Sunday 25 February 2018

Cheat read: A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare

Written between 1590 and 1596 - Romantic comedy play

A Midsummer Night's Dream
A Midsummer Night's Dream

Justine Carbery

The rundown: Theseus, the Duke of Athens is planning to marry Hippolyta. Hermia is in love with Lysander, but her father wants her to marry Demetrius, and threatens that she must do his will or else face death or lifelong chastity as a nun. She and Lysander elope into the woods, followed by Demetrius, who is, in turn, pursued by Helena, who nurses an unrequited passion for him.

Elsewhere in the forest, the fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titania, argue over Titania's refusal to give up her page-boy to Oberon. A love quadrangle develops among the young lovers when one of Oberon's elves, the mischievous Puck, plays Cupid by administering a love potion to the wrong people. Meanwhile, a group of amateur actors (The Rude Mechanicals) rehearses a badly-written play, "Pyramus and Thisbe", in the woods and Puck impishly casts a spell on Bottom, one of the players, to give him the head of a donkey, and causes Titania to fall in love with him. Chaos ensues.


William Shakespeare never published any of his plays and therefore none of the original manuscripts have survived. But details of the play would have been noted and pirated without his consent following a performance. This comedy, produced in 1595/1596 was pleasing to Elizabethan tastes, and endures today, with its high-spirited hijinks, frothy, verbal fisticuffs, fairies flitting around the stage and its sunny romantic ending.


Eventually, Oberon lifts all the enchantments and puts the humans to sleep and gives Lysander the antidote for the love potion so that he will love Hermia again when they all wake up. Next, Oberon gives Titania the antidote, and the King and Queen reconcile. Theseus and Hippolyta then discover Lysander, Hermia, Helena, and Demetrius asleep in the forest. On waking, the lovers decide the night's events must have been a dream and they all return to Athens. Likewise, Bottom wakes up and recounts his 'strange dream', and they perform the play at the wedding feast (which has since become a triple wedding). As everyone retires, Oberon, Titania and the fairies perform their blessings and Puck delivers a tender epilogue soliloquy.


The immortal diarist Samuel Pepys saw it in 1662 and hated it: calling it ''the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life." The famous essayist, William Hazlitt, found the play to be 'a dull pantomime'. But despite these criticisms, A Midsummer Night's Dream is among Shakespeare's most beloved and most frequently produced, and has become a rite of summer, often performed outdoors, with picnickers sharing bottles of wine and children romping on grass.


The Beatles played the "Rude Mechanicals" in the play-within-a-play as part of Around the Beatles, a TV special, broadcast by ITV on April 28, 1964.

A Midsummer Night's Dream has inspired many versions including films starring Ian Holm, Judi Dench and Diana Rigg. Probably the most famous production starred the legendary James Cagney as Bottom.

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