2. Main Part
2.1. Background and Tradition
3. Summary and conclusion
A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written between 1595 and 1596, presumably by an order of one of Queen Elizabeth courtiers, who wanted to have a play for the entertainment of his wedding guests.
The plot of the play is complex, since we have at least three different worlds in it. There is the world of humans - divided into the world of the nobles and the world of the mechanicals - and the world of fairies. The fairy world presented in this Shakespearean comedy influenced the traditional image of the fairies almost as much as the fairy - tales collected by Jacob and William Grimm. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is mostly associated with fairies and magic - things which many people of all ages were always fascinated by. This everlasting fascination with the supernatural is probably one of the reasons for the unabated success of the play. There is a fairy who seems to enjoy a special status. Puck is the most famous of Shakespeare’s fairies. His ‘career’ in the world of entertainment began with the first performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but even long before Shakespeare he was known in the English folklore - probably even since pagan times.
Puck’s popularity is still enormous. He appears in always new forms, in new stage and film productions of Shakespeare’s comedy, as well as in books, comics and cartoons. He became a symbol of a perfect trickster and is sometimes used as a symbolic figure of a free and pristine spirit.
The following essay is an analysis of Shakespeare’s Puck and the way he is presented in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The first topic to deal with is that of Puck’s background, the history of the hobgoblin before and after Shakespeare. After that, the main focus will be laid on Shakespeare’s presentation of Puck’s character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Potential differences between the Shakespearean and the folklore Puck are also to be pointed out. Since Puck is an ambivalent figure, the characterisation is to be a try to find out wheatear Puck is presented as a more positive or a more malignant figure. The last point focuses Puck’s functions in the play, since it is undoubted that he has more than one. Since his ‘official’ function is that of Oberon’s servant and jester, Puck’s relationship to his master will also be shortly examined in that chapter.1
2.1. Background and Tradition
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21st century Disney Puck 2 3
Puck or Robin Goodfellow was well known to the Elizabethan audience since he was one of the most popular supernatural beings in the English folklore. In England and other parts of Britain, Puck was also known under the names of Poake, Puckie, Рид, Pwca etc. He is even a ‘cosmopolitan’ spirit, for he exists also e.g. in German folklore as Puok, in Scandinavian as Pukje, in Estonian and Latvian as Pukis. Similar names exist in ancient languages, puca in Old English, puki\n Old Norse, puke in Swedish, puge in Danish, puks in Low German, pukis in Latvia and Lithuania. The original meanings of these names is mostly that of a demon, devil or evil and malignant spirit. It is uncertain if the original puca comes from Scandinavia, Germany or Ireland.
In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck is also called Robin Goodfellow. It is uncertain if Puck and Robin have always been just two different names for the same supernatural being, but after Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream they became synonymous4.
Robin was also known as a household spirit, especially in rural regions. People believed that he would finish their housework at night, if they left him a bowl of cream or milk as reward. Although he was not regarded as really evil, he was considered to be a mischievous spirit who played tricks on humans, either for pure enjoyment or out of revenge, because they did not reward him with a bowl of cream after he had done their domestic work. Robin Goodfellow was sometimes even identified with Robin Hood, who was regarded as a nature spirit and whose name was maybe later taken by the famous outlaw.
Since Puck is supposed to be a shape - shifter it is quite hard to say what he was originally supposed to look like. He was variously described as a hobgoblin, a goblin, an elf or a brownie. The most common medieval image of Puck and Robin Goodfellow seems to be that of a small human-shaped hairy being with feet of a goat. One medieval woodcut has been used on the cover of Robin Goodfellow, His Mad Pranokęs and Merry Jests, a ballad which was published in 1628. On this woodcut Robin is portrayed as a satyr - like or even devil - like creature, with horns, goat feet and what today’s medicine would probably call a pathological priapism, but which, in this case, can be perceived as a symbol for fertility. He is carrying a candle or torch and a broom. The broom symbolises his function as household spirit. The candle indicates that Robin was also identified with the Will 0’ the Wisp - a spirit who haunts dark and lonely roads, where he ignites light in order to mislead any traveller who follows him into bogs. Still, there is a difference between Will and Robin, since Robin is just misleading the night - wanderers but never lets them die. Another proof for his function of a misleading spirit is the phrase ‘Pouk - ledden’.
As already said, it seems that Robin was mostly not regarded as really evil, at least not by the common people. On the other hand Robins image on the woodcut looks quite devilish and the little figures dancing in a circle around him look very much like witches and warlocks invoking a demon. For this reasons clergymen in general were probably not very happy about the people believing in Robin Goodfellow and leaving cream bowls on the door steps for him. This matches with the fact that Langland once called Hell ‘Pouk's Pinfold’. In other writings, especially those of the Puritans, Puck is represented as an evil figure and devil’s servant. The name of Robin Goodfellow is also an indication of his double nature. He may have been called ‘Goodfellow’ for reasons of affection, but also as a kind of safety precaution, since it is general knowledge that caressing makes madmen and spirits less dangerous. There is a record for a Robin Goodfellow ballad in 1588. Less than a decade later, William Shakespeare gave his Puck the name and nature of the more benevolent Robin Goodfellow. Shakespeare’s play or maybe a general interest in folklore made Puck / Robin very popular in literary circles. There are many mentions of Robin Goodfellow in the literature of the 17th century and at least two ballads about him. In these ballads, Robin Goodfellow is the son of the fairy king Oberon and a human girl. He plays pranks on mortals, transforms himself into various animals and the foolish fire known as the Will O' The Wisp, jumps from one trouble into another and does all the things, which he describes when we first meet him in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His also keeps his ‘trademark’ - his typical laugh Ή0! Ho! Hoľ It seems that Puck was never and will never be forgotten. Not only for his presence in the popular Shakespeare play, but also because he keeps coming back in different forms, but still recognisable. At the beginning of the 20th century Kipling wrote his stories about the lovable ‘Puck of Pook’s Hill’, where Puck is represented as the eldest and probably mightiest immortal being in England, a mischievous but good hearted friend of children and a wonderful story teller.
It is amazing how many of the tricksters in today’s popular culture wear the name of Puck. Comics and cartoons are full of them and most of them have at least few characteristics of the mythological and Shakespearean Puck. The newest, and probably the most famous, is Puck from the Disney Cartoon Gargoyles, who is presented as Oberon’s son and a kind of super hero, who lives as a human by day and transforms himself into a mischievous elf at nights when he is bored. One could see that as another one of Puck’s shape - shifting actions - he transformed himself from an ‘old-fashioned’ nature spirit into a modern superhero.
When we first meet Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the dialogue between him and Titania’s fairy already gives US a good characterisation of ‘that merry wanderer of the night’:
Either I mistake your shape and making quite,
Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite Call'd Robin Goodfellow: are not you he That frights the maidens of the villagery;
Skim milk, and sometimes labour in the quern And bootless make the breathless housewife churn;
And sometime make the drink to bear no barm;
Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm?
Those that Hobgoblin call you and sweet Puck,
You do their work, and they shall have good luck:
Are not you he?
Thou speak'st aright;
I am that merry wanderer of the night.
I jest to Oberon and make him smile When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,
Neighing in likeness of a filly foal:
And sometime lurk I in a gossip's bowl,
In very likeness of a roasted crab,
And when she drinks, against her lips I bob And on her wither'd dewlap pour the ale.
The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,
Sometime for three-foot stool mistaketh me;
Then slip I from her bum, down topples she,
And 'tailor' cries, and falls into a cough;
And then the whole quire hold their hips and laugh,
1 Information on Puck’s traditional background used in this chapter are taken from: Briggs, Katherine. 1977. A Dictionary of Fairies. Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies and other Supernatural Creatures. London.
Rose, Carol. 1998. Spirits, Fairies, Gnomes and Goblins. An Encyclopaedia of the Little People. Oxford.
2 Picture is taken from : http://muse.ihu.edu/demo/sha/full/52.1wall fiaOIf.ioa (14.09.2002)
3 Picture is taken from: http://liconstantine.com/aaras/puck/puck2.ipa (16.9.2002)
4 Therefore only one of the names will be used in the following, referring to Puck as well as Robin.