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THESEUS, Duke of Athens.
in love with Hermia.
HIPPOLYTA, queen of the Amazons, betrothed to Theseus. -HERMIA, daughter to Egeus, in love with Lysander. _HELENA, in love with Demetrius.
OBERON, king of the fairies.
Puck, or Robin Goodfellow.
MUSTARDSEED, Other fairies attending their King and Queen. Attendants on
Theseus and Hippolyta.
A MIDSUMMER-Night's DREAM is first mentioned in 1598 by Francis Meres, in his Palladis Tamia. Two years later it appeared for the first time in print, in two nearly simultaneous quarto editions. Whether the second was issued by the publisher of the firstT. Fisher-or surreptitiously by some one else, only the printer, J. Roberts, being named, cannot be decided. It corrects several blunders, is in general far superior to the texts known to have been pirated, and was afterwards used as the basis of the first Folio. But it commits more blunders than it corrects, conventionalises without insight, and is on the whole decidedly the less authentic and original.
The play had already, as the title-pages of both editions attest, been 'sundry times publicly acted,' by Shakespeare's company.
It continued throughout the greater part of the seventeenth century to be one of the most popular of his early comedies. The attraction lay chiefly in two features,—the fairies and the clowns,—and the subtle threads by which they are inwoven did not prevent their being detached, adapted, and imitated for the benefit of the distinct audiences to which each feature specially appealed. Thus in 1602 the clowns' burlesque was imitated in the Oxford play of Narcissus ; and after the suppression of the theatres furtive performances were ventured of a droll, afterwards (1661) printed as The Merry Conceited Humours of Bottom the Weaver. The fairy-scenes had a more illustrious after-history, Shakespeare's fairydom, composed, as we shall see of many elements, took hold of the contemporary imagination, and has coloured all subsequent fairy literature. Even the splendid attempt of Spenser, a few years before, to found a new spiritualised Faerie in the minds of men, succumbed before the poetic realism of the Midsummer Night's Dream, and Gloriana became an alien in the fairy world. The fairy poetry of Drayton Nymphidia, 1627) and Jonson (The Masque of Oberon the Fairy Prince, 1611), of Herrick and Randolph, is of Shakespeare's school. Later, the play fell upon evil days and evil tongues. Pepys heralded the age of prose by pronouncing, in effect, upon the most poetic of plays Hippolyta's scornful verdict upon the clown's performance: This is the silliest stuff that e'er I heard' (Diary, 1662). As opera and operette (from 1692) it pleased the eighteenth century. With the dawn of the Romantic Revival the Dream found at length its fit audience. Wieland borrowed the elves in Oberon (1780); Goethe in the Walpurgisnacht of Faust (Oberon und Titania's Goldene Hochzeit') fantastically sported with Shakespearean motives; Tieck adapted the play under the title Sommernachtstraum, and Mendelssohn provided worthy music, the overture in 1826, the songs in 1843.
Beyond the facts already mentioned, external evidence for the date of the play is wholly wanting, and the internal evidence is far from simple. Palpable marks of the young Shakespeare, as we have seen him in the three preceding comedies, everywhere abound: the symmetrical grouping, the interchange
of a lyrical manner in the serious scenes with buffooneries in the comical ones, the tragic terrors rather gratuitously invoked at the outset and somewhat lightly dissipated at the close. The confusions of the Athenian lovers are a comedy of errors, actually . produced by the fairy agency to which Antipholus of Syracuse in his despair attributed his own. Hermia, like Ægeon, stands under the threat of death. There is still little care for subtle study of character, and these Athenian lovers are not a whit more elaborated than those of Navarre and Verona. In spite of its two great creations, Bottom and Theseus, the Dream belongs clearly to an earlier phase than the first of the comedies of character, The Merchant of Venice (1596). But it stands hardly less apart from the three earlier comedies of intrigue in boldness of design and mastery of execution. Shakespeare's youth betrays itself perhaps in what he chooses to do or to leave undone, but not in his way of doing it. The verse may be rather lyric than dramatic, but it reaches heights of lyrie loveliness, only paralleled in the probably contemporary Romeo and Juliet. On these grounds, the Dream may be safely placed within the limits 1593-95.
More precise clues to the date have been sought in the various supposed allusions. (1) Titania's description (ii. 2.) of the bad weather provoked by the fairy brawls had a close parallel in the rains and floods of 1594 ; (2) Bottom's suggestion that the lion might frighten the ladies unless provided with a reassuring prologue, was perhaps an allusion to a similar scene at the baptism of Prince Henry at Edinburgh, in August 1594, when a triumphal car was to have been brought in by an actual lion, but because his presence might have brought some fear to the nearest,' his place was supplied by a Moor.