Illustration of a donkey-headed musician in between two white trees

A Midsummer Night's Dream

by William Shakespeare

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History of the Text

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Publication and Performance History: William Shakespeare composed A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the mid-1590s, and it first appeared in folio format in 1600. The first performances would have shortly followed its composition, most likely at an Elizabethan playhouse near London called The Theatre. Because of how The Theatre was built, much of the play’s focus would have been on the actors, their costumes, and the performances; the sets and backdrops would have been minimal. The first recorded performances were in 1604, 1630, and 1631. Although there are few detailed records of its reception, scholars suspect the play was popular, and there is evidence of its influence on English plays written throughout the seventeenth century. Midsummer has become one of Shakespeare’s most frequently performed plays across the world.

  • William Shakespeare: William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright; given the enduring and worldwide influence of his plays, he is often regarded as one of the most beloved playwrights in Western history. His exact date of birth is unknown, but records show he was baptized on April 26, 1564. He died on April 23, 1616 at age 52. It is not known exactly how he started his career as a playwright, but by the 1590s he was deeply involved in the London theater scene. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is typically classified as a romantic comedy, a genre that Shakespeare is often credited with helping to develop. It remains one of his most popular plays.
  • Shakespeare’s Inspirations: The general plot of Midsummer is unique to Shakespeare’s play, but he sourced characters and situations from other stories and texts. One of these influences was Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a collection of narrative poems composed in the 1380s. The first narrative, “The Knight’s Tale,” is about Theseus, the duke of Athens; his queen Hippolyta; and two prisoners of war who fall in love with the same woman.

Renaissance Ideals and Philosophies: Like other Renaissance writers, Shakespeare was influenced by his time period’s revived interest in Greek and Roman mythology, philosophy, and culture. The English Renaissance, which took place between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, was marked by an increased cultural focus on science and art as opposed to religion. It also saw the popularization of humanist beliefs about the importance of the individual. 

  • A Debt to Ovid: Among the chief pursuits of the Renaissance—in Italy and England alike—was the reclamation of classical thought and art. Like his peers, Shakespeare drew heavily from classical sources for his stories and references. No classical writer influenced Shakespeare as much as the Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE–17 CE), and perhaps no work displays Shakespeare’s Ovidian inheritance as much as Midsummer. In his composition of the play, Shakespeare drew from Arthur Golding’s popular 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and he may have read Ovid’s epic poem in the original Latin as well. In some cases, Shakespeare drew figures directly from Ovid, such as Pyramus, Thisbe, Theseus, and Titania. In other cases, Shakespeare borrowed and repurposed plot elements from Ovid’s poem; two examples are the trope of physical transformation and the device of the magical flower.

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