What’s in a Name: Part Four: the Title

Though we might think the phrase “midsummer” (as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) to apply to some ambiguous date somewhere in July or August, the word was actually used to denote the summer solstice.  And though we now celebrate that on June 21 (and rightly so, scientifically speaking), in English tradition Midsummer Day was celebrated on June 24 (coordinated with the celebration of the birth of John the Baptist)… which would make Midsummer Night, the evening of June 23.

But all of that is relatively meaningless.

It’s not that the events IN the dream occur at midsummer, but that the DREAMING of the dream takes place during midsummer.  There is a phrase “midsummer madness” which refers to “the height of madness (cf. midsummer moon)” (Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM [v. 4.0]), which in turn is defined as “the lunar month in which Midsummer Day comes; sometimes alluded to as a time when lunacy is supposed to be prevalent” (OED).  The first found use of the phrase is by, you guessed it, Shakespeare, but not in this play, but a little later in his career–by about five or a half-dozen years–in Twelfth Night, when Olivia describes Malvolio’s bizarre behavior:  “Why, this is very midsummer madness” (Twelfth, III.iv.52).

interesting, no?

As for when the events of the dream take place (not that it’s important, really), we’re given only a couple of clues…

When Titania describes to Oberon the chaotic state of natural and human affairs, to which they by their quarrel are the “parents” (II.i.117), she states:

The human mortals want their winter cheer;
No night is now with hymn or carol blessed.
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound.
... the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which...

— II.i.101-105, 111-114

The human world is in winter, but doesn’t have its usual (“want”-ed) pleasures (“cheer”… think back to the song at the end of Love’s Labor’s Lost, in which the family unit is having a warm, home cooked dinner in the midst of a storm outside).  Worse yet, “rheumatic diseases do abound” … a great description of “cold and flu season.”  But worst of all, these statements of seasons may not even be accurate, as all the seasons are mixed (“change their wanted liveries”) to the point where event the seasons themselves are confused and “knows not which is which.”

The other clue comes when Theseus and his hunting party discover the lovers asleep in the woods.  He tries to explain their appearance: “No doubt they rose up early to observe // The rite of May” (IV.i.131-132).  Of course, though these “rites of May”

including, but not limited to: hooray, hooray, the First of May, outdoor humping starts today

occurred primarily on May Day, they could be celebrated throughout the spring and summer (as we shall see below).  Theseus then notes to the newly awake lovers, “Saint Valentine is past” (IV.i.138).  So we know the events of the play/dream take place after February 14.

So around May Day sounds about right.  Especially given Hermia’s description of Helena as the “painted Maypole” (III.ii.296).

funny, Maypole dances were done on May Day AND at Midsummer… niiiiiiicely done, Mr. Shakespeare, nicely done