A Midsummer Night's Dream: historical context

A Midsummer Night’s Dream: historical context

Historical Context of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Playwright and Timeframe

  • “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a comedy written by William Shakespeare, believed to have been penned between 1590 and 1597.

The Elizabethan Age

  • The play reflects the societal norms of Elizabethan England, where it was written and originally performed. This period is frequently referred to as the ‘English Renaissance’ that was marked by Queen Elizabeth I’s reign.
  • During the Elizabethan age, theatre became a popular form of entertainment. New playhouses were built, and plays such as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” were common attractions.

Society and Class in Elizabethan England

  • Social hierarchy was integral to society in Elizabethan England. This is mirrored in the play through the characters of Theseus, who represents the ruling nobility, and the mechanicals, who portray the working class.

Love and Marriage

  • Ideas about love and marriage in the play similarly reflect attitudes of the time. Arranged marriages were common to form political alliances or increase wealth. This can be seen in the imposed union of Hermia and Demetrius at the play’s beginning.

Superstition and the Supernatural

  • The play also reflects the superstition and belief in the supernatural common in the Elizabethan era. This is seen most clearly in the introduction of fairies and magical elements.
  • Elizabethan audiences believed in the existence of fairies and other magical beings, which were thought to interfere in human affairs. This is evident in Puck’s mischievous activities throughout the play.

Influence on Characters and Plot

  • Understanding the historical context informs the interpretation of the characters’ behavior and decisions in the play. For example, Hermia’s initial refusal to abide by her father’s wishes would have shocked Elizabethan audiences, given the importance placed on parental authority at the time.

Mythology and Folklore

  • The drama harnesses the vibrant world of Greek mythology, which was readily embraced during the Renaissance. Shakespeare skillfully links classical mythology with an English folkloric tradition, further enhancing the play’s appeal.
  • The setting of ‘midsummer’ itself was a significant time in the folkloric and pagan calendar; it was believed that the veil between the human and fairy world was thinnest, creating a sense of enchantment and possibility.