By Kalina Ko, Literary Intern
Greek and Roman mythology has a wide and expansive influence. Recent movies such as “Wonder Woman” as well as classic novels such as “Frankenstein” all draw inspiration from Greco-Roman mythology. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is no exception. These are several pertinent mythological figures and stories that appear in the play.
Theseus and the Minotaur
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus is the Duke of Athens. The minotaur does not feature in this play but some scholars have made the argument that donkey-headed Bottom is meant to represent a comical take of the minotaur. You might also recognize the story of Theseus from the 2011 movie “Immortals” and the 2006 movie “Minotaur.”
The minotaur was a terrifying monster – half-bull and half-man. They were the child of the queen of Crete and a bull. When the minotaur was born, the king of Crete ordered that a complicated labyrinth be built to cage and contain the beast. Every nine years, fourteen people were sent from Athens to be sacrificed to the minotaur.
Theseus was the son of Aegeus, the king of Athens. When he came of age, Theseus decided to go to Crete and kill the minotaur. With the help of Ariadne, princess of Crete, Theseus entered the labyrinth and successfully killed the monster. He found his way out of the maze by following a ball of yarn that he had previously unwound as he traveled through the maze. Thus, he successfully completed his mission of killing the minotaur and ending the human sacrifices.
Theseus was said to have united and combined the small villages of Attica into a single state with Athens as the capital. He is also said to have had a hand in developing Athenian Democracy.
Hippolyta and the Amazons
The Amazons were a nation made up only of warrior women. The Amazons are an important part of the Wonder Woman comic series and 2017 “Wonder Woman” movie. Diana Prince (Wonder Woman) is part of the Amazons and her mother is Queen Hippolyta.
Hippolyta was the daughter of the god Mars and possessed a magical girdle which marked her as queen of the Amazons. She is an important figure in the Trials of Hercules and the story of Theseus.
In the Trials of Hercules, Hercules was sent to retrieve the girdle from Hippolyta. Most versions of the story say that Hippolyta was so impressed or enamored by Hercules that she simply gave him the girdle. Other stories say that the Amazons attacked Hercules’ ship and in the ensuing battle, he killed Hippolyta and stripped her of the girdle.
In the adventures of Theseus, she went to Athens (various source differ on whether she went by force or her by own volition) and married Theseus. Some stories say that the rest of the Amazons were enraged by this marriage and attacked Athens, sparking the Attic War.
Diana, The Goddess of the Hunt
Diana does not actually appear as a character in the play but she, and the moon, are often referenced by various characters. Other than “Diana,” she is also referred to as Phoebe.
Diana, also known by her Greek name as Artemis, was the goddess of the hunt, fertility, and chastity. She is the daughter of the gods Jupiter and Leto, and the twin sister of the god Apollo. She is one of three maiden goddesses and is often associated with the moon.
She is a staunch defender of her maidenhood as demonstrated in the story of Actaeon. Actaeon was a hunter who had the misfortune of stumbling upon a grove where Diana was bathing. Because Actaeon saw her naked, she instantly turned him into a deer and then set his own hunting dogs upon him. Actaeon was ultimately torn apart by his own dogs!
Did you know? The word “moon” is said 27 times in the full script of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The Twelve Labours of Hercules
Although he does not appear in the play, Hercules is mentioned and referred to in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The story of Hercules is the inspiration for the 1997 animated movie “Hercules” created by Disney.
Hercules (also known as Heracles) is the son of the god Jupiter and the human Alcmena. The most famous story about Hercules is the “Twelve Labours of Hercules.” The goddess Juno (Jupiter’s wife) having always been hostile towards Jupiter’s half-mortal children, used her power to send Hercules into a rage of madness causing him to kill his own wife and children. As punishment, Hercules was required to perform twelve labours. They were:
- Fight the Nemean Lion.
- Kill the Hydra, a multi-headed dragon whose heads would regenerate and multiply if cut off.
- Kill the giant wild boar of Mount Erymanthus.
- Rid a swamp of wild birds with razor sharp feathers
- Catch one Diana’s sacred deers.
- Clean the Augean stables, which had not been cleaned in 30 years.
- Obtain the magical girdle of Hippolyta.
- Capture the man-eating horses of King Diomedes.
- Capture the fire-breathing bull of Crete
- Catch the herd of red cows of Geryon, a three-bodied monster.
- Pick three apples from Juno’s secret garden.
- Capture the three-headed dog of the underworld.
FUN FACT: The character Bottom actually erroneously refers to Hercules as “Ercles”: “This is Ercles’ vein, a tyrant’s vein.”
• Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes by Edith Hamilton
• D’aulaires Book of Greek Myths by Ingri d’Aulaire and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire