Shakespeare, William - The Role of the Fairies in Shakespeare`s AMND

Hausarbeit, 2000

11 Seiten, Note: 3



1. Introduction

2. The Looks of Shakespeare’s Fairies

2. Fairies and Nature

3. The Fairies and What They Represent

a. Titania

b. Oberon

c. Puck (Robin Goodfellow)

d. Other Fairies

4. Conclusion: A Dream?

5. Appendices

1. Introduction

In Shakespeare‘sA Midsummer Night‘s Dream (MND)fairies play a major part. They are not the only supernatural beings Shakespeare used for his plays, but they are the most peaceful ones compared to witches and returning spirits of the dead inMacbeth. In Shakespeare‘s days fairies were often used to tell children‘s stories, but also for the purpose of grown-ups‘ entertainment. We can find those little magical beings in tales likeCinderella, Peter Panand Sleeping Beauty.But also adult poetry uses the mystery of the fairies like in Thomas of Erceldoune‘sThomas Rymer and Queen of Elflandor in Sir Simeon Steward‘sKing Oberon‘s apparel.(Appendix 3). Thomas of Erceldoune is said to have received his poetical power during his meeting with the fairy queen he describes in his poem. The fairies here are equal to the old Greek nymphs, beautiful, magical and inspiring beings, close to the gods of Olymp. Fairies are not exclusively found in poetry and literature, but also in allday-matters, like the Tooth-Fairy or the fairy appearing in many jokes, granting a free wish to someone. They are almost omnipresent beings, that have never turned old-fashioned. They have a lot of names (appendix 2) and shapes (appendix4 ff.), almost one for every culture that tells fairy tales to its children. Still today there are many stories written about fairies relying on the old myths and legends.

The main idea of Shakespeare about the importance and role of the fairies is quite similar to the one that Peter Barnes uses in hisThe Magical Legend of the Leprechauns.Moreover he uses the story from Shakespeare‘sRomeo and Julietto get his fairies in a conflict with his kobolds. Here we have a modern author copying an author from about 500 years ago. He links classical fairy-motifs with modern cultural aspects.

The many shapes of those fairies and their presence in almost every culture from then until today was one of my reasons to write about Shakespeare‘s fairies. I will talk about their relation to nature and their different trades of character presented by the three main fairy- characters. I will use traditional ‚knowledge about fairies‘ as well as hints Shakespeare gives us inMND.

My information about fairy-flowers are taken from a link at (October 2000).

2. The Looks of Shakespeare’s Fairies

Shakespeare does not tell us too much about his fairies. There is no description of their dresses, their shape, the shape of their ears or anything else about them. We only know, that Puck must be of a special, recognisable shape as he is called by his name by the fairy messenger. Moreover we learn that Titania is a tall as a grown-up man as she and Bottom lie together in her bed, so he cannot be taller than her. Of course it is due to the heights of the actors that the fairies cannot be smaller than human beings. But according to the old myths about them, they only come up to one’s knees.

Sir Simeon Steward gives us a rather useful description of Oberon’s dresses as they were thought to be by the people of his time. We may assume that they did not think them very differently from Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

Titania is described as a very beautiful woman by Thomas the Rhymer as well as by Shakespeare. The number of her lovers are proof for her beauty. Oberon’s being handsome is proven by Titania’s love to him. Her subconscious feeling of disgust towards Bottom is proof for her feelings for beauty. So we may assume that Oberon is not ugly at all. The number of his lovers cannot be taken as a proof of his beauty as he is willed to use his magical abilities to conquer a woman as well as his natural charms.

In general we learn that men have always been fascinated by the beautiful faces of the fairies. Their immortality provides them with the higher spiritual charms we are told about in stories and in movies.

3. Fairies and Nature

Shakespeare‘s fairies, as well as most other fairies too, are linked very closely to the natural world. They are an essential part of it, living on and for it. Fairies are the protectors of flowers and anything that grows in their forests. InMNDPuck meets a fairy of Titania‘s entourage who is decorating the Fairy Queen‘s orbs as she is planning to have a celebration there that night (II.I. beginning 8/9). Everything shall look nice and pretty for the queen‘s arrival. The fairy is decorating the flowers with dew and by that fulfils the duty of the moisture of an evening. It is alluded to the fairies as the executives of common appearances in nature. Moreover Shakespeare gives his fairies control about the seasons. The quarrel between Oberon, the fairies‘ king, and Titania, their queen, and the resulting private war between them is mirrored in an insane nature. The seasons begin to mix. The frosts of winter fall on the roses of autumn, and the buds of summer grow upon winter‘s face (II.I.107-111). "The spring, the summer, / The childing autumn, angry winter, change / Their wonted liveries" (II.I.111- 113), they do not know "which is which" (II.I.114). The seasons lose their identity and inner apollinical order, just like Titania will do later. The guards are not watching their grounds anymore as they have to fight their own little fought about the Indian boy that Oberon wants to have. Shakespeare's fairies do not build houses or castles. Their court is the forest, their houses are the trees in the woods and they sleep in beds "where the wild thyme blows, / Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, / Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, / With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine" (II.I.249-252) Oberon describes Titania's bed in this passage as one of the most peaceful places in the forest. In this description and earlier in the scene, when Titania's fairy messenger talks to Puck, one very special flower is mentioned. Oberon calls it 'oxlip', the messenger calls it 'cowslip' (II.I.15), but it is the same flower anyway. This kind of flower is said to have a supernatural power, namely to help one find hidden fairy gold. They are loved and protected by the fairies. It is not clear whether Shakespeare was aware of this or not, but some other flowers he uses, which are also said to be linked to the fairy world may be proof of his conscious usage of those flowers.

The wild thyme in line 249 for example confirms this opinion as it part of a recipe for a brew to make one see the fairies.

The primrose is one of those flowers, too. Hermia says, that she and Lysander "Upon faint primrose beds were wont to lie" (I.I.215). The primrose is said to make the invisible visible and eating them makes one see fairies. The invisible thing that was made visible in this bed of roses is Hermia's and Lysander's love for each other. They were "emptying [their] bosoms of their counsel sweet" (I.I.216) there. Shakespeare has the flowers performed their traditional duty on the lovers.

The names of the fairies serving Titania are names taken out of nature. Shakespeare is referring to the fairies as being born out of nature by this. He has Peaseblossom and Mustardseed as the representatives of the family of flowers, the flora, and Moth and Cobweb as relatives of the animal family, the fauna.

When Titania is lying in her bed with the transformed Bottom she orders her servants to fetch some nuts for her beloved. I assume that they were to gather hazelnuts, as these are the most common nuts in English woodlands, and by that the most familiar to Shakespeare. According to Celtic legends the hazelnut is the receptacle of knowledge. Exactly what an ass, in this case Bottom, is lacking of. Furthermore, it is a symbol of fertility in England, which quite fits in that moment as they are sharing her bed.

We find a strong connection between the fairies and their nature and many hidden hints in Shakespeare's usage of flowers and plants. And as people lived much closer to nature then than today, we can assume that he used them on purpose.

4. The Fairies and what they represent

a. Titania

Titania is the queen of the fairies and the only female fairy that appears inMND. The Basic idea of a fairy queen can be found long before Shakespeare like for example in Thomas the Rhymer's poems, in Spenser'sFairy Queenand Chaucer'sWife of Bath's Tale.The name is from Ovid and back to the titans, a family of huge, strong beings in northern mythology. They were the creators of the world and the first beings that lived on the planet.

Titania shows that strength of her ancestors by not being obedient to Oberon, her lord. She claims that she is his lady and that he should be obedient and faithful to her as well. (II..I.64 ff.). She is not willed to give away the little Indian boy she possesses whom Oberon is yearning for because of his beauty. Her love for the boy's mother makes her loving him like her own child. In this boy the motif of the changeling is taken up, except that there is no ugly child left in the world of man.

She is proud (the first of the Seven Deadly Sins), rejects her husband and his demands. She is like Hippolyta has been before she was conquered by Theseus. But the amazon gave up fighting the man like Titania does when the juice is washed away from her eyes by Oberon. Those strong women turn into obedient females at the side of their lords. They are the equals for each other in their different worlds in the play.

Titania was a lover to Theseus and lead "him through the glimmering night / From Perigouna, whom he ravished" (II.I.77/78). There are two more females mentioned she helped him with. In contrast to Oberon she did not share her own bed with her beloved, but helped him into and out of the bed of other females. By that she follows the characterlines of females at that time, who were not to be sexually involved with man but to help them out of love and passion. Her love is not as selfish as Oberon's, so she represents the typical female way of loving a man who is not her husband. It is the pure spiritual love, not the physical one that Oberon adores so much. Taking Bottom to her bed is neither her own free decision nor will.

Nevertheless she takes care for Bottom, cradles him and has her fairies doing him favours. Her selflessness still is with her and she puts her beloved above herself. Her sense for beauty is with her as well. Her eyes are dimmed by the juice, but her ears are not. While she and all the other elaborated or higher characters speak in verses, Bottom and the other workers speak in prose. This and the stupid talk are against Titania’s feeling for harmony in speech. So she orders her servants to "tie up [her] love’s tongue" (III.I.186). So Shakespeare presents us the act of loving someone as an eyes-only procedure. Titania’s perception for beauty is not completely erased by the trick plays on her. Her lover's head is a symbol for his non-existing cleverness, his cleverness equals the beauty of his face.

Titania is at least equal in strength with Oberon, as he needs to use the juice of a flower hit by "Cupid’s fiery shaft" (II.I.161), and by that a power given by a god. The gods are stronger than the fairies, but no mortal being can ever harm them.

Titania is the far-sighted part of the fairy-ruler-pair. She is aware of the disorder in nature, and about its origin. She says that the "progeny of evils comes / from our debate, from our dissention" (II.I.115/116) and talks about Oberon and herself. She wants to end the struggle, but for to achieve this aim the "parents and origin" (II.I.117) of this chaos must reunite again.

There is one thing I do not understand about Titania. That is why she is so obedient in the end. Oberon tricked her and stole the boy she seemed to love so much. When she is told what had happened and in what a cruel way Oberon tricked her, she does not even say a word of anger or hate. This does not fit into the image of a strong queen who is as sure of herself as Titania had been all the time. So here we have to see her as a victim of the author, as the comedy had to provide the audience with a happy end. Due to that, Titania falls back into her role of the kind little female at the side of strong king Oberon. She is put back into the male/female-cliché she had just overcome in the beginning. She has been tamed by her lord, just like Hippolyta was by Theseus.

b. Oberon

Oberon’s roots lie in almost the same literarical ground as Titania’s do. For him we can assume the medieval romanceHuon de Bordeaux, as well as poems like Sir Simeon StewardsKing Oberon’s apparel(Appendix 3). He is the king of the fairies, husband of Titania. He is the one that makes the lovers’ trouble start and end inMND,as he orders Puck to make them love by using the same juice he would be using on Titania.

He is a quite envious (the fourth of the Seven Deadly Sins) character towards the possession of his lady. He does not about what he causes Titania, but takes it as a simple, necessary means to get the boy. In the end he reaches his aim, releases Titania from the spell the flower put upon her and is happy and satisfied about his clever way of managing the situation. His greed makes him using means a wise being should never dare to use. His aim is a reunification with Titania as well, but not with her in a superior position. He is willing to show her up to re-subjugate her.

He used his magical abilities more than once to conquer a woman, just like Theseus used his strength and power to conquer Hippolyta. Oberon disguised for example as Corin to conquer Phillida (I.I.66), and he probably used similar ways to become one of Hippolyta's lovers. The final triumph of his abilities was provided to him by the flower juice, that helped conquering an equal of powers. No success could be bigger than this.

Nevertheless he seems to be interested in harmony and love, too. He orders Puck to use the juice upon Demetrius to make him fall in love with Helena and by that make both of them happy. When Puck fails n his mission Oberon turns angry as he finds that "Some true love turn'd, and not a false one [became] true" (III.I.91). Maybe he wanted to see this good deed done as an atonement for the evil purpose he uses the juice for.

Oberon and Titania are the fourth couple inMND.They, as the other three couples as well, begin a new life as pair in the end of the play. What makes him different from Theseus is, that Theseus is known as a benevolent ruler who governs with humanity and justice. Oberon is beyond justice, and as a fairy freed from humanity. Although he may not be a cruel tyrant he is not the righteous ruler he should be, regarding Titania's case.

His right hand is his favourite servant Puck. He accompanies Oberon throughout the play and helps him carrying out his plans. Oberon trusts him completely, but does not turn too angry when Puck bewitches the wrong youth, but helps him restoring order.

c. Puck (Robin Goodfellow)

Puck is the most famous of the imps. His origins lie in popular legend telling about Robin Goodfellow. His name can already be found in Middle English at about 1300. Its meaning was slightly different: it meant 'devil'. Shakespeare's Puck is no real devil. He plays some tricks on people, but tries to keep them humorous. Although it is mostly he who laughs. In the play he is the impersonation of chaos. His equal in the world of human beings is Bottom. He wants to play every role in their play, and by that, to change his appearance again and again. Just like Puck does when he plays tricks on others, or like in III.II when he plays Lysander and Demetrius to each other of them to get them together sleeping in one place. Puck's and Bottom's passions for disguises come together when Puck turns Bottom's real head into an ass' head. Whether Puck turns Bottom's inside out or just masks him remains in the fantasy of the reader.

In II.I.33-41 Titania's messenger describes pure chaos and disorder and gives it the name of Puck, or Robin Goodfellow. He is the most famous fairy among fairies and men as well. But he does not only provide people with chaos and damage, but also with doing their work and offering them luck. But having him as a friend requires calling him sweet names and caressing him. In his last monologue he makes a clear distinction between his two selves, signified by his two names. He says "Else the Puck a liar call" (V.I.24) but "Give me your hands, if we be friends / And Robin shall restore amends." (V.I.426/427). So we have the lying Puck and the reliable Robin. Two different souls living in one breast, having two names depending on the personal relation to the imp.

He is the servant who follows the instruction of his master. But Oberon's instructions had not been clear enough for Puck to find the right Athenian youth, and so he did what he usually does: he evoke chaos. It is an irony of fate that by trying to do something good he does something bad. By trying to make people happy he drives them into chaos and misunderstandings. The one who represents and loves chaos is called to produce a love and instead produces a loving chaos.

d. Other Fairies

All the other fairies inMNDhave no special representations to fulfil. There are only four fairies mentioned by name. Their names represent the two ways of life: fauna and flora.

Moth and Cobweb for the animals, Peaseblossom and Mustardseed for the flowers and plants. Moreover the first one represents a 'creature', the second one a product of a 'creature'. The names represent the origin of the fairy, and so we can define the two fairy families: the flower fairies and the animal fairies. But the three main fairy characters do not belong to these categories. But those fairies are the court to their rulers, just like the craftsmen are to the real- world-king.

5. Conclusion: A Dream?

The name Shakespeare chose for his play could have beenLove and TroubleorThree Marriages and a Reunification. They would have been closer to the content of the play. But why did he choose the titleA Midsummer Night's Dream? "I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was." (IV.I.201/202) Due to the supernaturality of the things that happened Bottom is forced to believe he had been dreaming. His simple mind could not accept that something like this could really have happened to him. So he looks for the most simple explanation for the things he saw or believes to have seen: he must have been dreaming. Bottom dreamed his fairy queen while being an ass. Does that mean, that one becomes an ass by dreaming of the perfect mate? What does Shakespeare allude to here?

Does he allude to the belief that fairies are born out of dreams? Maybe his fairies are born out of midsummernightdreams, the most weird ones that are.

Shakespeare makes only one final statement about that, by using Puck for some kind of epilogue. He tells the audience that they all had just been dreaming the whole play, which is "weak and idle" and "No more yielding but a dream" (V.I.416/417)

I conclude that in Shakespeare's opinion the fairy world only exists in the dreams of men. But there it is a mirror for their real world, with the same types of people, problems and troubles. The fairies quarrel and disturb nature by it, men quarrel and disturb their world by it. But the fairies have an inner desire for harmony and a special love towards manhood, which make them heal the world. Somehow Shakespeare's fairy are the nature we live in, the circumstances and happenings that influence us. We do not need to see them, as they are influencing us anyway. They are a combination of nature and fate.

6. Appendices

Appendix 1:


-A Critical History of English Literature.David Daiches. Secker & Warburg. London, 1968

-Shakespeares Dramen.Max Lüthi. Walter de Gruyter & Co. Berlin, 1966 All quotations fromA Midsummer Night's Dreamare taken from

-A Midsummer Night's Dream. William Shakespeare. Phillip Reclam jun. GmbH & Co. Stuttgart, 1975.

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Shakespeare, William - The Role of the Fairies in Shakespeare`s AMND
Universität des Saarlandes
ISBN (eBook)
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Meinem Dozenten war das ganze nicht wissenschaftlich genug! Aber vielleicht versteht es ja jemand anders!
Shakespeare, William, Role, Fairies, Shakespeare`s, AMND
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Gerhard Wagner (Autor:in), 2000, Shakespeare, William - The Role of the Fairies in Shakespeare`s AMND, München, GRIN Verlag,


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