A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most original plays – rather than dreiving from one or two clear sources the text is rich with references to familiar works by other writers from Ovid to Plutarch and Chaucer. From Plutarch’s The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes for instance Shakespeare took both Theseus and Hippolyta and their history which he alludes to in the opening scene. These two characters are also found in Geoffrey Chaucer’s, ‘The Knight’s Tale’ the language of which seems to find an echo in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. From Seneca’s Medea and Hippolytus Shakespeare took aspects of the Helena and Demetrius love-plot.
In Ovid’s Metamorphosis shakespeare finds the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, and also a source for the hunting scene in act 4. In Apuleius’s The Golden Asse Shakespeare found some aspects of Bottom’s transformation (with an Ass’s head), and Titania’s infatuation with him. And from Reginald Scot’s, The Discouerie of Witchcraft Shakespeare found the name Puck and also some aspects of Bottom’s transformation.
I have chosen for today’s blog to look at this extract from Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale and to see how it compares to Shakespeare’s opening of A Midsummer Night’s Dream
“Whylom, as olde stories tellen us,
Ther was a duke that highte Theseus;
Of Athenes he was lord and governour,
And in his tyme swich a conquerour,
That gretter was ther noon under the sonne.
Ful many a riche contree hadde he wonne;
What with his wisdom and his chivalrye,
He conquered al the regne of Femenye,
That whylom was y-cleped Scithia;
And weddede the quene Ipolita,
And broghte hir hoom with him in his contree
With muchel glorie and greet solempnitee,”
Here you can recognise the names Theseus and Ipolita (or Hippolyta) and you get the basic story (that Chaucer himself borrowed from Plutarch) that Theseus won Hippolyta in battle and brought her home to be his bride. Shakespeare picks up at that point.
Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace; four happy days bring in
Another moon: but, O, methinks, how slow
This old moon wanes! she lingers my desires,
Like to a step-dame or a dowager
Long withering out a young man revenue.
Four days will quickly steep themselves in night;
Four nights will quickly dream away the time;
And then the moon, like to a silver bow
New-bent in heaven, shall behold the night
Of our solemnities.
Ask yourself how much this is influenced by Chaucer. The influence is subtle but consider Theseus’s first words – are they words of chivalry and wisdom? It rather depends on how they are played on stage! Of course both writer’s use the word ‘solemnities’ and despite the differences in their writing there is something at least to my ear similar in the two passages. But as always Shakespeare has taken two names and a story and given them whole personalities – and these two are not even the ‘main’ characters!