What are some roles and functions of the fairies in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The fairies, both individually and collectively, serve a number of different roles and functions in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, all of them important.  Among the significant impacts of the fairies on the play are the following:

  • Puck, the fairy who first appears, adds an invaluable dimension of wit, energy, cleverness, fun, and mischievousness to the work.  Puck is one of the prime sources of the play’s comedy. He is also one of the most memorable creations in all of comic literature.
  • The fairies as a whole add to the magic and mystery of the play, often making it seem dreamlike, as the title of the play would suggest.
  • The fairies as a whole seem to be spirits of vitality and liveliness, moods wholly appropriate to a comedy.
  • The conflict between Oberon and Titania adds to the suspense of the play and even gives it, at times, a slightly darker edge.  Just as the main plot often involves conflicts between males and females, so does this element of the plot involving the fairies.
  • Oberon and Puck are the two great tricksters of the play, thus contributing to the work’s comic intrigue.
  • Although Puck possesses supernatural powers (he can circle the globe in less than an hour), he is also capable of making mistakes that lead to various comic complications, as when he initially places love potion in the eyes of the wrong lover.
  • The presence of the fairies gives Shakespeare the opportunity to enhance the charm of the play, as when Titania is sung to sleep by other fairies.  Yet the presence of the fairies also gives Shakespeare the opportunity to invent further, highly comic complications, as when a deluded Titania courts a highly appreciative Bottom.
  • The presence of the ever-obliging fairies also gives Bottom an excuse to demonstrate his comical love of luxury and pampering, particularly from Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed.
  • As these names suggest, even the monikers of the fairies are often comic. Shakespeare manages to create fairies who seem mythical and mysterious but who also seem wholly appropriate to an English setting.
  • The reconciliation between Oberon and Titania is perfectly appropriate to a play culminating in happy marriages.
  • The concluding moments of the play, in which the fairies bless the unions of the various couples, provides the play with an extraordinarily harmonious ending. Shakespeare in this work reveals his ability to depict supernatural elements in writing that is almost literally magical. The opening lines of Puck's final speech give some flavor of the beauty of the play's phrasing, especially in the language spoken by the fairies:

 

PUCK: If we shadows have offended,

Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.

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