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A Midsummer Night's Dream

by William Shakespeare

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What are Puck's physical traits in A Midsummer Night's Dream?

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Like all of the rest of Shakespeare's characters, Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream is never directly characterized. However, there is much about his appearance that we can conclude from the dialogue surrounding him. We know from the play that, like the other fairies and sprites, Puck is a small version of a human. Puck moves very quickly and erratically, and is able to shape-shift into the likeness of others and objects.

In regards to performances of the character Puck, he is usually portrayed as a younger, bare-chested man with a more feminine physique and hairless body, and it is not at all unheard of for the role to be played by a young woman. He is often clothed in garbs of leaves and other forest materials. There are several takes on his appearance that deviate from this norm. For example, some productions give the character the horns of a fawn or a satyr, giving the character an altogether more devious look.

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There is no extended description of Puck in Midsummer Night's Dream. Since this is a play, description is not necessary, such as it is in a narrative story (novel, short story).

Puck is described by the Fairy in Act II, Scene 1 of Midsummer Night's Dream as a sprite fairy. A sprite is a particular species of fairy that has a human form, pointed ears, sparkly fairy dust and gossamer wings (think of Tinker Bell in Peter Pan). Though possessing beautiful features, Puck loves a good laugh at humans' expense.

Puck is also a shape-changer. He claims to change his shape into that of a "three-foot stool" and then whisk away so the human attempting to sit on the stool falls on the floor instead. He also claims to change to the shape of a "crab" and to impersonate the neighing of a "filly" horse.

He is a mischief maker who likes to pull pranks, though not truly evil ones (nothing worse than skimming the cream from the milk so the wife can churn all day and still get no butter and misleading night-wanderers) and will trade good luck with anyone who will call him Puck or Hobgoblin instead of his real name of Robin Goodfellow, which is an ill-suited name for a sprite fairy who loves pranks and jests.

[Note: Puck first appears in Act II, Scene 1 when he converses with Fairy, not in Act II, Scene 2.]

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What can one conclude about Puck's physical description in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream?

We might learn about a character from three sources: the playwright, the other characters, and the character him-/herself.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare has nothing whatsoever to say about Puck, or any other character for that matter. He provides us with no character descriptions for any of the characters in any of his plays.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare gives us a description of Puck through other characters, including Puck himself, shortly after Puck's first appearance in the play, in act 2, scene 1:

FAIRY: Either I mistake your shape and making quite,
Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite
Call'd Robin Goodfellow. Are not you he . . . ?

PUCK: Thou speakest aright:
I am that merry wanderer of the night.
I jest to Oberon, and make him smile,
When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,
Neighing in likeness of a filly foal;
And sometime lurk I in a gossip's bowl
In very likeness of a roasted crab,
And, when she drinks, against her lips I bob,
And on her withered dewlap pour the ale.
The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,
Sometime for three-foot stool mistaketh me;
Then slip I from her bum, down topples she,
And "tailor" cries, and falls into a cough;
And then the whole quire hold their hips and laugh,
And waxen in their mirth, and neeze, and swear
A merrier hour was never wasted there. (2.1.31–58)

There are very few clues in the play as to whether Puck is male or female (or of indeterminate gender), but there is one clue in the lines quoted above at line 43: "Are you not he . . . ?" Another clue comes from the name Puck is sometimes called—"Robin Goodfellow"—which might lead us to believe that Puck is a "fellow" (i.e., male).

Although Puck was played by a male actor in Shakespeare's time—as were all the characters in his plays—the character of Puck has become increasingly less gender-specific over time and has been played successfully by both male and female actors.

The name "Puck" is derived from Old English, and describes a mischievous spirit. We also learn from that Puck is called "Hobgoblin." The "Hob'" in "Hobgoblin" refers to an elf or sprite, and "goblin" is an ugly, evil fairy. In folklore, a "goblin" is a malicious creature, whereas a "hobgoblin," like Puck, is more mischievous than malicious.

"Robin Goodfellow" is another name by which Puck is known, which means a domestic spirit ("hob" also means "hearth") or one that lives in nature. Puck is both. He is both Oberon's household sprite, and he also moves quickly and easily through nature.

OBERON: . . . Fetch me this herb, and be thou here again
Ere the leviathan can swim a league.

PUCK: I'll put a girdle round about the earth
In forty minutes. (2.1.176–179)

In fact, Puck returns in less than ten minutes.

We learn from Puck himself that he's a shapeshifter, as "hobgoblins" were believed to be. Puck tells us that he can change his shape from a "roasted crab" to a "three-foot stool," so it's entirely conceivable that he can be in any physical form he chooses to be at any time.

It would seem, though, that Puck might need to be in a consistently recognizable physical form when he interacts with other characters. We might also assume that this physical form is not ugly or grotesque—hobgoblin though Puck might be.

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What can one conclude about Puck's physical description in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream?

Shakespeare usually relies on indirect characterization rather than direct, meaning that he does not come right out and tell us what a character is like or looks like. Instead, he paints the pictures of characterization through dialogue and through other characters' responses to the characters. Puck is one character that is characterized indirectly.

One thing we learn through dialogue about Puck's appearance is that he is very small. We learn about his size when Puck describes one of his antics as hiding in an old woman's ale mug pretending to be a crabapple. When the woman takes a drink, he then spills the ale all over her neck, as we see in his lines:

And sometime lurk I in a gossip's bowl
In very likeness of a roasted crab,
And, when she drinks, against her lips I bob,
And on her withered dewlap pour the ale. (II.i.48-51)

Since Puck is imitating a crabapple, which was used to spice drinks, we know that he is very small.

Another thing we can surmise about Puck's appearance is that he may actually be very ugly. A Puck is a Hobgoblin, which is not only a devilish sprite, or fairy, it is also a goblin, which is a particularly "grotesque," or ugly sprite or elf (Collins English Dictionary).

Finally, we also know that Puck has very speedy flying capabilities. We know this because, when Oberon commands him to find the "love-in-idleness flower," Puck replies, "I'll put a girdle round about the earth / In forty minutes" (178-179). In other words, Puck is saying that he'll circle around the earth in forty minutes.

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