In Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the sprites, or fairies, are something of a surprise for the Elizabethan audience for whom the play was written. Up until this point in time, people in Shakespeare's time believed that all such creatures existed only to torment humans, to steal their children and, generally, to bring about chaos and practice mayhem.
Fairies were blamed for all kinds of things. If a child grew up to have a learning disability, parents would say that the fairies had stolen their healthy child and left a "changeling" in his/her place. If the cow dumped over a bucket while she was being milked, surely the fairies were at fault.
However, with this story Shakespeare presents supernatural creatures that are not malicious but playful. The audience is also told in the story that the King and Queen of the Fairies (Oberon and Titania) see humans as their children and want only to care for them.
Perhaps the two most entertaining occurrences for which the fairy-folk are responsible are when Bottom the Weaver is given a donkey's head, and soon after a potion is placed on Titania's eyes so that she will fall in love with the first thing she sees—Bottom, with "the head of an ass."
Bottom the Weaver is in the woods (a place which Elizabethans believed was inhabited by fairies) rehearsing a play with his friends—all who hope to be chosen to entertain the Duke at his upcoming nuptials. Puck is Oberon's right-hand, go-to fairy, and it is he that changes Bottom's appearance with a spell. Notice the images that Puck brings to the listener's mind in describing the animals of which he will take the shape. There is also the poetic use of alliteration found in "Through bog, through bush, through brake, through brier." (The alliteration is heard with the repetitive "B" sound.) There is also the poetic use of onomatopoeia with words like "neigh," "bark," "grunt" and "roar."
I'll follow you; I'll lead you about a round,
Through bog, through bush, through brake, through brier;
Sometime a horse I'll be, sometime a hound,
A hog, a headless bear, sometime a fire;
And neigh, and bark, and grunt, and roar, and burn,
Like horse, hound, hog, bear, fire, at every turn. (III.i.99-104)
Bottom enters now with a changed ("translated") appearance. As his friends enter and see Bottom so different—so fantastic—they run off in fear. First it is Snout. Then it is Peter Quince, the director of the play:
Bless thee, Bottom, bless
thee! Thou art translated. (111)
Bottom has no idea what has happened to him, and therefore cannot understand why his friends are acting so curiously. He thinks they may be playing a trick on him, but he refuses to take the bait, promising to remain where he is:
I see their knavery: this is to make an ass of me;
to fright me, if they could. But I will not stir from this
place, do what they can... (112-114)
(Notice the play on words with Bottom's use of "ass," as Bottom does not know he has the head of a donkey.)
When Titania awakes under the influence of the potion Puck placed on her sleeping eyes, the Queen of the Fairies not only falls in love with a human, but also with one that bears the head of an animal—an unattractive one at that!
I pray thee, gentle mortal, sing again.
Mine ear is much enamored of thy note;
So is mine eye enthralled to thy shape;
And thy fair virtue's force perforce doth move me,
On the first view to say, to swear, I love thee. (129-133)
Bottom is anything but handsome; his singing voice is horrific to hear, but under the spell, Titania believes he is a most marvelous man.
Arguably, the way people view fairies today (such as those in Disney's Sleeping Beauty) is very much different than that of the people living during Shakespeare's time. In this play, the best of the comedy centers around the activities (and mistakes) of the fairies, making this a fast-paced and very funny play to see on stage.
I remember one of the sprites, Puck, dropping some magic liquid into the eyes of the one of the characters, though it was the wrong character, and causing more trouble. It was memorable because I didn't expect the sprites to cause that mischief, and I wasn't sure what the sprites were going to do to the play after that.
Before, I thought the sprites were just harmless fairies. After that, I knew they were trouble.