1) The setting of Athens compares well to England of the late 16th Century. Athens had defied the Great King of the eastern empire (Persia). Elizabeth's England had separated itself from the matrix of royal and religious control to its east in Europe and Rome.
2) Prior to this Shakespeare play, the typecasting of Elizabeth as "Fairy Queen" had already been firmly established by Edmund Spenser's "Faerie Queen" published in 1589. Shakespeare borrowed the name Titania (among other things) from Ovid's Metamorphoses, which made for a play on Britania. Elizabeth as queen obviously was the personification of Britania. It is suggested in the play that the defiance of Elizabeth/Titania was being blamed for plague (which resulted in the English theatre being closed for extended periods during 1594/1594) and bad weather leading to crop failures. Plague and famine were also two prominent themes in the saga of ancient Athens.
3) The names of the two male lovers, Demetrius and Lysander, indicate clear typecasting. Lysander had been the name of the Spartan commander who defeated Athens and imposed an oppressive regime upon it. Demetrius derives from the Demeter, goddess of soil fertility. Demeter is closely associated with the Athens of Theseus and therefore symbolizes concern for local welfare rather than foreign interference and domination (as in the case of Lysander).
4) In England, as elsewhere in Europe, there was a recurring concern over kingly succession. Would inheritance lead to a native born prince becoming king or would the land be subjected to a foreign born prince that would neglect the country in favor of other domains?
5) Theseus was notorious for "loving and leaving", and therefore not a particularly good role model for marriage. Oberon, the eastern power, accuses Titania of being partial to Theseus and even an accomplice in his numerous affairs. Likewise, Elizabeth had led on a number of suitors, but (despite pressure from parliament) ultimately rejected them all, both foreign and domestic. Elizabeth was married to her country and determined to treat England well, which is also the intent of Theseus for his bride-to-be Hippolyta (although she like England may have formerly been treated roughly). Considering the tragic marriage of her mother to Henry VIII, the attitude of Elizabeth toward marriage is understandable. Titania accuses Oberon of being jealous, which of course he very much was.
6) Oberon decides to punish Titania by exploiting a crisis in the kingdom of Theseus. (This action only makes sense if Titania is linked to Theseus.) The Lady Hermia was refusing to marry Demetrius and had chosen Lysander instead. It served the purposes of Oberon to encourage Hermia and Lysander, and find a way to make Demetrius abandon his claim to Hermia for Helena, who already wants Demetrius.
7) Hermia and Helena are the female equivalents of Lysander and Demetrius. Hermia is short with dark complexion and eyes. Helena is tall, blond and blue-eyed, but limpid. Helena represents the local ideal of beauty. Hermia is assertive and has exotic appeal, but she is no less a Lady than Helen and even appears to have the superior rank. In the play, Hermia is called "Ethiope" and a "raven/crow". The makeup of the young women is an object of exaggeration/hyperbole within the context of the "foreign versus domestic" debate, but had nothing to do with royal legitimacy.
8) Helen and Hermia can be compared to Elizabeth and her cousin Mary Queen of Scots daughter of James V. In the play, Hermia is the daughter of Egis/Aegis, a name associated with Jacob/James typecasting. Although Mary was "darker" in terms of hair color, and probably also eye and skin color, she was no less a Lady. The differences between them represented the normal variation within the royal family. Mary had first been married to a "Lysander", foreign-born Francis II king of France, but had no heir by him. She later married an English "Demetrius", Henry Stuart (Lord Darnley), by whom she bore the heir James VI (future James I of England). Stuart was killed shortly after the birth of their child, and Mary was not long after this imprisoned and executed by Elizabeth.
9) Oberon took strong exception to Titania's possession of an orphaned "Indian boy", the son of her priestess who died in childbirth. Titania was not allowing the child to grow to the point of maturity, that is, the day in which provisional rule by a woman would yield again to a qualified male heir. The epithet "Indian boy" comes directly from one of Shakespeare's main sources for the play, the story of Pyramus and Thisbe in Ovid's Metamorphoses. It is explicitly listed there as one of the names of ever-young Bacchus (Osiris/Dionysus). In a general sense, the Indian boy represents messianic kingship. Specifically, he represents the young James (or some other prince to be identified) as claimant to messianic kingship in England.
10) During the struggle with Mary, Elizabeth named a young lady Arbella Stuart as her heir. However, after Mary was eliminated, Elizabeth sent Arbella away from the court and she was not allowed to marry. Elizabeth did condone the marriages of two of her god-daughters about the time of Shakespeare's play. Elizabeth Vere wedded William (Earl of Derby) and Elizabeth Carey (grand-daughter of Queen Elizabeth's cousin Henry, Lord Hunsdon/Chamberlain) wedded Thomas son of Lord Berkeley. These pairings evidently did not result in a male heir to throne. In the end, Elizabeth declared James VI her successor, which is reflected in Titania's eventual release of the Indian boy to Oberon.
11) "Midsummer Night" was the eve of John the Baptist Festival in England, the equivalent of the Dionysus Festival (Dionysia) in Athens of old. The death of Dionysus/Bacchus/Osiris was equated to that of a seed buried in the ground so that it could be resurrected into new life. Midsummer Night's Dream like Ovid's Metamorphoses is about peculiar, unsightly transformations. The old Dionysus (Ovid's Pyramus) and his Bride (Ovid's Thisbe), as if doomed to failure, was being transformed into a new church and vision of Christ. In the play, the old model is made out to be so archaic as to be totally laughable, even as earlier English poetry is exposed to ridicule. The outlandish performance of Ovid's Bacchus bashing story of Pyramus and Thisbe by English tradesman Bottom and his troupe drives this point home.
12) The most hilarious transformation in the play is that of Bottom. It is adapted from the parody of Osiris found in the classical work "The Golden Ass" by Apuleius. In that work, a man is turned into a donkey that wanders aimlessly until he is healed by the goddess Isis. In Midsummer Night's Dream, Bottom is turned into a donkey and then receives the ungainly love of Queen Titania. Oberon intervenes and cures both Bottom and Titania. Bottom is elevated by this unexplainable encounter, and Titania is restored to Oberon along with the Indian boy.
13) Bottom stands for the English people, whose skill and spirit are compared to the people of Athens that built the Parthenon and other magnificent works. Although Titania is ultimately reclaimed by Oberon's matrix, Britania has been made the better for the brief interlude of "madness" (temporary disorientation of the senses and fearful, nauseous, dream-like state associated with a detachment
from familiar relationships). As Theseus had to yield to Hercules, the "king-killer" Elizabeth eventually recognized James as her own successor and savior-figure for England. This transformation was supported by Robert Cecil, who remained a top minister of James. A comparison between Cecil and Puck/Robin Goodfellow is unavoidable.
14) The play deviates somewhat from the original Greek story of Theseus. The wife of Aegeus rather than the daughter of Aegeus would have been the model "Dark Lady", who is named as Medea and whose divided loyalties were threatening Athens. Theseus himself competed with a rival prince named Dionysus for the love of the young princess Helen. (In archaeology, the Dark Lady is Queen Tiye of the Egyptian 18th Dynasty. Her Biblical counterpart is Zipporah the "Cushite" wife of Moses/Akhenaten and the dark lover of Solomon.)
15) It is surprising that pagan material is used so explicitly in the play. Yet, the play does not necessarily reveal anything further about Christian origins than is already encoded in that material itself, and perhaps less. There also isn't anything in the play that clearly takes us back to the time of Caesar Titus and the destruction of Jerusalem. There are more compelling themes driving the play than a need to weave such information as Roman authorship of the Gospels into the action.
16) There is no obvious reason to associate Aemila Bossano, mistress of Lord Hunsdon/Chamberlain, with the Dark Lady of the play. Lord Hunsdon (and his son George) may have had the standing of a "Demetrius", and the name Demetrius itself was that of a renowned comedic playwright of ancient Athens. Perhaps Bossano would have personally identified with Hermia, but unless her parentage was something very much different than what it appears, then she clearly could not have played such a role in real life. She could have had enough insight to write about such themes.
-Chuck the Puck
© Charles N. Pope, US Library of Congress. All rights reserved.