Shakespeare's Italian Dream: Cinquecento Sources for A Midsummer Night's Dream


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

In the light of Shakespeare's extensive use of Italian settings and nomenclature, and his adaptations of plot-lines ultimately stemming from Boccaccio (Cymbeline), Giraldi Cinthio (Othello and Measure for Measure), Bandello et al. (Romeo and Juliet), it is surprising that the Italianate character of A Midsummer Night's Dream has not been generally noted. Most commentators see the play as drawing from a pool of classical, traditional, and romance sources which include Plutarch, Chaucer, the romance Huon of Bordeaux, Ovid, and Apuleius,1 while Judith M. Kennedy is convinced that Book I of Jorge de Montemayor's Diana (c.1559; Yong's English translation, 1598) furnished Shakespeare with the principal action of the play.2 This last has a certain credibility since it is indisputable that Shakespeare used Montemayor's Felismena/Felix story in Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Book I certainly contains a similar pattern of changing love relationships and rustic setting. However, the strongly Italianate character of Montemayor's Diana and the generic rather than precise nature of the similarities noted by Kennedy do suggest that more exact parallels may be found in the literature of Italy. Hugh M. Richmond appears exceptional in identifying a possible Italian source in Giraldi Cinthio's Hecatommithi II.8 (see Appendix for summary)3 which, to judge by the description given in the novella's head-word, appears to presage the principal love intrigues of A Midsummer Night's Dream:

Possidonio, & Peronello amano Ginevra, ella ama Possidonio, & hà

in odio Peronello, il quale è amato da una altra Giovane detta Lisca,

Egli non ama lei, Lisca è promessa dal Padre a Possidonio, & Ginevra

similmente è promessa a Peronello; & nel volere celebrare le nozze,

per nuovo accidente Ginevra divien di Possidonio, & Lisca di Peronello.

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