Today, A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of the most popular and frequently performed of all Shakespeare's comedies. Around the world in traditional venues, gardens, parks and outdoor theatres, the magical qualities of this play enchant audiences time and again. Directors are drawn to the eternal themes of conflict between the sexes and between the natural and 'civilised' worlds of wood and city, while the portrayal of the supernatural fairies to a modern audience continues to challenge. Are they the quaint winged creatures later popularised in Victorian fantasy or more dangerous spirits surviving from pagan beliefs?
The Christian feast of St John falls at Midsummer but the rites celebrated in Tudor times stretched back to pagan days. Certain plants were believed to have magical properties when used on midsummer night - they were said to give maidens a vision of their future husband - rather like Oberon's magic herb. This was just one of many folk traditions that Shakespeare included, harking back to rural beliefs, perhaps remembered from his own childhood in Warwickshire: of fairies who could stop the milk from turning to butter or mislead 'night wanderers' like a will o'th'wisp. Part of the appeal of these traditions to Shakespeare's audience was that the 'rites' alluded to in the play were already a fading memory, stamped out by Puritan reformers who saw popery and paganism in midsummer feasting and bonfires.
Shakespeare was writing A Midsummmer Night's Dream not long after Romeo and Juliet, and several academics have suggested that the 'tragical mirth' of Pyramus and Thisbe should be seen as a tongue-in-cheek parody of his own great romantic tragedy. Certainly the burlesque remains funny - a considerable achievement given the tendency of parody and satire to become dated. Yet from the buffoonery of the 'rude mechanicals' to the mix-up with the four lovers, A Midsummer Night's Dream must surely be the comedy whose humour has remained most accessible to modern audiences. Bottom, with his ass's head, asking for 'good hay, sweet hay' never fails to raise a laugh, while Hermia and Helena's ?ght - 'How low am I, thou painted maypole?' - leaps from the page, the dialogue still crackling with wit.
A Midsummer Night's Dream is now the most frequently performed of all Shakespeare's comedies, but for nearly 200 years the play was only produced in an adapted form with additional musical and ballet insertions. David Garrick's version was retitled The Fairies.
Some commentators believe that the play might have been written to celebrate a wedding, making the play-within-a-play even more of an in-joke.
Felix Mendelssohn wrote incidental music to accompany the play and the Wedding March is now one of the world's most instantly recognisable pieces of music.
Samuel Pepys saw an adaptation of the play on Sept. 29, 1662 at the King's Theatre, and thought it 'the most insipid, ridiculous play that ever I saw' although he liked the 'handsome women'.
For years, Puck was featured at the top of many Sunday comics, with the banner 'What fools these mortals be.'
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From the choice of text and meticulously designed pages to the mould-made paper and unsurpassed art of letterpress printing, attention has been lavished on every facet of the reading experience.
The result is a fit and harmonious balance between the internal and external: a volume which is not only a delight to look at and hold, but a joy to read; formed not for mere display, but to satisfy the passion for his language felt by all those who love Shakespeare.
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The layout of words on a printed page is as much an art as such ancient techniques as Chinese or Arabic calligraphy. Here, the text is designed by eye and set on a manual machine, not a computer. Each letter of type has been created from hot metal in the rarely used 16-point font of 'Monotype' Baskerville, chosen for its clarity and elegance of form. Tiny irregularities testify to the hand-crafted nature of the process, since the shape of each line, the very gap between letters, is adjusted by hand to create the most pleasing overall effect.
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Top edge gilding is a traditional finish, protecting books' exposed tops from dust, moisture or atmospheric pollution. The three-quarter binding of finest Nigerian goatskin leather is dyed for an exact match, but the gold and scarlet pattern on the hand-marbled paper sides is unique to each volume, since the exact pattern of droplets can never be repeated. For Ann Muir, marbling the paper for the individual books of Shakespeare's four great tragedies will take nearly half a year of continuous labour.
The small craft bindery of Lachenmaier in Germany has won a record number of prizes in the 125 years it has been binding fine art and speciality books. There, an experienced team of craftsmen sew, case in and bind the book. Both the spine and separate leather label for the solander box are hand-blocked in 22-carat gold.