Tag Archives: Shakespeare

Fairy lore in Shakespeare

‘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



Filed under Fairies, Shakespeare, Shakespeare's Sources

What is Evil?

I know. If this were a graded project, I’d be failing. But every time I start to write, I come up with a different idea. So I stopped for a bit to let my thoughts settle. This is one subject that has kept coming up over and over, so hopefully it sticks.

How do we define evil? In truth, evil, like good, is one of those words often defined by an opposite, such as light/dark or tall/short. Such words and concepts are dependent each other and on the context in which they are used. The common definition of evil is dependent on our culture and personal mores. My or your evil might differ slightly from someone else’s evil, or, when compared, it may be far fetched.

I bring this before you because in a few days we will recognize the ten-year anniversary of 9/11. Certainly, our culture and the majority of cultures around the world define the tragedy of 9/11 as an act of pure evil. Thousands of innocent people died, people of various religions and cultures and races, all for someone else’s idiom. However, the men who planned and performed the attack believed THEY were right. They believed they were striking a blow at a country that has done more to degrade the moral center of the world than any other. In their minds, they were doing God’s work by killing those who do not embrace the “correct way.” How is their belief any different from those of our ancestors who spent generations fighting in the Crusades, killing innocent people as well as armed combatants, all in the name of religious conviction? So, I ask again: How do we define evil?

What of wars in general? America refused to enter WW I until it was apparent to a majority of the American populace that the European conflagration really was a matter of “national security,“ and WW II not until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. We were willing to allow others to fight what we now see as an ultimate evil, sacrificing their lives and homes in the process. We became involved only when our own military installations, both in Hawaii and in the Philippines, were bombed, and the national motive was in no small part revenge. Even here, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, an act designed to cripple the U.S. forces in the Pacific, was done in the name of what the Japanese thought was “right.” They believed it was their manifest destiny to conquer the Pacific world. Their ideas of superiority were no different from those of American settlers who slaughtered thousands of Native Americans in the name of a manifest destiny. This country was not ours when we arrived. We conquered, we displaced, we murdered. Is this not evil? How were our ancestors any different?

We also dropped the worst of modern weapons on Japan in order to end the war, arguing that it would be better for hundreds of thousands of civilians to die than millions counted among our soldiers, Japanese soldiers, and Japanese civilians. That debate continues as one of the great moral conundrums of our age. But is the loss of millions truly more evil than the loss of hundreds of thousands? Is one soldier’s life worth any more than a civilian? Are two lives worth more than a single one? So again, what is evil?

Like all greats in the humanist disciplines, Shakespeare never offers an answer to such large and philosophical queries. Instead, he merely expands the questions. In Macbeth, he gives us not an evil incarnate to oppose a hero, but rather a descent into evil that should be pitied. He argues and justifies his descent into evil, just as we have often done with our own descent.

Macbeth begins as the archetypal hero. He has just conquered a traitor, that is, treason against a king, a sin worse than any other in Shakespeare’s time. While returning from the battlefield, unaware of his newly earned title, he encounters three witches who make predictions regarding his current and future titles. Macbeth scoffs at these sisters until he receives news that he is now “Thane of Cawdor” (1.3.055), just as the sisters predicted. Our Western minds, molded by centuries of teachings that witches are a form of evil, are quick to judge the grotesque women as the focus of evil in the play. However, the witches never perform a single act of evil. To the contrary, they merely make predictions, and Macbeth responds with murder and a plot against those who stand in his way. Macbeth, who began in the image of a hero, is revealed in possession of an evil mind seizes on murder as a solution, despite his initial declaration, “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, / Without my stir” (1.3.143-144).

Other critics argue that Lady Macbeth is the epitome of true evil within the play. After all, it is she who first places the thought of murdering the king in her doting husband’s head. Yet, her burgeoning guilt eventually drives her to insanity and suicide. We find Lady Macbeth so compelling because we so easily resonate with her guilt. The purest evil is little troubled with guilt. Nevertheless, the image of Lady Macbeth with which we are left is that of a tortured soul, rubbing her hands, madly demanding,

Out, damned spot! out, I say!—One: two: why,
then, ’tis time to do’t.—Hell is murky!—Fie, my
lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we
fear who knows it, when none can call our power
to account?—Yet who would have thought the old
man to have had so much blood in him?

The thane of Fife had a wife; where is she now?—
What, will these hands ne’er be clean?—No more o’
that, my lord, no more o’ that: you mar all with
this starting.

Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the
perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this
little hand. O, O, O! (5.1.35-40, 42-45, 50-52).

Lady Macbeth’s hallucination-filled rambling comment not only on the deeds of the Macbeths, but also on her extreme guilt in their aftermath. Is she evil incarnate? Or is she merely a weak soul overcome by evil and left to be pitied?

Cultural differences across the globe make narrow definitions of evil impossible. I’m reminded of the climax of Boondock Saints, where Murphy declares, “Do not kill, do not rape, do not steal, these are principles which every man of every faith can embrace.” However, even these crimes are not embraced by every faith as evil. In fact, within some cultures, murder and rape are used to punish what some perceive as worse sins. So can we, as a human race, truly embrace any singular definition of evil? And if we can, can we also acknowledge our own evil as well as the evil of others?

Our Supreme Court might argue that, like porn, we cannot define evil, but we know it when we see it. By that reasoning, Macbeth is truly evil, and Shakespeare forces us to witness a good man’s descent into evil. And, as evil as Macbeth and Lady M become, it can also be argued that Banquo is equally evil. After all, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” However, for all three, they receive what we might call their just desserts. Is such a conclusion our answer to evil? Or should we conquer it with pity and compassion instead? Is that possible?

Let us apply the view of a descent to evil towards the hijackers of 9/11. We label these men as evil. Yet, they were seduced by words and rhetoric of zealots in their own religion. They laid their own lives and the lives of thousands of innocents on the altar of the rhetoric of their leaders. Does their memory deserve condemnation or pity?

Perhaps the answer is both. History is filled with leaders whose gift of blarney inspires others to commit evil acts. These doers of evil become mere marionettes of their silver-tongued leaders. Perchance, we should strive for a condemnation of their acts and leaders while simultaneously reacting to these poor puppets with compassion and pity for their downfall. After all, Shakespeare ends Macbeth with a mixture of grotesque celebration and dismissal of the evil when, while seeing Macbeth’s head displayed, Malcolm declares he “shall not spend a large expense of time” on Macbeth’s actions before embracing his loyal countrymen in grateful arms.

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