A Midsummer Night's Dream is perhaps Shakespeare's most popular play, particularly as a first introduction to Shakespeare for children--filled as it is with a marvelous mixture of aristocrats, workers, and fairies. For this edition, Peter Holland's introduction looks at dreams and dreamers, tracing the materials out of which Shakespeare constructs his world of night and shadows.
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The play takes place at the summer solstice, Midsummer Eve, in Athens, where everyone is pining away for the wrong person--except Theseus, the Duke, and his fiancée, Hippolyta, whose wedding day is fast approaching. Hermia, the Duke's daughter, is intent on marrying Lysander, although her father disapproves and threatens to force her into a nunnery if she refuses to marry his choice, Demetrius. But Demetrius loves Helena, and Lysander and Hermia plan to elope despite the Duke's orders. Meanwhile, in a subplot, the "rude mechanicals" (or artisans) Quince, Snug, Flute, Snout, Starveling, and Bottom, are hilariously rehearsing the play PYRAMUS AND THISBE to be performed at the Duke's wedding. As Hermia and Lysander head into the Forest of Arden to elope, with Helena and Demetrius following, the amateur acting troupe likewise takes cover in the forest to rehearse in privacy. This leads all the players into the realm of magic, presided over by the King and Queen of the Fairies, Oberon and Titania. When Oberon decides to play a trick on Titania with the aid of the juice of a magic flower that causes people to fall in love with the first person (or beast) they set eyes on, the real trouble starts. The magic is used liberally on both the humans and the fairies by the trouble-making sprite Puck, inspiring many incongruous entanglements. Unlike the other plays, there is in this case no known source for Shakespeare's fantastic plot, though the structure is classical, beginning in the court, moving to an "uncivilized" environment, and then returning to the newly ordered world of the court. Aspects of the imagery are drawn from classic works, such as Apuleius's THE GOLDEN ****** and Ovid's METAMORPHOSES. From evidence in the play, like Titania's remark about three unusually unpleasant summers in a row--documented elsewhere in England's records--composition seems to date from 1595 or 1596, and scholarship suggests that it was first performed in honor of a court wedding, though precisely whose remains unsubstantiated.
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- June 15, 2008
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