To understand A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the meaning behind the play, you must first understand the context in which it was written and performed. An understanding of the period and the theatre during this time will help you to sense how the production would have looked to a playgoer of Shakespeare’s London. Every aspect of life during the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was transformed by the extraordinary cultural revolution we now call the European Renaissance.
The term Renaissance, derived from the French equivalent of the Italian word rinascita, meaning ‘rebirth’. The word has generally been employed to refer to the rediscovery of classical Greek and Roman art and culture across Europe. This was also a great age of theatrical and dramatic achievement. The theatre underwent profound changes from the reign of Elizabeth I and her successors James I and Charles I, yet at the same time it endured the intense social and cultural upheavals of the period with remarkable consistency. Theatre during the last quarter of the 16th century was not a socially exclusive affair- on the contrary, it was almost startlingly popular. Over the years between the 1560s, when the first purpose-built playhouses were established, and 1642, when all the playhouses were closed, well over fifty million visits were made to playhouses.
Before the 1500s there was no such thing as a theatre in England. There were wandering minstrels who travelled from one town and castle to the next, some street players who entertained people at markets and fairs. The troubadours, strolling players and minstrels were expected to memorize long poems and these recitals were included in their repertoire. Many of these wandering minstrels, or strolling players, were viewed as vagabonds and had the reputation as thieves. The spread and frequent outbreaks of the bubonic plague, or Black Death during the Elizabethan era resulted in regulations restricting all people who travelled around the country and licenses were required to travel. This led to licenses for entertainers. Licenses were granted to the nobles of England for the maintenance of troupes of players. The Elizabethan Acting Troupes were formed.
The Elizabethan Theatre started in the cobbled courtyards of Inns, or taverns - they were therefore called Inn-yards. As many as 500 people would attend play performances during this time. There was clearly some considerable profit to be made in theatrical productions. James Burbage was an actor, who at one time would have played in the Inn-yards. It was his idea to construct the first purpose-built Elizabethan theatre. It was called 'The Theatre'. Development of the Elizabethan Theatre was based on the style of the old Greek and Roman open-air amphitheatres. The Elizabethan Theatre had arrived.
A trip to the theatre was exciting and full of action, such as duels, battles, dances and apparitions, but basically the plays made their impact through expressive language. Boy players performed female roles. Women did not act in English playhouse companies until after the monarchy was restored in 1660. Young male actors were apprenticed to members of the company, playing female roles until their voices broke and physical growth made them no longer credible women. Disguise was a common feature of a dramatic plot. In cross-dressing comedies such as Twelfth Night for example, men playing female characters disguised themselves as males, and highly complex layers of role-playing and roles within roles were created. Costumes were usually sumptuous and were purchased by the companies from the estates of deceased nobility. They were among the most valuable asset to the playhouse companies, who sometimes paid many times more for a single costume than for a manuscript.
If all the world was a stage in the English Renaissance, it follows that the stage may be the world. Surely this is was so at the Globe Playhouse, where a round building representing the world contained a stage in which a trapdoor represented hell while the actors spoke their lines in earthly settings beneath a roof painted to look like the heavens. (Kinney 2000, p2)
Elizabethan theatres were built of wood and comprised of three tiers of seats in a circular shape with a stage area on one side of the circle. The stage was more or less an open platform, jutting out into the audience, with no curtains and no elaborate sets. The audience's seats and part of the stage were roofed, but much of the main stage and area in front of the stage were open to the elements. The stage was divided into three levels – a main stage area with doors and curtains, an upper canopied area, and an area under the stage accessed by trapdoor. Performances took place between two and five in the afternoon, using natural light from the open centre of the theatre. There was very little scenery or props, leaving actors to rely on their lines and stage direction to convey the time of day and year, the weather, location and mood of the scenes. The actors used a presentational rather than representational style of performance - which means that the actors would address the audience directly.
Apart from special command performances, plays were staged for the most part in the open air, except during the winter when they moved indoors. The audience, several hundred strong, or even over a thousand, would be closely crammed in the central pit or in galleries running round the sides. The resulting stench would be appalling. Theatre had an unsavoury reputation. London authorities refused to allow plays within the city, so theatres opened across the Thames in Southwark, outside the authority of the city administration.
Davenant’s prologue for The Unfortunate Lovers (1638), a Blackfriars play, speaks of the citizenry in the twopenny galleries at the amphitheatre playhouses of the previous generation:
…they…to th’ Theatre would come
Ere they had din’d to take up the best room;
Then sit on benches, not adorn’d with mats,
And graciously did vail their high crowned hats
To every half-dress’d Player, as he still
Through th’hangings peep’d to see how th’ house did fill.
Good easy judging souls, with what delight
They would expect a jig, or target fight. (Gurr 1987, p42)
The professional theatre (a relatively new establishment for England), necessarily reflected the political and social strains of the time. The location of theatre buildings, the structure and organisation of theatre companies, and the entire scene of theatrical activity in Renaissance London epitomised the fundamental tensions of English society as it moved from the medieval to the modern world.