Shakespeare’s use of fairies in his works is legendary. He peppers them into enough of his plays to consider them a staple of his. The word “fairies” itself has two possible origins. The first is the noun “fays,” a broken-down form of Fatae. This was the noun used for the classical three fates which were later turned into supernatural women who attended childbirths and controlled the destinies of individuals. The other possible origin is from ‘fay-erie,’ or a state of enchantment and/or glamour (Briggs, “Encyclopedia” 131). Fairies were a strong part of England’s tradition and folklore, and well-known to a native such as he.
There were many beliefs about fairies in England during Shakespeare’s time, and he drew upon many of these themes and motifs. They were popular at the time because of the Faerie Queene, a work by Spenser that was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I (Rose 108), and Shakespeare was familiar with many of the tales and beliefs of those in England concerning fairies. He drew from his own knowledge of fairy tales, perhaps told to him as a child, as well as from Huon de Bordeaux, Ovid, and Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft. He changed his fairies slightly to suit his purposes, often making his fairies similar to the gods, a motif he used throughout his works, particularly in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The gods were popular in literature and widely accepted. It is no surprise that his King and Queen “suffer from the same passions as men and women, know desire, anger, jealousy, like the ancient gods” (Bullough 370). Katherine Briggs states in her book, The Anatomy of Puck, that “like the classic gods and the heroic fairies both Oberon and Titania are amorous of mortals” (Briggs, “Puck” 45), something that is evident upon our first introduction to the quarreling couple when they accuse each other of having had been with a party of the betrothed, a common fairy motif (Briggs, “Fairies” 113). His fairies were small, something that was a native thought of his- and most of England- and he began the trend of what became known as diminutive fairies.
These diminutive fairies became known as trooping faeries. The ideology behind these very small persons was probably the thought that the soul is actually a tiny creature which came out of a sleeping person and wandered around, its adventures being the sleeper’s dreams (Briggs, “Encyclopedia” 98-99). Robin Goodfellow, or Puck, alludes to this himself in the epilogue of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he says
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended:
That you have but slumbered here,
While these visions did appear;
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream. (MND Epilogue 1-6)
Whether this is true or not, trooping fairies could be human-sized but were usually described as being tiny but looking similar to humans. They are always very beautiful and dressed to perfection, often with gossamer wings on their backs. They have the power to shape shift as well as become invisible (Rose 108). Perhaps it is their small size that led to the belief of a fairy kingdom underground.
It was widely accepted that fairies had ther own kingdoms, dating back so far as to Malory’s Morte D’arthur, from 1470 about King Athur and the adjacent fairy court, Avalon. Some believed that their kingdom was underground, associating this with the barrows and stone circles. Still others believed that their kingdom was in a seperate place all together, Fairyland, which did not correlate to human time, but where time passed far quicker. Fairies were believed to have supernatural speed and shared similar pleasures as those of humans, enjoying in particular music and dancing (Rose 108). Some fairies enjoyed doing tasks for humans instead.
Brownies and hobgoblins were well-known to the Englishman of Shakespeare’s time, and it would have been amiss of him to not include them with his fairies. Hobgoblins were generally seen as imps and mischevious devils, but in some parts of England it was another name for a brownie. Shakespeare seems to have followed this trend instead, as he made his Puck a mischievous household spirit who truly intends good, but is mischievous. They are not bound to one location, and will leave the household if offended (Briggs, “Fairies” 37-39). Brownies are usually described as “being like a very small, brown, shaggy human, naked or wearing ragged brown clothes” (Rose 51-52). They are well-loved by their families and are thought to bring good fortune. They are the busiest of the household spirits, enjoying the tedious jobs like ploughing and reaping for a payment of the best cream and a pastry or bread. If you offer them something else, in particular new clothes, they will vanish (Rose 51-52). If criticized or offended they are prone to malicious damage and mischief.
The fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are different from a lot of the fairies of folklore and tradition, being kinder; the sweet flower fairies are balanced out by the kind but prankish Puck. Fairies are often associated with witches, ghosts, and their ilk, but Shakespeare differentiated his fairies from them by giving them the power to be out in the sunlight (MND III. ii. 389-391), and endowing upon them the power and charge of keeping away evil things associated with witchcraft like owls, snakes, and bats (Briggs, “Puck” 46), seen in their song:
You spotted snakes with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen;
Newts and blind-worms, do no wrong,
Come not near our fairy queen.
Philomel, with melody,
Sing in our sweet lullaby;
Lulla, lulla, lullaby, lulla, lulla, lullaby:
Nor spell, nor charm,
Come our lovely lady nigh;
So, good night, with lullaby.
Weaving spiders, come not here;
Hence, you long-legg’d spinners, hence!
Beetles black, approach not near;
Worm nor snail, do no offense.
He also emphasizes their size throughout the play in several places, such as when Titania commands her fairies “Hop in his [Bottom’s] walks, and gambol in his eyes” (MND III. i. 147), showing the size difference between the human Bottom and her flower court. His King and Queen have the speed commonly given to fairies, being able to travel far distances in seconds, evidenced as Oberon tells Titania when the sun is rising:
Then, my queen, in silence sad
Trip we after nightes shade.
We the globe can compass soon.
Swifter than the wand’ring moon. (MND IV. i. 92-95).
His fairies are unique;
They are creatures of another order, but definite, clear-cut and natural, with none of that flimsy quality that strikes one in later fairy stories. At the same time their quarrels and intriques belong wholly to their fairy nature; they are not human beings made small, Titania, though she is as susceptible to Oberon’s spell as the moral lovers, is every millimetere a fairy queen” (Briggs, “Puck” 47).
His fairies are kind and giving, actively trying to help the two couples end up together the way they were meant to be. “Titania feels concern at the hardships which their quarrels are inflicting on the human mortals, Oberon intervenes to set the lovers’ affairs to rights, they both go to blss Thesus’s marriage bed” (Briggs, “Puck” 47).
We also see their kindness in regards to the changeling child. Changeling stories were common, where fairies stole a child to replace it with an elderly or ugly fairy child, but this is the first time we see this story from the other angle. Titania took the child because of her love for the child’s dead mother, who was a member of her cult. Titania’s attendants are flower fairies, and are named after the flowers that they care for, among them cow-slip, a well-known fairy plant (Briggs, “fairies” 84). He uses the fairies “to enforce the view of love as an enchantment which alienates the minds of its victims with a sudden, ridiculous madness” (Bullough 370), and uses Robin Goodfellow as a fool to dispense wisdom among his pranks.
Shakespeare’s Puck is one of the most well-known literary fairies. Traditionally a solitary fairy, Shakespeare includes him in Oberon’s court, making him a servant of sorts. “Puck, the Old Norse ‘puki,’ Cornish ‘pukka’ or ‘pizy’ was originally an earth demon” (Bullough 371). The name Puck “in earlier times was used without equivocation for the Devil” (Briggs, “Encyclopedia” 341), yet Shakespeare’s fool prefers it over “Robin Goodfellow,” the other name he goes by. The name of “Robin Goodfellow” has no known origin, but is a very old and well-known hobgoblin in England. Shakespeare’s Puck is just like him, and “he has all the boggart tricks, even down to the traditonal ho! ho! ho!” (Briggs “Puck” 47). The best description of him is told by him to a fairy of Titania’s court, when he answers her charge that he is a hobgoblin household spirit who helps labour:
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 the 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 lip I bob,
And on her withered dewlap pour the ale. (MND II. i. 42-50)
While the two identities of Puck and Robin Goodfellow are very similar, they do have some distinct attributes given to each that Shakespeare has merged.
Puck is traditionally a good but misleading fairy. He “is glad to do a certain amount of mischef, but that is almost by accident, and it is from no spite to mortals, for he is equally ready to play a prank on his own Queen” (Briggs, “Puck” 46). He has a soft side, “prompting the interests of the poor, the oppressed, and with lovers” (Rose 267), and this latter is especially for scornful lovers, giving him a real compassion for Hermia (Briggs, “Encyclopedia” 336-337). No one is really sure what he looks like, and Carol Rose explains “The fact that no two descriptions seem to be the same attests to the shape-shifting abilities of this tricksy supernatural” (Rose 267). He finds glee and entertainment in the folly of humans, leading humans astray in the form of a Will o’ Wisp.
Robin Goodfellow is also credited with becoming a Will o’ Wisp and leaving people embarassed and lost. He is a house-hold fairy, “helping at night with all the domestic tasks that remained unfinished… However, this sprit was equally capable of trickery and pranks” (Rose 276). Robin Goodfellow has an interesting background. It is said that he is the son of Oberon and a country girl, making him a half fairy. He was a precocious prankster but had no powers until he ran away from home at the age of six. While wandering, he fell asleep and woke with a gold scroll beside him that was from Oberon. This scroll gave him the powers of obtaining whatever he wished and shapeshifting, perhaps the reason he is confused with Puck. His powers were to be used against the ill-disposed and to aid honest people (Briggs, “Encyclopedia” 341). It is also possible that Shakespeare chose to use the name of Robin Goodfellow to poke fun at Reginald Scot. In 1584, Reginald Scot published The Discoverie of Witchcraft to reprove the popish beliefs of other writers (Bullough 371). Scot claimed that fairies and other spirits were far different from humans, being unable to eat or lust, among other things, and claimed that “Robin Goodfellow is not now much believed in” (Bullough 395). After A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Robin Goodfellow became even more well-known.
Much like Puck, Oberon is a fairy with a rich background. First introduced into literature by Huon of Bordeaux, Oberon was originally Alberich, a german dwarf king before being translated into English by Lord Berners in 154(8 (Briggs, “Encyclopedia” 314). It is also possible that his name is from “Auberon,” a name for familiar spirits (Briggs, “Encyclopedia” 314). He is described in Huon of Bordeaux as being “of height but of three foote, and crooked shouldered, but yet he hath an Angell-like visage, so that there is no mortal man that seeth him, but that taketh great pleasure to behold his face” (Bullough 390). He is only the size of a 3 year old child, ensorcelled by a malicious fairy at his christening (Briggs, “Encyclopedia” 314). He is further described as being richly dressed like the fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and of being in possession of powerful tools of sorcery.
Not only does he have this powerful horn, but he has power over the elements, causing “raine and wind, hayle and snowe, and will make marvelous tempests, with thunder and lightenings” (Bullough 391), much like the King and Queen of Shakespeare’s, who are causing problems in nature because of their quarrel (MND II. i. 389-390). Oberon is a good-hearted king, but he enjoys playing pranks and making mischief as well. No one is exempt from his mischief, and he causes Titania, his wife, to fall in love with a human that has an ass’s head. Rose warns “The fairy king will attempt to decieve any human traveler through the forests and detain them in fairy time (like Rip Van Winkle). Humans who meet him are well advised to remain silent and not to address him, no matter what evil horrors, storms, and frightening visions he conjures up, for anyone who speaks to Oberon is forever in his power” (Rose 244); a testament to the supreme powers of this tiny king.
With such a powerful king as Oberon, Shakespeare’s queen could be no less, and Titania is regal and commanding, having her own court. Her fairy attendants do as she asks without question, even when it means serving Bottom, a lowly human with an ass’s head. The origin of Titania is Ovid, as it is another name for the goddess Diana, a greek goddess of the moon and chase (Rose 309). Titania is a affectionate queen who acts out of kindness. She offers us the “ony changeling in any pre-Victorian literature that we see from the fairy angle” (Briggs, “Puck” 46).
Titania is a major part of the play because of her love-affair with Bottom. The love affair helps “Shakespeare not only obtain a parallel in the fairy and guildsmen’s world to what is hapening among the young courtiers, but can also [help] poke fun at the romantic supernatural of such stories as Thomas of Erceldoun” (Bullough 273). Fairy marriages and affairs are a major motif of fairy folklore. When Titania becomes interested in someone, she throws herself into that person completely, even giving up the changeling child to Oberon without a second thought. Her diginity is evident when she discovers the truth of what had happened with Bottom and graciously makes up with Oberon, a major reason for why Shakespeare chose to make her his queen instead of Mab, a common choice for the Queen of the Fairies.
Queen Mab is one of several other fairy references scattered throughout Shakespeare’s other plays. She is mentioned in Romeo and Juliet by Mercutio, who calls her the fairies’ midwife, and tells of things that she does as well as her minute size, galloping through the dreams of men in her insect-drawn carriage (RJ I. iv. 55 etc). Among other plays, The Comedy of Errors mentions fairies, referencing fairy land, goblins, sprites, and the traditional acts of fairies such as pinching (CE II. ii. 189-192). They are mentioned in Macbeth (fairy ring), Henry IV (changelings), and Hamlet (goblins) as well. Fairies are mentioned in Cymbiline, where there are “two types of fairies, the incubus against which Imogen blesses herself in her prayer, and the gentle female fairies, the Tylwyth Teg of Wales, to whom the outlawed princes comit the keeping of Fidele’s tomb” (Briggs, “Puck” 52). Scot mentions the first type in his book as well, claiming that they are not real, saying “Where the genitall members want, there can be no lusts of the flesh; neither dooth nature give anie desire of generation, where there is no propagation or succession required. And as spirits cannot be greeved with hunger, so can they not be inflamed with lustes” (Bullough 395). Two other Shakespeare plays have major references to fairies as well, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and The Tempest.
In The Merry Wives of Windsor, we do not see any fairies, but the folklore and beliefs regarding fairies are drawn upon to create counterfeit fairies. The fairies in The Merry Wives of Windsor follow many of the traditions: small fairies ruled by a larger fairy, dressed in white for the Whte Ladies, carrying torches and bells like the glow-worm lights and fairy bells heard during their rides, as well as being accompanied by a satyr and a hobgoblin. They act as fairies should as well, dancing around a tree in a ring and pinching their enemy, a man dressed as a wood spirit, who covers his eyes because it is believed that to watch them is to die (Briggs, “Puck” 50-51). These are possibly done so in similar fashion to John Lyly, who first started the trend of child-sized fairies in plays (Briggs, “Puck” 48). There are also references to other kinds of fairies, such as an incubus.
The Tempest is the only other play in which we actually see true fairies. They are a vital part to the plot, but are under control of a magcian. The commanding fairy, Ariel, seems to be more of an elemental- possibly a slyph- than of a true fairy, and lacks many of the characteristics of Shakespeare’s other fairies, such as being prankish or amorous of humans. His companions though, are nature fairies. They were all very powerful, and could control nature as well as men’s senses, and all played the “fairy tricks of pinching and laying on of cramps; they mislead like walking fires and call, invisible (Briggs, “Puck” 54). By doing these things they were true to folklore and common beliefs of fairy behaviors.
Shakespeare’s fairies were a delight to his contempories because he based them off of common belief and folklore everyone knew. We delight in them still because of the excellent characterization and balance of prettiness and depth we find in them. There is a definite reason why A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of his most popular plays, and it is the realism of his King and Queen, who are so fairy-like in nature but of whom we can relate to.
Briggs, K.M. The Anatomy of Puck: An Examination of Fairy Beliefs among Shakespeare’s Contemporaries and Successors. Great Britain: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd, 1959.
Briggs, Katharine M. An Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and other Supernatural Creatures. New York: Panteon Books, 1976.
Briggs, K.M. The Fairies in English Tradition and Literature. Chicago: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd, 1967.
Bullough, Geoffrey, ed. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd, 1957.
Rose, Carol. Spirits, Fairies, Gnomes, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia of the Little People. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO Inc, 1996.
Shakespeare, William. The Norton Shakespeare. Second ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al, eds. New York: Norton, 2007.
This was written in 2009 for a Shakespeare course at Grand Rapids Community College. Please cite this if you use it.