The fairy mythology in William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Term Paper, 2004

17 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of contents

1 Introduction

2 The Shakespearian belief in fairies

3 The sources of Shakespeare’s fairies
3.1 Puck
3.2 Oberon
3.3 Titania

4 Queen Elizabeth I – The “fairy queen“

5 Oberon’s and Titania’s quarrel
5.1 Bad weather and dearth
5.2 Bottom’s metamorphosis

6 “Love-in-idleness”

7 The fairy world “on stage”

8 Conclusion

9 Bibliography

1 Introduction

“Farewell rewards and fairies! … / The fairies lost command;

Since of late Elizabeth, … / They are all dead,

[but] A register they have / Who can preserve their charters

An hundred of their merry pranks… / Are kept in store; con twenty thanks

To William of Staffordshire”[1]

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (probably written between 1594 and 1595[2] ) is William Shakespeare’s most enchanting comedy and one of his most popular plays. It is very lyrical and poetic, filled with magical beings from mythological worlds and the power of true love.

Shakespeare’s age was the great time of fairy poetry in English literature, but no other work has influenced our visions of fairies as much as A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Till today the idea of fairies, as we have them in our mind, is shaped by Shakespeare’s delighting comedy. The play can be interpreted as “a fantasia on love”[3], because love, it’s follies, absurdities, conflicts and even dangers draw a red line through the play: from the quarrel between the fairy king and queen, to the heroic love of Theseus for his war-conquered Amazon queen, to the love-chase of Hermia, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius, and to the enchanted experiences of Bottom. In nearly all of these love affairs the fairies have their (sometimes helping) hand engaged and they are thus very important agents in the main- and in the sub-plots.

In this paper I will first take a survey of the historic belief in fairies in Shakespearian England, and then look at Shakespeare’s literary sources for the most important and most famous fairies who appear in this play, namely Oberon, Titania and Puck. Then I will show some parallels between the fairy queen Titania and Queen Elizabeth I, and afterwards I will analyze the quarrel between Oberon, king of fairies, and his wife. Finally I will give a comprehensive overview of the various ways of performing the play, both in theatre and in film.

2 The Shakespearian belief in fairies

The sixteenth century showed an extremely high belief in magic and the supernatural. During the 1530s the Protestant Reformation took place in England and created the national church, which still exists today as the Church of England. The Reformation brought a change in religious practice, new holiday customs and a total redefinition of supernatural agency. This had a very strong influence on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, regarding the characterization of the fairies. Before the Reformation, medieval Catholicism had prohibited fairy belief, because it had seemed like pagan worship. Protestant reformers accused Catholic priests of inventing fairies in order to conceal their own misdeeds. The abandoned baby on the doorstep, in earlier days said to be left by fairies, was now said to be a priest’s illegitimate child. The “belief in fairies, like belief in witches, became a matter of real debate.”[4] At the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, even the serious and solemn Theseus reveals his belief in fairies: “The iron tongue of midnight hath told twelve / Lovers, to bed, ‘tis almost fairy time” (act V scene 1, pages 88-89, lines 33 & 1). Our modern understanding of the supernatural and the fairies differs substantially from that of the Elizabethans. Fairies, as they then appeared to the men and women who believed in them, were “beings of ancient and awful aspect, elemental powers, mighty, capricious, cruel and benignant, as Nature herself”[5]. It was fatal to speak to a fairy, Shakespeare tells us in The Merry Wives of Windsor: “They are fairies; he that speaks to them shall dye.”[6]

3 The sources of Shakespeare’s fairies

“The fairies in Shakespeare’s play are an amalgam of folk lore, literary tradition and Shakespeare’s own invention”[7].

The word “fairy” is an extension of the ancient French word “fai”. It originally came from the Latin word “fatae”, which was then a name for the fairy ladies, who would tell the future of newborn babies. The English word “fairy” originally meant “faierie”, a state of enchantment.[8] Shakespeare appears to have taken some ideas for his play from a number of different sources – Homer, Ovid, Mouffet, Montemayor and maybe others. Homer was the earliest poet who wrote fabulous stories of fairies and miracles. He was the first to write about Nymphs, females of inexpressible beauty and elegance, who united magic and supernatural power and who lived in wooden hills, fountains and grottoes. In the Iliad Homer writes about Pygmies, who can in some ways be compared to Shakespeare’s fairies. Hesiod and Herodotus, too, speak of these little people, who were supposed to live in Middle India. “They hunted hares and foxes, but not with dogs but with crows, kites and eagles.”[9] Ovid in his Metamorphoses alludes to some old stories over Pygmies, too[10].

The characteristics of Shakespeare’s fairies are very much like those described by the classical Greek writers. They live in a monarchy under a king and queen. They are extremely small, and the contrast between their tiny size and their superhuman power is very startling. The diminutive fairies possibly were created through the fairies’ connection with the soul, “for the soul was usually thought of as a tiny creature which comes out of a sleeping man and wanders about: Its adventures are the sleeper’s dreams.”[11] In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there are obvious evidences that the fairies are very small – they creep into acorn cups to hide (II 1, p.33, l.15), and find a bee’s honey bag a heavy burden (IV 1, p.69, l.8)[12]. Shakespeare’s fairies could move with extreme rapidity, e.g. Puck tells Oberon “I’ll put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes“ (II 1, p.38, l.3-4), and “I go, look how I go, Swifter than arrow from the Tartar’s bow” (III 2, p.56, l.11-12), and Oberon later says “we the globe can compass soon, swifter than the wandering moon” (IV 1, p.72, l.1-2). The fairies are tightly involved in nature, and their lives have a strong influence on nature (II 1, p.35-36). Shakespeare’s fairies, like the fairies of the Greek, dance in circles upon the green (II 1, p.35, l.9), and they can be visible or invisible, according to their pleasure. They are obviously immortal, e.g. in A Midsummer Night’s Dream a fairy addresses Bottom: “Hail, mortal, hail!” (III 1, p.52, l.4) which shows that she isn’t mortal herself. Puck calls Oberon “King of shadows” (III 2, p.64, l.23), and Oberon himself says “But we are spirits of another sort” (III 2, p.65, l.31). Shakespeare’s fairies are night creatures and leave the outer world at sunrise. “And we fairies, that do run, / From the presence of the sun, / Following darkness like a dream” (V 1, p.89, l.22-24). They can fall in love with mortals (II 1, p.34, l.32) and they steal babies and leave changeling children. And like the Grecian fairies they have great herbal knowledge (shown in Oberon’s knowledge of “love-in-idleness” and his detailed description of Titania’s bower). Shakespeare, too, was presumably familiar with fairies and with Robin Goodfellow in Warwickshire folk-lore.

Another, minor, source for A Midsummer Night’s Dream could be Thomas Mouffet’s poem Of the Silkworms (1589), which Shakespeare possibly may have read. In this poem, the word “bottom” is explained as the technical term for the silkworm’s cocoon. Shakespeare named the leading actor in Quince’s company Bottom; and as the silkworm was something like a spinner, Shakespeare made Bottom a weaver.[13]

3.1 Puck

Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream has many literary sources. The earliest parallels to Puck can be found in the satyrs of the fantastical mythological world of Greece. The satyrs are of the train of Dionysus, who was a divinity of growth, plants and animals. Dionysus was a very mischievous youth who, as it is written in a Homeric hymn, amused himself in frightening Greek sailors by shape shifting and tricks of much the same nature as those which Puck likes to play.[14] There are also some parallels to the penates of the Romans, who, like Shakespeare’s Puck, would help the servants, especially the maids, with their work, but who also liked to play ill-natured tricks. In the 12th century, Gervase of Tilbury wrote about beings in England called “follets” who inhabited the houses of the simple peasants. Because they were invisible, they would amuse themselbes with throwing stones and billets at those who entered the door. These follets were, like Puck, sometimes useful and sometimes mischievous, and they could take on the shape of different animals.[15] Before the publication of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Robin Goodfellow and Puck were two different beings. Robin was larger, more sexual (he was supposed to be the cousin of the Incubus), and usually less demonic than Puck.[16] In Elizabethan times, Robin Goodfellow and hobgoblins were as terrible and as credible to the people as witches became in later centuries. The 16th century poet Edmund Spenser is the first writer who, in his Epithalamium, attached to this kind of spirits the name of Puck. In popular belief of Elizabethan times, Puck had “hornes on his head, fier in his mouth and a tail in his breech, eies like a bason, fanges like a dog, clawes like a beare, […] and a voice roaring like a lion”.[17]

Robin Goodfellow appeared first in England in the play Robin Goodfellow; his mad pranks, and merry Jests, full of honest mirth, and is a fit medicine for melancholy, written in 1628 by Ben Jonson. Its action is about invisible fairies and the many mad pranks they played. Oberon, here too identified as the king of fairies, had a son with a young maiden, whom he named Robin. Robin was a very knavish child and one day ran away from home. Oberon then tells him about his shape-shifting abilities, that he should love and help those that are honest and that he shall play many tricks. Robin followed this orders and he especially liked to lead wanderers astray, by going before them in the shape of a walking fire. In this play, Robin was in love with a wife of a weaver, which could draw a connection to Shakespeare’s Bottom.


[1] Corbett, Richard: The fairys farewell, in: Hazlitt, W. C.: Fairy tales, legends and romances, 1977, Hildesheim, Georg Olms Verlag, p. 423. This poem emphasises the important role William Shakespeare has played in rescuing the fairy world from being forgotten.

[2] Cp.: Shakespeare, William: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1994, London, Penguin Books, p.15.

[3] Riemer, A. P.: Antic fables, 1980, Manchester, Manchester University Press, p. 68.

[4] Paster, Gail & Skiles Howard (ed.): A Midsummer Night’s Dream - text and contexts, 1999, Boston, Bedford / St.Martin’s, p. 6.

[5] Nutt, Alfred: The fairy mythology of Shakespeare, 21972, New York, AMS Press, p. 37.

[6] Shakespeare, W.: The merry wives of Windsor, 31964, London, Cambridge University Press, p. 86.

[7] Fletcher, Paul: Shakespeare’s themes, 2002, London, Centaur Press, p. 96.

[8] Cp.: Briggs, K. M.: A dictionary of fairies, 1976, London, Penguin Books, p. 131.

[9] Cp.: Hazlitt, W. C.: p. 2-4.

[10] E.g. in: Ovidius, P. Naso: Metamorphosen – Lateinisch / Deutsch, 1994, Stuttgart, Reclam, p. 287.

[11] Briggs, K. M.: A dictionary of fairies, p. 99. This connection could also help to explain the title of the play as a midsummer night’s “dream”.

[12] On the other hand, their tiny size raises the question, how Bottom could have had an erotic encounter with Titania, if he was in his normal human size?

[13] Cp.: Muir, Kenneth: The sources of Shakespeare’s plays, 1977, London, Methuen & Co., p. 73.

[14] Cp.: Nutt, A., p. 25 & p. 32.

[15] Hazlitt, W. C., p. 17.

[16] Paster, G., p. 310.

[17] Hazlitt, W. C., p. 33.

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The fairy mythology in William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
University of Paderborn  (Fakultät für Kulturwissenschaften)
Shakespeare: The Comedies
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William, Shakespeare, Midsummer, Night, Dream, Shakespeare, Comedies
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M.A. Melitta Töller (Author), 2004, The fairy mythology in William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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