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LITERARY AND HISTORICAL INFORMATION
Probable Date of the Play
Like most Shakespearean plays, the date of the composition of A Midsummer Night's Dream is disputed. From the available information, it seems that it was probably written between 1594 and 1595 and definitely before 1598. External evidence comes from outside references made to the work by contemporary writers, historians, and chroniclers. A Midsummer Night's Dream is mentioned by Francis Meres in his work Polladis Tamia, which was published in 1598; therefore, the play was already being produced by 1598.
Internal evidence comes from the play itself, based upon references made to historical factors and the style of the drama. Titania speaks about a disastrous summer with frequent rains that destroyed crops and caused diseases; this reference seems to indicate the summer of 1954, which was characterized by heavy rain. Also in late 1593 and early 1594, the plaque was widespread and theaters had to be closed down. Also the style of the play, largely in rhyme, also indicates that this is one of Shakespeare's earlier works. Considering all these factors, the date of the play is most likely 1594.
The Title of the Play
The title of the play has generated much discussion. Mid-summer day is June 24, which is observed as St. John's day. The festival of John was a joyous celebration that contained several superstitions. It was believed that witches and spirits were particularly active on St. John's night. It is appropriate that a play that deals with fairies and magic flowers that cause love spells should be named after the mid-summer festival.
Another theory about the title refers to the expression of mid- summer madness used in Twelfth Night. Mid-summer was a time when the brain was more susceptible to flights of imagination; therefore, A Midsummer Night's Dream could refer to a play that was merely a flight of imagination, the outcome of the mid- summer brain. Finally, it is assumed that the joyous conclusion of the marriage festivities at the end of the play is keeping with the mid-summer celebrations and, hence, the title. No matter the origination of the title, it is obvious that Shakespeare wants to emphasize the dream-like quality of the play where almost all the characters go through experiences that seems to be more fantasy than real.
The Probable Sources of the Play
Shakespeare often depended on Italian romances and other translations as sources for his plays. A Midsummer Night's Dream, however, is to a large extent the product of his imagination. Still some portions of the play have been drawn from other sources. For instance, the life of Theseus is included in Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives. The Knight's Tale in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales also deals with the life of Theseus. In Plutarch's Lives, Theseus marries Antiopa, not Hippolyta; but in Chaucer's tale, Hippolyta is the bride of Theseus. The name Philostrate is also mentioned by Chaucer as the Chamberlain of the Court of Theseus. Chaucer too mentions the grove outside Athens, which is changed by Shakespeare to woods a league away from Athens. Beyond these small matters, there is no similarity between either Plutarch's Lives and Shakespeare or Canterbury's Tales and Shakespeare.
The interlude on Pyramus and Thisbe has been adopted from Ovid's Metamorphoses and translated by Arthur Golding, a Cambridge scholar. Shakespeare draws heavily from this translation and probably had read and was inspired by Chaucer's Legend of Thisbe of Babylon as well. The idea of Cupid's flower, love-in-idleness, is said to have originated from a Spanish romance, Diana, which was already popular in Elizabethan England. The History of Felix and Philomena was acted in January 1585 and was based on Diana. Sidney's Arcadia also shows the influence of Diana. Besides, the notion of love-juices with magical qualities formed part of the traditional superstition of the Middle Ages. In fact, Medieval romances are filled with herbs that possess wonderful qualities. Shakespeare's use of the magic flower, however, is most reminiscent of the Spanish romance Diana.
Even though most of the fairy love has been drawn from English folk tales, the portrait of Oberon and Titania may have been influenced by specific works. Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Tale" narrates the dispute between a fairy king and fairy queen and shows how the fairy king intervenes in a quarrel between a husband and wife to bring about a reconciliation. Oberon has often been equated to the Alberich or Elferich (elf-king) of German myth. The elf-king came to England through French tales, which speak about Alberon; Alberon then gave rise to Shakespeare's Oberon. Puck, which is a generic term for a fairy, was popular throughout Europe.