Historical Context in A Midsummer Night's Dream

Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the 1590’s, around the time that he was also writing Romeo and Juliet. Unlike Romeo and Juliet though, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a comedy that parodies the traditional love stories and dramas of Shakespeare’s time. A Midsummer Night’s Dream also exaggerates and pokes fun at romantic conventions of actual Elizabethan society. Additionally, the play-within-the-play style mocks the conventions and limitations of Elizabethan theatre itself, making it even more comical for Shakespeare’s audiences.

Historical Context Examples in A Midsummer Night's Dream:

Act I - Scene I 1

"The course of true love never did run smooth..."   (Act I - Scene I)

The two lovers worry about their situation after the others leave, and Lysander points out that their situation, while not ideal, is not unusual, and many lovers have faced similar troubles. Lysander’s language suggests his familiarity with such situations, with “Ay me” expressing a strong sense of despair while “for aught” emphatically refers to everyone as in “for all” or “in all.” Such expressions allow him to make a grand claim about their situation, but he appears to temper their situation rather than inflate it. It is known that Shakespeare was writing this play at the same time as Romeo and Juliet, and Lysander’s claim situates A Midsummer Night’s Dream within the context of all romantic stories and “fated lovers.”

"Nay, faith, let not me play a woman; I have a beard coming...."   (Act I - Scene II)

Notice here how Flute complains about playing a woman because of his beard. By having Flute express this problem, Shakespeare was most likely mocking the rules during the Elizabethan era that prohibited women from being actors.

"Lie further off, in human modesty; Such separation as may well be said Becomes a virtuous bachelor and a maid,(60)..."   (Act II - Scene II)

Hermia says that she and Lysander should lay further apart to be “virtuous,” and behave according to societal expectations. However, recall that women during Shakespeare’s time were expected to adhere to a different set of social rules regarding chastity and marriage than men were. While it was considered respectful for men to remain chaste until marriage, it certainly was not expected in the same way that it was for women, and men did not face the same consequences of social ridicule or ruin for premarital sex that women did.

"Some to kill cankers in the musk-rose buds..."   (Act II - Scene II)

Titania begins to instruct her fairies to perform certain duties in her part of the forest. One of the duties is to kill the “cankers,” an archaic word for caterpillars who are in the “musk-rose buds.” The musk rose is usually white with varieties of pink and pale yellow. It was very popular among Elizabethans because of its unique scent among the rose family. Since she wants the caterpillars removed from these flowers in particular, we can infer that these are among her favorite flowers.

"Out, tawny Tartar, out!..."   (Act III - Scene II)

Lysander, under the effects of the love juice, uses this racist insult, along with “Away, you Ethiope!”, to rebuke Hermia so he can continue expressing his love for Helena. At the time of writing, non-Europeans were considered undesirable, and Lysander’s insults focus on how Hermia has darker features, like her hair and skin color, than Helena does. The adjective “tawny” means that something has a light brown to brownish orange color.