REGISTER NOW AND GET
• 5 FREE tracks! • 101 tracks for $9.99
ClassicsOnline Home » SHAKESPEARE, W.: Midsummer Night's Dream (A) (Unabridged)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream must be one of the most enduringly popular of Shakespeare’s plays, and it is not difficult to see why: the work blends several kinds of comedy with a powerful atmosphere of magic and mystery and a satisfying set of contrasts—between city and country, reason and imagination, love and infatuation.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream must be one of the most enduringly
popular of Shakespeare’s plays, and it is not difficult to see why: the work
blends several kinds of comedy with a powerful atmosphere of magic and mystery
and a satisfying set of contrasts—between city and country, reason and
imagination, love and infatuation.
The play dates from 1595-6, and therefore belongs to
Shakespeare’s early maturity as a dramatist. There is some disagreement about
whether A Midsummer Night’s Dream was specially written for an aristocratic
wedding. No direct evidence for this speculation exists, although the festive
and optimistic emphasis at the end—the fairies blessing the ‘bride-bed’—would
certainly be appropriate. One senses, too, a celebratory delight in the young
writer’s new-found richness of ideas and mastery of form, and it is interesting
to see from what a wide range of sources Shakespeare drew in order to create
what is nevertheless a highly original work.
The anticipation and completion of Theseus’ and Hippolyta’s
wedding, which frames the action, is taken from Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale.
Puck’s origin, on the other hand, owes more to folklore than literature; the
‘mechanicals’ or ‘clowns’ (Bottom, Quince et al) are clearly caricatured
Elizabethan workingmen, while the story of Pyramus and Thisbe came to
Shakespeare through Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. No single
source, however, can account for the miraculous transformation Shakespeare works
upon these diverse materials.
Synopsis of the Play
Act 1, Scene 1: The setting is Athens. Theseus and Hippolyta
look forward to their wedding in four days’ time. Egeus enters, angrily
demanding that his daughter Hermia be forced to marry Demetrius, while Hermia
defiantly asserts her love for Lysander. Lysander and Hermia, left alone,
decide to elope the following night: they will meet in the wood outside the
city. Helena enters, lamenting her unrequited love for Demetrius, and the
lovers reveal their plan to her. Scene 2: A group of Athenian workmen plan to
perform ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ before the ‘Duke and Duchess on their wedding-day
at night’. They agree to rehearse secretly in the wood on the next night.
Act 2, Scene 1: The action moves to the wood on the
following evening. Puck, Oberon’s servant, meets a Fairy belonging to Titania:
then master and mistress appear, and quarrel violently over a ‘little
changeling boy’ with whom Titania will not part. Oberon sends Puck off to fetch
him the flower ‘love-in-idleness’, with the juice of which he will compel
Titania to fall humiliatingly in love with the first creature she sees on
waking. Demetrius enters, pursued
by the lovesick Helena; Oberon, seeing this, instructs the
returning Puck to anoint the eyes of the ‘disdainful youth’, Demetrius, so that
he will again love Helena. Scene 2: Titania, in her bower, prepares for bed.
Once she is asleep, Oberon squeezes the juice on her eyes. Lysander and Hermia
enter and lie down to sleep. Puck, mistaking one Athenian youth for another,
anoints Lysander’s eyes. Helena, still pursuing Demetrius, stumbles across the
sleeping Lysander who awakes, declares his passion for her and runs after her.
Hermia wakes to find herself abandoned.
Act 3, Scene 1: The Athenian ‘mechanicals’ enter to rehearse
their play. Bottom, awaiting his cue off-stage, is mischievously transformed by
Puck: he reappears with an ass’s head. His colleagues flee in terror, leaving
Bottom to confront the ardor of the waking Titania who is ‘much enamored’ of
his ‘fair shape’. Scene 2: Puck and Oberon confer. Oberon, seeing Demetrius and
Hermia, realizes Puck’s error. He dispatches Puck to bring Helena to him,
meanwhile anointing the sleeping Demetrius’ eyes so that he may wake and see
Helena. Lysander enters, protesting his love to Helena; their noise awakes
Demetrius who thus joins Lysander in passionate courtship of her. Hermia enters
sadly and then cannot understand Lysander’s coldness. All four fall to bitter
quarrelling. Oberon therefore instructs Puck to lead the couples apart and then
use the juice on Lysander’s eyes so that his love for Hermia will be restored.
Act 4, Scene 1: Titania cossets the bemused Bottom before
they sleep. Oberon undoes the ‘hateful imperfection of her eyes’ and she
accepts his victory in the quarrel. Dawn arrives, and with it Theseus,
Hippolyta and Egeus, out hunting. They discover the sleeping couples. Once
awake, their obvious happiness together moves Theseus to overrule Egeus and
propose a triple wedding. Bottom, alone, wakes to wonder at his ‘dream’. Scene
2: The ‘clowns’, in despair at the loss of Bottom, are overjoyed at his return.
Act 5, Scene 1: The wedding rites completed, Theseus calls
for entertainment and chooses the clowns’ play, which is presented with
ludicrous incompetence but sincere intention. All retire to bed at midnight,
and the Fairies enter to bless the house.
We can be fairly sure that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was
performed at court in 1604, but the next recorded occasion is in 1662 when
Samuel Pepys saw a production and described it as ‘the most insipid ridiculous
play that ever I saw in my life’. From this date until the 20th century A
Midsummer Night’s Dream was only known in radically adapted versions.
Purcell in The Fairy Queen of 1692 first exploited its
musical potential. The dominance of spectacle, dancing and music in this
production was maintained throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, including
(for example) Garrick’s 1755 version (The Fairies). Mme. Lucia Vestris’ 1840
production restored most of Shakespeare’s text and at least restricted the
number of songs, although the operatic style still predominated, with lavish
special effects and a huge cast. Mendelssohn’s incidental music, composed in
1843, became de rigueur for all performances in the Victorian period—Max
Reinhardt’s 1935 Hollywood version still maintained the tradition.
Harley Granville-Barker’s 1914 production restored the full
text and stripped away Mendelssohn’s music and the overblown staging, thus
emphasizing ‘dramatic rather than scenic illusion’ (R.A. Foakes, introduction
to the New Cambridge Shakespeare edition). Benjamin Britten’s 1960 opera based
on A Midsummer Night’s Dream featured disturbingly vivid sets by John Piper and
fairies more sinister than innocent, but it was Peter Brook’s 1970 production
of the play which seemed at last to provide a truly 20th century reading of the
text. His set consisted of a bright white box in which the actors performed
like circus artists, bringing out the ‘dark and powerful currents of
sensuality’ (John Kane) within an apparently playful context.
Certain themes stand out with obvious clarity in any reading
of the play. Varieties of love abound: there is the naive infatuation of the
young lovers, counterbalanced by the mature and rational affection between
Theseus and Hippolyta; darker currents of lust are suggested by the
Titania/Bottom liaison; and there is the innocent intensity of the mechanicals’
comradeship as they struggle to achieve pathos in their presentation of
‘Pyramus and Thisbe’, itself a story of tragic love in the mode of Romeo and
The play, then, might be seen as a study of the blind power
of love modified and ultimately blessed by the experience of suffering, albeit
artificially condensed into one night of madness. How seriously we take these
ideas will vary: Jan Kott famously drew attention to the dark and sinister
aspects of the ‘fairy’ world, while cynics might point out that the happy resolution
of the lovers’ difficulties is only achieved by the ‘artificial’ intervention
of Oberon. Indisputably, the idea of transformation informs almost every part
of the play: Bottom is ‘translated’ into an ass; the lovers see each other
afresh when they wake from their dream (‘And I have found Demetrius, like a
jewel, /Mine own, and not mine own’); Theseus is suspicious of the transforming
power of the imagination, yet Hippolyta reminds him that ‘all the story of the
night told over, /And all their minds transfigured so together, /More
witnesseth than fancy’s images...’ Something real and important, then, has
The mechanicals strive for dramatic realism and fall
laughably short—yet their failure actually draws attention by contrast to the
triumphant success of the play as a whole in seducing the audience into that
‘willing suspension of disbelief...which constitutes poetic faith’ (Coleridge).
Notes by Perry Keenlyside
The Cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Theseus, Duke of Athens Jack
Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons Karen
Lysander, in love with Hermia Benjamin Soames
Demetrius, suitor to Hermia Jamie
Hermia, in love with Lysander Cathy Sara
Helena, in love with Demetrius Emily Raymond
Oberon, King of the Fairies Michael
Titania, Queen of the Fairies Sarah Woodward
Puck, in the service of Oberon Ian Hughes
Peter Quince, a carpenter John
Nick Bottom, a weaver Warren
Francis Flute, a bellows-maker Peter Kenny
Tom Snout, a tinker Don
Snug, a joiner; Egeus, father of Hermia David Timson
Starveling, a tailor; Philostrate, Master of the Revels John Rye
Fairy, in the service of Titania Daisy Donovan
Fairies attending on Titania:
Cobweb Sophie Nakhimoff
Moth Laura Sheldon
JACK ELLIS (Theseus) has played Orsino in Twelfth Night
and Horatio in Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company, as
well as many other Shakespearean roles for theaters across Great Britain. His
television appearances include Wycliffe, Beck, Prime Suspect and The Knock and
his film credits include A Dangerous Man and Didn’t You Kill My Brother?
KAREN ARCHER (Hippolyta) has worked for the Royal
Shakespeare Company in Nicholas Nickleby and as Mrs. Erlynne in Lady
Windermere’s Fan, as well in plays such as Ghosts, She Stoops to Conquer and
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Her television appearances include The Chief,
Ruth Rendell Mysteries, Casualty and Chancer and she has been seen in the films
The Secret Garden and Forever Young.
BENJAMIN SOAMES (Lysander) trained at LAMDA. Since then he
has appeared in the TV series Sharpe and Absolutely Fabulous as well as the TV
films Heavy Weather and England, My England. His theater credits include
Measure For Measure.
JAMIE GLOVER (Demetrius) trained at the Central School of
Speech and Drama and has since played title roles in Hamlet and Henry V and a
number of other roles in, amongst others, Tartuffe and The Rose Tattoo for Sir
Peter Hall. His TV appearances include A Dance to the Music of Time and
CATHY SARA (Hermia) has worked for the New Shakespeare
Company in The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet, as well as the Stephen
Joseph Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse and King Lear at the Hackney Empire.
Her television appearances include Kavanagh QC, Beck, The Detectives and
Heartbeat, and she has worked extensively for the BBC Radio Repertory.
EMILY RAYMOND (Helena) has played Helena in A Midsummer
Night’s Dream for the Royal Shakespeare Company as well as a number of other
roles in plays such as The Changeling, All’s Well That Ends Well, and The
Beggar’s Opera. For other theaters she has appeared in Romeo and Juliet, The
Seagull, and Of Mice and Men. Her TV credits include Robin Hood and Highlander
and her film credits, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and A Murder of Quality.
MICHAEL MALONEY (Oberon) has worked extensively for the
Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal National Theatre, and in the West End, in
taking leading roles such as Romeo, Prince Hal in Henry IV Parts 1 & 2,
Peer Gynt and Hamlet. He is also active in film, and is known for his roles in
Truly, Madly, Deeply, and Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, Henry V and In the Bleak
SARAH WOODWARD (Titania) joined the Royal Shakespeare
Company after leaving RADA and has since appeared in many Shakespearean roles
including Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. Other theater credits include The Sea,
Kean and Wild Oats.
IAN HUGHES (Puck) has played Puck in A Midsummer Night’s
Dream for the Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as other roles in King Lear,
Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, The Venetian Twins and numerous other
plays. His TV credits include Death of a Salesman, Survivor’s Guide and
Accidental Death of an Anarchist.
JOHN MOFFATT’S (Peter Quince) distinguished theater career
encompasses two hundred roles across the UK, 42 major London productions and
two Broadway appearances. He has played Malvolio in Twelfth Night at the Open
Air Theatre, Regents Park, appeared in Ingmar Bergman’s production of Hedda
Gabler and in Married Love directed by Joan Plowright. Film credits include
Prick Up Your Ears. He has also been seen on UK TV in Love in a Cold Climate
WARREN MITCHELL (Nick Bottom) is well known for his performance
as Alf Garnett in the TV series Till Death Us Do Part and In Sickness and In
Health. He has also played Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman at the Royal
National Theatre (a role he later recreated for the BBC), and the title role in
King Lear at the Almeida Theatre. He has worked extensively in theater in
Australia where his credits includes The Homecoming, Uncle Vanya and Hello
PETER KENNY (Francis Flute) trained at RADA and his various
Shakespearean roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal National
Theatre, The Orange Tree and other theaters across Great Britain, have included
Feste in Twelfth Night and Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. He has also worked
extensively for the BBC Radio Drama Company.
DON McCORKINDALE (Tom Snout) has performed numerous leading
roles during a theater career, which has taken him all over the world. His
roles have included Prospero in The Tempest and Rosencrantz in Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern Are Dead. Other plays include Shiver Breathing at the Royal
National Theatre and The Mousetrap in London’s West End. His TV credits include
Edwin Drood and Coronation Street and he often records for BBC Radio.
DAVID TIMSON (Snug/Egeus) has performed in modern and
classic plays across the world, including Wild Honey for Alan Ayckbourn,
Hamlet, The Man of Mode, and The Seagull. He has been seen on TV in Nelson’s
Column and Swallows and Amazons, and in the film The Russia House.
JOHN RYE (Starveling/Philostrate) has performed in The
Merchant of Venice, Cymbeline, Henry VI and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way
to the Forum, in London’s West End, as well as The Comedy of Errors for the
Royal Shakespeare Company. His television appearances include The Bills and
DAISY DONOVAN (Fairy) trained at LAMDA where she performed in
a number of productions including Barbarians, Twelfth Night and The Duchess of
EMMA LINDARS (Peaseblossom), SOPHIE NAKHIMOFF (Cobweb),
LAURA SHELDON (Moth) and DOMINIC KRAEMER (Mustardseed) are members of The
Finchley Children’s Music Group in London.
Last Albums Viewed
SHAKESPEARE, W.: Midsummer Night's Dream (A) (Unab...