Use of Mythology in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
by Anne Cullen and William Bannard
In the Renaissance period, classical Greek mythology appears often in works of famous authors of the time, such as William Shakespeare. In Shakespeare’s famous play, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, he uses classical mythological characters such as Theseus and Hippolyta in order to further develop the story for the reader.
Greek mythology was well known in that period, and so a common tool for writers was to use mythological entities to convey to their readers a deeper sense of the characters and themes. By doing this, writers could relate new and unfamiliar characters or settings in their own works with mythological characters from antiquity that would have been immediately recognizable to the reader, providing some background on which the reader could draw. When authors used references to Greek myths, the readers could associate not only their knowledge of the myth, but also the various versions of the myth that were out there to increase their understanding. The way an author tailored the myth to his modern work could greatly alter how the new work was received.
Shakespeare’s use of Theseus as the Duke (or King, alternatively) of Athens and Hippolyta as his queen immediately places the reader in a mythological mindset. As the reader identifies one character from Greek mythology, the reader naturally then associates the other characters with this theme. For example, two other characters, Oberon and Titania, would be then given similar mythological traits and will be viewed as characters similar to Zeus and Hera. Shakespeare’s target audience would have had full knowledge of the stories of Theseus; therefore, they would recognize his Amazonian queen Hippolyta, and understand that the specific myth being drawn on was one in which he had conquered the Amazonian warrior women, defended Athens from them, and taken their queen (Hippolyta) as his wife. The myth identifies Theseus as a symbol of stability and power, which informs Shakespeare’s audience to the fact that Theseus’ word is law, and when he says in the first act that if Hermia does not obey her father and marry, then she must either “die the death, or … abjure / For ever the society of men” (1.1.65-67), Theseus is both dead serious and has the power to follow through on his word.
In another example, Puck could be compared to Eros, the Greek god of sexual love and beauty. The ointment that Puck places over characters’ eyes to make them fall in love with the first thing they see upon waking is equivalent to Eros’ golden arrows with the same effect. The reader would correlate these two distinct characters due to the original use of Theseus. Shakespeare more directly compares the two characters when Oberon says: “Flower of this purple dye, / Hit with Cupid’s archery, / Sin in apple of his eye” (3.2.102-104). His consistent theme of Greek and Roman mythology helps the reader to understand each character more deeply.
Finally, Shakespeare even twists Greek mythology to provide some comic relief for his audience when he has Nick Bottom and his cast of actors put on the play Pyramus and Thisbe in Act V. In antiquity, Pyramus and Thisbe is a tragic tale of forbidden love in which the two end up killing themselves because they each believe the other to be dead. In Shakespeare however, Nick Bottom’s troupe puts on such a terrible performance that it is seen as a comedy instead of a tragedy. The audience, knowing both Ovid’s version and the Shakespeare reenacted version, is supposed to be able to notice the differences and therefore find the intended comic relief.
In retrospect, this use of mythology could alter the way the play is understood. Any allusion can be taken farther than the author intended, therefore prompting readers to lose sight of the story itself while overemphasizing the allusions. That being said, references to Greek mythology also give the story additional meaning, and differences in understanding lead to a greater appreciation for the work as a whole.