How did Puck earn his reputation in William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (particularly in Act 2 scene 1)?
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Shakespeare was greatly influential in changing the way people of the Elizabethan era perceived fairies, pixies, changelings, etc. His plays use these creatures as dramatic elements that move the plot along. His "fairy figure"...
...not only encompass current beliefs, but also inevitably changes how his audience perceives their current superstitions of the supernatural...
For a long time, these supernatural characters were considered evil. Before Shakespeare's plays, they were...
...thought to resemble more gruesome creatures such as goblins and even elves.
It was believed they would use any opportunity to cause mortals harm. However (and we see this most especially in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream), fairies are seen as playful creatures that may entertain themselves at a human's expense, but with no harm intended. (Witches and ghosts, as seen in Hamlet and Macbeth, are perceived in a much darker way—with suspicion and fear.)
Oberon, the king of the fairy realm, is a romantic—dismayed at how ill used Helena is at Demetrius' unsympathetic "hands." (He uses Puck to "fix" this situation.) Titania sees the need for her and her husband to get over their quarreling because it brings harm to the humans, who depend on Oberon and Titania for so many things. They are portrayed as loving creatures.
The fairies tease each other, but playfully, and Puck is much like the typical fairies that are shown in attendance to Titania. Puck, however, is a central figure in the play because he is a servant to Oberon. In Act Two, scene one, Puck arrives in the play with his own reputation already in place among the fairies. One fairy recognizes him immediately:
Either I mistake your shape and making quite,
Call'd Robin Goodfellow. Are not you he
That frights the maidens of the villagery,
Skim milk, and sometimes labor 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? (32-42)
She refers to him by his real name, Robin Goodfellow, who appeared in literature long before Shakespeare included him in the play. He was...
The fairy points out similarities to this early "Puck," noting that he is a "shrewd and knavish sprite." He scares the young girls in the village, steals the cream from the surface of the milk or causes other unnatural events to occur in the kitchen—as well as scaring night wanderers.
Later, in order to get back at Titania, Oberon lets Puck put a potion on her eyes so she will fall in love with the first thing she sees at waking. Puck also turns Bottom the weaver into a creature with a donkey's head and Titania falls in love with him; Oberon and Puck have a good laugh over her embarrassing state of affairs.
By the end of the play, however, when everything is set right, Puck appeals to the audience:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear. (V.i.418-421)
The audience is left with a sense of a playful rather than harmful creature that has displayed the quirks of human behavior (without malice) to the entertainment of the audience. Sneaky he is, but also charming—and easily forgiven.
The character Puck, also called Robin Goodfellow, in William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night`s dream was not actually an invention of Shakespeare's. Just as Theseus and Hippolyta were derived from Greek mythology, so the fairy kingdom, and especially Puck, were creatures of British legend. Thus when the fairy identifies Puck and describes him, the description is one that would have been known to members of the audience before they attended the play. In the speech immediately after that of the fairy, Puck confirms his identity and gives us additional details about his nature and activities.
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