Shakespeare’s Sources for A Midsummer Night’s Dream
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most-performed plays: a delightful comedy, but full of enough potential tragedy to avoid becoming saccharine. Much of that tragic possibility comes from Shakespeare’s sources, as he directly acknowledges in Act V. The entertainments Philostrate proposes, all stories taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, show the unhappy endings all too likely to spring from tales like that of the four lovers of Shakespeare’s play, or the strife-torn fairy rulers.
“The battle with the Centaurs, to be sung / By an Athenian eunuch with the harp” (V.i.44-5) is the first of Philostrate’s suggestions, and the most blatant. Centaurs are almost an epitome of the dangerous fairy-world that underlies so much of Shakespeare’s play: half-man, half-beast, they recall Bottom’s similar, albeit more humorous, condition. Lust and jealousy cause the undoing of the marriage feast, for the Centaurs’ theft of women provokes a battle. Thanks to the fairy intervention, all in Shakespeare’s play are happy with their spouses: but how might the wedding have been marred if Demetrius and Lysander both still loved Hermia? “These are the forgeries of jealousy” (II.i.81) cries Titania to Oberon, and their contention, likewise a result of lust and jealousy and unbridled nature, luckily enters the play only peripherally. Theseus’ law, and fairy medicine, overrules the lusty, animal side of love and prevents such violence from marring, indeed unmaking, the comedy.
“The riot of the tipsy Bacchanals, / Tearing the Thracian singer [Orpheus] in their rage” (V.i.48-9) is an alternate selection, but one just as significant. “The mad Ciconian women” (p.259) cry “There is …
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… scene. The meta-drama overcomes the actual play, and what was tragic becomes “tragical mirth,” what was a dire warning to heed society’s laws or fear the consequences is a gross entertainment and slapstick.
Theseus’ laws have overcome the bloody, passionate side of love: the man himself appears to have ceased his earlier, youthful amours to settle down with a wife, Hippolyta, vigorous enough to match his own martial nature. Indeed, he discounts the entertainments as those which he has already heard or told — they are old news to him, settled affairs, and he needs hear of them no more. The only reason “Pyramus and Thisbe” receives a hearing is its odd synopsis — and equally odd presentation! Shakespeare shows the alternate endings his play could all too easily have taken, to make us relish all the more the happy solution he and the characters have found.