Fuseli was introduced to Shakespeare's plays during his student days in Zürich with the Swiss scholar Jacob Bodmer. A Midsummer Night's Dream held a special appeal for him, in that it explores the realms of the supernatural.
In the picture Fuseli illustrates a moment from Act IV scene 1, in which Oberon, in order to punish her for her pride, casts a spell on Queen Titania, as a result of which she falls in love with Bottom, whose head has been transformed into that of an ass. In the play she murmurs lovingly to the object of her affections,
Come, sit thee down upon this flowery bed,
While I thy amiable cheeks do coy,
And stick musk roses in thy sleek smooth head,
And kiss thy fair large ears, my gentle joy.
Fuseli's imagination is given free reign in this fantastical scene. Titania calls on her fairies, who are wearing contemporary dress, to attend to Bottom: Pease-blossom scratches his ass's head; Mustard-seed perches on his hand in order to assist; and Cobweb kills a bee and brings him the honey-bag. A leering young woman offers him a basket of dried peas. The young woman leading a dwarf-like creature by a string symbolises the triumph of youth over old age, of the senses over the mind and of woman over man. The hooded old woman on the right is holding a changeling newly formed out of wax. Similarly, on the left of the picture, the group of children are artificial beings created by witches.
The picture draws on several artistic sources. Fuseli has adapted Titania's seductive pose from Leonardo da Vinci's Leda (c.1506, Galleria Borghese, Rome). The elves plunging into the calyx on the right are inspired by Botticelli's illustration of Canto XXX of Dante's Paradiso (c.1469). And the small girl with a butterfly head on the left derives from a type of child portrait
developed by Reynolds, whereby the child's features closely resemble a cat, mouse or other small creature posed with her.
Fuseli painted several other scenes from A Midsummer Night's Dream, including Titania's Awakening (1785-90, Kunstmuseum, Winterthur), where the Queen awakes and recounts her 'dream' to Oberon. He was also inspired by other Shakespearean texts and was particularly drawn to the supernatural and irrational elements in such plays as The Tempest, Hamlet and King Lear.
Henry Fuseli 1741-1825, Tate Gallery, London 1975, pp.61-2, reproduced p.62.
Jeremy Maas, Victorian Fairy Painting, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 1997, p.12.