Who are the fairies? Titania and Oberon are clearly powerful, magical creatures…but who precisely are these two, and especially, who is Puck? Who are they to Shakespeare, living in a Christian...

Who are the fairies? Titania and Oberon are clearly powerful, magical creatures…but who precisely are these two, and especially, who is Puck? Who are they to Shakespeare, living in a Christian England, and who are they to us, living a largely secular age?

Asked on by gbeatty

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Jamie Wheeler | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted on

I've wondered this myself in the past and your query jogged my memory of an article I read some time ago, which I fortunately was able to locate through the magic of JSTOR...

The title of the article, appropriately enough, is "The Fairies of a Midsummer Night's Dream" by Standish Henning (now, is that a scholarly name or what??)

Here's an excerpt, and the citation:

Early in Reginald Scot's Discovery of Witchcraft (1584),there is a chapter called "What miraculous actions are imputed to witches by witch-mongers, papists, and poets", a chapter which combines in a striking fashion several elements used in the description of the fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Scot, speaking of certain "hurtful witches", says of their extremely small size, "They can go in and out at awger holes, & saile in an egge shell, a cockle or muscle shell, through and vnder the tempestuous seas"...Like Puck with his misapplied love juice, these same witches can make themselves invisible and "alter mens minds to inordinate love or hate...".

Scot's book has long been recognized as a probable source for parts of A Midsummer Night's Dream..."

Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 4. (Autumn, 1969), pp. 484-486.

Thank you, Jamie. That gives me a lot to work with. I can see some of the folk beliefs Shakespeare was working with. I can understand the traditions that sparked the fairies…but I still wonder about what they meant to him. Given their powers, are they embodiments of nature? Why does Oberon have Puck, but Titania a host of smaller (weaker) fairies? Is it a simple male/female divide? And what about modern audiences who don't know Shakespeare's sources?

Thanks.

Greg

Given that among Shakespeare's influences(as I recall) was Ovid's Metamorphoses I think it's probably a good hypothesis that the fairies are an embodiment of the natural world.  Furthermore, the fairies seem to me to reflect the fickleness, often bordering on cruelty, of nature. 

As for why Tatiana has a host of fairies, I would guess that this has something to do with the power of the feminine, women as classically (sadly) seeming to have the power to "gang up" on men.

As for modern audiences who don't know the work:  I don't know that it's completely necessary to enjoy it, though, as always, the more one knows the richer the experience.  Shakespeare's audiences, however, even the "groundlings" would have been much more familiar with the myths and folklore of the classics.  I've told my students to think of it something like a political cartoon; that is, the revelancy escapes most people a few years later, but at the time, it's hysterical.  (Not a direct comparision, of course, but you get the idea...)

Jamie

gbeatty's profile pic

gbeatty | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

I've wondered this myself in the past and your query jogged my memory of an article I read some time ago, which I fortunately was able to locate through the magic of JSTOR...

The title of the article, appropriately enough, is "The Fairies of a Midsummer Night's Dream" by Standish Henning (now, is that a scholarly name or what??)

Here's an excerpt, and the citation:

Early in Reginald Scot's Discovery of Witchcraft (1584),there is a chapter called "What miraculous actions are imputed to witches by witch-mongers, papists, and poets", a chapter which combines in a striking fashion several elements used in the description of the fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Scot, speaking of certain "hurtful witches", says of their extremely small size, "They can go in and out at awgerholes, & saile in an egge shell, a cockle or muscle shell, through and vnder the tempestuous seas"...Like Puck with his misapplied love juice, these same witches can make themselves invisible and "alter mens minds to inordinate love or hate...".

Scot's book has long been recognized as a probable source for parts of A Midsummer Night'sDream..."

Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 4. (Autumn, 1969), pp. 484-486.

Thank you, Jamie. That gives me a lot to work with. I can see some of the folk beliefs Shakespeare was working with. I can understand the traditions that sparked the fairies…but I still wonder about what they meant to him. Given their powers, are they embodiments of nature? Why does Oberon have Puck, but Titania a host of smaller (weaker) fairies? Is it a simple male/female divide? And what about modern audiences who don't know Shakespeare's sources?

Thanks.

Greg

jamie-wheeler's profile pic

Jamie Wheeler | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted on

I've wondered this myself in the past and your query jogged my memory of an article I read some time ago, which I fortunately was able to locate through the magic of JSTOR...

The title of the article, appropriately enough, is "The Fairies of a Midsummer Night's Dream" by Standish Henning (now, is that a scholarly name or what??)

Here's an excerpt, and the citation:

Early in Reginald Scot's Discovery of Witchcraft (1584), there is a chapter called "What miraculous actions are imputed to witches by witch- mongers, papists, and poets", a chapter which combines in a striking fashion several elements used in the description of the fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Scot, speaking of certain "hurtful witches", says of their extremely small size, "They can go in and out at awgerholes, & saile in an egge shell, a cockle or muscle shell, through and vnder the tempestuous seas"...Like Puck with his misapplied love juice, these same witches can make themselves invisible and "alter mens minds to inordinate love or hate...".

Scot's book has long been recognized as a probable source for parts of A Midsummer Night's Dream..."

Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 4. (Autumn, 1969), pp. 484-486.

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