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A Midsummer Night's Dream History: Publication, Production & Performance

Instructor: Adrienne Nicholson
This lesson will discuss the publication, performance and production history of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The play has endured centuries of adaptations and is still considered one of Shakespeare's finest works.

William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is considered Shakespeare's most popular comedy. The Royal Shakespeare Company describes the play as being set in an enchanted forest with fairies, sparring lovers, and amateur actors who are putting on a play.

Puck -  A Midsummer Night

Publication

When exactly was William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream written? Its earliest known printing was in 1600 when it was entered into the Register of the Stationers' Company by the bookseller Thomas Fisher and there was mention of the play in 1598. As for the exact date it was written, that's not really known. Scholars and historians have poured over almanacs and Elizabethan history to determine the year in which the play is set. Much of their research was based on one passage, which describes the Queen of Fairyland enduring a cold, wet summer followed by a bad harvest. However, this is mostly a guessing game, as the weather in a play does not always reflect the time in which it was written.

Given the similarities in style, it is widely accepted that A Midsummer Night's Dream was likely written in 1595/6. This is because the play shares the poetic style of Love's Labour Lost, Richard II, Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice, all of which were written in the mid 1590's.

Performance and Production

The first performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream was known with certainty to be at Court on January 1st 1605.

In its original performances, the cast had no access to scenery and only minimal props. This allowed the audience to focus on the costumes, music and language of the play rather than the backdrop or unnecessary props. During these early performances, it was the norm for a group of gifted boy players to take the female roles. William Shakespeare was known for writing his plays with specific players in mind for the parts, so it's no wonder that he meant for the performances to focus on the strengths and talents of the players.

In the following centuries, the original play was adapted several times. It was an adapted form of the play that found its first commercial success: Henry Purcell's spectacular 1692 operatic version called The Fairy Queen.

David Garrick's own operatic version, The Fairies (1755) dismissed all the play's original characters except the lovers and the fairies and introduced 28 songs, leaving less than 600 lines from the original play. From this production onward, the play found success as it appeared on stage in various adaptations. New adaptations focused less on Shakespeare's language and characters and spread out to include lavish sets, wild costumes and grandiose productions.

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