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RICHARD GRANT WHITE says, "The plot of A Midsummer Night's Dream has no prototype in ancient story." There is no tale or history bringing together any two of the four groups of characters which the poet has here fashioned into one harmonious action. In collecting the material of the separate groups forming this play, written in 1594 (?), Shakespeare drew upon classical tradition; upon his own knowledge of fairy folk-lore, gathered, no doubt, as a boy by the fireside in his Warwickshire home; and upon his own observation and experience of London life and London theatres.
Classical tradition supplied him with the stories of Theseus and Hippolyta, and of Pyramus and Thisbe. The facts he mentions in the life of the Duke of Athens point to his careful reading of North's translation (1579) of Plutarch's Life of Theseus. In this book are related the incidents referred to in the play in I. i. 16, the war with the Amazons, and the wooing of Hippolyta; in II. i. 78–80, the loves of Theseus ; in V. i. 43, the part Theseus played in the battle between the Lapitha and the Centaurs; and in V. i. 47, the relationship between Theseus and Hercules. But these are only the exploits of the Athenian, and do not in the least suggest the character of the man Shakespeare portrays, or the situation he creates in the play. Again, Shakespeare was, of course, familiar with the story of Theseus as told by Chaucer in The
Knight's Tale. Yet play and tale resemble each other in few particulars except that the scene of each is laid at the court of Theseus; that in both two men are in love with one woman, - in Chaucer, however, there is no second woman to complicate the plot ; and that the action in each case begins on the first day of May. The story of Pyramus and Thisbe was common in the literature of Europe and familiar to Elizabethan readers. The most obvious authority for this story is Ovid's Metamorphoses, V. 54-166; there one of the daughters of Minyas tells the tale to her sisters to while away the working hours. The poet had, doubtless, read the Metamorphoses either in the English verse translation of Golding (1567), or, as seems more probable, in the original Latin. This probability is based chiefly on the fact that Shakespeare uses the word Titania, which occurs elsewhere in Ovid, to designate a goddess descended from the Titans, but which is not translated into the English. Chaucer also tells the story, translating or paraphrasing Ovid, in his Legend of Good Women.
There have been many attempts to produce the literary sources of Oberon, Titania, Puck, and the rest of the fairy realm; but critics have shown that the literature cited is either wholly different in characterization, or written after and modelled on Shakespeare's play. The poet had, it is true, Chaucer's lament that the land is no more "fulfild of fayerye," and Spenser's imaginary lineage of the royal house of Faery (see the references in the appendix), as well as the English version of the French romance, Huon of Bordeaux. This last, there appears good ground for believing, supplied him with the name Oberon and the land where Oberon ruled, but the Oberon of Huon is
a fairy of earthly qualities and limitations, and wholly unlike his namesake. Aside from this trifling detail, Shakespeare obtained from these writings little more than vague and general ideas regarding the nature and demeanor of the inhabitants of elf-land. He did not receive the suggestions leading to the creation of the beings who dance and love and quarrel in the wood near Athens from poet or romancer, but rather from the general fund of stories treasured by the unlearned. While the learned had ceased to believe, the common people still held faith in the visits of the fairies, and delighted in stories of what had been or might yet be seen when "the iron tongue of midnight hath told twelve." Every rustic maid knew the pranks of Robin Goodfellow, and every traveller feared his deceptive guidance. To the fireside tales of "old thin-faced wives that roasted crabs by night" and "told of monsters in their lives" Shakespeare must have listened as a boy, and grown familiar with the habits of Puck and the conduct of the king and queen of fairy land. Yet, as Furness says: "There were no real fairies before Shakespeare's. . . . The fairies of Folk Lore were rough and repulsive, taking their style from the hempen homespuns who invented them; they were gnomes, cobbolds, lubberlouts, and, descendants though they may have been of the Greek Nereids, they had lost every vestige of charm along their northern route." These old tales were, no doubt, the stimulus to the poet's fancy, the suggestion to his creative imagination, which, starting with such heavy and homely material, brought into being the gay and airy sprites we know and love. Hallam expresses the sentiment of modern criticism when he says, "The Midsummer Night's Dream is, I believe, altogether
original in one of the most beautiful conceptions that ever visited the mind of a poet, the fairy machinery."
Lastly, the poet's London experience revealed to him such men and women as the courtly Theseus and the noble Lady Hippolyta. Whether he knew the hard-handed mechanicals headed by the all-sufficient bully Bottom in London or in Warwickshire, it is to London actors and London playwrights that he applies the satire of their lives and their acting. The lovers are the conventional lovers of the stage or of romance. They are but slightly and superficially discriminated, and their originals may be found in many a play or tale of the time.