A Comparison of Theseus in Greek mythology and "A Midsummer Night’s Dream"

Term Paper, 2010

12 Pages, Grade: 2,5



Table of contents

I. Introduction
Mythological background

II. A Comparison of Theseus in Greek mythology and A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Theseus, prince of Athens
Theseus, king of Athens
Theseus, Duke of Athens
Theseus and Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The similarities and differences in the myth and the play

III. Conclusion

IV. Bibliography

I. Introduction


It could be argued, that from all Shakespeare’s plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is most indebted to a mythic source. As a comedy, myth is rather decoratively used than seriously but still the mythical sources shouldn’t be ignored.[1] Mythological figures like Theseus, whose connections with the world of gods are close, and Hippolyta are treated as Duke of Athens and Queen of the Amazons in the play. Another similarity to the myth are the lovers lost in the wood, the name of Egeus (Aegeus) given to Hermia’s father, Bottom as a “monster” reminding of the Minotaur and his trade of weaving, which recalls Ariadne’s thread, Titania as Pasiphea, in love with “sweet bully Bottom”, and Oberon, Minos the king and judge and maker of labyrinth and the Minotaur’s labyrinth.[2]

Old mythical stories like the Theseus story were accepted as an “antique fable” and were well known in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Using the myth in his plays, Shakespeare could show the Elizabethan audience that he is involved in mythopoesis and thus he could give the recreation of ancient stories a symbolic meaning.[3]

Mythological background

Elizabethan literature began as a provincial development of a Continent-centred literature, and it is full of imitations and translations from French, Italian and Latin.[4] A Midsummer Night’s Dream is influenced by two important main sources namely tragic stories that turned into a farce. One was the story of Pyramus and Thisbe by Ovid and the other one was Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale”, from which Shakespeare took the names of Theseus, Hippolyta and Philostrate, and which is a dire story of the rivalry of two men over a woman.[5] There is plenty much about ‘The Knight’s Tale’ in particular and other work by Chaucer that influences many aspects of the creation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Warning fairies, mortals in love with fairy-queens and visions in May all appeared in Chaucer’s works.[6]

This paper presents the story of Theseus in Greek mythology and compares his role as the Duke of Athens in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His relationship to Hippolyta and to the other figures in the play will be the theme of the main part, followed by an analysis of Theseus in the Greek mythology which is compared to Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Furthermore Theseus relationship to other figures in the play is analysed and the similarities and differences are pointed out. Finally the arguments are summarised and are shown in the conclusion.

II. A Comparison of Theseus in Greek mythology and A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Theseus, prince of Athens

According to some sources, Theseus’ father was Poseidon, the god of the sea, and his mother was Aethra, the daughter of the king of Troezen. According to other sources, Aethra was his mother but his father was Aegeus, King of Athens.[7] After his mother tells him the secret of his birth, Theseus, who already possesses physical strength and courage at the age of 16,[8] decides to go to his father, where he is finally acknowledged as Aegeus son and his heir.[9] As the prince of Athens, he decides to save his city and his people from a terrible tribute which they had to pay to Minos, king of Crete.[10] To put an end to the barbarous ritual, Theseus decides to kill the Minotaur. When Theseus arrives in Crete, king Minos’ beautiful young daughter Ariadne falls in love with him. With her help Theseus kills the Minotaur and flees from the island taking Ariadne with him.[11]

Theseus, king of Athens

After the death of his father,[12] Theseus, the son and true heir of king Aegeus becomes king. He is famed for the so-called ‘synoecism’ of Attica, which stands for collecting together the scattered inhabitants of the area around Athens into one capital. With this act Plutarch associates his foundation of the democracy and his naming of the town Athens. His adventures with Heracles lead him to fight the Amazons, where he carries off their queen Hippolyta. All the different versions of Theseus and Hippolyta’s “love story” have one thing in common, namely Hippolyta being pregnant with a son from Theseus.[13] However some sources say that Hippolyta was killed in the fighting and Theseus marries another woman, Phaedra, the sister of Ariadne from Crete. Phaedra is most famous for her unrequited love for Hippolytus, Theseus’ son by the queen of the Amazons.[14]

Theseus, Duke of Athens

One of the main settings in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Athens and the Duke is also an Athenian, but Theseus is more like a Tudor nobleman than an Athenian ‘duke’.[15] He is a brave soldier who has won his bride with his “sword”.[16] He likes hunting, drama and music as is shown in the play. Though he only appears in the beginning and in the end of the play, he is a very important character. The other main setting in the play is the forest and the monarch is Oberon, king of the fairies. Like Oberon, Theseus is the head of his land and everybody has to obey him. Although it is Egeus’ wish that Hermia should marry Demetrius, he comes to Theseus and wishes for his order to decide the marriage and to persuade Hermia to marry Demetrius. Thus it is clear that the men in the play rule their women as can be seen in this scene of the comedy:

What say you, Hermia? Be advised, fair maid

To you your father should be as a god,

One that composed your beauties; yea, and one

To whom you are but as a form in wax

By him imprinted, and within his power

To leave the figure, or disfigure it.

Demetrius is a worthy gentleman.[17]

In the beginning of the play, Theseus seems to be a heartless character and he symbolises despotism especially when he forces Hermia to decide between Demetrius or the Athenian law of death, for disobeying her father, or to spend the rest of her life in the “cloister”.

Either to die the death, or to adjure

For ever the society of men.

Therefore, fair Hermia, question your desires,

Know of your youth, examine well your blood,

Whether, if you yield not to your father’s choice,

You can endure the livery of a nun;

For aye to be in shady cloister mew’d,


[1] Douglas Freake, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a Comic Version of the Theseus Myth", A Midsummer Night's Dream: Critical Essay (New York: Garland, 1998) 259.

[2] Freake, 259 – 260.

[3] Freake, 262.

[4] Mark W. Scott, Joseph C. Tardiff, Shakespeare for students: Critical Interpretations of As you like it, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet ( Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1992) 393.

[5] Scott, Tardiff 396.

[6] Peter Holland, “Theseus’ Shadows in A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production. 47 (1994): 139.

[7] Paul Murgatroyd, Mythical Monsters in Classical Literature (London: Duckworth, 2007) 71.

“Aegeus, who is childless, is told by the oracle of the god Apollo not to drink wine and not to have sexual intercourse before getting to Athens (because the boy would be responsible for Aegeus’ death). But on his way home he stops at the town Troezen where he gets drunk and sleeps with the king’s daughter. Aethra gives birth to a son named Theseus but she keeps his origin secret from him and rumour was formed that he was the son of the god Poseidon.”

[8] Anne G. Ward, W. R. Connor, Ruth B. Edwards, Simon Tidworth and Reynold Higgins, The Quest for Theseus (London: Pall Mall Press, 1970) 8 – 9.

[9] Ward, Connor, Edwards, Tidworth, Higgins 13.

[10] Murgatroyd 76.

“Every ninth year the Athenians have to send seven young men and seven young girls to the island of Crete. There they are put inside the Labyrinth, where Minotaur, a monster which is half man and half bull kills them.”

[11] Murgatroyd 76.

“However the “love” between Theseus and Ariadne does not last long. According to some sources Theseus abandons her, another version is that she kills herself or was killed at the instigation of the god Dionysus.”

[12] Ward, Connor, Edwards, Tidworth, Higgins 16 – 17.

“On his way home Theseus forgets to change the colour of his sails. Aegeus, who is longingly looking out for his son’s return, sees the black sail and throws himself down from a cliff and is killed.”

[13] Ward, Connor, Edwards, Tidworth, Higgins 18 – 19.

[14] Ward, Connor, Edwards, Tidworth, Higgins 19.

[15] Scott, Tardiff 406.

[16] William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ed. R.A. Foakes, updated ed. (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 57.

[17] Foakes 57.

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A Comparison of Theseus in Greek mythology and "A Midsummer Night’s Dream"
University of Heidelberg  (Anglistisches Seminar)
Shakespeare's Comedies
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comparison, theseus, greek, midsummer, night’s, dream
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Anonymous, 2010, A Comparison of Theseus in Greek mythology and "A Midsummer Night’s Dream", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/173367


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