Classical influences on Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

Written by Bella Howard-Vyse

To say that the Classical influences on the Modern World are both underestimated and underappreciated would be an understatement. Despite the fact that 60 per cent of words in the English language derive from Latin, there are other less obvious connections between the two vastly different worlds: the Ancient and the Modern. The influence of Classical literature on more recent writers has been exponential. Take Shakespeare, for example; possibly the greatest and best-known poet and playwright of all time. A huge proportion of his work was inspired by Greek Mythology and the fantastical legends that were so highly regarded in antiquity. The works and talents of Shakespeare cannot be questioned; however, the roots of his ideas have greater links to mythology and have been carried further through time than one might first believe. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the writer’s more famous plays and appears to have been significantly influenced by Classical literature. Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ has offered a particular contribution to the works of Shakespeare and this is evident through the idea that, as the name suggests, ‘Metamorphoses’ embodies ideas of change and a lack of permanency in different ways. This concept runs parallel through Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, encapsulating elements of change and volatility within the real and the fantasy world as characters experience the ethereal. This is evident when Puck turns Bottom into a creature that is half-man half-donkey, and when Titania becomes victim to Oberon’s love potion. Similarly, the mythological story of Theseus and the Minotaur is reflected, somewhat, through this play. The Minotaur was a creature renown for being half-man half-bull, and this can be echoed through Shakespeare’s characterisation of Bottom after Puck has played his trick, transforming him into half-donkey.

There are various reflections of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur in the four lovers in Shakespeare’s play. Theseus’ infidelity to Ariadne after taking her away from Crete is mirrored through Hermia being abandoned by Lysander. Theseus leaves the Cretan princess unannounced after she falls asleep on their return to Athens. Similarly, Hermia has just fallen asleep in the forest after running away from her father, when Lysander deserts her. In this way, a parallel can be drawn through both Ariadne and Hermia fleeing from their fathers’ who disapprove of Theseus and Lysander, respectively. The nature of both the desertions is similar as they both happen whilst the women are asleep and as they try to escape their home. Shakespeare plays further on the ancient myth of Theseus and the Minotaur to form the part of the story in which the four lovers, Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius, and Helena, get lost in the forest. This seems to reflect the labyrinth in which the Athenian youths find themselves facing death; either through starvation from wandering through the maze or by being eaten by the Minotaur. It is in this labyrinth that the children meet the half-human Minotaur just as it is  in the forest that the young lovers meet the half-human Bottom. In both instances, those who were contained within the labyrinth, (be it the Athenian youths in the myth or the lovers in the play), are unable to escape: the former from death and literally from the maze, and the latter from their endless passions and romantic complications as well as from the forest itself. The complex nature of the lovers’ ever-changing situation, however, also traps them inside the forest in a different way to the physical nature of King Minos and the concrete walls confining the Athenians. In Shakespeare’s play, a pre-eminent focus of the comedy is down to the altering love interests of the four main characters. Initially, Hermia is set to marry Demetrius but is in love, mutually, with Lysander, whilst Demetrius is loved and pursued by Helena when he himself loves Hermia. Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius and as a result, places the love potion on Lysander instead. This means that all the lovers leave the forest matched differently to how they entered it. Their freedom from the forest is symbolic of their freedom from the quarrelling confusion of their love stories since this is what added to their confinement, in a metaphorical sense, inside their labyrinth. As in the myth, the lovers have to be aided by some ‘external power,’ in the form of Puck, as they could not save themselves from the labyrinth. This is reflective of the fact that the Athenian youths who were also trapped in their labyrinth in Crete, were unable to save themselves until they were freed by Theseus.

Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was one of the first plays to pull away from the idea of religion. It is recognised that, at the time of Shakespeare, writers and poets were encouraged, if not expected, to highlight the critical values of Christianity and the importance of religion. Christopher Marlowe, one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, was accused of being an atheist and a biography on the writer said his atheism, ‘finally caught up with him’, and was ‘a serious offence, for which the penalty was burning at the stake.’ Shakespeare may have been inspired to introduce this unconventional and unfamiliar faith by the likes of Ovid, whose epic poem offered an alternative to Christianity, giving way to the ideas of a different and reverie world outside that of ordinary faith. Works based on Christianity allowed writers to discover philosophical meanings and pose moral questions. However, the approach that Shakespeare took in this play allowed him to explore beyond the realms of reality into a world full of change, transformation and magic, thus producing a play full of enchantment and the supernatural.

Unlike A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the story of Theseus did not have a happy ending. The good fortune that Theseus enjoyed at the beginning of his story is shown to be short-lived. In mythology, Theseus kidnaps Hippolyta, after abandoning Ariadne, and takes her back to Athens where they marry and have a son named Hippolytus. Theseus then betrays his wife and falls in love with Phaedra, and she tricks him into murdering Hippolytus. This has relevance to A Midsummer Night’s Dream because Oberon says:

To the best bride-bed will we, Which by us shall blessed be; And the issue there create/Ever shall be fortunate.’

This is ironic given the fact that the ‘issue’ created in Theseus and Hippolyta’s marriage bed was neither blessed nor fortunate, as Greek mythology tells the story of Theseus killing his son after believing his new wife that Hippolytus had raped her. Many in the Renaissance audience would most likely have known this story and so would have recognised the irony in Oberon’s blessing of their marriage bed.

There are also several simpler connections between the ancient mythology and Shakespeare’s play. Firstly, Theseus, as previously touched on, has been taken to be the name of one of the main characters in Shakespeare’s play also set in Athens. The name of his wife in the myth has also been adopted by Shakespeare to be the name of his wife in the play; Hippolyta. The name of the lover Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream may have been derived from Helen of Troy who was taken from her husband Menelaus, in Argos, to Troy by Paris. This consequently led to the Trojan War where the Greeks and the Trojans fought for 10 years: the Greeks for the restoration of Helen to her home, and the Trojans to keep her. This could be seen to refer to the part in the play where both Demetrius and Lysander fight for Helena’s love and acts as further evidence that Shakespeare may have been influenced by this story in Ancient Greece.

The gods of Ancient Greece and Rome are represented by the fairies who interfere with the lives of mortals. This was a well-known trait in antiquity and the gods were present in a lot of literature at the time. Their presence is particularly prominent in epic poetry such as Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ and Homer’s ‘Odyssey,’ as well as various Greek and Roman comedies and tragedies. Shakespeare’s character Puck appears to resemble Mercury, the Roman messenger god. Not only does he act as a messenger for the King, but he also likes to play tricks on the mortals, just as Mercury was renowned for. The King and the Queen of the Fairies could be Jupiter and Juno who are known to quarrel out of jealousy, just as Oberon and Titania do, notably over who will care for the changeling child that Titania stole from the Indian King after the child’s mother died. The abduction of this child is similar to that of Ganymede who was the, ‘most beautiful of all mortal men: and so the gods snatched him away…so he should live among immortals.’ This shows a further parallel between Ancient literature and Shakespeare’s ideas.

Such concepts and parallels drawn between Greek Mythology, Classical literature, and Shakespeare’s famous play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, form only the shallow foundation of the idea that the Classical World had such profound influences on the world we live in today. The fact alone that Shakespeare, such an incredible writer, was inspired by this world that came before him, begs the question as to the nature of other such influences on our world and makes us wonder just how much else, and indeed what else, we owe to the beautiful literature and fascinating myths of antiquity.

 

Bibliography:

Mabillard, Amanda, ‘Shakespeare’s Sources for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare Online,’ 2000, http://www.shakespeare-online.com/sources/mssources/html ; accessed: 14 October 2016.

Shakespeare, William, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ed. Jonathan Bate, (London, 2008)

Homer, The Iliad

Biography.com editors, ‘Christopher Marlowe’,

www.biography.com/people/christopher-marlowe-9399572 ; accessed 21 October 2016

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