Puck wreaks havoc and the other fairies play tricks on those who’ve entered as well.
Theseus: Duke of Athens
Hippolyta: Queen of the Amazons, betrothed to Theseus
Philostrate: Master of the Revels
Egeus: father of Hermia, wants her to marry Demetrius
Hermia: daughter of Egeus, in love with Lysander
Helena: in love with Demetrius, Hermia’s friend
Lysander: in love with Hermia at first but later loves Helena and then returns to loving Hermia
Demetrius: initially loves Hermia but later loves Helena
Spirits 1 & 2 (speak only to Puck and Oberon)
Oberon: Titania’s husband and King of the Fairies
Titania: Oberon’s wife and Queen of the Fairies
Robin Goodfellow/Puck: servant to Oberon
Peaseblossom: fairy servant to Titania
Cobweb: fairy servant to Titania
Moth: fairy servant to Titania
Mustardseed: fairy servant to Titania
Peter Quince: carpenter, leads the troupe and plays Prologue
Nick Bottom: weaver, plays Pyramus
Francis Flute: bellows-mender, plays Thisbe
Robin Starveling: tailor, plays Moonshine
Tom Snout: tinker, plays Wall
Snug: joiner, plays Lion
“The course of true love never did run smooth.” (Act I, Scene I)
“Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.” (Act I, Scene I)
“Lord, what fools these mortals be!” (Act III, Scene II)
“Though she be but little, she is fierce!” (Act III, Scene II)
“If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
If you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.” (Act V, Scene I)
1. The mechanicals’ play-within-a-play was performed by the Beatles as part of Around the Beatles, a TV special, broadcast by ITV on 28 April 1964. Paul McCartney played Pyramus, John Lennon was Thisbe, while George Harrison and Ringo Starr played Moonshine and Lion respectfully.
2. Judi Dench enjoys the rare privilege of having played Titania in early youth and relatively old age. She played the role at school in York in the 1940s, on stage and screen for Peter Hall in the 1960s and then again for Hall in 2010 at the Rose Theatre, Kingston.
3. Samuel Pepys, the diarist, saw it on 29 September 1662 and is recorded as hating it, saying “Then to the King’s Theatre, where we saw “Midsummer’s Night’s Dream,” which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life. I saw, I confess, some good dancing and some handsome women, which was all my pleasure.”
4. After the Restoration era, the play was not performed in its entirety until the 1840s.
5. The scholar Harold F Brooks pointed out that the title could be read as “The Dream of a Midsummer Night”, noting that Theseus’s palace is to be sprinkled with the fairies’ field-dew benediction – “It was to dew gathered on May-day morning that magic properties were attributed.” It could therefore be set in May and people are dreaming of midsummer.
6. According to the Rough Guide to Shakespeare, one staging that took place around 1631 at Buckdale, Huntingdonshire broke the Sabbath, causing the actor playing Bottom to be placed in the stocks for 12 hours, still wearing his ass’ head.
7. The 19th century saw a rash of extravagantly designed productions. The most over the top in the UK was probably Charles Kean’s 1856 production at the Princess’s Theatre, which employed the services of 90 tutu-wearing sprites for the finale. The show was also notable for casting an eight-year-old Ellen Terry as Puck.
8. A Midsummer Night’s Dream inspired the musician Felix Mendelssohn. He wrote Wedding March in 1842 and is from his Midsummer Night’s Dream incidental music. This wedding march is very popular to hear in weddings and is often played by using a church pipe organ. Interestingly Mendelssohn was just 17 when he wrote it.
9. The wedding march was very popular after the Princess Royal Victoria chose the music on her wedding on 25 January 1858 with Prince Frederick William of Prussia.
10. If you look at the traditional folklore, there is no name for a fairy queen. Shakespeare took the name Titania from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
11. The two largest moons of Uranus are named after Titania and Oberon. In 1787, British astronomer William Herschel discovered the moons and named them after the King and Queen.
12. A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been the inspiration for classical ballets such as George Balanchine’s two-act ballet of the same name in 1962 and Frederick Ashton’s one-act ballet entitled The Dream in 1964.
13. Aside from in the title, the word ‘midsummer’ does not appear at all in the play.
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