Explore the social and historical context through Shakespeare’s stagecraft in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. To explore the social and historical context in William Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Nights Dream’ the features of the play will be analysed, such a: the different characters dialogue compared to their social class, the connections to Greek and Roman mythology, Elizabethan beliefs and the many references to the moon.
The play opens with characters from classic Greek mythology, Theseus who slain the Minotaur and Hippolyta Queen of the Amazons, who an Elizabethan audience would be familiar with as it was extensively studied in that era and the legends would be common knowledge among people so when the play begins the audience would instantly have had an understanding. But the opening would be questioned by the viewers because they would be wondering why they are marrying since they would be aware the couple are from different cultures.
It is ironic that the queen of a race of woman who refuse to marry because they despises men is marrying; this is how Shakespeare immediately sets the genre of this performance as a humorous love story. Shakespeare would have been aware that many of the audience in a public performance would have only received a basic education and would be technically illiterate, so verbal communication was of greater significance and so they would be more perceptive in listening to patterns of verse and rhyme in characters language, and aware of imagery created throughout the play.
To increase attentiveness the style of dialogue is varied. Theseus and Hippolyta are aristocracy and to express this Shakespeare used blank verse, this sophisticated style of communication makes the audience conscious of their high status. Their speech consists of iambic pentameter which contains five meters of two syllables, one stressed, one unstressed. This creates a rhythm that people listening can easily follow.
In contrast, the Athenian workmen converse in regular prose, their speech isn’t restricted by grammatical styles and their use of malapropisms, particularly by Bottom in an attempt of self-aggrandizement, suggests they are of a lower social status and lesser educated as snug says he is ‘slow of study’, although they probably were sent to school to get a basic education since they are tradesmen. In comparison, the fairies talk in rhyming couplets of AABB, as if they were casting a spell because they are mystical creatures associated with magic, they use more creative and poetic language to portray their majestic and magical nature.
Also their speech is often filled with references to nature. Rhyming couplets appeal to a wide range of audiences because it is basic assonance they can effortlessly recognize and helps with the intake of meaning within the play. Identically the lovers in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, Hermia and Lysander, also speak in rhyme but this characteristic of their conversations is unlike the fairies as Shakespeare uses it in a different context to show their love and affection for each other; Romeo and Juliet speak in a similar pattern combined to form a sonnet, the ultimate poetic expression of love in Shakespeare’s period.
‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘ A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ was written at roughly the same time as each other and this reflects in the similarities of the two plays. They are connected because in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ one of the three entwined plots is the workmen’s performance of the Babylonian legend of Pyramus and Thisbe from which story Shakespeare took inspiration to write ‘Romeo and Juliet’ it could also be seen as a parody.
They are also both love stories but the obvious difference is that ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is proposed as a comedy and ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is presented as a tragedy. In the opening lines of Act I, Scene I, Theseus expresses his impatience towards the wait to marry Hippolyta: “How slow this old moon wanes! She lingers my desires, like to a step-dame or a dowager long withering out a young man’s revenue” Time is passing slowly for Theseus, this is subjective, and because of his eagerness to marry Hippolyta to fulfil is ‘desires’ on their wedding night.
He is judging time by the passing phases of the moon that he refers to as a ‘she’, which suggests the moon represents Diana, the Goddess of Chastity; he blames her and thinks her lingering is deliberate in an attempt to maintain Hippolyta’s virginity as she does not approve of Theseus ‘desires’. Theseus compares his impatience in awaiting their marriage to the death of an old woman so he can get his inheritance. Hippolyta’s comparison is more romantic than Theseus’: “And then the moon, like to a silver bow new bent in heaven, shall behold the night of our solemnities. ”
Shakespeare uses a simile and effectively compares the crescent moon, on which night the couple shall wed, to a silver bow and therefore connects their marriage to Cupid, the Roman God of Love. Shakespeare compares the moon to a ‘silver bow’, possibly because in these contexts the moon represents Diana who is often depicted as a hunter with a bow and arrows much like the amazons. The father and daughter relationship in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ between Egeus and Hermia is similar to that between Capulet and Juliet in ‘Romeo and Juliet’. The two plays both feature heroines subject to their father’s authority.
Both relationships reflect the patriarchal society of Shakespeare’s era of which the father was head of the household and their word was regarded by the family as law. To Hermia her ‘father should be as God’ so Hermia’s disobedience towards her father’s wishes for her to marry Demetrius would be unexpected and would shock and appal an Elizabethan audience as this is disrespectful to Egeus. Hermia’s and Juliet’s stubbornness would bring about dire consequences from their enraged fathers as both threatened harm to their daughters in the case of their defiance.
The chastisements are harsh if Hermia does not obey: “Either to die the death or …to live a barren sister all your life, chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon. ” There are options for Hermia’s fate if she refuses to marry Demetrius. She will legally be put to death, which suggests the severity of Hermia’s defiance, or to live as a ‘sister’ i. e. a nun and take an oath of celibacy to renounce ‘forever the society of men’. Theseus mentions that she will be a slave to Diana, the Goddess of Virginity, praying in vein as Diana is ‘cold’ and ‘fruitless’ so will not listen or yield to Hermia’s desires; Hermia wants to marry Lysander but she has to marry Demetrius or no-one because Demetrius is her fathers choice.
Capulet threatens to disown Juliet: “I’ll ne’er acknowledge thee, nor what is mine shall never do thee good” Capulet judges Juliet as a traitor and is determined to get her to the church on Thursday as he says he will ‘drag thee on a hurdle’ which was used for the executions of traitors, this emphasises the scale of the insult it would be if Juliet refuses to marry such a ‘worthy gentleman’ as Paris, and this image of death relates to Hermia’s punishment.