In William Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the clever fairy named Puck at one point speaks a line that has since become one of the most memorable Shakespeare ever wrote:
Lord, what fools these mortals be!
The “Lord” whom Puck addresses is Oberon, king of the faeries. Puck is expressing his astonishment at the foolishness of human beings. His line is an exclamation consisting mostly of monosyllables and featuring a bit of assonance (in the repeated long “e” sounds of “these” and “be”). His exclamation is relevant to the play in a number of different ways, including the following:
- The first word implies that although Puck is a source of chaos and mayhem in the mortal world, he is obedient to Oberon, who outranks him in the hierarchy of the fairies.
- The word “fool” implies the common Renaissance idea that some forms of romantic love could amount to little more than irrationality and foolishness and were thus likely to make a person ridiculous in the eyes of others and perhaps, ultimately, himself as well.
- The word “fool” is also a way of humbling humans, rebuking whatever pride they may possess and calling attention to their inborn imperfections and flaws.
- The word “mortals” reminds humans that they are creatures destined to die and therefore should not give too much of their lives over to foolishness. Some foolishness is inevitable and predictable, since humans are flawed creatures. An awareness of our mortality, however, should help us behave less foolishly than we might behave otherwise. It’s significant that Puck uses the word “mortals” rather than “humans.” He thereby not only reminds us of human mortality but also implies that as a creature of spirit, he is not destined to die.
- Puck’s exclamation is mainly humorous. He can’t quite believe how foolishly people behave. He finds our behavior more than a bit ridiculous. His tone, therefore, is appropriate to a comic play, especially one very much concerned with displaying and mocking foolish behavior. In a sense, Puck voices feelings felt both by the audience and also probably by Shakespeare himself. Puck’s words seem to voice Shakespeare’s own wise, wry comment on the human condition. Puck’s exclamation helps remind us of our own foolishness, especially of the kind of foolishness that romantic “love” (which often turns out to be mere selfish desire) can – and does – inspire in practically anyone and everyone.