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A Midsummer Night's Dream

by William Shakespeare

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How do Elizabethan Midsummer Night celebrations relate to events in A Midsummer Night's Dream?

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Midsummer Eve refers to the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. This was celebrated by pagan cultures before the advent of Christianity in England, but then Christianized as St. John's Day, honoring John the Baptist in the liturgical calendar. Although the festival celebrates the longest day of the year, this means that it also responds to the waning of the sun, the realization that the days are starting to shorten. One of the main elements of the celebration was lighting bonfires, a form of sympathetic magic meant to influence to sun to remain strong until the harvest. The celebration was also connected to marriage and fertility. A child conceived in the summer would be born in Spring, a time when food would be plentiful. Another feature of the celebration was warding off evil spirits held to roam the woods at this time.

Several elements of the play reflect this festival tradition. First, we have the spirits, in the form of fairies. Second, we have several elements of fertility rituals surfacing in the marriages and prominence of themes of love and sexuality. We have the festive atmosphere in Theseus's wedding and the play of the mechnicals. On a more pragmatic level, the long days and warm weather are essential to the setting; the woods would not be a pleasant or magical place on a rainy winter day.

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Midsummer Night celebrates the Summer Solstice, which marks the longest day of the year, and the festivities that took place during Elizabethan times have their origins in ancient pagan traditions. Dancing, bonfires, and paying respect to the sun all played a part in these celebrations.

In Shakespeare's comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream, the events that occur in the forest outside of Athens echo the disordered chaos of pagan rites while focusing on the potential of the natural world in which great changes can take place. For example, at Oberon's command, Bottom turns into an ass, a physical transformation that can only take place at this time of year in this kind of magical environment. As well, in Shakespeare's interpretation of Midsummer Night, the supernatural atmosphere means it is actually possible to employ magic to cause someone to fall in love, even a fairy queen like Titania.

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Midsummer's Eve, the celebration of the longest day of the year, has a long history in England and is intertwined with the country's folklore

According to A Midsummer's Night Dream: Texts and Contexts, edited by Gail Paster and Skiles Howard, two festivals blended together in Elizabethan England: the six weeks of May Day activities, also called Maygames, which culminated in Midsummer's Eve. But while the Maygames celebrated the natural world and fertility, Midsummer's Eve focused on the supernatural. It was a time of magic, fantasy and even madness, a night when fairies were thought to dance in meadows, sometimes tricking mortals. 

It's easy to see how this ancient holiday and the fairy stories that went along with were incorporated into Shakespeare's play. For Eliabethans, midsummer faeries and sprites like Puck would have been as familiar as Santa and his elves to us. Audiences were likely to delight in a story in which fairies and mischevious spirits quarreled with each other and interfered in comic ways in the love lives of mortals passing though their woods. 

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