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Shakespeare - and Halloween?

Updated on February 20, 2018
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Cecelia grew up in South Australia. During her work in Kindergartens, Cecelia also became interested in speech development as literacy.

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A Midsummer Night's Dream

The plot of A Midsummer Night's Dream is very simple. A group of lovers wander into the forest on midsummer-night's eve...however, because it is a magical time when the mystical world opens to the everyday world these lovers become embroiled briefly in the affairs of the fairies.

Unbeknownst to the humans, The fairy king Oberon and the fairy queen Titania have been arguing. It is an old story, Oberon has been off paying attention to someone else and Titania has acquired a cute page boy. Oberon returns and arbitrarily demands the page boy as a gift for his entourage. Titania refuses to hand over the boy and objects to his attention to various female fairies.

As the fairies argue, the natural world becomes disrupted and atmospheric pyrotechnics go off. The fairies also start throwing spells around and all the lovers end up chasing the wrong partner. The piece de resistance is the enchanting of a clown-like character called "Bottom" with an Ass head. Titania is cursed to love this creature - at least for a little while.

In true Shakespearean comic tradition, this is all sorted out at the end. The lovers re-unite with the correct partners and even Oberon and Titania resolve their quarrel. The humans return to the village bemused and puzzled as to what happened to them.

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This play has been capturing people's imagination for years and has sparked many fanciful productions with elaborate sets in which the fairies walk upon scafolding or hang from ropes in order to "fly" although the script does not demand this!

The plot is timeless and has also inspired modern productions, including the film starring Calista Flockhart of Ally McBeal fame.

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What is not so well known is that this play is actually a Halloween play. The day we now celebrate as Halloween used to be known as All Saint's Eve - the evening before All Saint's day. That is how you get the word Hallo (holy) - een (evening).

So Halloween is a bit like Christmas Eve and everyone is quite justified eating sweets and enjoying themselves!

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All Saint's Day was a day for remembering Christian relatives and praying for congregation members who had died and gone to heaven. A lot of superstitions developed regarding the evening before All Saint's Day as combination of theology and mythology had given rise to the belief that the souls of the dead returned for the evening and returned to their graves in the morning.

(Act III Sii L380-386: "And yonder shines Auroras' harbinger; At whose approach ghosts, wandering here and there, Troop home to church yards: damned spirits all, That in cross-ways and floods have burial, Already to their wormy beds are gone; for fear lest day should look their shames upon...")

People were concerned and frightened because they were confused as to what happened after death and worried that there were souls floating around with no real place to go. They conjectured these spirits were trapped in purgatory, or in some equivalent half-way land of pre-christian English mythology awaiting their final fate.

A bit of noise and fun and dressing up seemed like a good way of keeping themselves safe from floating spirits and might encourage their relatives souls to migrate on to heaven - which is where we get our modern celebration of Halloween.

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Shakespeare of course added a good slice of English folk tradition to his All Saint's Eve play, so the Christian mythos is barely recognisable.

He was an artist and an eclectic after all and his purpose was to create good popular theatre for his audiences.

He may have played with the dates too, to make the summer equinox line up with All Hallows Eve; and certainly included imagery drawn from other folk celebrations, such as May Eve (Act I Si L165-167).

However, it was all in the pursuit of good art!

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So, when the kids dress up and go out to party (after making sure that it is quite safe for them to do so in today's world) spare a thought for the naughty little sprite called "Puck" created all those years ago by a Playwright with a sense for the fantastical. Maybe even consider adding a few Fairies and Seventeenth Century items to your costuming and decorations.

You could even watch A Midsummer Night's Dream - well not on the night because its a comedy, but sometime around the season, relaxing the next day would be fine! Or you could watch Macbeth which is spookier and more aligned with our modern understanding of Halloween.

© Cecelia

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## Clark, C. Shakespeare and the Supernatural (Williams and Norgate LTD., London, 1931)

## Shakespeare, W. A Midsummernight's Dream (ed. R.A. Foakes) (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1984)

## Sinclair-Rohde, E. Shakespeare's Wild Flowers: Fairy Lore, Gardens, Herbs, Gatherers of Simples and Bee Lore (The Medici society, LTD., London, 1935?) pp.7-9

## Thistleton-Dyer, R. The Folklore of Shakespeare (Dover Publications Inc., New York, 1966)

## Traister, B.H. Heavenly Necromancers: The Magician in English Renaissance Drama (University of Missouri Press, Columbia 1984)

© 2009 Cecelia


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    • creativearts2009 profile image

      Cecelia 7 years ago from Australia

      The sources are listed on the site. They are pretty academic, but you can access them at a university library.

      Fairy dances are actually primarily associated with May Eve. May Eve is mentioned in the play, however, it is not May at the time: "And in the wood, a league without the town, where I did meet thee once with Helena to do observance to a morn of May, there will I stay for thee". ActI Si L165-167

      You can check the hub "What does Halloween really stand for?" by Lisa HW for some easy reading on this matter.

      It is important to remmember that Shakespeare's society was Christianised, his patron King James also sponsored the translation of the Bible into English - so All Saint's Eve, Christmas, Lent and Easter were some of the the major celebrations of the time.

      * I don't live in the northern hemisphere to experience their seasons. However, the May celebration is associated with the commencement of spring in Europe which makes the literal summer June/July. There is a solstice around then. All Saints may be more autumn, even beginning of winter for the UK. However, Shakespeare took "artistic liberty" to access the most folklore and magic for his play. Even in those days, something was required to get people to suspend their practical thinking and enjoy fantasy.

    • castingcalls profile image

      castingcalls 8 years ago

      Interesting hub, very useful...........!!

    • Danielle Farrow profile image

      Danielle Farrow 8 years ago from Scotland, UK

      Very interesting to link Shakespeare's 'Dream' to Hallowe'en - could you perhaps give me some sources so that I can read more about this?

      Usually the ingredients - herbs, love, marriage, fairies out and about (as opposed to spirits of the dead - though some say that is what the Fey are) connects to the Summer Solstice, or Midsummer, as in the title.

      I would love to be pointed in direction of the Hallowe'en connection - thank you!

    • Dame Scribe profile image

      Dame Scribe 8 years ago from Canada

      I love that play also, :) and all Shakespeare works. Great Hub!

    • bayareagreatthing profile image

      bayareagreatthing 8 years ago from Bay Area California

      wow- what fun Halloween trivia! Interesting hub!