4.) Production Information 5.) Introduction 6.) Teaching Theatre 8.) Letter from the Director 9.) About the Playwright 10.) About the Play 11.) Context and Content 19.) Sources and Resources
Written by William Shakespeare Directed by Bill Fennelly
In Shakespeareâ€™s hands, magic and romance and the very midsummer madness make for intoxication, enchantment, and rollicking, frolicking comedy. Get on your mud boots and your donkey ears, cause itâ€™s off to the woods with four eager, young lovers, a band of hapless rustics, and rival camps of puckish sprites.
Shakespeare Shakespeare Shakespeare Shakespeare William William William William
illiam Shakespeare, the most influential writer of the Western world, was born in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England in 1564. Little is known of his early life until the parish recording of his marriage to Anne Hathaway in 1582 and the baptismal records of his three children. By 1592, he apparently had left his family in Stratford-Upon-Avon and was working in the theatre in London as an actor and playwright. In either 1611 or 1612, he retired to Stratford, where he died in 1616. Shakespeare wrote and acted for Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which became the King’s Men when James I took the throne. He was a shareholder in their home stage, the Globe Theatre. His work shows great breadth, with comedies such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming of the the Shrew, and Much Ado About Nothing, tragedies such as Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth, Romances such as the The Tempest, and histories such as Richard III and the Henry VI cycle. In addition to the plays, Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets and the narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Only the Bible is the source of more quotes than Shakespeare’s plays. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written in 1595 or 1596 around the same time as Romeo and Juliet. It was probably written in celebration of a wedding.
A Midsummer Nights Dream, Act IV, scene i: A wood - Titiania Painted by Henry Fuseli, 1796
Cast of Characters
Puck, also called Robin Goodfellow
Theseus, Duke of Athens
Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, betrothed to Theseus
Egeus, Hermiaâ€™s father
Philostrate, the Athenian Master of Revels
Hermia, daughter of Egeus, in love with Lysander
Bottom, a weaver
Helena, in love with Demetrius
Peter Quince, a carpenter
Demetrius, in love with Hermia
Tom Snout, a tinker.
Lysander, in love with Hermia
Robin Starveling, a tailor
Oberon, the King of the fairies
Snug, a joiner
Titania, the Queen of the fairies.
Francis Flute, the bellows-mender
“A play there is, my lord . . .”
mid the preparations for celebrations honoring the marriage of Duke Theseus of Athens to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, Egeus bring his daughter Hermia before the Duke. She has refused to marry his favorite, Demetrius, because she’s in love with Lysander. The Duke tells her to marry her father’s choice or face either the death penalty or life in a convent. Hermia and Lysander plan to elope that night and confide the plan to their friend Helena, who is in love with Demeterius. Hoping to win him, she tells him of Hermia’s plan. That night, Helena and Demetrius follow Hermia and Lysander into the forest. Meanwhile, a group of Athenian tradesmen, led by Peter Quince, are planning to put on a play, The Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, as part of the wedding celebration. After assigning roles, they too head off for a rehearsal in the forest where the King and Queen of the fairies, Oberon and Titania, are arguing over Titania’s refusal to give up her page boy to Oberon. He sends his servant Puck to retrieve a magical plant the juice of which, when squeezed on the eyes of someone sleeping, can make the sleeper fall in love with the first creature he or she sees upon wakening. Oberon uses it on his sleeping Queen. Puck comes upon the tradesmen’s rehearsal and magically transforms Bottom’s head into that of an donkey. When the terrified tradesmen flee, Bottom wanders into Titania’s bower. He is the first thing she sees, and she falls head-over-heels in love with him. In another part of the forest, Helena pursues Demetrius. Having pity on her, Oberon tells Puck to use the magic plant on Demetrius, so that he might love Helena. Puck mistakenly applies it to the sleeping Lysander, who awakens to find Helena standing over him and he falls madly in love with her. Thus, the wheels are set in motion for Shakespeare’s bewitching moonlit look at love, folly, and theatre. 11.)
The Four Worlds of A Midsummer Night’s Dream
n Midsummer, Shakespeare gives us a vision of the collision of four worlds, Athens, the world of young lovers, the fairy world, and the world of the tradesmen, or rude mechanicals. The story of Theseus and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons was told in several variations in Greek mythology. What seems clear in Shakespeare’s version is that Theseus is smitten with the woman he “woo’d... with my sword.” Hippolyta is not a submissive bride. In Act V, she offers the opinion that the young lovers are telling the truth about their night’s adventures. She opines that their agreement on the details of events prove that they really happened. The concerns of the Athenians of the court mirror those in the Elizabethan court, with Egeus, pressing the duke to solve a domestic problem. The mismatched lovers of Midsummer live in their own world as they struggle to find the path to mature love. As a comedy, Midsummer reminds us how love can make us foolish and blind, especially in the knockabout affairs of Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius and Helena. We laugh at the chaos of this love because we know everything will turn out all right. As Puck says, “Jack shall have Jill. Naught shall go ill.” In Shakespeare’s time, fairies were not the sugary delicate creatures we see them as now. Rather they were elemental spirits who soured milk, brought misfortune, or changed the weather. Any small misfortune emanating from the natural world could be attributed to the fairies. In act II a fairy inquires of Puck:
“...are you not he that fright’s the maidens of the villagery; Skim milk,
and sometimes labor in the quern [hand mill] And bootless [futilely] make the breathless housewife churn...” 12.)
It wasn’t until Sir Edmund Spenser created The Faerie Queen as a double for Queen Elizabeth I that the new, more benign image of fairies began to emerge. Midsummer is planted firmly between the two images.
“What hempen homespuns have we swaggering here?” The rude mechanicals, tradesmen of Athens, are identified by their occupations. Tom Snout for example, wears his occupation in his name. He is a tinker, who fixes tin pots. The spout of a kettle was often called its “snout.” In the world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream even humble workmen have dual lives, with artistic yearning, however humble. The story of Pyramus and Thisbe first appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Played for laughs in Midsummer, it may also be parody of Romeo and Juliet, which was written around the same time. The organizational meeting chaired by Peter Quince may be a comic simplification of the squabbling in Elizabethan share troupes, with actors jockeying for the best roles. Verse: “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact.” The four lovers speak in rhyming couplets, silly verse for silly people. The down-to-earth rude mechanicals talk in prose. The royals use blank verse, and the fairies rhyme, with Oberon sometimes using blank verse.
“This was lofty!”
Illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1908 edition of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Act II, Scene ii.
Shakepeare and the English Language
t’s acknowledged that Shakespeare had an enormous influence on English vocabulary. It is said that Shakespeare added at least 3000 words to the English vocabulary. Many of these are merely changes in form or the joining of two already commonly used words. It’s also possible that the plays published for the first time words that had already come into common use. In any case, A Midsummer Nights Dream provides the first recorded use of the following words: bedroom, mimic, moonbeam, manager, pale-faced, rival (used as a verb), and flowery.
The Royal Shakespeare Company identifies four major themes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: love and marriage and the difficulty of making relationships work; order and disorder and the need for a balance between the rational and irrational, between rules and magic, in the interest of love, harmony, and creativity; appearance and reality and how people and events are often not what they seem creative imagination and its reliance on the unconscious, the magical, and the mysterious.
Shakespeare’s Sources A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the few plays by Shakespeare with no single identifiable source. Rather, it takes figures and plotlines and folklore familiar to Elizabethan English and weaves them together into a satisfying new comedy. Plutarch’s Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans (Theseus and Hippolyta), and Chaucer. The tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, the subjects of the comic play within a play was first told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It is later an inspiration for Bocaccio and Chaucer. It can also be seen as a comic riff on the popular tale of Romeo and Juliet which Shakespeare dramatized around the same time as Midsummer. Oberon appears in the French The Book of Duke Huon of Bordeaux (1567) translated by John Bourchier, Lord Berners. The King of the fairies’ name seems to be related to Albrecht King of the elves in German Nibelung. Midsummer provides the first use of the name Titania as the Queen of the fairies. Earlier use of the name was for the moon goddess, a daughter of the Titans. Other sources include Apuleus’ The Book of the Golden Ass as a precursor to Bottom’s transformation and Reginald Scot’s The Discovery of Witches for Puck and Bottom. Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen may be an inspiration for friendly fairies. Aspects of the lovers’ triangle plot can be found in Seneca.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Syracuse Stage “It’s about love in all capital letters in all forms.” --Bill Fennelly One of the joys of Midsummer is that it easily speaks to the time in in which it is produced. Bill Fennelly, director of the current Syracuse Stage production was kind enough to share some of his thoughts for this guide. Here are some of his observations: Whose dream is this? This is an essential question. For me, it’s really the audience’s dream. We enter the theatre, the sacred space, to see how transformational, ephemeral, devastating, fabulous, and beautiful real mature love can be. Midsummer [at Syracuse Stage] will explore ideas of love in dark and whimsical ways. It’s a theatrical, sometimes anachronistic fairy tale. It’s not set in contemporary way, but it uses iconic ideas of romantic fairy tale to make the production universal and immediate. Who’s asleep today? It’s about love and marriage, what it meant then and what it means now. It raises questions about what the total event will mean for the audience. I have been thinking a lot about the energy that gets set into motion when two people decide to declare their love for each other to the world; what it ignites, what is draws toward it; what it unleashes; what it creates and how it ultimately changes the world. Love ultimately does triumph. Midsummer is a celebration of mature love that has been tested, hard won. In it, we see the best in ourselves and the worst in ourselves.
In Midsummer, characters are caught between the poles of Reason and Passion defined by Philostrate and Puck. The fifth act is a love letter to the theatre. I have to believe that we live in a world where hope can be transformative and thoughtful discourse can actually change the world for the better.
Film poster from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Max Reinhardt’s 1935 production.
Film poster from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Michael Hoffman’s 1999 production.
Available Film Versions A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been filmed many times, and even more films have made allusions to it. Among the versions available for the classroom and home, the following are notable. Many of these are available in libraries. 1935 Warner Brothers production directed by Max Reinhardt with James Cagney as Bottom and Mickey Rooney as Puck. A lavish, magical production, it still holds up with modern audiences. 1968 Royal Shakespeare Company production with Diana Rigg as Helena, Helen Mirren as Hermia, and Judi Dench as Titania. This is a darker version of the play with some brief nudity and a leafy bikini clad young Dench. It’s available from Facets Multimedia (1-800-331-6197) 1981 BBC The Shakespeare Plays with Helen Mirren as Titania. It’s most amusing when the four mismatched lovers tromp through swamps. 1982 Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival production directed by James Lapine with an ethnically diverse cast and William Hurt as Oberon. It can be obtained from Film for the Humanities (1-800-257-5126) 1999 Kevin Kline as Bottom, Rupert Everett as Oberon, Michelle Pfeiffer as Titania, directed by Michael Hoffman. Set in Tuscany in the 1930’s. While not a groundbreaking film, it lends itself very nicely to the classroom, with crisp comic performances from familiar actors.
It’s fun and instructive to sample productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream online through Youtube. Here’s a list of fascinating clips that may be useful in the classroom.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YSDQjEJTPzg From the 1968 production. Titania and Bottom, with a young bikini clad Judi Dench.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TRoIxwGsBR0 Again from 1968, Helen Mirren and Diana Rigg as Hermia and Helena
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uyrr1-6ro_4 1935 James Cagney as Bottom
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eia_pWO1wYQ 1935 Mickey Rooney as Puck
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AtwXJd6Ghsw 1909 silent version. This clip of the rude mechanicals tells the story clearly and amusingly. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qpiJX6t1HQw Mickey and Donald in1999. That’s right. Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck do Shakespeare.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YQljXG-JEsU and http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=j09EdDhNvLo From the 1981 BBC production, the mismatched lovers tromp around in a stream.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xxXkdYr5JYg In this curiosity from a British variety show, the Beatles take on Pyramus and Thisbe.
Activities Choose a character from the play and write a backstory for this character. Include information about where the character was born, something about his/her education, job, family friends, hobbies and interests and dreams for the future. Write this in the first person. (adapted from the Royal Shakespeare Company study guide for the 2011 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.) The proliferation of fantasy literature, graphic novels, and film has made discussion of the fairy world of Midsummer much easier for a class to explore. Find pictures of fairies, either from productions of Midsummer or from literature. Ask the class to describe the different types of fairies they see in the pictures. What might each of those creatures in the pictures be thinking? How would fairies exist in our modern world? What would they look like? How would they look if they lived in a forest today? What would be their concerns? How about in an urban setting? What would they do? What about those living in a shopping mall? Divide the class into small groups and have them do any or all of the following: Draw the fairies that would live in one of the settings. Design a costume for a fairy in one of those settings. Write a short piece of dialogue for two or three of the fairies in the modern setting. They may echo Midsummer, or they can be completely original. (adapted from the Royal Shakespeare Company study guide for the 2011 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)
questions for discussion Who would be the rude mechanicals today? What modern day types of tradesmen would be rehearsing the play in the woods? Discuss the nature of dreams. Do they express our hopes and dreams? Ask the students if they have had a dream that illustrates their hopes and dreams? Let them write about dreams they have had or their own theories about the meaning of dreams. After writing time, ask them to share what they wrote. At its heart, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is about transformation. What are some of the temporary tranformations that we see? How do these magical temporary transformations have permanent effects?
Sources British,Library. Treasures in Full, Shakespeare in Quarto. 30 Dec 2012. http://www.bl.uk/treasures/ shakespeare/midsummer.html litcharts.com. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 7 Jan 2013. http://www.litcharts.com/lit/amidsummernightsdream Mabillard, Amanda. Shakespeare’s Sources for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare Online. 3 Jan. 2013. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/sources/mssources.html >. O’Brien, Peggy, ed. Shakespeare Set Free, Teaching Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. New York: Washington Square Press, 1993. Vernon, Jennifer. “Shakespeare’s Coined Words Now Common Currency,” National Geographic News, 22 April, 2004. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/04/0419_040419_shakespeare.html Royal Shakespeare Company. A Midsummer Night’s Dream Education Pack. 28 Dec. 2012. rsc_ dream_2011_teachers_pack.pdf Note: an excellent source for classroom activities. http://www.rsc.org.uk/explore/a-midsummer-nights-dream/teachers-resources/themes.aspx Shakespeare Online http://www.shakespeare-online.com/sources/mssources.html