Understanding a Midsummer Night's Dream: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents

By Faith Nostbakken | Go to book overview

4
Popular Culture: Holidays,
Court Entertainments,
and Play-Acting

The popular culture of a nation and its communities reflects the way its people spend their time apart from labor and economic pursuits. In what pastimes or recreations do the people participate? What form of entertainment and celebration defines their culture? In Elizabethan England, a society made up of different classes or sorts of people—as the last chapter has indicated—defined the popular culture of its subjects as partly determined by economic distinctions. How the queen and her courtiers engaged in festivities and rituals, for example, did not necessarily imitate or replicate the pastimes of commoners in their rural or urban communities. Yet the customs and cultural practices of the elite and nonelite segments of English society sometimes intersected or merged in recreations that temporarily broke down the barriers imposed by economic status and bloodlines, creating common grounds for a national and communal identity, allowing people freedom to mingle together temporarily in a world where they were otherwise defined and separated by their social status. Going to plays, for example, was an activity that spanned the different groups in society; Shakespeare and other dramatists wrote for a broad audience including members from the common laboring class to the queen herself.

A Midsummer Night's Dream enacts and alludes to various elements of popular culture in Elizabethan England. Though the setting is intended to be Athens, many English traditions are incorporated into the play. Even as Shakespeare designed the comedy as entertainment for his English audiences, the plot focuses on the rituals and festivities that entertain its characters so that

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