Although many of William Shakespeare ’s plays are set in distant lands or ancient times, in many respects they are very much about the Elizabethan society in which Shakespeare lived and worked. Queen Elizabeth I was the monarch for much of his life and most of his comedies were written...
Although many of William Shakespeare’s plays are set in distant lands or ancient times, in many respects they are very much about the Elizabethan society in which Shakespeare lived and worked. Queen Elizabeth I was the monarch for much of his life and most of his comedies were written during her reign, while the majority of the tragedies were written after her death, during the reign of James I. This play, written and performed for her in 1603, was the last of his plays performed for her, as she passed away the same year. Shakespeare himself died in 1616.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream takes place in a fantastic interpretation of ancient Greek society, where the mortal realm governed by a noble duke, Theseus of Athens, is paralleled by the magical realm over which Oberon and Titania rule. Although the characters are supposedly Greeks, they would have been readily recognizable by the audience attending the play. It is widely believed that an elite Englishman, Lord Berkeley, commissioned the play for the wedding of his son, Thomas, to Elizabeth Carey. Thus, the emphasis on the preparations for Theseus’s and Hippolyta’s wedding, and the ultimate inclusion of the other couples in a huge wedding celebration, is consistent with the play’s genesis.
Not all the characters are elites, however, and in typical productions of the play, the audience would have included ordinary people who paid a minimal entrance fee and stood in the pit, an open area near the stage. Shakespeare often included workers or farmer laborers in his plays. Here, the “rude mechanicals” have a definite purpose within the play: they are rehearsing for a production of another play, Pyramus and Thisbe, which they will perform at the wedding. These rehearsals provide an opportunity for Shakespeare both to extend the classical Grecian theme and to poke fun at intellectuals who take pride in their knowledge of such material. While the second play is supposed to be tragedy, the tradesmen’s interpretation turns it into comedy.