This is the final paper from my senior portfolio that I have to post. This was my capstone essay. It was originally written for my Shakespeare class, and I turned it into an entirely different paper for the portfolio.
Honestly, more stress went into this than anything else I’ve ever written, and I still want to go back and edit it even more. I haven’t thought, so this is still the way the essay was in the portfolio.
The word “fairy” calls a specific image to mind for many people. The idea of little, winged people, more often female than male, is a common part of our folklore. They typically sparkle, and while they may have an attitude, they are more good humored than vicious. Fairies are not as prevalent in our literature today as, say, vampires, but they are nonetheless figures that are still very much in society’s communal awareness. There are certain aspects of fairies that we take for granted, but those ideas had to come from somewhere. If someone were asked of their origin, they would point to a time long ago. Fairy mythology feels almost ancient to many people. Surely, fairies have been around since the most prevalent of our fairy tales were first composed, at least. The fairies we have today are a result of the continual development of an idea that has changed over the centuries that it has been continually evoked. Shakespeare himself is credited with fleshing out the modern fairy when he took away the fear that had always been associated with the creatures before (Lewis 253), and his portrayal of them in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a huge source for the present understanding of what creature the term “fairy” is describing. Shakespeare’s portrayal of fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is strongly influenced by the fairies that existed within British mythology before his own time, especially the agrarian fairies of the countryside who were strongly connected to nature. Because of this strong connection between Shakespeare’s fairies and nature, the actions of the fairies within the play can be viewed as nothing more than an extension of the natural forces of the world that are always influencing the human characters of the play without their knowledge.
Surprisingly, whether or not the people of Shakespeare’s time believed in fairies cannot be said for sure. Individual beliefs, it turns out, are not the most concrete idea to pin down. Richard Strier states that “Fairies were notably out of date as objects of belief” during Shakespeare’s time (176). He backs up his claim by acknowledging King James VI who, in 1597, mocked the idea of a fairy king and queen in his writing, and there are other instances of writers of the time period expressing skepticism towards fairies (Strier 176). This points towards the fact that at least some of the well educated writers of the day thought any belief in fairies was ridiculous. Presumably, a belief in witches was still going strong during that same time period, but fairies were far less believable among at least some of the population (Strier 176-7).
However, Emma Wilby claims that fairies were creatures that many people really did believe in during Shakespeare’s time (288). Those two different views are not compatible with each other, but luckily, whether or not everyone believed in fairies is not the important part of what Shakespeare did with them in his play. It is near impossible for every single member of any large population to believe or not believe the exact same thing. It seems logical that there would have been those who both believed and did not believe in fairies during Shakespeare’s time. A person’s level of education, for instance, could have been just one factor that determined what superstitions, if any, people accepted as true. Whichever belief was more prevalent is not the real issue of importance. Even today, one can find people who believe in fairies. Beliefs are almost always diverse among a country’s population.
What is important is the lore surrounding fairies that England had built up over the years. This lore existed whether or not people believed it to be true. It exerted an influence on their perception of the world and what exactly fairies were. Just as we have a mythology handed down to us today from those who came before us, the stories that came before Shakespeare’s time influenced the cultural and mythological atmosphere that Shakespeare was writing in. Shakespeare’s fairies have become influential in our day, but they could not exist without drawing on previous traditions. They are a continuation of the fairies that came before them, and the continual morphing of what characteristics make up a fairy is something that will continue to happen in the future. Shakespeare’s fairies are one part of that continued tradition of building upon the old. They have value within the play, but they also have value outside of it because of their contributions to a collective mythology. Most people today would not express a true belief in fairies, but they can still provide you with a description of one. They have almost certainly encountered fairies in fiction. Fairies are still a valuable aspect of our collective mythology. This is shown through their continued presence in literature, films, and other works. People in Shakespeare’s time had certain expectations about fairies whenever they read or talked about them. In the same way that we have an idea of what to expect if we go to watch a vampire movie in the theater, the people of Shakespeare’s times had certain beliefs about what was and was not a fairy as well as what was expected of those fairies. These commonly held beliefs were handed down and are present in the stories of the day for entertainment’s sake, if nothing else.
Shakespeare’s fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream move away from some of those commonly held beliefs. Shakespeare played with the idea of fairies and broke out of the mold to create new kinds of fairies that would go on to become part of our own mythology today. This is a mythology that people who both do and do not believe in it continue to participate in just as they did during Shakespeare’s time. Whatever was believed to be true, Shakespeare decided to write an entire play that places fairies in an important role. At the same time, he took the creative license to break out of the expectations that tradition placed on him. As Ronald Miller suggests, the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are “obviously the most striking feature of the comedy” because of the “indefiniteness” that they emphasize within the play (254). Without the fairies, A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s primary story is about the romantic struggles of four teenagers. The fairies’ presence and their manipulation of the human teenagers creates questions about what romantic feelings those teenagers actually have and what is being forced on them by the fairies. Suddenly, who is in love with who is not as straightforward and how much control an individual has over their emotions becomes a larger question within the play. That ambiguity is nonexistent without the fairies’ interference. Perhaps because his fairies create alluring questions about life, Shakespeare’s version of the fairy world has continued to play a prevalent role in the modern perception of fairies. His version of the creatures stuck with people and took up residence in their minds until they were as important to the collective idea of fairies as any stories about fairies that came before them or possibly even more so.
Before A Midsummer Night’s Dream, fairies were different from the tiny, sparkling, and cheerful creatures we think of today. Fairies were seen as “more destructive than mortals” and creatures one never wants to come across because of the potential danger they posed (Lewis 253). They were not creatures you put into cute stories for little kids, and they were not something little kids asked to dress up as for Halloween. These fairies were not ones you associated with anything fun or joyful. They were creatures that perhaps would have fit better in creepy campfire stories. Meeting a fairy was almost a guarantee of danger, so one was far better off avoiding it. It was believed at the time that fairies “parasitized human households to gain bath water and food, and punished householders who did not maintain impeccable standards of hygiene” (Swann 451). These fairies were associated with the countryside and the domestic. They would have been out of place in a city.
There was another sort of fairy that was closely connected to court (Swann 451). These fairies had a monarchy and were more refined. They looked much different than their agrarian counterparts because of their social hierarchy. These latter fairies call to mind the monarchy present in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In a way, Shakespeare is bringing together both of these types of fairies. Most of the fairies’ scenes take place within a pastoral setting, but they are refined with a clearly organized hierarchy among them as well.
Of course, the depictions of fairy royalty that can be found are quite different from the agrarian fairy beliefs also prevalent in England before Shakespeare’s time. Much like the common people and the aristocracy of England, there seems to have been two different classes of fairy in mythology (Swann 450-1). In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fairies have a monarchy that is refined, but Puck, who was widely known in earlier mythology for his less than refined ways, is also present. In this way, the two versions of fairies seem to blend together into one. Fairies having their own king and queen sets them apart from the human world that operates under a different ruler. In an absolute monarchy, a king or queen is the ultimate authority. There is no one above them except perhaps God depending on the religious beliefs of those being ruled. Having their own rulers signals that the fairies are under an entirely different system of rules and laws. They do not subscribe to those of the humans.
Even with this connection to the past, Shakespeare’s fairies are disconnected from the older courtly fairies because of their stronger connection to the capitalist culture of Shakespeare’s day (Swann 451). The population Shakespeare’s time was becoming more urbanized, and along with that, visions of court and city life were changing from what they had been in the past. The Indian child that Oberon and Titania argue over is a key sign of this new capitalist type of fairy that Shakespeare is creating within the play. The child’s connection to India calls to mind the fact that the country was of huge interest for England because of trade (Swann 455), and later, India was to become a colony of England. Capitalism led to turmoil in India, and that led to the boy becoming an orphan. When Titania talks about the boy, she laments his mother’s death and claims to “rear” the boy “for her sake” (2.1.136-7). Her motivations do not appear to come out of any materialism but instead a care for a friend. This keeps Titania connected to the more agrarian fairies as her motivations here are not directly tied to materialism. At the same time, it ties in the story of the fairies with the newer system and places them into a new society that Titania cannot fully escape. She references traders when she speaks and acknowledges that her friend would “fetch me trifles” (2.1.133). The use of “trifles” indicates that the items Titania was receiving were largely worthless, but she gathered them anyway. That sort of mindset connects her to a modern materialism that came along with the rise of capitalism.
Shakespeare’s Titania and Oberon are different that previous English fairies in that they are more commercialized and more materialistic than those before them (Swann 455). Titania and Oberon are both concerned with having the Indian boy, whose status as a symbol of trade with India hints at a larger sense of materialism. For better or worse, these characteristics modernize them by connecting them to the values that would have been held by theater goers in Shakespeare’s day. Even living outside of human society, these fairies have become connected with the new economic reality that the people of Shakespeare’s time were also facing. The king’s and queen’s treatment of “a lovely boy stol’n from an Indian king” is key here (2.1.18-22). Titania’s words about the boy invoke a rejection of the new mercantilism that was spreading during Shakespeare’s day while Oberon’s view of the boy can be read as an embracement of it (Swann 455). Titania mourns the loss of a dear friend that came from the greed of the system, but Oberon is entering into the cycle of demanding new things even though he admits that he does not know what use the boy would have. He wants him for little more than being greedy and wanting what his wife has. His claims of wanting a “henchman” certainly sound colder than Titania’s motherly view of the boy (2.1.490).
Oberon’s incessant need to take the boy from Titania comes across as a stronger embrace for capitalism than Titania shows, and that brings the fairies even further away from their agrarian roots.Oberon is looking to take the boy from Titania as if he were property and little more. Despite Titania voicing her emotional connection to the boy’s mother, Oberon says that he will “torment thee for this injury” (2.1.147). He is so greedy that he would would hurt Titania for choosing to keep a boy that is rightfully hers and that he does not truly care about. Oberon and Titania’s power struggle here is a struggle between both the sexes and the different ways of thinking. Titania is viewing the boy in human terms because of her experience with his mother while Oberon views the boy as property and wants him as a type of wealth. Through this, the fairies are almost modernized and placed in a new setting. These fairies are not in a situation that their ancestors would have found themselves in.
Their views of the boy provide their opposition towards each other for the length of the play without the boy ever being present on stage. The boy himself is not what is truly important here in the context of the plot. What he shows the audience about the fairies seems to be his only purpose. He provides a catalyst for Oberon and Titania’s argument, and that argument becomes an argument between new and old. In a way, this argument is about a new and an old economic system, but it can also be read as an argument between the old fairies of mythology and the new ones of mythology. The fairies of the past had never had to enter into a wider world or economy as Titania and Oberon do by engaging with the Indian boy. By doing this, Shakespeare’s king and queen are connected both to their rural roots and to the new world Shakespeare was bringing them into.
Before A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it was common for the fairy queen to be connected to the Greek goddess Diana, and Titania was actually the name the writer Ovid had used for Diana before Shakespeare (Staton 166). Through the use of the name Titania alone, Shakespeare’s fairies retain a connection to both British and Greek mythological traditions.
Some contend that the current perception of Shakespeare’s fairies comes from the way that later productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream were performed and not from Shakespeare’s own intentions while writing the play (Lewis 253). One example of where this is possible is the moment when Oberon instructs Puck to enchant Demetrius to love Helena (2.1.638-645). A production that played Oberon as more concerned with enchanting these humans for a cruel sport than any sort of compassion towards their struggle would certainly align closer to older fairy mythology (Lewis 253). As it is often portrayed today, the fairies are largely seen as harmless in their interference, which can more easily invoke the brighter view of fairies that we possess today. Cruelty was something that marked fairies as fairies, and a darker Oberon would have harkened back to that much more strongly than one showing any sort of concern for humans.
Whichever way Shakespeare actually intended for the fairies to be portrayed, today they are almost exclusively presented in a more positive light in A Midsummer Night’s Dream than in some older fairy myths. That is the interpretation of the majority of the public. If Shakespeare had intended for them to be darker characters, that has not translated to most modern audiences. However, it is worth noting that this could at least partially be because audiences today bring in their preconceived notions of playful but harmless fairies before they have even encountered Shakespeare’s fairies.
The way fairies came to be characterized after their appearance in A Midsummer Night’s Dream was remarkably different than they had been before. Puck, perhaps Shakespeare’s most memorable fairy in the play, is a great example of this. He alone underwent a huge change in Shakespeare from how he had been presented in older mythology. Herrington refers to Shakespeare as “refining” Robin Goodfellow especially, although his portrayals of all the fairies could really be see as a refinement as well (450). They are a more civilized sort than were found in the older agrarian stories. All of Shakespeare’s fairies answer to a king or queen, just one example of this refinement. Shakespeare’s fairies cannot really be labeled as scary or threatening. They interfere with the humans in the play, and their actions definitely have large consequences. At the same time, no one ever comes to true harm, and the fairies never give any indication of being so much as tempted to take it that far. In fact, many of their actions in the play revolve around setting the situation right after Puck makes his mistake. Such actions show the fairies as caring about the well-being of the humans in some capacity and portray a lack of true maliciousness.
The human characters also never know of the fairies’ presence, so they are not given a chance to show the fear that any fairies might have inspired in them. Bottom is the only exception to this as the one human who sees the fairies over the course of the play. But he does not show any indication of fear when he does so. When Titania introduces herself, Bottom appears to have no awareness of who she is (3.1.126-30), and when introduced to some of the other fairies, all he says are things like, “I cry your worship’s mercy, heartily: I beseech your worship’s name” while calling them “honest gentleman” and “Master” (3.1.161-2, 164, 166). If one only knew of the fairy stories that came before Shakespeare, fear at coming face to face with some would be logical. Although Bottom comes across as oblivious to the fact that he is even speaking to fairies, that still shows a lack of an innate fear set off by the fairies’ presence. They were certainly creatures you wanted to stay away from as they had the potential to turn against humans and do harm. Ultimately, the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream come across as mostly harmless and do not seem to inspire a large level of fear in Bottom, at least.
The fairy Puck speaks to at the beginning of the scene accuses Puck of messing around with various humans (2.1.32-42). Puck then confirms all of this himself by recounting even more things he has done (2.1.42-58). This conversation refers to the stories of Pucks told in Shakespeare’s time. It is the sort of behavior people expected from such a character and is one instance of Shakespeare using existing ideas of fairies within the play.
Puck may enjoy messing with the humans, but he does not sound much like the hobgoblin species of fairy that was ubiquitous in previous mythology. Shakespeare’s Puck comes from a particular race of fairies called hobgoblins, of which the mischievous Robin Goodfellow was one, but Shakespeare took the entire hobgoblin race and made them into the character of Puck (Schleiner 65). Creatures with “goblin” in their name sound much scarier to us than our perception of fairies. It may be difficult to picture them as similar creatures unless you keep the older depictions of fairies in mind. Our modern versions of goblins certainly sound a lot more like the fear-inducing creatures that hint at some past depictions of fairies.
In contrast to the term “Puck,” Robin Goodfellow, another name Puck uses in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, was a specific fairy’s name in older stories, and one that was already believed to be a puck in Shakespeare’s day (Folk-Lore 149). With the character of Puck, Shakespeare is morphing fairy mythology by condensing a whole group of fairies into an individual fairy. The Robin Goodfellow of previous mythology has become the sole member of what had previously been an entire race, and he is not quite as concerned with harming humans as his past incarnations.
In traditional lore, Puck was “rude and hairy” and different than the “smooth and courtly Puck” that is described in the play (Lamb 302). The old Robin Goodfellow would do household chores for people in the countryside as long as they fed him bread and milk as payment, but if they did not fulfill that requirement, he would turn vicious (Wilby 297). Puck in Shakespeare’s play serves a king that he is obedient to and calls “my lord” (2.1.268). He is not a rogue figure going around creating mischief of his own volition. Despite interfering with humans and referring to the “bickering” it causes as “a sport” (3.2.354), Shakespeare’s Puck is a more dignified figure than the Puck of earlier mythology. He lacks a certain wildness that was an inherent characteristic of his earlier incarnation. This is shown best in the way he obeys his king and does what he is told. By doing so, Puck fits himself into some an organized social hierarchy, and being an obedient servant to another takes away some of the wildness that Puck had previously possessed.
Puck is instead a “light and delicate” figure that conjures an entirely different image than the hobgoblins or pucks of the past (Herrington 450). The new Puck is not wild. He obeys a king and says things like, “Fear not, my lord. Your servant shall do so” (2.1.268). That is a far cry from earlier incarnations of Robin Goodfellow. The image of Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is now far more well known than many of the stories that predate it. Shakespeare’s play could almost be seen as creating an entirely new popular culture surrounding fairies (Lamb 279). This new Puck was at the center of a new culture that replaced the old Puck. After Shakespeare, “puck” took on a new meaning.
The fairies are well established as an integral part of the play when Titania declares they will be there “till after Theseus’ wedding day” (2.1.139). Titania’s words connect Theseus’s wedding with the fairies’ presence. Now the audience know that the fairies will be there at least until the wedding, which Theseus’s opening lines of the play have informed the audience is in “Four happy days” (1.1.2). Their effect on the plot remains to be seen, but this is a good indicator that their actions are going to be one of the big factors continually driving the story forward.
The fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream exert their biggest influence on the story by becoming tied up in the emotions, namely love, of the human characters. There are a number of ways to create mischief or play with humans, but the fairies choose one of the most manipulative. They do not just interfere with the humans externally; they change their inner most feelings. That is not to say the fairies’ actions are coming from a cruel place; Oberon refers to the love of humans having been a “sport” to him in the past (3.2.390), but he also orders Puck to “take from thence all error” of what they have done (3.2.369). They seem, ultimately, to want to accomplish good, but the invasive methods they use to accomplish that good raises many of the questions that make the play so intriguing.
While the fairies never appear to be outright cruel, having your actions taken away from you is perhaps one of the scariest things that can happen. This is not of much importance to the humans in the play as they are never aware that their feelings have even been tampered with, although the women do suspect that something more is going on. At first, Helena is suspicious that Demetrius’s actions come from a joke that Hermia has encouraged him to perform (3.2.223-4), but the women seem more concerned with accusing each other and the men for what is happening than looking for a magical source. As an outsider who watches it unfold, however, the audience is privy to more information. They get to see the humans’ free will being taken away by the fairies. The humans are no longer entirely in charge of their emotions. Demetrius and Lysander proceed to express such strong feelings of love that perhaps this is a case of them getting closer to nature. Shakespeare’s fairies certainly continue to be associated with the natural, even as Shakespeare recreates them from older ideas of agrarian fairies. None of their magic ever happens in a town or city except for their blessing of the marriages at the end of the play at Theseus’s palace (5.2), which could also be seen as them moving into a more urban area away from their agrarian roots. That alone manages to retain some of the agrarian associations fairies possessed. The most primal expressions of human emotion could also be connected to nature, and this is perhaps why the fairies enjoy this particular form of playing with the humans’ lives. In this interpretation, the humans’ emotions are being manipulated by nature itself. Nature has just taken on the form of fairies.
If nature and fairies are taken as being synonymous within the play, then is it really a problem that the fairies have decided to manipulate humans? Any manipulation on the fairies’ part would be entirely natural. The way the fairies seamlessly stay out of the human teenagers’ awareness over the course of the play means they can easily be viewed as a force of nature in the teenagers’ lives like any other force of nature, whether external or internal, that may have otherwise influenced their emotions. At the end of the play, the teenagers are “full of joy and mirth” (4.2.27). The fairies have righted the situation in the sense, and any love felt by the teenagers is just as natural as anything that would have occurred without the interference of the fairies.
A significant portion of Act II scene one, the first scene in which the fairies appear, is Titania and Oberon, a married couple, fighting. Their marriage is not ideal, and neither one of them appears to be much in love with the other. They are dramatic in their arguing, and that carries over to how they treat the humans. Oberon and Puck decide to start messing around with the humans’ emotions, and while Oberon is motivated to helping them, Puck appears to feel at least some amusement over his own mistake when he says, “Shall we their fond pageant see? / Lord, what fools these mortals be!” (3.2.114-5).
For the human characters of the play, the events they are experiencing are nothing more than nature and their natural emotions. They have no way of knowing that they are being outwardly manipulated. By keeping the fairies as largely separate from the humans, Shakespeare keeps the human world operating as it normally does in the eyes of the characters. Despite comments on the oddness of Demetrius’s and Lysander’s behavior, there is nothing that points towards outward manipulation in the eyes of the humans. Sometimes emotions are strange, and humans do strange things in response to their emotions. Lysander and Demetrius are outside the realm of what is considered logical, but the other characters have no choice but to rationalize what is happening as something that is happening inside of the young men. Helena accuses the others of setting her up on their own without any outward manipulation when she says, “I see you all are bent / To set against me for your merriment” (3.2.146-7).
The fairies here are acting as an agent of nature, at least in the sense that the humans are acknowledging nature as the cause. Only the audience is aware of the full extent of the fairies’ interference. Only they know that any magic has happened at all. Even so, the way the fairies are constantly associated with nature means that they are still capable of being seen as agents of nature instead of magical beings with personal agendas. If the scenes with the fairies were taken out of the play, there would still be a storyline there, but the reasoning behind the characters’ actions would be justified in the same way that they justify the behaviors to themselves in the play. The fairies add another layer to the play, but part of their wonder is that they stay mysterious. Their presence remains ambiguous throughout the play. They are just there out of sight, manipulating things but never revealing themselves.
The four human teenagers are caught up in a confusing situation where everyone loves different people. This is complicated before the fairies become involved, but their situation become even more dramatic upon the entrance of the love potion that Puck has been instructed to put onto the eyes of one of the human boys (2.1.637-46). What was meant to right things instead makes them worse when Puck enchants the wrong boy (2.2.728). After the love potion, the human teenagers do not honestly act much different from how they had been before except Lysander’s affection has shifted to Helena instead of Hermia. However, this change in his feelings prompts confusion which the fairies are entirely responsible for, and this was the sort of behavior that people in the audience of the time would have recognized as typical mischief that fairies caused. In that way, Shakespeare’s fairies were typical of the time. Puck himself can be described as a “prankster” (Miller 254).
Shakespeare’s fairies stay removed from the humans and in their own world even as they interfere with the humans’ lives, but the separation goes further than that in the way that any interaction between fairies and humans is almost nonexistent in the play. Even as they occupy the same space over the course of the play, the fairies choose not to engage with the majority of the humans. Bottom is the only human to interact with the fairies, and afterwards, he chooses not to share his experience because “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, hot is heart to report what my dream was” (4.2.204-7). To the other characters, fairies remain figures of myth, not fact. They have been given no evidence of the fairies’ existence except Bottom’s experience, which he does not share. It gives the play a sense of ambiguousness over whether or not the fairies shown exist or if they are imagined. The separate world the fairies occupy could almost be a dream world, not the real one of the humans. It almost mirrors the way fairies could have been thought of in England at the time. Are they there or not? Is their world so estranged from the human world that it is actually nonexistent? There are no clear answers, but the fairies’ connection to nature seems to make them a natural force that is always acting out of sight of humans, not just in the events of the play.
The fairies present in A Midsummer Night’s Dream build upon older fairy traditions to create a new sort of fairy that has continued to influence our mythology today. With his fairies, Shakespeare creates a race of magical beings closely tied to nature just like the agrarian fairies that had come before them. This connection to the pastoral countryside creates fairies that are strongly connected to nature. In fact, Shakespeare’s fairies can be read as an extension of nature as much as they can magical beings acting out of their own autonomy. While the fairies do manipulate the lives of the human characters in the play, they so in a way that keeps them outside of what is happening, and none of the humans learn of how their emotions have been manipulated. Because of this, the fairies actions have no stronger outcome than any other force of nature would have over the characters’ lives, and the emotions the characters experience over the course of the play are as natural as if the fairies had not interfered at all.
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