On the Influences of Earlier Authors on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

It should be fairly simple for the reader to summon a list of authors, playwrights, poets, even musicians who were influenced by Shakespeare’s pen: Tolkien, Lewis, Dickens, Shaw, Melville. What is understandably difficult for many readers is summoning a list of Shakespeare’s influences. It is a hard thing to imagine, the greatest of all English authors having drawn inspiration from something. The aged master cannot be easily seen as a young, wide-eyed student. But as Bach learned from Buxtehude and Da Vinci learned from Verrocchio, so too did Shakespeare take inspiration. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of the Bard’s most famous comedies, is something most readers believe to have some entirely from Shakespeare’s mind. Upon initial observation, and in a gross sense, this would seem to be the case. There are no works predating Shakespeare’s play which depict scenes nearly as fantastical, creatures nearly as comical, characters nearly as whimsical, or plots nearly as devious. There are, however, embedded in the play very distinct fingerprints left by earlier influences. Perhaps the most immediately noticeable amongst these are the character names Theseus and Hippolyta, drawing from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, specifically the Knight’s Tale. Chaucer, that most famous and laudable Middle-English author, composed this collection as a compilation of tales being told by pilgrims en route. In the Knight’s Tale, two brave knights are captured by a powerful Duke of Athens named Theseus and his wife Ypolita. Just as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus is characterized as a strong, noble, and chivalric conqueror, and Ypolita (Hippolyta) as a swooning, obedient creature. The Knight’s Tale, very similarly to Shakespeare’s comedy, explores the ins and outs and complications of the love rituals of his contemporaries, mocking and scorning all along the way.

Drawing again from character name, one may find an obvious second influence: Ovid. Shakespeare, being a Renaissance man, would have been more than familiar with the classical texts of early Rome and Greece, and Ovid, being one of the most prevalent writers and orators of this period, would certainly have been included in Shakespeare’s literary diet. The work from which Shakespeare draws inspiration is Ovid’s magnum opus, the Metamorphoses sequence, particularly Book IV. Book IV details the forbidden love of Pyramus and Thisbe, two characters from the play to be performed by the guildsmen in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In fact, the play contained within is an almost parody of Ovid’s work, containing all of the elements of the story (two forbidden lovers communicating through a wall) but with ridiculous little touches throughout. It should also be noted that the first person to tell the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe in English was Chaucer, in his The Legend of Good Women.

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