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A MIDSUMMER - NIGHT'S DREAM
THE EDITIONS. Two Quarto editions of A Midsummer. Night's Dream appeared in the year 1600:
1. A Midsommer night's dreame. As it hath been sundry times publickely acted, by the Right honourable, the Lord Chamberlaine his seruants. Written by William Shakespeare. Imprinted at London, for Thomas Fisher, and are to be soulde at his shoppe, at the signe of the White Hart, in Fleetestreete. 1600.
2. An edition with the same title, bearing the name of "James Roberts" instead of "Thomas Fisher."
These editions are styled respectively the First and Second Quartos. The Second was probably a pirated reprint of Fisher's, but the differences between them are unimportant; and though the First must be considered the authoritative text, both copies are remarkably accurate, when compared with other Quartos.
The First Folio version of the play was printed from the Second Quarto, with a few slight and unimportant changes, and with some errors due to carelessness.
THE DATE OF COMPOSITION. The only positive piece of external evidence for the date of A Midsummer-Night's
Dream is its mention by Francis Meres in his Palladis Tamia, 1598. Various attempts have been made to fix the occasion for which the play was originally written. Lord Southampton's marriage with Elizabeth Vernon has been proposed by some; but this did not take place till 1598. Others maintain that the occasion was the marriage of the Earl of Essex with Lady Frances Sidney (the widow of Sir Philip Sidney), in 1590; there is, however, absolutely no authority for the statement, and the probabilities are strongly opposed to the supposition.
The most valuable internal indication of the date of composition is perhaps to be found in v. 1. 52–55:
"The thrice three Muses mourning for the death
That is some satire, keen and critical,
We have most likely in these lines a reference to the death of Robert Greene, " utriusque Academiæ in Artibus Magister," the novelist and dramatist, whose Groatsworth of Wit contained his well-known attack on "the onely Shake-scene in a country." In this pamphlet Greene spoke as the very representative of "Learning," and sounded the alarm of the scholar-poets at the triumphs of the "unlearned" players in general, and of one "upstart crowe in particular. Greene died in degraded beggary in the autumn of 1592. The phrase "The thrice three Muses' was in all likelihood suggested by Spenser's Teares of the Muses (published in 1591), in which the nine Muses severally bewail the neglect of scholars, one of many similar laments to be found in Elizabethan literature.1 The words "late deceased "
1 See the lines at the end of the first sestiad of Marlowe's Hero and Leander.
would, according to this interpretation, fix the date of
On the other hand, it is maintained that Titania's
"A colder time in world was never seene:
The skies do loure, the sun and moone wax dim;
The general characteristics of the play lead to nothing very definite as far as its date is concerned. The rhymetest is obviously no criterion, for the comedy is intentionally lyrical; but the blank verse, with its paucity of double-endings and general regularity, the carefully elaborated plan and symmetrical arrangement of the plot, the comparative absence of real characterisation, the many reminiscences of country life, the buoyancy of its tone, all these elements manifestly connect A Midsummer-Night's Dream with the group of early "love-plays" (Love's Labour's Lost; The Two Gentlemen of Verona; The Comedy of Errors); and it may reasonably be placed between this group and the play to which they all seem to serve as preparatory efforts, the love-tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (that is, about the years 1593–1595).
1 See also Dr. Simon Forman's Diary (1564-1602); Stowe's Chronicle, under the year 1594; and Dr. King's Lectures upon Jonas delivered at Yorke in the year of our Lorde, 1594.
In all probability it passed through various revisions before its appearance as we have it in the First Quarto.
THE SOURCES. 1. Shakespeare may well have evolved A Midsummer-Night's Dream from Chaucer's Knight's Tale,1 to which he is obviously indebted for many elements. The general framework of the play-the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta— must have been suggested by the Tale; but Shakespeare ingeniously opens the Dream before the marriage, so that this event may round off the whole play; Chaucer introduces us to the pair at their home-coming after the marriage. In the Tale we have Palamon and Arcite rivals for the hand of Emelië; in obedience to the symmetrical plan of Shakespeare's early plots, these give place to two pairs of lovers, with their more complex story of crossed love; Emelië in fact resolves herself into Helena and Hermia. They are indeed "two lovely berries moulded on one stem."
The great gods of Olympus, who busy themselves so actively with the destinies of the lovers in the Tale, are represented in the Dream by their mediæval representatives, by Oberon, Titania, and their ministering sprites.
In the Tale, as in the Dream, we have the same allusions to the rites of May, and the same "musical confusion of hounds and echo in conjunction." Shakespeare has, however, wisely dispensed with the cumbersome machinery of the Tale, cumbersome from the theat
1 Shakespeare's debt to Plutarch's Life of Theseus amounts to very little, a few names and allusions; to these attention is called in the Notes.
rical point of view, namely, the dungeons, tournaments, etc. The Two Noble Kinsmen should be read in order to understand how weak a drama results from the actual dramatisation of Chaucer's story of Palamon and Arcite.1
The secret of the transformation of The Knight's Tale into A Midsummer-Night's Dream may perhaps be partially understood, if we consider the task that Shakespeare seems to have set himself, — the task of satisfying all the requirements of a Court drama without departing from his own ideas of Romantic Comedy. The essential elements of such a play as Lyly's Endymion; the spectacular machinery, the mythological agencies, the lovestory, the comical interlude, the complimentary allusions to the Queen, direct or allegorical,—all these find a place in Shakespeare's Dream.
2. Popular tradition, derived from Teutonic and Celtic paganism, together with quasi-classical and romantic lore, are the main sources of Shakespeare's fairy mythology.2 Oberon, the fairy king, found a place in English dramatic literature before Shakespeare re-created him; he may be traced back to the Charlemagne romance of Huon of Bordeaux, translated from the French by Lord
1I cannot bring myself to believe that there is a line of Shakespeare's in this unequal performance. It is specially interesting to note that the authors of the Two Noble Kinsmen must have known that the Dream represented Shakespeare's version of the Tale.
2" Fairy” properly signifies merely " enchantment," or the state of being like a fay. Fée, with its various cognates in other Romance languages, is derived from low Latin fata, "a goddess of destiny," really a plural of fatum, treated as a feminine singular. The application of this term to the "elves" of Teutonic mythology is in itself instructive.
3 In Greene's James IV., where he figures as "Oboram, King of the Fayeries." See The Faerie Queene, Book II. Cant. i. 6, 75.