There is no known source for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As with Love’s Labour’s Lost, and The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream seems to have been entirely a product of Shakespeare’s own imagination. But although there is no specific text upon which Shakespeare relied, we can see threads of earlier narratives woven throughout the play. In constructing the characters Theseus and Hippolyta, Shakespeare no doubt had in mind a story by the literary genius, Geoffrey Chaucer. In Chaucer’s masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, or, more specifically, in the Knight’s Tale, we are introduced to Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and his wife, Ypolita, the Queen of the Amazons:
Whilom, as olde stories tellen us,
Ther was a duc that highte Theseus;
Of Atthenes 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 wysdom and his chivalrie;
He conquered al the regne of Femenye,
That whilom was ycleped Scithia,
And weddede the queene Ypolita,
And broghte hir hoom with hym in his contree,
With muchel glorie and greet solempnytee,
And eek hir yonge suster Emelye.
And thus with victorie and with melodye
Lete I this noble duc to Atthenes ryde,
And al his hoost, in armes hym bisyde.
And certes, if it nere to long to heere,
I wolde have toold yow fully the manere
How wonnen was the regne of Femenye
By Theseus, and by his chivalrye,
And of the grete bataille for the nones
Bitwixen Atthenes and Amazones,
And how asseged was Ypolita
The faire hardy queene of Scithia,
And of the feste that was at hir weddynge,
And of the tempest at hir hoom-comynge;
But al the thyng I moot as now forbere,
I have, God woot, a large feeld to ere,
And wayke been the oxen in my plough,
The remenant of the tale is long ynough.
To view the Knight’s Tale in its entirety, visit librarius.com. To learn more about Geoffrey Chaucer and read essays on his work, click here. Shakespeare also could have received some inspiration from Plutarch’s Life of Theseus, which contains a few similarities to the Bard’s play. In addition, the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe can be found in many different versions and for this story-line Shakespeare could have used Chaucer’sLegend of Good Women as a source, although it is more likely that he emulated Ovid in his retelling of the legend of Pyramus and Thysbe. Ovid’s Metamorphoses was one of Shakespeare’s most important sources, and there is much evidence to prove that he read Ovid’s text in its original Latin (for a discussion of Shakespeare and the argument that he knew Latin, please see his biography on Shakespeare Online. However, Shakespeare had no inspiration for Bottom and the fairies other than his own imagination.