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There are many ways of looking at the faeries and their function in A Midsummer Night's Dream. As a playwright, Shakespeare drew on many sourses for his plays. Faeries are an intregal part of Celtic folklore. A belief in these magical creatures was a part of his world growing up. For example "faerie circles" can still be found in the countryside around Stratford-Upon-Avon.
They also refect the natural world. The conflict between Oberon and Titania has caused the faerie world to devide themselves between the two powerful and magical creatures. This in turn has caused the world that mankind inhabits to be aversley affeted. Until their conflict is resolved, mankind will continue to be adversely affected. Titania explains it all in Act II, scene 1. They are nature's agents, so to speak.
In many modern productions, the roles of Hippolyta and Titania and Theseus and Oberon are doubled. In this way, man himself is viewed both in the daytime or "real" world and the nightime and the world of dreams. In other world, the duel nature of human beings is explored.
In the nighttime world, dreams can be revealing and help to solve a daytime problem. Dreams can be sweet, strange, confusing, and all muddled up, so to speak. Dreams can also turn into nightmares.
In Shakespeare's play, the faerie manipulates the dreams and once the conflict is solved between Oberon and Titania the daytime world has sweet dreams.
Definitely, in Northern Europe, where Shakespeare is from, Midsummer was a well-known pagan festival. In the UK it is know as the time where the faeries came out of the fairy mound to play. (See further explanation below). However this festival is not known in Greece.
"Midsummer’s Eve celebrates the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, the summer solstice (June 21). Many people believed that mid-summer plants, especially Calendula, had miraculous healing powers and they therefore picked them on this night. Bonfires were lit to protect against evil spirits which were believed to roam freely when the sun was turning southwards again."
"Midsummers Eve was also the time of the fairy mound in the UK:
The fairy mound/sídh is a round, flat-topped mound, barrow, or hillock of ancient origin apparently intended to bury or commemorate a mortal king or ruler. From long-standing oral tradition the fairy mounds/sídhe were thought to mark places where the fled underground ....
In oral tradition the story of the ..... migration underground became ...people of the fairy mound... invisible to most mortals at most times - Samain and Midsummer's Eve being the chief exceptions.
Humans favoured with second sight could perceive them. On occasion persons from this hidden world might intrude into the realm of mortals, such as the woman of the sídh [Ir. bean sídhe] or banshee who calls out in the night to foretell death. The sídh was not to be disturbed by grazing cattle, and most farmers would avoid both the (Fairy mound) sídh and perceived paths to and from it."
It is noted therefore that the title of the play also marks a magical time in the year when fairies come out into the human world.
Other fairy characters that appear the play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, are Peasebottom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed. These characters are, like Oberon and Titantia NOT of mythological origin. They are creations of Shakespeare. These names are innocent and aptly describe the characters of these fairy folk. Small, fragile, delicate and tiny. They wait on the queen and are her servants but they do no wrong in the play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, not even of the mischievous type.
What is interesting to note is the use of the name Nick. Nick Bottom, the actor who was magically altered. This aligns with the term, Old Nick which was a name for the devil. The altered parrallel between Puck, as the devil and his victim, as the devil with a ass's head. It is a mingling of characteristics and may be due, either intentionally or again by not having done his homework, (by Shakespeare).
At a final glance, the fairies in the play do form a bridge between the night-time dream world of humans and, in this case, the mythical event of Midsummers Night, which traditionally involved the fairies coming to the surface and celebrating the time of year.
Whilst use of Celtic faeries, is not culturally accurate for Greece, the play does have entertainment value as has been shown over the centuries and even today this play has appeal to wide audiences and is both understood by and entertaining for many.
In general, the use of fairies in this play, is slightly confused. For example -their physical size differs from place to place in the text but this can be attributed to their shape-shifting ability.
In Act II, Scene I Puck is chatting to a fairy and he refers to her as a spirit: "How now, spirit! whither wander you?"
The fairy replies: "Over hill, over dale, thorough bush, thorough brier, over park, over pale, thorough flood, thorough fire," - these references individually indicate size as both small (bush/brier) and then huge (flood/fire) respectively.
Later in Act II, Scene I, Puck mentions elves creeping into acorn cups to hide there. This indicates that they are exceedingly small.
The fairy then correctly identifies Puck as Robin Goodfellow, when she says "Either I mistake your shape and making quite, or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite call'd Robin Goodfellow" She goes on to mention his traits of frightening the maidens of the village, misleading travellers and conversely doing work and giving good-luck.
Mistaking his shape confirms his reputation and ability to shape-shift. The reference to the description of a Sprite (creature), indicates legendary creatures such as elves, fairies and pixies. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sprite).
In another place in Act II, Scene I Puck states that "I'll put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes". This indicates both gigantic size and speed beyond comprehension. (As in the legendary 7 league boots that allowed great distance to be travelled).
If we look at the play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, there are those that compare the fairies with night-time and dream and the humans, in this case, traditional "royalty" (Theseus/Hippolyta and their court) with day-time and reality.
It should be noted that Theseus/Hippolyta are not the main characters and they have very little prime "playtime" compared to the fairycourt in this play. Even the title of the play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, indicates a theme of fairies.
Puck is described in "Act II, Scene 1, when he is addressed by a fairy as “that shrewd and knavish sprite/ Robin Goodfellow.” These English connections are reinforced by the character his is described as having/tricks he is described as playing: hiding in ale cups, frightening maidens, hindering butter-churning and leading horses astray. These are all English imagery and would have appealed to his English audience. So he introduces a foreign theme with English connections to make the play easy to understand and identify with by his audience.
Puck was also known as a demon though this use was not highlighted in the play A Midsummer Night's Dream...."Puck is in fact an ancient word, found both in Germanic and in Celtic languages, for a demon, goblin, or troublesome fairy."
Puck is known by other names such as "The Welsh called him Pwca, which is pronounced the same as his Irish incarnation Phouka, Pooka or Puca. These are far from his only names." Others are puca in Old English, puki in Old Norse, puke in Swedish, puge in Danish, puks in Low German, pukis in Latvia and Lithuania -- mostly with the original meaning of a demon, devil or evil and malignant spirit ...
"Because of this similarity, it is uncertain whether the original puca sprang from the imaginative minds of the Scandinavians, the Germans or the Irish". -Gillian Edwards, Hobgoblin and Sweet Puck p.143
"But Shakespeare's Puck is only a mischievous trickster who boasts of shape-changing and leading travellers astray; like a helpful domestic brownie he arrives at the end of the play, broom in hand, to sweep the house so that the fairies may bless it."
It is interesting to note that "the Phouka was sometimes pictured as a frightening creature with the head of an ass" which is the theme Shakespeare used in the play,A Midsummer Night's Dream, but not for Puck himself. Instead in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Puck, shows his mischievous side and decides to humiliate Nick Bottom for what he see as the characteristics of an ass/donkey: stubbornness, stupidity and loud braying (Boasting).
To do this, as a relatively harmless prank, he changed Bottoms head into the head of an ass/donkey. It was this 'face' that Titania falls in-love with after being enchanted with the wild pansy juice - "Love in idleness" flower, that forms a main theme in the play, A Midsummer Night's Dream.
The prank is said to be mischievous and not demonic because it is temporary and is soon put right at Oberon's instance. Here Oberon shows a sensible side in putting things right that have gone wrong, despite him being a fairy (king) and "cause" of the wrongness.
Titania's character in the play, A Midsummer Night's Dream is of a harmless fairy queen, and she does no wrong, that is highlighted. She protects her charge/squire and does not show any demonic characteristics.
This is unusual as Fairy Queens, usually get up to/are the cause of some mischief.
Looking at the use of fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
When we look at the use of “fairies” in the play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, one of the first things that comes to mind is that the play is set inAthens, Greece. Whilst fairies are of, distinctly Celtic/English (UK) origin.... There are those that suggest that in the play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare did not do his homework regarding fairies/Greek fairies. I tend to agree with sentiment. However, it may be that if he had only used Greek references, then his audience may not have understood or identified with the play as much as though his use of the character of Puck. Puck was well known to English audiences. Personally, I feel that Greek “fairies” would be been more realistic considering the scene is set in Athens, Greece and I have looked at this option, below. Examples of mythical beings, that maybe considered Greek fairies are: Sylvans (Group) Satyrs Seleni (Sylens) Fauns Other Nymphs (Wood and Water) Sirens Maenads These are mentioned in early times such as writings by Homer - Iliad, Odyssey. Throughout the culture of the world, we find many good and bad spirit beings in the ancient myths. Though known by various names, we can see by their character traits that they are all part of the extended worldwide fairy family. "In ancient Greece, .... Porphyry (c. 232-c. 305 A.D.) wrote that the air was inhabited by good and bad spirits with fluid bodies of no fixed shape, creatures who change their form at will. These were certainly faeries" such as Puck. another early reference to fairies is: "Where round the bed, whence Achelous springs,
That wat'ry Fairies dance in mazy rings." Homer (Iliad, B. xxiv. 617.) Looking at Greek mythology and fairy folk, Pan is a character that comes to mind. The son of Hermes and a nymph, Pan was half goat, half man and lived in the forests of Arcadia, surrounded by satyrs and maenads. Pan had invented the flute (pan-pipes). Some of Pan's attributes when used by Christianity when creating the image of the Devil. (http://www.in2greece.com/english/historymyth/mythology/names/pan.htm, http://www.theoi.com/Georgikos/Pan.html) Puck is also referred to in several texts as being compared with the devil. H is also said to play the flute and enchant with his magical musical playing.
Whilst Shakespeare uses the character of Puck, (probably due to his UKheritage and familiarity with Celtic mythology) we can see a few similarities between Puck and Pan (Greek).Puck is also known in various texts to have sported horns much like a satyr (half man, half goat). Some sites that discuss Greek fairies are: http://www.bellaterreno.com/art/greek/greekfairies.aspx, This site discuss the character of Puck in detail and is worth reading - http://www.boldoutlaw.com/puckrobin/puckages.html Puck, in the play, fulfilled his traditional mischievous role and Oberon (the fairy king) resorted to magical means to achieve his ends. His instructions to Puck, resulted in interference in both the fairy and human world and lead to confusion and distress to the humans. These are common themes when one reads about the interactions between fairies and humans. It should be noted that Oberon and Titania are not mythical Celtic characters, although in UK mythology there is a fairy queen and king they do not generally go by name - certainly not Oberon and Titania. These were names used by Shakespeare for his play.
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