Fairies re-fashioned in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Farah Karim-Cooper shows how Shakespeare combined classical and courtly traditions with medieval folk lore to create the benevolent fairies and changeling child of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

In 1584, some 11 or 12 years before Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the engineer and polymath Reginald Scot published his Discoverie of Witchcraft. Scot’s treatise, which made an important contribution to the wave of post-Reformation, anti-superstitious literature, attempted to dispel any popular beliefs that deflected from the true nature of the supernatural, which he maintained was exclusively divine. Scot dismissed belief in fairies as absurd and relegated it to the trivial domain of domesticity and lower-class rurality. He argued that such figures only resided in people’s imaginations and were used by nurses and old wives to ‘frighten children into obedience’.

Scot’s treatise may have remained at the centre of philosophical and theological discussion of the supernatural for many years (in 1597 Britain’s most famous demonologist, James VI and I, launched a sustained attack on Scot in print), but it seems to have had little impact in the sphere of imaginative literature. Many English 16th and 17th-century poets and playwrights, including John Lyly (in his Endymion), Edmund Spenser (in his Faerie Queene), Ben Jonson and Robert Herrick drew upon existing literary constructions of fairy lore. But it was Shakespeare whose contribution to fairy literature was perhaps the most original, suggestive and elusive.

The Discovery of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot, 1584

The Discovery of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot, 1584

Scot dismisses ‘bugs’ like Robin Goodfellow as a product of fear.

View images from this item  (19)

Shakespeare demonstrates this originality in his refashioning of the folkloric figure Robin Goodfellow or Puck (a Puck, or ‘pouke’, being a term ascribed to a particular class of demon or devil), who is introduced to us by the Fairy in Act 1:

Enter a Fairy at one door, and Robin Goodfellow at another
FAIRY . . . you are that shrewd and knavish sprite
Called Robin Goodfellow. Are not you he
That frights the maidens of the villag’ry,
Skim milk, and sometimes labour in the quern,
And bootless make the breathless housewife churn,
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?

This passage describes the traditional Puck who haunts the domestic domain of Scot’s nurses and old wives, a country prankster who would sweep doorways in exchange for a bowl of cream. He was child-sized, armed with a broom or threshing flail (an agricultural tool used to separate grains from their husks) and his chief occupations were sweeping, spinning rough hemp and grinding mustard. Popular ballads written well into the 17th century depicted him wearing animal skins and headgear (antlers, animal ears etc.) that invoked festive rituals. He was often accused of theft, of pinching maidens or house servants and causing them to drop things or fall over; he was also a shape-shifter and was notorious for leading travellers astray (wandering aimlessly or getting lost was often referred to as ‘being led by Robin Goodfellow’). But Shakespeare’s Puck is unusual, because in his role as an assistant to Oberon, he is also a royal attendant who can ‘put a girdle round about the earth / in forty minutes’. As a creature of a rural, domestic sphere and an obedient servant to a king, he is a unique hybrid.

Robin Goodfellow, His Mad Pranks and Merry Jests, 1639

Robin Goodfellow, His Mad Pranks and Merry Jests, 1639

The folkloric figure Robin Goodfellow depicted with horns, goat legs and a phallus.

View images from this item  (43)

Broadside ballad on Robin Goodfellow

Broadside ballad on Robin Goodfellow

Illustration (left) depicting Robin Goodfellow as a wild man of the woods or ‘Green Man’.

View images from this item  (2)

This passage also implies that Puck is to be distinguished from the species known as Fairy. And in fact there are two traditions of fairy lore present in this play: one deriving from the medieval folk or popular narratives and the other from the courtly narrative being fashioned by 16th-century writers, including Shakespeare, which draws upon classical mythology and chivalric literature. The picturesque descriptions of the Fairy Queen and ‘all her elves’ who dance ‘ringlets to the whistling wind’ contrast with the description of Puck. Both invoke nature, but while the popular or folk tradition is rural, the classical or courtly is. The novelty of Shakespeare’s fairies arises from the fusion of the popular and courtly traditions.

An Entertainment for Elizabeth I at Elvetham, 1591

An Entertainment for Elizabeth I at Elvetham, 1591

A lavish courtly entertainment, complete with fairies, which Shakespeare refers to in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

View images from this item  (5)

Music for fairy dance at Elvetham Entertainment: ‘Elisa is the Fairest Queen’

Music for fairy dance at Elvetham Entertainment: ‘Elisa is the Fairest Queen’

A fairy queen and her attendants sing and dance for Elizabeth I, presenting a garland from Auberon.

View images from this item  (5)

In 1930, the Shakespeare critic Minor White Latham argued that Shakespeare’s fairies were ‘benevolent’ and ‘completely identified with buds and blossoms, dew-drops and butterflies’. This reading attempts to rescue fairies from the medieval idea that they were dangerously mischievous, demonic or evil. Convenient scapegoats, fairies had traditionally been linked with crime, sexual indiscretion and even violence. Shakespeare, who seems also to have been the first to miniaturise them, deliberately refashioned fairies to deliver them from their traditionally sinister associations. Not only does he appear to create a new breed of ‘benevolent’ fairy, but, in his depiction of the pastoral court of Titania and Oberon, he also contributes to the emerging trend among poets of elevating fairies. What might have been Shakespeare’s motivations? Perhaps one motive was a desire to join the chorus of voices in praise of Queen Elizabeth I, who is frequently identified as Titania (‘Titania’ was another name for Diana, the goddess of the hunt, and ‘Diana’ was a name often ascribed to the Queen in the poetry of the court). The culture of praise surrounding the Queen constructed her image as a mythological being. Sometimes she is figured as a giant monarch holding or standing on top of the Globe, as in the Armada and Ditchley portraits, or ‘as a tiny aristocrat engaged in conspicuous consumption’, as in Shakespeare’s play. What is clear is that the courtly representations of the Queen were engaged in legitimating aristocracy and the emerging mercantile economy.

The first illustrated works of Shakespeare edited by Nicholas Rowe, 1709

The first illustrated works of Shakespeare edited by Nicholas Rowe, 1709

Shakespeare’s aristocratic fairies.

View images from this item  (74)

Sieve Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, c. 1583

Sieve Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, c.1583

The mythological construction of Elizabeth I’s image.

View images from this item  (1)

Copyright: © Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) in Ceremonial Costume (oil on canvas), Zuccari, or Zuccaro, Federico (1540-1609) / Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena, Italy / Bridgeman Images

A changeling is the child of a fairy that has been secretly left in the place of a human child. Sometimes the term is also used to refer to the child who was taken. The complex status of the play’s ‘changeling child’ gestures toward the mercantile culture of Elizabethan England and to both traditions of fairy lore. The attribution of infant abduction to fairies was a commonplace in medieval and Elizabethan fairy mythology. The changeling child was sometimes substituted for a newborn baby who had not been looked after properly: as a punishment to the neglectful parents, fairies would leave behind a child who was deformed. This myth belongs to a number of mysterious occurrences that were attributed to fairies, such as the disappearance of husbands for days or weeks and the theft or damage of goods. The allusion to fairies in instances such as these was designed to keep housewives, mothers and servants attentive to their duties; it was part of a domestic-moralistic discourse. The changeling child in Shakespeare’s play, however, is the sought after Indian boy, who is at the centre of a custody battle between the king and queen of the fairies. The boy has not been stolen; instead, as Titania eloquently describes,

His mother was a vot’ress of my order,
And in the spiced Indian air, by night,
Full often hath she gossip’d by my side,
And sat with me on Neptune’s yellow sands,
Marking th’embarked traders on the flood.

The changeling child is the desirable object, the exotic import in the play that symbolises the consumerist impulses of the Elizabethan aristocracy. The critic Marjorie Swann observes that ‘as England shifted from a rural, household-based mode of production to an urban, commercial, and increasingly mercantile economy, fairy lore became a particularly apt vehicle for mystifying the profound socioeconomic changes of the early modern period’. While Shakespeare’s play refigures fairy lore by creating a new breed of ‘benevolent’ fairies, he also uses the two traditions of fairy mythology as a platform for exploring and interrogating the emerging mercantile economy and the aristocratic preoccupation with acquisition and display.

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Titania and Bottom. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 4, Scene 1 by Henry Fuseli.

View images from this item  (23)

This article first appeared in Around the Globe, the membership magazine for Shakespeare's Globe.

The contributor has asked for the following credit: Farah Karim-Cooper (Shakespeare's Globe).

  • Farah Karim-Cooper
  • Farah Karim-Cooper is Head of Higher Education & Research at Shakespeare’s Globe and co-convenes the MA in Shakespeare Studies in collaboration with King's College London. Some of her publications include Cosmetics in Shakespearean and Renaissance Drama, Edinburgh University Press (2006); Shakespeare's Globe: A Theatrical Experiment, Cambridge University Press (2008) co-edited with Christie Carson; Shakespeare's Theatres and the Effects of Performance, Arden (2012) co-edited with Tiffany Stern and The Hand on the Shakespearean Stage: Gesture, Touch and the Spectacle of Dismemberment, Arden (2016)

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

See also

More articles on: Magic, illusion and the supernatural

More articles on: Comedies

Related Collection Items

Related Works

Related Teaching Resources

Related People