Not one of Shakespeare's plays is entirely original. Shakespeare copied from others writers' works, from myths, and from English folklore. Sometimes he relied heavily on one or two major sources. At other times, as when he wrote A Midsummer Night's Dream, he used bits and pieces from many places, adapting and blending them to create a masterpiece.
Two of the characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus and Puck, would already have been well known to Shakespeare's audiences. Theseus is a character from Greek mythology, and stories of his conquests of the Amazons and many others were familiar ones. Shakespeare probably gleaned much of his information about Theseus from Thomas North's 1579 translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. Detailing all of the women whom Theseus loved and abandoned, Plutarch describes a rash, heartbreaking lover, as well as a noble warrior. Shakespeare refers to these love affairs when Oberon rebukes Titania in Act Two, scene one, but chose to focus instead on a domesticated, noble Theseus.
Many critics believe that Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1387) influenced Shakespeare quite a bit in his writing of A Midsummer Night's Dream. In The Knight's Tale, Chaucer depicts Theseus as a wise and just ruler of Athens who has conquered the Amazons and married their queen, Hippolyta. Like Shakespeare, Chaucer describes Theseus's elaborate welcome home and wedding banquet. Two prisoners whom Theseus has captured are enamored of the same woman and quarrel clumsily in the woods over her; they may have inspired the story of Demetrius and Lysander, though many works, including Shakespeare’s own plays, are full of contorted love stories involving pairs of couples. In another work frequently cited as a source for A Midsummer Night's Dream, John Lyly's Gallathea (1592), two girls disguise themselves as boys and run away to avoid being virgin sacrifices; eventually magic helps them find true love. Though Helena and Hermia never disguise themselves as boys, they definitely get the men they want with the help of fairy magic.
Elizabethan playgoers would have recognized Puck as the legendary sprite Robin Goodfellow. Fairies, and Puck in particular, appear in many places in English folklore and were familiar figures associated with typical behaviors, much the way Santa Claus is now. The malicious deeds that the Fairy describes Puck perpetrating were well known to Elizabethan audiences, who would also have recognized his derisive "ho ho ho," his ability to shape-shift, and the broom he carries in Act V, scene one, usually used to sweep the doorsteps of maids whose milk he stole. But Shakespeare's audiences probably viewed Puck as a hobgoblin or devil much more evil than the mischievous imp about whom Shakespeare wrote.
The name Oberon was probably taken from the magical dwarf fairy king who ruled an enchanted wood and protected the main character in the French romance Huon of Bordeaux, which was translated into English by Lord Berners in about 1540. Oberon and his fairies control the weather, "all fantasie and enchauntments," and the minds of mortals, whom they can trick into thinking they are in paradise. This Oberon is associated with the east and appears in one section on his way to "Inde;" some critics believe this may have inspired Shakespeare to give Titania a child from India. "Titania" comes from Ovid's Metamorphoses, where the name is used for several mythological figures whose characteristics the Fairy Queen shares.
Fairy intervention in human affairs was common, too. In Chaucer’s The Merchant’s Tale, the King and Queen of fairies battle one another by meddling in the lives of a couple. Many scholars believe this story may have inspired Titania and Oberon's battle. In The Merchant’s Tale the fairies seem to act without care for the humans whose lives they affect however, in contrast to Shakespeare's king and queen, who show concern for, and are protective of, the humans who enter their fairy realm.
It is possible that Bottom and his associates came entirely from Shakespeare's imagination, inspired by the actors of his own company, including the well-known clown, Will Kempe. The Mechanicals are certainly from Shakespeare's Stratford; their names are all puns on their professions: a “bottom” is the core on which a weaver winds yarn, a “quince” is a wedge a carpenter would have used for leveling a joint, and Starveling was probably named after the Elizabethan stereotype that all tailors were rail-thin. In Anthony Murday's play John a Kent and John a Cumber (c. 1587-1590), terrible actors put on a ridiculous play in front of bemused nobles. The play also contains a convoluted love plot and a trickster named Shrimp who is rather like Puck. The play of "Pyramus and Thisbe" is probably a parody of a story found in Metamorphoses, though versions of the tale appear in many places. It is also possible that Shakespeare was deliberately mocking many melodramatic and clumsy English verse dramas that were written or produced in the late 1500s.
Even Bottom's transformation Shakespeare may have borrowed. In Scot's Discoverie of Supposed Witchcraft, a man finds an ass's head on his shoulders by magic. In popular legend, as well as John Lyly's play Midas, Midas's head is turned to an ass's head; the same magical occurrence happens in Apuleius's The Golden Ass (translated by William Adlington, 1566).
Shakespeare scholar R.A.Foakes points out that “the most notable feature of the play is the dramatist's inventiveness, brilliantly fusing scattered elements from legend, folklore and earlier books and plays into a whole that remains as fresh and original now as when it was composed.” Shakespeare’s masterful blending is especially notable when we realize that the woods in A Midsummer Night’s Dream contain a fairy king from French romance, a queen from Ovid, a servant from fairy lore, and common players from the Elizabethan stage.
– Contributed by the CST Education Department