One of the most direct influences on “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” is Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the play, Shakespeare’s characters leave the city for the countryside and lose their sense of themselves in the wilderness. They confuse dreams with reality, take drugs, and switch lovers. By the end of it all, they’ve changed significantly, and one of the central questions of the play is how they will adapt their new selves to the city when they return to perform a play for the court. As the characters transition from one setting to the next, Shakespeare is asking what makes a person, and how much it takes for you to become someone else.
Milton asks the same questions when he makes the shift from the speaker in “L’Allegro” to the speaker in “Il Penseroso.” Because he never identifies his speakers, it’s unclear whether the two poems are about different people, or one person who changes so dramatically that he becomes unrecognizable. Some have suggested that the poems depict the same person at different stages of life. Others have proposed that the poems are about forming a coherent self. In “Il Penseroso,” it’s unclear whether we’re looking at the same person or the same world. The two poems share enough to suggest some continuity, but they’re also different enough that it’s unclear whether Milton is giving us two distinct works or two halves of a whole. The break between the two poems formally mirrors the ruptures in Shakespeare’s characters. As in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” we’re left wondering who is there: the same person, or someone else entirely.