A Midsummer Night's Dream: Allusions & Mythology References

Instructor: Emily Teater

Emily currently is a substitute teacher, and has taught a variety of K-12 courses. She has a master's degree in Mythological Studies.

You will be introduced to some of the mythic themes and elements found within ''A Midsummer Night's Dream.'' This lesson will include references to Theseus and Hippolyta as well as Pyramus and Thisbe.

Shakespeare and Myth

While many know of Shakespeare's gift for poetry and innovative storytelling, some may not know that many of his stories, themes, and symbols were borrowed from Greek and Roman mythology. Shakespeare borrowed elements from Greek mythology such as the belief that one's fate was already predestined, use of the ancient people's belief in the power of the celestial bodies, or stars, and of course elements of Greek and Roman tragedy. However, A Midsummer Night's Dream includes many direct references to myth by directly referring to mythical characters and stories. This lesson is but a brief introduction to some of those references.

Theseus and Hippolyta

The framing device for the main story of the play is the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta, referring to a particular Greek myth. Theseus was a Greek hero from Athens, who is sometimes considered the son of the god of the seas, Poseidon, or the king of Athens, Aegeus. Theseus is best known for slaying the Minotaur, a monster who was half man, half bull in the labyrinth, a massive maze in which all paths led to the center, or the Minotaur.

This painting, from 1861, depicts Theseus hunting the Minotaur in the labyrinth.
TheseusandMinotaur

Unfortunately for Theseus, he had horrible luck with women. The first woman he fell in love with was Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos. It was she who helped him solve the path of the Labyrinth. He took her with him when they escape the island of Crete, but he later abandoned her on an island. Later, he and a friend decided that they each wished to marry a daughter of Zeus. Theseus chose Helen of Troy, who was still a child at this time. The two men kidnapped her and decided to wait until she was old enough to marry. Helen's brothers, Castor and Pollux, kidnapped her back. Theseus later went with his cousin, the hero Heracles, to obtain the girdle of the Amazonian queen, Hippolyta. She fell in love with Theseus and went with him, making her the only Amazon to ever marry. Their marriage is where Shakespeare's tale takes place. However, even that does not turn out a happy marriage. Theseus later casts her aside to marry Phaedra, the sister of Ariadne. Hippolyta does not take this well and attacks his wedding party, where she is later killed.

This vase depicts Heracles fighting the Amazons, Hippolyta very likely being among them.
Amazons

Puck

Puck could be compared to two mythic figures, and sometimes is, depending on the director's choices for costuming. On the one hand, Puck bears some resemblance to Pan, the Greek god of nature. Pan was a satyr, who was also the son of Hermes, making him just as cunning and playful. Pan was known to enjoy scaring travelers in the woods with loud noises, and it is from him that we get the word 'panic.' Puck has this impish and tricky nature as well, and gets joy out of causing chaos, if only for a little while.

On the other hand, Puck is sometimes compared to Eros, or Cupid as his Roman name would be. Eros was the god of love and the son of Aphrodite. He too had a little bit of a trickster streak and would sometimes play around with the hearts of mortals. Puck's tricks do cause some problems in the love lives of the mortals of the play, but eventually work out for the better.

This modern painting uses elements of both Pan and Eros to make Puck. Note the pointed ears and nature around him, suggesting Pan, and the youthful, childlike appearance of Eros, or Cupid.
Puck

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