Saturday, June 11, 2011

Shakespeare’s Interwoven Classical Sources in Midsummer Night's Dream

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In a Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as in his other works, Shakespeare has referred to several classical sources. Through this process of rewriting and “modernization,” the classics are kept alive. In this particular work, the four main stories can be tied together by works such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.


The story of the quarrel between Oberon and Titania, the King and Queen of the Fairies can be linked to the romances of the four youths, Lysander, Demetrius, Hermia, and Helena because they both drew from the Metamorphoses. Hermia swears “By the simplicity of Venus’ doves,” taking us back to the silver doves that drew the love-goddess away in the final stanza of Shakespeare’s narrative poem based on the Metamorphoses. She also swears “by Cupid’s strongest bow, by his best arrow with the golden head,” an explicit allusion to the first book of the Metamorphoses. Hermia, then, is swearing her love for Lysander by Apollo’s love for Daphne. The quarrel is also interwoven with the Metamorphoses because the name “Titania” is derived from Ovid, where it refers to a range of goddesses of the night.


The stories of the wedding between Theseus and Hippolyta and the preparations and performance of a play by local, common men can also be connected by the Metamorphoses. The play, an Ovid story of Pyramus and Thisbe, was performed at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. Pyramus and Thisbe, Salmacis and Hermaphroditus are book four of the Metamorphoses. Clearly, Shakespeare derived this love story from Ovid and incorporated it into Midsummer Night’s Dream.


The wedding between Theseus and Hippolyta can also be interwoven with the story of the four romances between Lysander, Demetrius, Hermia and Helena. They both play a part in Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale.” In lines 10-11, it states, “There wedded he the queen, Hippolyta, and brought her home with his to his country.” The character of Theseus is also included in lines 645-646 where it states, “With Theseus and his squire principal, is risen, and looks on the merry day.” The literary source of the romance of the young lovers in Theseus’ charge is also “The Knight’s Tale” in the Canterbury Tales. Initially, Shakespeare’s chosen sources appear confusing, but upon examination, it becomes clear as to his ties and his intentions for them.


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