Elizabethan Culture in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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The Elizabethan Era began on November 17, 1558, the day Elizabeth Tudor ascended the throne of England and became queen. This period in history lasted roughly forty-five years, until her death on March 24, 1603. (Alchin) During the last couple decades of Elizabeth’s life, William Shakespeare began to gain popularity in the theater world of England.

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In 1599, Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar was performed for the first time in the Globe Theater, London’s famed auditorium. Shakespeare wrote about thirty-seven plays during his lifetime, and many of them reflected the time period he grew up in. Since it is thought that Shakespeare was born in April of 1564, a big portion of his childhood and young adult life took place during the Elizabethan Era, which influenced a number of his plays, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Alchin) The superstitious beliefs, the treatment of women, and Titania’s entourage are all connections from the play to the culture and history of the Elizabethan Era.

Superstition was a very important part of Elizabethan daily life, and Shakespeare incorporated many of these beliefs into his play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. One of these beliefs was that fairies walked the earth, and that they were fallen angels that sided with the devil (Whitesides). According to superstition, these fairies only emerged at night to play tricks on the humans. While they were not entirely evil, these creatures were mischievous and therefore were often blamed for misfortunes that befell the innocent. Shakespeare included the basic ideas of this centuries old superstition in his play, but also added a twist to it. While fairies had always been feared by the humans, Shakespeare portrayed them as more good-natured than the stories always said they were. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fairies, especially Oberon, were trying to do the right thing, but they still managed to play a wicked trick on Helena, Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius. The legendary character Puck was also included in the play, and he was a well known sprite during the Elizabethan Era. It is unknown whether the story of Puck emerged from Scandinavia, Germany or Ireland, but it spread throughout Europe no matter where the story originated. There are different names for Puck in old English, old Norse, Swedish, Danish, German, Irish, Latvian, Lithuanian and Welsh, which shows just how widespread this superstition was. The old stories described Puck as a shapeshifter that came out at night to cause harm and mischief to the innocent. In the Irish variation of Puck, he is often depicted with an ass’ head. This connects to A Midsummer Night’s Dream because when Puck used his magic on Bottom, he gave him the head of an ass. The Welsh version of Puck, called Pwca, would lead travelers with a lantern and then blow it out when they were at the edge of a cliff.

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