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The History of the Play

A Midsummer Night's Dream was first printed, in quarto, in 1600. A second quarto bears the same date on the title-page, but this was actually printed about 1619. The existence of the play some years before 1600 is proved by the fact that it is mentioned by Francis Meres in his Palladis Tamia, which was published in 1598. Those who seek to determine the date of composition more definitely than this are obliged to base their opinions upon internal evidence. Some critics see in Titania's speech about the confusion of the seasons (II. i. 88–114) a reference to the unusually cold, wet summer of 1594. Others, believing that the play was written to honor some great wedding, have attempted, without conspicuous success, to determine whose that wedding was. The result of these and other conjectures and of inferences drawn from the manner in which Shakespeare here handled his verse is that there is general agreement that the play was written not earlier than 1593 and not later than 1595.

In its original and complete form the play has been, until relatively recent years, among the less popular of Shakespeare's works, although in 1631 the Bishop of Lincoln got into trouble with the Puritans by allowing it to be performed—in whole or in part—at his house on a Sunday. An abridgment of the play with the title The Merry Conceited Humours of Bottom the Weaver was apparently acted in private during the period when the theaters were closed (1642–1660). Whether the performance which Pepys saw in 1662 and thought 'the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life' was a representation of the play as Shakespeare wrote it is not certain, but in 1692 at any rate the original was displaced by an operatic version with music by Purcell, and from then until well on in the nineteenth century the records show only such perversions and adaptations as that produced by David Garrick in 1755, in which some very stupid songs replaced much of Shakespeare's text and in which the parts of Lysander and Hermia were given to Italian singers.

The credit for the restoration to the stage of something like the original play must be given to Tieck, a German translator of Shakespeare, who produced it at Berlin in 1827 with the incidental music by Mendelssohn which has since become famous. Some of the best performances of recent years have been given in Germany, notably the production by Max Reinhardt, which combined remarkable excellences with lapses of taste characteristically German.

In England and America productions reasonably faithful to the original text have been both frequent and popular since the performance by Mme. Vestris in 1840 at Covent Garden in London. The spectacular possibilities of the play and the popularity of Mendelssohn's music have so appealed to managers that the text has often been swamped in scenery and sound, but there must have been good acting in Augustin Daly's production (1888), when Theseus was played by Joseph Holland, Demetrius by John Drew, Lysander by Otis Skinner, and Helena by Ada Rehan. In 1903 the New Amsterdam Theater in New York was opened with a performance of the play characterized rather by lavish expenditure of money than by intelligence of acting or direction; at another revival in 1906, Miss Annie Russell attempted to play the part of Puck; and in 1915 Granville Barker offered to New York his London production, one which certainly displayed intelligence although its gilded fairies and its substitution of supposedly suggestive 'decorations' in place of realistic scenery aroused much hostile criticism.