A Midsummer Night's Dream

Historical background

A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written early in Shakespeare’s career, probably between 1594 and 1596.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written early in Shakespeare’s career, probably between 1594 and 1596. It wasn’t Shakespeare’s first comedy; he had already completed The Comedy of Errors, The Two Gentlemen of Verona and possibly The Taming of the Shrew. This also seems to have been a transition time for Shakespeare – he had finished his major Henry VI Richard III history series and had just started writing his first great tragedy, Romeo and Juliet.

In fact, it is believed that Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet in the same year, and likely that he wrote Romeo and Juliet first. It is widely believed that the Mechanicals’ Pyramus and Thisbe performance is Shakespeare’s parody of his own tragic love story, Romeo and Juliet, also featuring two lovers parted by fate and who meet tragic ends.

Unlike many of Shakespeare’s other plays, there is no direct source for the plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, yet we can see many pre-existing texts from which he drew influence. Theseus and Hippolyta appeared in Plutarch’s The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes (translated by Thomas North in 1579). They were also characters in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Ovid’s Metamorphosis was an important source for Shakespeare, particularly the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. The character of Oberon may have been taken from the thirteenth-century French story Huon of Bordeaux, translated by John Bourchier, Lord Berners, in the 1530s, and the character of Puck was popular in English country stories of Shakespeare’s time. Bottom’s transformation into an ass is influenced by Lucius Apuleius’s second-century magical tale, The Golden Ass.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is thought to have been written to celebrate the wedding of Elizabeth Carey, the daughter of an English nobleman. The bride’s grandfather was Lord Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain, patron of Shakespeare’s theatre company. The play was probably first performed at the London home of the Carey family and later at court. The first public performance of the play was likely at the Theatre, to the north-east of London, just outside the city limits. This was about three or four years before the Lord Chamberlain’s Men lost the lease on that venue and built the Globe Theatre on the south bank of the Thames.

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