A Midsummer Night's Dream

In September, 1662, the diarist Samuel Pepys dined and then went to the the King's Theatre, "where we saw 'Midsummer Night's Dream,' which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life." The performance was not a total waste, however, for Pepys did see "some good dancing and some handsome women," but, he adds, that was "all my pleasure." The editor of the Diary, Henry Wheatley, adds in a note that "this seems to be the only mention of the acting of Shakespeare's play at this time, and it does not appear to have been a favourite" (I, 483). Wheatley is correct, for the play as it was written was seldom performed during the Restoration and never performed in the eighteenth-century; instead, it had been adapted many times as a backdrop for opera and spectacle.

No matter when performed, or by whom, or with what text, A Midsummer Night's Dream was a favorite vehicle for spectacular staging, especially the last act, which was treated much like a pantomime transformation scene. Both this play and The Tempest were the chief Shakespearean beneficiaries, if that is the right word, of the rage for fairies on the stage and in art which was one of the more picturesque phenomena of popular culture in the 1840s. . . . Most Midsummer Night's Dream pictures therefore were realizations in paint of the play's poetic imagery, its fairy and comic characters, and its never-never-land setting in a moonlit glade . . . . they were compounds of all that went to make up the early Victorian notion of the fanciful--lush arboreal landscape, moonlight, fireflies, the flora and fauna of the woods from a rich variety of flowers to capacious toadstools, assorted hovering or reveling fairies and elves. (Altick 264)

To call some of these seventeenth and eighteenth-century productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream "adaptations" stretches the truth; "dismemberments" might better describe them. An early version of the play cut everything but the rehearsal and the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe by the rustics; the play was called The Merry Conceited Humours of Bottom the Weaver (1661). At the other extreme, the operatic versions of the play omitted the rustics altogether and dealt primarily with the lovers and fairies, but with severely edited texts. The Fairy Queen (1692), with music by Henry Purcell, cuts many of the lines of Shakespeare's play and adds numerous songs and dances; the fifth act, for example, has one spectacle with Chinese dancers and another with a dance performed by monkeys.

The list of paintings below deal only with the fairy world and their king and queen, Oberon and Titania. Until A Midsummer Night's Dream was restored to the stage as Shakespeare wrote it, the painters had little to draw upon besides their imaginations and the richly inventive operatic spectacles and these dealt primarily with the supernatural aspects of the play; the painters' realizations of the play were understandably no less extravagant than their sources, and the canvasses teem with activity, peopled with fantastic elves, fairies, sprites, goblins and pixies. As bizarre as Richard Dadd's The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke may seem to us, it reflects, along with fairy paintings by artists like Robert Huskisson, Daniel Maclise and Joseph Noel Paton, the nineteenth-century taste for a romantic, fairy and elf-ridden A Midsummer Night's Dream.

These observations lead us to an interesting question about the stage-history of A Midsummer Night's Dream. As a critic and literary historian, I would assume that various productions of the comedy inspired the artists, but just the opposite may be true. The play as Shakespeare wrote it was not popular and had no stage tradition for the artists to draw on before its revival in the 1840's. Was it, then, the widespread enthusiasm for the genre of fairy painting that led to the restoration of the play to the stage? Would the play, restored to its original form and severed from the operatic and burlesque adaptations, have had to wait until our century for a staging faithful to its Shakespearean source if it had not been for what Altick calls "the rage for fairies on the stage and in art" in the early nineteenth century?