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Saturday, 10 May 2014



Hi all, here is a critical essay that may enlighten some of you as to how Shakespeare's fairies came about...

One of the most noticeable and entertaining elements of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is the presence of the fairies. Titania, Oberon, Puck, and the attendant fairies all affect the human beings in the woods, and provide glimpses into the fairy realm. Although Shakespeare applies several important aspects of the Elizabethan belief in fairies to A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare alters the conception of fairies not only within the context of the play, but for all time.

Fairies in Elizabethan England were of the same basic size and shape as humans. People were often mistaken for fairies because the size of a fairy was thought to be that of a short human, so there would be no noticeable difference in physical size. Since Elizabethan fairies looked like humans, they, of course, did not have wings. Elizabethan folk also thought that fairies were beautiful and of dark complexion, which reflected their association with wickedness. They often dressed in green due to their association with nature. Shakespeare, who was of course familiar with these ideas of fairies, presents the fairies of A Midsummer Night's Dream as beautiful and associated with nature, but this is where the physical similarities to Elizabethan folk beliefs ends. In the play, Shakespeare describes his fairies as tiny creatures with wings, and this is the first time in literature that fairies are described in this manner. It is not the last, as the poets and playwrights of his time adopted Shakespeare's diminutive description of fairies.

Shakespeare also alters the Elizabethan conception of the identity and behavior of fairies. One of the most striking aspects of Elizabethan fairy behavior was that fairies were linked closely with the home and the farm. Elizabethan fairies loved cleanliness enough to reward humans for keeping their homes clear of dirt and clutter, and they often punished messy people. They also needed humans for beef, bread, drink, and bath water, which people, fearful of fairy wrath, willingly supplied. What fairies wanted most, however, was milk and cream. Because of this, fairies were often associated with the dairy industry, and were frequently possessed herds of cattle because of their fondness for dairy.

Fairy reward and retribution was often swift and significant because of their wickedness. The Elizabethans thought that fairies either were fallen angels, the souls of dead humans, or beings without souls that existed between Heaven and Hell. Because of this supernatural status, fairies had magical powers that they put to use for their own benefit. When humans followed fairy dictates, fairies were known to cure diseases, bring an abundance of food (including fairy bread, which was considered to be nearly divine), clean houses, protect, bring fortune, and tell the future. However, the foolish mortals who did not appease the fairies could suffer a variety of punishments. 

The most popular fairy punishment was pinching, which often left victims with blue bruises all over their bodies. Fairies were also known to create changelings (babies who were born one gender and changed to the other), to abduct both children and adults, blight crops, destroy livestock, and bring disease. The "commoners" of the Elizabethan period were afraid of fairies and tried to appease them. This representation of fairies as malicious beings is quite different from A Midsummer Night's Dream, where fairies are harmless sprites who may play tricks on humans, but eventually help them without being bribed to do so. Titania cares for the Indian boy out of love for her late votress, and Oberon orders Puck to resolve the Athenians' love situation without any kind of reward. Both rulers even bless the bridal beds at the end of the play. This beneficence is a far cry from the fear-inspiring fairies to which Shakespeare's Elizabethan audiences were accustomed.

One aspect of fairies that Shakespeare left intact was their enjoyments. Shakespeare's fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream enjoy dancing and music, which was the favorite pastime of the fairies of Elizabethan folklore. Fairies were thought to dance in fairy circles, which humans were forbidden to see. Any person spying on fairy circles would be punished by pinching.

Shakespeare's correlation of fairies to night is also consistent with the folklore of his time.
Although the fairy "hours" were midnight and fairies were occasionally known to work magic in the day, the main time for fairies was night. Fairies were also active in the summer, and not known to appear after All Hallows' Eve (Halloween). Shakespeare is consistent with this idea of "fairy time" in the play.

Shakespeare departs again from the Elizabethan conception of fairies, however, when it comes to the characterizations of his fairies. While the idea of Oberon as the fairy king was familiar to the Elizabethans, the name of Titania for the fairy queen was not. Titania's name was probably taken from Ovid's Metamorphosis, which describes the fairy queen in a similar vein to the moon goddess Diana. Despite this difference, Titania's train is consistent with the folklore—her time is from midnight to sunrise, she and her fairies sing and dance, she has jewels, and she has possession of a changeling. Shakespeare does add flowers to Titania's image, which had not been previously associated with fairies.

Oberon's character in the play appears to be consistent with the folklore in the beginning, but changes significantly by the end of the play. When Oberon and Titania meet, Oberon's anger over Titania's refusal to give him the Indian boy has caused Oberon to take his frustrations out on the weather and on the humans around him. He also wants to use the love juice in order to make Helena run away from Demetrius. This lack of regard for mortals is exactly what the Elizabethans would have expected from the fairy king. By the end of the play, however, Oberon orders Puck to cure Lysander while leaving Demetrius under the love spell. Oberon has changed from the stereotypical fairy into a benevolent one for no reason other than to avoid any further conflict.

Another difference in the depiction of fairy characters is Robin Goodfellow, or Puck. Robin Goodfellow was a familiar figure to the Elizabethans. His laugh, sense of humor, and reputation as a prankster made him a popular folk character. He was not, however, a fairy, because his tricks were never fatal. Only practical jokes and humorous accidents were attributed to him. Robin Goodfellow was also a spirit of the home, and was often depicted with a candle and a broom because he loved to clean houses as a reward for bread and cream. (This is the reason why he is shown with a broom at the end of the play). While Shakespeare maintains Robin Goodfellow's mischievous personality, he completely changes some significant facets of his character. As mentioned previously, Robin Goodfellow was not a fairy. Shakespeare not only makes him a fairy in A Midsummer Night's Dream, but he also makes him Oberon's jester and servant. The change of Robin Goodfellow's name to Puck is also significant. A "puck" is a devil, not a joker, which directly contrasts Robin Goodfellow's character not only in Elizabethan folklore but in the play as well. Robin has no interest in the humans in the play other than for sport, and he has no association with the home save for carrying the broom. Although A Midsummer Night's Dream marks Robin Goodfellow's first appearance on the English stage, only his sense of humor and prankish nature remain from the famous figure of Elizabethan folklore.

Shakespeare, then, transforms the whole conception of "fairy" from wicked tricksters to harmless "shadows." Robin highlights this transformation in the epilogue to the play:
If we shadows have offended,Think but this, and all is mended.That you have but slumb'red hereWhile these visions did appear.And this weak and idle theme,No more yielding but a dream (V, i, ll. 412-417).

For the first time, fairies are no longer to be feared but dismissed as nothing more than a dream. Because of the beauty of the fairy imagery and the immense popularity of both Shakespeare and the play, Shakespeare's literary contemporaries perpetuated his descriptions of fairies given in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The fact that we now see fairies as tiny, harmless creatures with wings and magical powers that live in the woods is due to this play. Although Shakespeare gives prominence to the Elizabethan folk belief of fairies by highlighting them in the play, he changes the popular idea of fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream from wicked spirits to shadows and dreams, a transformation which lasts to this day.

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