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A Midsummer Night's Dream

by William Shakespeare

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Student Question

How does Shakespeare's title, A Midsummer Night's Dream, reflect Elizabethan beliefs about Midsummer's Eve?

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Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream seems ostensibly to be set in May, as May Day is mentioned in the play, but the themes of the play, along with its title, indicate that Midsummer's Eve is really what is being referred to. It has long been believed that during the time of the solstice, the boundaries between the human world and the world of the fairies was particularly thin. At the solstice, when the two worlds meet, fairies can meddle in the lives of humans, particularly when those humans wander into what might be considered the fairies' domain. This played into the Elizabethan concept that midsummer was a time of romance, when the turn of the season and the influence of the fairies could magically influence the lives of humans. We certainly see this idea utilized in A Midsummer Night's Dream, a comedy within which the power of the fairies influences the human characters by manipulating their dreams.

At Midsummer, people in the Elizabethan age would expect to spend long nights outside, celebrating with bonfires and other celebrations thought to be remnants of England's pagan past. Moreover, the belief in fairies—in the sense of the Celtic fey people, dangerous and mysterious residents of Otherworld—was strong in the British Isles until the nineteenth century. Shakespeare's audience would not have interpreted the fairy court in this play as simple figures of whimsy. The power of fairies, and their capacity to involve themselves in human lives and human fates, would have been at the forefront of their minds. Any interaction with fairies could have the potential to go badly wrong, as it threatens to do for Bottom. Ultimately, however, this play ends happily with several romances having been successfully brought to fruition, in keeping with the concept of midsummer as a time of fertility and lovemaking—and a touch of magic.

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