By Professor David Fuller, Emeritus Professor of English at Durham University
Fairies appear as characters in several of Shakespeare’s plays, most notably the comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In this post, Professor David Fuller from the Department of English Studies at Durham University explores the role these fairies fulfil and their relationship to other characters from English folklore.
David Wright, Assistant Curator at Palace Green Library
Are Shakespeare’s fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream English or international, small or large, charming or sinister? They are, it seems, all of these.
They are international. Both Oberon, the fairy king, and Titania, his queen, are associated with India, from where, when the play begins, Oberon has just arrived. Titania, like a goddess, appears to have a cult there with priestesses – one of whom was the mother of a boy over whose possession the couple quarrel. But India is only one of their homes. Now they are in classical Greece, visiting Athens for the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. The play’s workers, however – weaver, carpenter, tinker, tailor, bellows-mender – give this Athens a strong flavour of rural England. Fairies are evidently great travellers. Flying at high speeds all over the world, they ‘wander everywhere / Swifter than the moon’s sphere’. Supra-national and trans-historical, Oberon and Titania are also grand Nature spirits: their quarrel disrupts the natural, human and cosmic worlds: ‘the human mortals want their winter cheer’; ‘the spring, the summer, / The childing [teeming] autumn, angry winter, change / Their wonted liveries’; rivers burst their banks; crows gorge on the carcasses of plague-stricken sheep; the moon sends down pestilence. Like his master, Oberon’s assistant, Puck, is also an international space-traveller, able to ‘put a girdle round about the earth / In forty minutes’. But he is also a kind of country bumpkin fairy (‘lob of spirits’), identified by pranks associated with English rural life – making milk curdle or beer go flat, playing practical jokes in which he takes the form of a crab-apple or a milking-stool. Also called Robin Goodfellow and Hobgoblin, he is named from English folklore. Similarly English are Titania’s attendants, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed: the common element to their names is that all are used in folk medicine (moths boiled – though Shakespeare may have meant Moth as a spelling of ‘mote’, matching the insubstantiality of cobweb). Titania, however, gets her name from classical poetry, from the Metamorphoses of the Roman poet, Ovid; and, equally un-English, Oberon is named from Medieval poetry, the thirteen-century French epic romance, Huon of Bordeaux. They are classical and medieval as well as English and international.
Some fairies are also both very small and human-sized. Though literary fairies before Shakespeare were sometimes toddler-sized (two or three feet tall), Shakespeare seems to have invented – or perhaps found in aural folklore – the minute fairies that later became the norm of English imagination. The fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream are presented to the imagination as tiny – as they are in Mercutio’s fantasy in Romeo and Juliet of ‘Queen Mab … the fairies’ midwife’, whose coach is pulled by a team of dust motes (‘atomies’). Here cowslips are Titania’s ‘pensioners’ (her royal bodyguard); elves ‘creep into acorn cups, and hide them there’; their leathern coats are made from bats’ wings; raiding the squirrel’s hoard of nuts is a task for a particularly brave fairy; commissioned to hunt a bumble-bee, Cobweb is enjoined to take care not to be drowned by its honey bag. But what to the imagination is presented as minute cannot but appear on stage as life-size. While Titania would have been played in Shakespeare’s theatre (as all women’s parts were) by a boy, Shakespeare’s company probably had only four boys (playing Titania, Hippolyta, and the lovers Hermia and Helena). It is likely, therefore, that Titania’s attendants, though able to hide in acorn cups and fearful of squirrels, were played by adult (male) actors – presumably with a comic disjunction between what is said of them and how they appear.
Large or small, fairies were associated in Elizabethan imagination with the malicious actions of witches. In Hamlet, during Advent, because it is the season celebrating the Saviour’s birth, ‘No fairy takes [has power], nor witch hath power to charm’. Puck talks as though the fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream also have to work in darkness: they must ‘run … from the presence of the sun’. Night is their time. Their power extends only ‘until the break of day’. When he hears the lark, signalling sunrise, Puck urges haste, and Oberon agrees: ‘Trip we after night’s shade’. But when Puck associates the fairies’ need to work in darkness with that of ghosts and ‘damned spirits’ Oberon contradicts him: ‘But we are spirits of another sort: / I with the morning’s love have oft made sport’. Unlike ghosts, Oberon claims, fairies do not have to shun daylight entirely. But even this modest claim is muted: though Oberon has dallied with dawn he agrees, ‘We must effect this business yet ere day’. Fairies are not fully distinct from those spirits whose power is confined to the night.
Oberon’s purpose in dealing with the play’s human lovers is fundamentally beneficent – to address the pains in love of the rejected Helena. But while the fairies provide some comic aspects of the play and engineer others this comedy is often sinister. Albeit by accident, Oberon’s plan compounds the lovers’ sufferings: his magic flower, mis-administered by Puck, creates painful chaos. Elsewhere pain is his intention. ‘Wake when some vile thing is near’, he says, as he squeezes magic juice into Titania’s eyes: to humiliate her sexually is part of his plan for an effective victory in their quarrel. That quarrel, initiated by their struggle over the Indian boy, is spiced with additional aggression because, like any lovers, they are jealous; and particularly, like classical gods and goddesses, they are jealous of each other’s relationships with mortals. They have come to Athens apparently for the benign purpose of blessing the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta, but this is not pure beneficence. Their quarrel has a background of fairy-mortal amours – Oberon with Hippolyta, Titania with Theseus – which adds a sour impetus to their conflict. All the more, however, is their reconciliation marked: initiating a major new stage of the action, the movement towards healing resolution is emphasised by the usual emblems of harmony in Shakespeare’s theatre, music and dancing. Puck too is beneficent and malicious. He acts true to his ‘goblin’ nature in misleading and confusing the rival suitors, Lysander and Demetrius, and threatening to bring them to a violent confrontation. He takes pleasure in mischief, delighting alike in the painful confusions he causes among the human lovers and in entrapping Titania with a human lover transformed into an ass. But, however unromantically he sees it, he also takes pleasure in the final reconciliation of the human couples: ‘The man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well’.
Ultimately, for all their ambivalence, the function of the fairies in the play is to bless the marriages. They sprinkle fairy holy-water (‘field-dew consecrate’) to protect the bridal chambers, and bring about good: with fairy blessings the newly-married couples will be true in love and will have beautiful and fortunate children. Oberon blesses the central characters of the drama. Puck solicits the indulgence of the audience. Despite the dark and painful passages of the route to this resolution, the final effect is more fully harmonious than is usual in Shakespearean comedy. The play offers a dream-world of painful divisions and harmonious reconciliations – fears-cum-nightmares of what might be, desires for what may be – to which the fairies’ magic is central.
Professor David Fuller is Emeritus Professor of English and former Chairman of the Department of English Studies in Durham University. Much of his recent research has been on Marlowe and Shakespeare in modern performance, including a book on the Sonnets, The Life in the Sonnets (2011), published by Continuum in the series Shakespeare Now!
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