A Midsummer Night’s Dreamis one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies and has long been a favorite for both professional and amateur productions. The play is a fantasy of folklore and fairies, a medley of poetry, song, and dance, with vivid contrasts between the dainty folk in Titania’s train and the “rude mechanicals” in Bottom’s company. Shakespeare possibly wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the wedding of some great personage, but that personage’s identity has escaped historians. An elaborate compliment to Queen Elizabeth in Act Two refers to her as the “fair Vestal, throned by the West,” and we assume from these lines that Elizabeth was in attendance at the opening performance. The play has many qualities of a masque, an elaborate show emphasizing spectacular costume and scenic devices rather than dramatic plot and poetry.
The spirit of the masque is evident in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but Shakespeare’s genius always transcends conventions, and this play is a poetic drama rather than a stereotype pageant. There is meaning and significance deeper than mere entertainment. There is a commentary on life and love, the whimsical and irresponsible aspects of love, and the midsummer madness that has no explanation except the whims of men and women and deviltry of Puck.
Shakespeare contemplates these moods and qualities with no spirit of criticism or reproof. Love, he tells us, can make men and women do many foolish things, but we laugh gaily at such folly and accept it as part of life.
Shakespearean scholars cannot agree on definite dates for either the creation or first production of this play. Possibly it was written originally around 1592 then went through several revisions, with a definite first publication date of 1600.
Sources of the plot are numerous. Plutarch and Chaucer possibly supplied models for Theseus and Hippolyta, Ovid for Titania and for the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. For the artisans, Shakespeare drew on his own memories of yokels and craftsmen he had known at Stratford or observed in London. Their humor is the robust humor that comes from intimate contact with simple folk, and could only be developed in the mind of one who had observed closely the people who make up the population of the small town and the countryside.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream had evidently been popular ever since it was written, beginning with the notation on the page of the 1600 First Quarto that it had been “sundry times publicly acted.” Samuel Pepys saw it at the King’s Theatre in 1662 (declaring it “the most insipid ridiculous play I ever saw in my life”), and various adaptations and performances are noted through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. David Garrick, for example, put on a version at Drury Lane that left out the artisans, who violated his sense of decorum and propriety. One spectacular performance occurred in 1930, when Max Reinhard staged a performance in the Hollywood Bowl with three hundred wedding guests carrying lighted torches, and thousands of blue lights signifying fairies glowing and flickering. The poetry of Shakespeare was lost in the wilderness of stage effects.
Despite such occasional deviations from good taste, most modern productions retain the spirit of Shakespearean repertory theatres, and today’s audiences enjoy a perfectly delightful play, often appreciating it just for the sheer fun of the story. The fairies, the music, the dances, the marvelous lyric poetry, Bottom and his troop of incompetent actors—all make this one of Shakespeare’s most delightful offerings, and we can exclaim with Puck, “What fools these mortals be!” realizing that for all of that, the mortals are rather charming beings.