‘Tis the season (for magic!) While this is not a Christmas themed post, Christmas is often referred to as magical, so here is some background on the magical history of Shakespeare!
Either I mistake your shape and making quite,
Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite
Call’d Robin Goodfellow…
Those that Hobgoblin call you and sweet Puck,
You do their work, and they shall have good luck:
Are not you he? (Midsummer 2.1. 32-34, 40-42).
Basics of Fairy lore in England, Ireland, and Scotland
The origins of British/Celtic fairy lore are not clear, although many critics believe them to be left over from some older pagan religion. Because of its lost origins, fairy lore has several explanations for its existence, including:
Ghosts or Spirits of the Deceased: bean si (Irish) or bean shith (Scottish) translates as “fairy woman” and is generally described as a ghost and is either an omen from the dead for an impending tragedy or simply as an omen for death.
Fallen Angels: Several legends, based on sketchy biblical tidbits, tell that when some angels revolted, the gates of heaven were shut and those in hell became demons while those on earth became fairies.
Demons: Some beliefs held that fairies were demons, but most critics believe this to be a result of the growth of Christianity, especially Puritanism. For instance, although Puck is sometimes called “hobgoblin,” which, though originally a friendly household spirit, became an evil goblin. Many older folk beliefs similarly became demonized by church tenants, as with witchcraft and other forms of magic. Consequently, part of subsequent folklore is that fairies are scared away by church bells. However, in Midsummer, Oberon states that his people are not driven away by church bells, reaffirming their status as non-demons to Shakespeare’s audience. More on this further down.
Pagan Deities: Tales of the Tuatha De Dannan tell of a magical people coming to Ireland on black clouds, only to eventually be chased underground or to the sidhe (fairy mounds) by the ancestors of Irish folk. Most critics believe that the stories contain evidence that these beings were once considered gods and goddesses by local pagan religions. More than likely, this is the belief regarding fairies that dominates in Shakespeare’s play. Due to the increasing influence of Christianity, fairies were relegated to the realm of folk tales, not deities, but remained powerful nonetheless.
Peasants often divided fairies into two courts, the Seelie Court and Unseelie Court. The fairies of the Seelie Court were believed to be more kindly toward mortals, often helping them or giving them gifts. However, that did not keep faeries from playing cruel tricks on mortals or from showing their wrath when feeling they had been injured in some way. However, unlike the Unseelie Court, when given the choice between benevolence or malice toward mortals, they would more than likely choose benevolence. The Unseelie Court, on the other hand, while occasionally kind toward mortals, generally chose malice toward humans. Members of the Seelie Court often wore bells on the harnesses or their steeds to distinguish them from their harsher relatives, who were frightened off by the sound of bells, thus further explaining Oberon’s assurance that his people were “spirits of another sort” (Midsummer 3.2.388) when Puck reminds him that dawn is near, when “damned spirits all” (3.2.382) must flee from daybreak.
Common Traits, Tricks, and Gifts
Fairies of Shakespeare’s time were not pictured as more modern fairies. Rather than having wings, they often appeared gnomish or elfish in appearance. The few that flew did so by magic or by harnessing birds or insects as steeds.
Brownies and hobgoblins, both types of fairies, were generally considered house or hearth fairies. They would help housewives with chores and other duties if they deemed the household worthy by its cleanliness. This is why Puck states, “I am sent with broom before, / To sweep the dust behind the door” (5.1.389-90). Puck, in his kindly persona of Robin Goodfellow, often helped around the hearth and home according to his mythos, but he could quickly change to his more impish persona if displeased. In Ben Jonson’s ballad “Robin Goodfellow” the punishments inflicted by Puck for uncleanness are described:
When house or hearth doth sluttish lie,
I pinch the maidens black and blue,
The bedclothes from the bed pull I,
And lay them naked all to view. (Dyer 19).
Brownies could be driven away by a gift of clothing; however, the clothing was to be of good quality, otherwise the giver risked incurring the wrath of the Brownie.
Fairies also could not stand the touch of iron, thus the practice of hanging an iron horseshoe above a doorway or entrance.
Often, the good graces of fairies were entreated with bribes or fresh cream and honey, a particular favorite.
It was particularly important not to impede the pathways of fairies, thus front and back doors of houses were often built in alignment so that they could be left open and night, allowing the fairies to pass through.
It was also bad luck to step into a fairy ring, as the fairies might still be dancing within it. If they were, you would be sucked into their dance, unable to get out until they let you go. You could be missing for a few minutes or for decades.
Puck’s favorite game of leading travelers astray was called will o’the wisp. It could be avoided by not following the light or sound that attempted to lead travelers astray, often to their death in the marshes or swamps.
According to Scottish tradition, Millers were thought to be friends of the fairies thanks to their ability to control the forces of nature. Often, they were believed to grind grain for the fairies at night or allow the fairies use of their machinery. This belief was no doubt encouraged by millers to keep thieves away.
An infant who was not baptized was in danger of being stolen by the fairies and replaced with a changeling or fairy-child. Changelings were often believed to be sickly, dying soon after birth. This belief probably arose out of the high rate of infant mortality among the poor. Older people could also be taken and would be unable to leave if they ate fairy-food. This belief was probably due to the late influence of Greek and Roman mythology (Persephone anyone?).
It was also bad luck to reveal the kindness of fairies to others. If a fairy chose to favor you that favor could quickly turn to malice if you shared the knowledge of your gift and their favoritism to you.
Shakespeare’s Influence on Fairy lore
While it was a common belief that fairies had a courtly system similar to human royalty, the specifics changed by region. Shakespeare gives the name Oberon to his fairy king, which was a common mythology passed on from German or Nordic myths of fairies or elves. Puck too can be found throughout fairy mythology, as well as his counter-personality, Robin Goodfellow. Puck was often seen as the trickster while Robin was highly benevolent to humans, helping them with chores or giving them gifts around the house. However, Shakespeare’s queen, Titania, is of his own naming. While in fairy tradition, there is often a queen with Oberon, she remains either unnamed or called Queen Mab (as she is in Mercutio’s speech in Rome and Juliet). However, even her name Mab was not traditional in Shakespeare’s time.Usually, she just remained unnamed. However, due to Shakespeare’s influence, the name of Titania is commonly seen in literature and theatre after Shakespeare. (The poet William Blake also had a great deal of influence on modern fairy lore, but that is for another day!)
What’s unique in all this is Shakespeare’s mixture of peasant folklore of fairies, on the one hand, with the mythology of the Greeks and Romans that would have been part of upper-class education, on the other. Just as the royalty and upper class mixed with the lower class in the theatre (although they were still separated, they were nonetheless in the same building and area), so too are the mythoi of the lower and upper classes mixed onstage in Midsummer Night’s Dream. “It is described by Mr. Knightley as an attempt to blend the elves of the village with the fays of romance” (Dyer 2). That is not to say that those of the upper class were unaware of fairy mythology or the lower class unaware of some of the major Greek and Roman myths. Rather, both were particularly popular at this time, much to the consternation of the clergy and much to the entertainment of Shakespeare’s audience.
Works Cited and Consulted
Buccola, Regina. Fairies, Fractious Women and the Old Faith: Fairy Lore in Early
Modern British Drama and Culture. Cranbury: Susquehanna University Press,
Bush, Douglas. Mythology & the Renaissance Tradition in English Poetry. New York:
W.W. Norton & Co. Inc. , 1963.
Dyer, Rev. T.F. Thiselton. “Fairies.” Folk-lore of Shakespeare. New York: Harper &
Bro., 1884. p. 1-24.
Oatley, Keith. “Simulation of Substance and Shadow: Inner Emotions and Outer Behavior in Shakespeare’s Psychology of Character”.
College Literature, 33:1. Winter 2006: 15-33.
Rogers, L.W.. The Ghosts in Shakespeare. Wheaton: The Theosophical Press, 1925.
Shakespeare, William. The Arden Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Stephens, James. Irish Fairy Tales. New York: Abaris Books, Inc., 1978.
Wall, Wendy. “Why Does Puck Sweep?: Fairy-lore, Merry Wives, and Social Struggle”.
Shakespeare Quarterly 52- 1 Spring 2001: 67-106.
Illustrations by Arthur Rackham