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The History of Shakespeare's A Midsummer-Night's Dream

From Shakespeare's Comedy of A Midsummer-Night's Dream. Ed. Katharine Lee Bates. Boston: Leach, Shewell, & Sanborn.

When was A Midsummer-Night's Dream written? Three hundred years ago nobody cared, and so today nobody knows. It was printed in 1600. It was mentioned in 1598. Is there any way of tracing it farther back? The Queen of Fairyland plumes herself with comical complacency on the cold, wet summer, followed by a poor harvest, which has befallen Attica (alias England) because of her tiny Majesty's domestic wrangle with "jealous Oberon." At this hint the scholars have ransacked Elizabethan literature, from almanac to sermon, in the effort to locate this calamitous season. The year 1595 fell under suspicion, 1597 was challenged, but the bulk of testimony points to 1594. Yet while it is quite possible that, in case the play was written and presented during an exceptionally stormy period, Shakespeare might have alluded to the bad weather, it by no means follows that poetical fogs and frosts within the theatre are proof of literal fogs and frosts without. If we knew from other sources that A Midsummer-Night's Dream was acted in 1594, it would be sound criticism supposing, what some critics deny, that weather and description tally to recognize in Titania's boast, protracted as it is, a reference to the times; but the reverse does not hold good. It cannot be maintained that this much-disputed passage has established the date of the comedy. Neither can anything more solid than conjecture be raised upon the lines,
"The thrice-three Muses, mourning for the death
Of Learnings late deceas'd in beggary."
although there may well be in these saucily syllabled verses both a reminiscence of the alliterative Spenser's somewhat despondent poem, "The Teares of the Muses," 1591, and, with this, a haunting, not unkindly memory of poor, brilliant, unstable Robert Greene, "Master of Arts in both Universities," who had worked with Shakespeare, and envied Shakespeare, and had died a profligate's death in 1592.

A Midsummer-Night's Dream has something to the effect of a bridal masque. It is easy to see in imagination a stately Elizabethan hall thronged with applauding gentles, while the young poet, still in the dress of Lysander, receives with becoming modesty the thanks of a noble bridegroom, and bends his knee to the imperial smile of the "fair vestal throned by the west." Again the critics have recourse to the Elizabethan annals, and again the fruits of research are confusion and disappointment, although two weddings within the decade have excited especial interest.

The Earl of Essex espoused the widow of Sir Philip Sidney in April, 1590. It was a private marriage which, when divulged, brought down upon the young husband the hot wrath of the queen. A private marriage, however, might admit of private festivities. Shakespeare was then a "poor player" of twenty-six, seeking a patron. There is, apparently, a loyal reference to Essex, who was three years Shakespeare's junior, in Henry V. (Prologue to Act V., lines 29-34), and it is probable that sooner or later the two men were personally acquainted. If the play was acted on or near May Day, the plot becomes significant, while the title, A Midsummer-Night's Dream, usually understood, like Twelfth Night, as indicating the time when the comedy was first brought upon the stage, may have been added for a later public presentation in a London theatre. The other wedding about which much wistful curiosity has played is that of the Earl of Southampton and Elizabeth Vernon in 1598. This, too, was a secret marriage, and one peculiarly unwelcome to the queen. To the Earl of Southampton Shakespeare had dedicated, in formal terms, his Venus and Adonis in 1593, and, this time with words of strong affection, his Lucrece in 1594. Neither wedding date is satisfactory. How could Shakespeare write so well in 1590? How could he write so ill in 1598?

The likelihood is that we have in A Midsummer-Night's Dream a boyish comedy of clowns and fairies and bewildered lovers, hastily retouched and enlarged for some high occasion upon which the figures of Theseus and Hippolyta, and the exquisite flattery of the queen, had a direct bearing; but likelihood is not fact. We do not know.

There was one Francis Meres living in London at the turn of the century, a scholar younger than Shakespeare by a year and destined for the pulpit and the ferule. He had artistic longings in him, however, and gave an unusual attention to contemporary authors, painters, and musicians of his own nation. He counted Shakespeare the best dramatist, both in comedy and tragedy, of the English stage, and it is to him we owe the precious list of Shakesperean plays known in 1598: "for comedy, witnes his Gentlemen of Verona, his Errors, his Love's Labors Lost, his Love Labour's Wonne, his Midsummers Night Dreame, and his Merchant of Venice; for tragedy, his Richard the 2, Richard the 3, Henry the 4, King John, Titus Andronicus, and his Romeo and Juliet." The publishers of London were not far behind the critic in learning of these plays, and, before 1600 was over, eight of the twelve had been issued in sixpenny quartos. In October of that year, when Thomas Heyes obtained from the Master Wardens of the Stationers' Company a license to print The Merchant of Venice, already printed, perhaps without authority, by the prominent and slippery stationer, James Roberts, Thomas Fisher registered for A Midsummer-Night's Dream. In the same year, 1600, but probably later, Roberts, without a license, printed the play more attractively and less correctly. Fisher's edition is known as the First Quarto (Q1), and Roberts' as the Second Quarto (Q2). The third original text, that of the First Folio (F), 1623, was taken from the Second Quarto slightly revised apparently from a copy which had been used in Shakespeare's theatre, and into which stage directions had been somewhat minutely written. The Folio is the only one of these three texts which indicates the division into acts. It was left for later hands to mark out the scenes.

The play, in one guise or another, has held the stage ever since it was first produced. It is suspected of being the comedy which brought the Bishop of Lincoln into disgrace in 1631. Scandal whispers that the prelate, with guests, had witnessed in his own house on a Sunday evening a play in which one of the characters wore an ass-head. The unlucky actor was compelled by the growing power of the Puritans to sit for twelve consecutive hours "in the Porters Lodge at my Lords Bishopps House, with his feete in the stocks and attyred with his asse head, and a bottle of hay sett before him, and this subscription on his breast:

'Good people, I have played the beast,
And brought ill things to passe.
I was a man, but thus have made My selfe a silly Asse.'"
In 1661 was published a droll taken from A Midsummer-Night's Dream, and entitled The Merry Conceited Humours of Bottom, the Weaver. It was evidently a popular performance, that held its own, even during the suppression of the theatres, when the strictest Puritanic vigilance could not entirely exclude such side-shows from the public fairs, nor banish their exhibition from the merry conclaves of London prentices. This droll was copied in Germany under the title of Herr Peter Squentz. "And thus the whirligig of Time brings in his revenges." After the Restoration, A Midsummer-Night's Dream was revived at the King's Theatre, where it had the mischance, in September of 1662, to number among its spectators Mr. Pepys. This worthy promptly confided to his famous Diary that it was "the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life." In 1692 it was worked over into an opera called The Fairy Queen in which Shakespeare's creations are supplemented by fauns and nymphs, swans and dragons, three drunken poets, four savages, six monkeys, a Chinese man, a Chinese woman, and Hymen. The eighteenth century three times tapped A Midsummer-Night's Dream in Leveridge's Comick Masque of Pyramus and Thisbe, 1716; in Garrick's opera of The Fairies, 1755; and in Colman's afterpiece, A Fairy Tale, 1777.

Our own century has contributed to Shakespeare's magic comedy appreciative study, Mendelssohn's music and, on the whole, successful performances. It is true that until the elfin troops themselves

"Come from the farthest steep of India"
to join theatrical companies, the fancy of the audience must bear an active part in the representation. But why not? The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them."

How to cite this article:
Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare's Comedy of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Ed. Katharine Lee Bates. Boston: Leach, Shewell, & Sanborn, 1895. Shakespeare Online. 20 Dec. 2009. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/midsummer/mdshistory.html >.
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