Periodical enquiries, facts, and problems regarding antiquarianism, the history of science, etymology, palæography, and other sublunary affairs.
Upon which day is it most appropriate to read A Midsummer Night’s Dream? In Shakespeare’s time, midsummer’s day was celebrated on the 24th June. Festivities for such holidays were often held the night before, thinking of days as night-daytide units rather than daytide-night, so the midsummer night pertained to in the title was likely St. John’s Eve, the night of the 23rd June.
But the 24th June isn’t really the middle of summer. The 2007 summer solstice falls on 21st June, at 18:06 UTC. Moreover, the Elizabethan St. John’s Eve was in the Julian calendar and we now use the Gregorian one. The difference in 1595/6 when the play was probably written was ten days, so the 23rd June then was the 3rd July in the proleptic Gregorian calendar—and on the continent, where the Gregorian calendar was already being used. Queen Elizabeth had thought about changing to it, but had been argued out of it.
Since the Julian and Gregorian calendars are now thirteen days out of whack, the Julian St. John’s Eve is on the 6th July, Gregorian. It really depends when you set your calendar to a particular event, since both calendars move about compared to the event. The actual solstice in 1596 was at about 10:48 UTC on 21st June in the proleptic Gregorian calendar, which would have been their local 11th June. They were already celebrating it thirteen days late.
So we already have three possible contemporary reckonings of Shakspeare’s midsummer night. Using the same point in the sun’s cycle it’s the night of 3rd July; using the modern Julian Calendar it’s the night of the 6th July; and using the Gregorian Calendar it’s the night of the 23rd June. To complicate matters further, St. Peter’s Eve on the 29th June was also considered to be part of the midsummer festivities.
Another complicating factor is that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is actually set on the cusp of April and May. As Dr. Johnson put it, “I know not why Shakespear calls this play A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, when he so carefully informs us that it happened on the night preceding May day.” Thus ensued a great discussion across the years that H. Howard Furness recounts in his preface to the Variorum Edition of 1895. The summary is that, like The Winter’s Tale which is actually set in summer, the telling of the tale or the playing of the play itself is for midsummer.
It may, therefore, have been that the play was to be first performed in midsummer. Malone thought so. Steve Sohmer even suggests that the Globe was opened on the solstice in 1599, but suggests also that Julius Cæsar was the most likely play to have been first shown there. The magic in the juxtaposition of setting and playing is that within A Midsummer Night’s Dream itself the world of Theseus is set in May, whereas the world of Oberon can be thought of as set in midsummer, a midsummer madness settling upon the lovers thanks in part to the juice of love-in-idleness.
Citing John Brand’s Popular Antiquities, Furness notes a great similarity between the May and midsummer festivities. Brand also mentions the May Day custom of going out into the woods at night: “On the Calends, or the first Day of May, commonly called May-Day, the juvenile Part of both Sexes, were wont to rise a little after Mid-night, and walk to some neighbouring Wood, accompany’d with Musick and the blowing of Horns; where they break down Branches from the Trees, and adorn them with Nose-gays and Crowns of Flowers. When this is done, they return with their booty home-wards, about the rising of the Sun, and make their Doors and Windows to Triumph in the Flowery Spoil.”
When Demetrius says “Thou toldst me, they were stolne vnto this wood: / And here am I, and wodde, within this wood.” (II.i), he’s punning around with the other sense of the word “wood” (spelled “wodde” in the first quarto, but as spelled in various ways through history) meaning mad. Funnily enough, the OED says that it’s cognate with the Latin and Old Irish words for a poet or seer, which makes the point about the “lunatick, / The louer, and the Poet” (V.i) later on in the play all the sweeter.
There seems to have been a tradition, moreover, of midsummer too being linked with madness, if Olivia’s calling Malvolio’s seeming frenzy in Twelfth Night a very Midsummer madness is anything to go by; something noted by Steevens. The rocking cadences are typical of Shakespeare. Perhaps these particular native woodnotes wild, that Chesterton called “a psychological study, not of a solitary man, but of a spirit that unites mankind”, are fittest to be read any time. But though any time be ripe to bust out the Q1 facsimile, the night closest to the solstice seems like the least mad a time to do so and perhaps, therefore, the most.
by Sean B. Palmer, 2007-06-21
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