Shakespeare's sources

A Midsummer Night's Dream (2005) - Bottom (Malcolm Storry) with Titania (Amanda Harris) and Fairy (Chris McGill)

Performance history expert Rebecca Brown investigates the stories which inspired Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The transformations
Shakespeare took inspiration for this play from a rich and varied range of materials. The most significant source is Ovid's Metamorphoses. Shakespeare would have read this long poem in its original Latin while a grammar school boy in Stratford-upon-Avon. Arthur Golding's English translation was published in 1567. This text contained the stories of Daphne and Apollo, Cupid's golden and leaden arrows, the battle of the Centaurs and, most importantly, Pyramus and Thisbe. Ovid's tale of the lovers was a popular subject, having already been treated by Chaucer in his Legend of Good Women, as well as by contemporaries of Shakespeare. The young lovers in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet face the same problems as Pyramus and Thisbe and of course are treated tragically not comically.

Chaucer also provided a source for the play's framework in the Knight's Tale of The Canterbury Tales, where Duke Theseus weds his Amazonian bride. Shakespeare also takes details from the account of Theseus's life in the first century Greek historian Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, translated in to English by Sir Thomas North in 1579. In Chaucer's tale, Theseus holds captive two noble prisoners who both fall in love with the same girl and escape to a wood where the inevitable quarrels and conflicts ensue.

Changing into an ass
There were many versions of the tangles and tensions between young love and friendship. John Lyly's Gallathea, printed in 1592 has two girls who disguise themselves as boys only for each to fall in love with the other. Lyly also wrote Midas, printed in the same year, in which Midas's head is changed into that of an ass. Midas's transformation is one of the metamorphoses described by Ovid. Such a change also occurs in Apuleius's The Golden Ass, written in Latin in the second century and translated into English in 1566 by William Adlington. A unfontunately man changes completely into an ass. A beautiful girl falls in love with the ass, feeds him delicacies and adorns his forehead and hair before making love to him.

The wearing of animal masks had long been part of the folk traditions surrounding the celebration of country festivals in Britain. Transformations into asses and other animals are among the misdeeds of witchcraft listed by Reginald's Scot in The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584). Scot also describes a mischievous, domestic fairy named Robin Goodfellow. Pucks and hobgoblins were still certainly feared in popular culture. Many ballads and pamphlets survive from Shakespeare's period, illustrated with woodcuts of devilish-looking spirits.

The fairies
Shakespeare's King and Queen of the Fairies can trace their origins back to many sources, both ancient and modern. The mortal Queen Elizabeth was often entertained on her royal progresses by pageants presided over by her counterpart, the Fairy Queen. The most famous literary version of such a tribute was Edmund Spenser's long allegorical poem The Faerie Queene (1596).

Chaucer's Merchant's Tale has the fairy King and Queen (here named Pluto and Proserpina) arguing over a mismatched pair of mortal lovers. The name of Oberon is first given to the King of the Fairies in The Book of Duke Huon of Bordeaux, which was translated into English by Lord Berners and first published 1533-42. Oberon appears in Robert Greene's The Scottish History of James the Fourth (probably written in 1590), observing and occasionally intervening in mortal affairs.

Shakespeare takes Titania, the name of his Fairy Queen, from Ovid's Metamorphoses where it means Titan's daughter and is used to refer to various divinities, such as the huntress and moon goddess, Diana, and Circe, the transformer of men into swine.

Bottom's dream
After so much material from pagan antiquity, there is also the source of St Paul's letter to the Corinthians. This text, central to the Christian tradition, lies behind Bottom's account of his marvellous dream. The dream surpasses Bottom's powers of eye, ear, hand, tongue and heart to apprehend or express, just as Paul acknowledged the gifts of God to be beyond the eye, ear and heart of man. Bottom's account is, of course, a mixed-up version of this sacred text: his is a comic and warmly human account of his 'most rare vision'.

Photo shows Bottom (Malcolm Storry) with Titania (right, Amanda Harris) and Fairy (left, Chris McGill) in the 2005 RSC production of A Midsummer Night's Dream © RSC
Written by Rebecca Brown © RSC

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