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Sources of the Play

For A Midsummer Night's Dream, as for one other early play, Love's Labour's Lost, and another very late one, The Tempest, Shakespeare seems to have devised a plot with relative independence. At any rate, nothing has been found which may properly be called the 'source' of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The most that can be said is that there are resemblances of detail between this play and some earlier narratives.

None of these, however, are of any great importance. It is possible, for example, that in writing about Theseus and Hippolyta, Shakespeare had in mind Chaucer's Knight's Tale; for there too this 'Duke of Athens' and his bride 'do observance to a morn of May,' and there the name of Philostrate appears. Shakespeare knew also North's translation of Plutarch's Lives, which contains a 'Life of Theseus,' and he very probably borrowed some details from this. He could have read the story of Pyramus and Thisbe in several versions, such as that in Chaucer's Legend of Good Women, in Ovid's Metamorphoses, or in Golding's translation of Ovid (1565). It is barely possible that he derived the suggestion for Oberon's magic 'love-juice' from the Spanish Diana Enamorada by Jorge de Montemayor; but if he read an English translation, it must have been in manuscript, for none was published until 1598. He could have found accounts of Robin Goodfellow in several books, and he seems to have met the name Titania in Ovid, where it is applied to Diana; yet his conception of the fairies and of Bottom and the other 'hempen homespuns' is not derived from books, but from the traditions of the countryside, from his own observation of simple men, and from his own imagination.