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A Midsummer Night's Dream

by William Shakespeare

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What is the role of fairies in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream?

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The fairies are the cause of both the conflict and the resolution in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

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The fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream serve many functions. One role is to develop a theme of the play: we (humankind) actually have very little control in this world.

One interpretation of this theme could be seen as a spiritual one; there are forces in this world we cannot see or understand that push us in certain directions. The fairies, particularly Puck, guide the two couples in the woods towards certain actions using their fairy magic. This could represent God, fate, or any other religious beliefs. This interpretation is intriguing because it goes against the main tenets of Humanism which emphasizes the ability of humans to make decisions free of outside influence. This movement was developing during the Renaissance, the time the play was written; however, the play's actual setting is ancient Athens, in a time where polytheism was the central belief; gods and goddesses meddled in the affairs of humans, much like Shakespeare's fairies. He places an extra barrier between the two worlds by keeping his mortal characters blind to the manipulation the fairies wield upon them. In this way, Shakespeare may be bridging old ideals with new ideals, a very common technique in Renaissance literature.

The second interpretation of this theme could be seen as an artistic one; the artist or, in this case, the playwright, is exercising power over the audience with an ability to control their emotions with the actions of the characters. As such, Shakespeare has power over all: even Oberon, the king of the fairies. The end soliloquy, given by Puck, supports this theory as he addresses the audience, breaking the fourth wall, and states: "And this weak and idle theme, No more yielding but a dream." In other words, the theater is meant to entertain and take us away from reality; it shouldn't be taken too seriously. He goes on to ask for the audience to "Give me your hands, if we be friends" encouraging applause for the entertainment provided. Shakespeare uses a similar technique in The Tempest, when Prospero speaks to the audience directly, asking for praise and applause.

A final interpretation may be the most simple and direct; the fairies represent the lack of control we have in love and who we fall in love with. They may merely represent the whimsical nature of emotions, some lasting, some fleeting.

Together, all three interpretations of this theme create a multi-layered richness to a play that continually sustains and entice audiences.

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The role of the fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream is to create both the conflict and the resolution in the play. They do this by manipulating the human beings in the play while also remaining separate and distinct from the human beings.

Puck creates conflict in the play when he accidentally mistakes Lysander for Demetrius and enchants Lysander instead. Oberon asks Puck to fetch him a flower Oberon has seen Cupid hit with an arrow. The flower now serves as a potent love potion, and if the juice of the flower is placed on any being's eyes, that being awakens to fall in love with the first creature he/she sees. Oberon wishes to use the flower to manipulate his wife into giving him the foundling. While waiting for Puck, Oberon witnesses Demetrius being cruel to Helena in the woods, and when Puck returns, Oberon asks Puck to use the flower on Demetrius, whom Oberon says Puck will recognize by his "Athenian garments" (II.ii.269). Puck has no idea that there are actually two Athenian couples in the woods that night and accidentally enchants Lysander to fall in love with Helena instead then later enchants Demetrius to fall in love with her as well.

The fact that both men are now pursuing Helena instead of Hermia creates a great deal of conflict among the characters. They get into a great many arguments. Helena accuses Demetrius and Lysander of scorning her and also accuses Hermia of being in on the joke, as we see in Helena's line, "Lo, she [Hermia] is one this confederacy!" (III.ii.195). However, Puck makes amends by properly uniting Demetrius with Helena, and once again, uniting Lysander with Hermia. Hence, we see that the fairies play the role of creating both the play's conflict and the resolution through the use of their magic.

However, while they interact with the human world by manipulating it, critic George A. Bonnard points out that the role of the fairy world is actually to remain separate and distinct from the human world. The separation shows us that while the human world, the world of reality, can be manipulated by the fantasy world, the world of fantasy actually has nothing to do with reality, even though fantasy may sometimes look like reality. We especially see reality look like fantasy when the lovers become enchanted. However, at the end of the night, the lovers awaken half believing that what they experienced was a dream and half believing it was real. The fairies make them believe it was a dream because they wish to remain separate and distinct from the world of reality. Hence, another one of the fairies' roles is to portray Shakespeare's theme of fantasy vs. reality and to show us that reality is often manipulated by fantasy.

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Describe the role of the fairies in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Shakespeare's comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream, tells the story of young lovers and a troupe of actors, caught in the woods after dark, at the mercy of mischievous fairies who turn the humans' lives up-side-down, if only for a night.

Shakespeare wrote his plays for an Elizabethan audience who totally believed in a supernatural world of witches and fairies. Critics credit Shakespeare with making fairies friendlier creatures than they had been perceived of before. Prior to Shakespeare's portrayal of fairies as child-like creatures—and their rulers Oberon and Titania as parent-figures to humans—fairies were believed to be evil.

In his article, "Shakespeare's Fairies: The Triumph of Dramatic Art," William J. Rolfe writes:

The fact is, Shakespeare was but slightly interested in the human characters of the present play...It was the fairies who chiefly attracted him, and on whom he lavished the wealth of his genius. They have been aptly called "the favourite children of his romantic fancy..."

These critics applaud Shakespeare's ability to create such "fanciful" creatures as Rolfe declares that Shakespeare's pleasure in character development for this comedy centered not around the humans, but the fairies; and it is, in fact, in their domain, that most of the play's comedy occurs.

Rolfe goes on to describe the characteristics of the fairies: some respects they are like human children. Like young children before they have learned the distinction between right and wrong, they have no moral sense, and little or no comprehension of such sense in the mortals with whom they are associated. Like children, they live in the present...They think and feel like the child. Their loves and their quarrels are like those of the child.

What an excellent way for Shakespeare to approach these creatures: presenting them like children. Adults often view children's antics with humor rather than censorship, and we tolerantly chuckle over their games, arguments, and even the ways they try to impress.

The purpose of the fairies is to provide comedy, giving them child-like characteristics. The lovers in the woods fall in and out of love with the wrong people. The fairies play tricks on the actors practicing in the woods to scare them. In essence, the fairies entertain the audience by playing tricks on the humans—and each other (as Oberon childishly tricks Titania).

For instance, Oberon instructs Puck to use a "love potion" on the eyes of a "disdainful youth" (Demetrius) so that he will fall in love ostensibly with Helena. Puck "charms" the wrong man; when Lysander awakes, he sees and falls in love with Helena.

Content with Hermia? No! I do repent / The tedious minutes I with her have spent... (II, ii, 118-119)

Helena thinks he mocks her:

Wherefore was I to this keen mockery born? / When at your hands did I deserve such scorn? (II, ii, 129-130)

So begins the "comedy of errors" of humans controlled by the fairy world.

Even Puck's summation of the condition of humans affords a laugh:

Lord, what fools these mortals be. (III, ii, 115)

Lastly, because Oberon is angry with Titania, his wife, he sends Puck to her bower to charm her eyes. Puck turns Bottom into an "ass," and when she wakes, it is with Bottom she falls in love.

Pucks reports to Oberon:

My mistress with a monster is in love...An ass's noll I fixed on his head

Shakespeare's "children" (fairies) provide a grand source of comedy for his audience. This, then, is the role they have in the play.

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What is the importance of the fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream?

The fairies are a link between the dream world and waking world (what we know as reality).

The fairies are able to travel between the two worlds. They are able to interact with beings of the dream world and with humans in the waking world.

When humans like Bottom are exposed to the dream world, they are allowed to see and interact with the beings in the fairy world.

I think the magic of the fairy world exists in their ability to accept the impossible and influence even the most "grounded" human.

For example, Bottom is able to communicate with the fairies because he is willing to let go of the waking world and follow his imagination. He does this even though they are "just dreams" to the common observer.

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What are the role of fairies in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream?

The most obvious role of the fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream is simply that they contribute to the magical, otherworldly atmosphere of the play. The fairies and their behavior are also described in very much human terms, and the significance of this is to convey the impression that the human world and the world of fairies are not as separate as one might think.

However, there are three fairy characters who are especially significant in the play for different reasons. Oberon, the fairy king, is significant because his role, in part, is to bring the lovers together. The second especially significant fairy character is Oberon's wife, Titania. Oberon and Titania's relationship plays a significant role in the play because it points to the theme of power. The power struggle between them affects the seasons and the crops. This suggests that the desire for power can be destructive.

The third especially significant fairy character is, of course, Puck. Puck is significant because he is responsible for much of the comedy in the play. He turns Bottom's head into the head of a donkey, for example. He transforms himself into a stool and then disappears when old women try to sit down on him. He is also responsible for much of the confusion in the play, and confusion is a key element of comedy. Puck's role, therefore, is very much to be the main comic force in the play.

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How do the fairies influence Shakespeare's A Midsummer Nights Dream?

The fairies influence A Midsummer Night's Dream by creating both the conflict and the resolution. The term conflict is used to describe the oppositions or problems the characters face in the story line. A conflict can be between two characters, a group of characters, or even circumstances such as fate, nature, or society (Dr. Wheeler, "Literary Terms and Definitions: C"). The resolution is the moment when all of the conflicts are solved and the final outcome of the story is revealed.

The fairies, especially Puck, are responsible for creating the play's conflicts through the use of the magical flower. When Oberon sees Demetrius treat Helena, who is in love with him, horribly, Oberon instructs Puck to use the magical love flower, not just on Oberon's wife for revenge, but also on Demetrius. Oberon's goal was to fix Helena's love problems. However, Oberon only said that Puck would "know the man / By the Athenian garments he hath on" (II.i.268-29). Neither Oberon nor Puck were aware that there were actually two pairs of Athenian lovers in the forest that night. As a result, Puck enchants Lysander with the flower to fall in love with Helena instead, then mixes things up even further when he next makes even Demetrius fall in love with Helena as well. This mix-up creates emotional conflicts between the two men who challenge each other for Helena, between the two women who now distrust each other, and even between Hermia and both Lysander and Demetrius because they now hate her. The conflict even breaks up Hermia and Helena's friendship, who have been inseparable since childhood.

However, Puck, upon Oberon's command, is also responsible for creating the play's resolution by using magic to pair the couple's correctly. Puck's act of correctly pairing the couples even puts an end to the conflict between Hermia and her father because once Demetrius explains to Duke Theseus that he is now back in love with Helena, whom he was engaged to before he started pursuing Hermia, Theseus decides to override Egeus's request for the full force of the law should Hermia continue to refuse to marry Demetrius. Theseus decides to let Demetrius marry Helena and Lysander marry Hermia as we see in his lines:

Egeus, I will overbear your will;
For in the temple, by and by, with us
These couples shall eternally be knit. (IV.i.180-82)

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What is one of the roles of the fairies in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream?

Shakespeare did an excellent job in A Midsummer Night's Dream of showing us different types of couples and different types of relationships. While the fairies serve many functions all throughout the play, one of the functions Oberon and Titania serve is to represent an older, married couple that has become disenchanted with their relationship but makes amends at the end.

Oberon's and Titania's dissatisfaction with their marriage is portrayed through their external conflict of both wanting to care for the changeling Indian boy. Titania has created a rift in their marriage by caring for the boy above Oberon, and Oberon has equally created a rift by becoming jealous of the boy.

Literary critic Shirley Nelson Garner points out that Titania's affection for the boy can actually be seen as a bit erotic. Puck describes Titania as crowning the boy with flowers and making "him all her joy" (II.i.27). We know that for Titania this describes erotic love because she is described as treating Bottom in the exact same way when she falls in love with him, as we see Oberon describe in his lines, "[S]he his hairy temples then had rounded / With coronet of fresh and fragrant flowers" (IV.i.50-51). Hence, since Titania's affection for the Indian boy is clearly erotic, Oberon has a right to be jealous, wanting all her affection to himself. Thus, Oberon tricks her into giving up the boy by making her fall in love with a much more hideous and ridiculous creature.
When Oberon releases her from the spell, he commands her to be "as thou wast wont to be; See as thou was wont to see," which apparently makes her see Oberon as her love again, instead of the Indian boy (70-71). Since Titania fully releases her affection for the boy, there conflict is resolved, showing us how Oberon and Titania serve the role of represent an older couple with problems in their relationship that they resolve in the end.

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

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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