Allusion in A Midsummer Night's Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is filled with allusions (indirect references to people, places, things, or literary works of particular significance.) Most notably, Shakespeare alludes to Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphosis. He also continually refers to Greek gods and myths, usually to mock certain humorous situations or describe various characters.

Allusion Examples in A Midsummer Night's Dream:

Act I - Scene I 1

"that fire which burn'd the Carthage Queen..."   (Act I - Scene I)

This is an allusion to Vergil's Aeneid, in which he describes Dido's love for Aeneas, a Trojan hero. The fire and burning here refers to what happens when Aeneas sails away for Italy: Dido, the Carthage Queen, throws herself onto a burning funeral pyre. Hermia uses this string of allusions, vows, and devotion to strengthen the promise she makes to meet Lysander in the forest.

"Philomel..."   (Act II - Scene II)

A “philomel” is another name for a nightingale and comes from the name of a minor character in Greek mythology who is transformed into a nightingale after getting vengeance on the man (Tereus) who raped her and cut out her tongue.

"The starry welkin cover thou anon With drooping fog as black as Acheron,..."   (Act III - Scene II)

“Welkin” is an archaic word for sky, and “Acheron” is a river located in the Epirus region of northwest Greece. In ancient Greek mythology, Acheron was believed to be one of the five rivers of the underworld, and Homer described it as the river of Hades in his epics. Oberon tells Puck “The starry welkin cover thou anon/With drooping fog as black as Acheron,” which means something like “Cover the sky with a fog that is as dark as hell.”

"Hercules and Cadmus..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

One of the more popular mythical Greek heroes, Hercules was renowned for his great strength and especially for performing the twelve labors imposed on him by the goddess Hera. This other mythical Greek, Cadmus, was a Phoenician prince who founded the city of Thebes. By having Hippolyta, a legendary Amazonian warrior, say that she knows them, Shakespeare further interweaves his own story with Greek mythology, building on those popular legends.

"Not Shafalus to Procrus was so true...."   (Act V)

Bottom and Flute get the names of these two characters from Greek myth wrong. The story of Cephalus and his wife Procris as related in Ovid’s Metamorphoses has several versions, but generally the plot revolves around Cephalus’s accidental killing of his wife. It’s not a terribly romantic story of love, making its location here in the laborer’s play another example of how poorly written their script is.