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

A Midsummer Night's Dream

by William Shakespeare

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Significant Allusions

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Allusions to Greek and Roman Mythology: Many characters in the play take their names and parts of their stories from ancient Greek and Roman mythology, tying in with the play’s setting in Athens.

  • Dido and Aeneas: The faltering love of Dido and Aeneas, as recounted in Virgil’s epic poem the Aeneid, is referenced in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, though the play has a happier resolution than the myth. The goddesses Venus and Juno both meddled in Dido and Aeneas’s love, with Venus sending her son, Cupid, to enchant Dido into falling for Aeneas; Dido dies by suicide after Aeneas leaves her.
  • When Hermia promises to run away with Lysander, she directly alludes to the story of Dido and Aeneas: “I swear to thee, by Cupid’s strongest bow [...] / By the simplicity of Venus’ doves, [...] / And by that fire which burn’d the Carthage queen, / When the false Troyan under sail was seen [...] / To-morrow truly will I meet with thee.” Dido was the first queen of Carthage, and after being abandoned by Aeneas, “the false Troyan,” she threw herself onto a pyre out of grief and rage.
  • Titania: Titania’s name is thought to have been drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where “Titania” is the title given to the daughters of the Titans. The Titans of ancient Greece were said to have ruled the world after they overthrew the Primordial Gods. The Titans were in turn overthrown by the Olympians. 
  • Circe: Titania’s falling in love with the donkey-headed Bottom is a humorous inversion of the Greek myth of Circe, a powerful enchantress who seduced men before turning them into animals.
  • Theseus: Theseus, the son of King Aegeus, was a revered Athenian hero. He was known for his daring exploits and, when he ascended the throne of Athens, for being a fair, kind, and good ruler. He appears in many Greek myths, some of which involve him having a son with an Amazon warrior, either Hippolyta or her sister Antiope.
  • Pyramus and Thisbe: The story of Pyramus and Thisbe, which Bottom and his fellow actors perform poorly, was first recorded by the ancient Roman poet Ovid. Pyramus and Thisbe lived next door to each other but were forbidden to be together, so they talked through the wall separating them. Like Hermia and Lysander, they decided to run away together; however, their tale ends tragically when Pyramus, thinking Thisbe is dead, kills himself. When Thisbe finds him dead, she kills herself as well. The story strongly parallels that of Romeo and Juliet, another of Shakespeare’s plays.

Allusions to Other Myths: Though the play is set in Athens, its mostly forested setting invokes the mossy, overgrown forests of England rather than the Mediterranean. English folktales are full of fairies and forest magic, and this cultural tradition is evident in the depiction of magic and fairies in the play.

  • German Mythology: Oberon is an alternate name for Alberich, a dwarf from German mythology. In The Niebelungenlied, a German epic composed around 1200, Alberich possesses a magical cloak of invisibility, which the hero Siegfried steals.
  • English Folklore: The character of Puck is an allusion to both a character of the same name from English folklore (also called Robin Goodfellow) and to the Roman god Pan, who has goat horns and hooves. In Roman mythology, Pan dances with woodland fairies and plays reed pipes. The English Robin Goodfellow is a prankster; Puck describes himself in similar terms as someone who “sometimes labour[s] in the quern / And bootless make[s] the breathless housewife churn / And sometime[s] make the drink to bear no barm; / Mislead[s] night-wanderers, laughing at their harm.”

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