November 17, 1996
In order to prove his existence, Renee Descartes said “I think, therefore I am.” This same logic can be applied to rationalizing the existence of the faeries in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The reality within A Midsummer Night’s Dream is controlled by the imagination as symbolized by the faeries. The faeries, in turn, represent the unseen forces that exert control over humans. Shakespeare used traditional faerie lore to model his own faeries as a way to represent his imaginary world. Then with this new model he applied it to his play to show his audience how faeries (and imagination) can exist and not exist at the same time, and affect both the play reality and theirs as well.
Traditional Elizabethan lore of faeries stated that they looked exactly like humans in every way except for their size, they were a little smaller than the average human male (Latham 66). Collectively faeries are called the fey, and they are a product of Shakespeare’s imagination and the culture he grew up in (Miller 256). They looked so much like humans in every respect that in “many cases human beings were mistaken for them” (Latham 67). They were thought to be extremely beautiful and because of this actors playing faerie roles in dramatic plays had to wear masks (Latham 80 and 82). Actors portraying them wore clothes of green, red, white and the most popular color –black– since they were thought to be evil (Latham 85).
Latham and Nutt both agree that Shakespeare changed the way the fey was traditionally seen by the Elizabethans. However they leave out the notion that the faeries are imagined creatures and have impact on the daily routines of humans. To the Elizabethan peasants faeries are what cause the “little accidents which are at one and the same time pure chance and the work of an immanence bent upon fostering good fellowship and laughter” (Miller 258). This quote, also, fosters a major untruth about the Elizabethan faerie that Latham and Nutt point out. Miller assumes that faeries were harmless when in fact they were terribly feared by the countryside folks. According to Latham, they belonged to the category of wicked spirits and were only referred to as good spirits out of fear (33- 34) and it was Shakespeare who took that tradition and changed it so they appeared benevolent.
We humans have a wonderful gift. It is called the imagination and from it we can create new worlds and beings. And if we believe strongly enough in them, sometimes we begin to believe that they really do exist in our reality. Watching A Midsummer Night’s Dream the audience is put in a paradoxical situation. To them, “the fairies are both real and imagined” (Miller 258). Because the faeries are a product of a poet’s imagination, the audience feels comfortable believing they don’t exist in their reality. However this poses a problem, for the audience can see and hear them on-stage through the actors’ characterization and ability to repeat lines from a printed page, yet to their minds faeries are imagined– products of the imagination. The reason behind this belief is that most people divide imagination and reality when the two can be a part of each other.
There are two ways of perceiving reality. We can either see reality as being made of fixed, physical objects or it can be expanded to include not only the physical but imagined thoughts as well. Even Miller supports this idea when he states, “it is not so much the fairies per se as the mystery of the fairies– the very aura of evanescence and ambiguity surrounding their life on stage– that points to a mysteriousness in our own existence” (255). Therefore, Shakespeare argues that the Elizabethans accept this broader view using A Midsummer Night’s Dream as his argument. The faeries, in their representation of the imaginative world, become real for the Elizabethans and their physical appearance on stage in turn lends support for Shakespeare’s desire to redefine what reality really is.
Faeries, for all intensive purposes, do not exist. They have no physical bodies and in this reality I have yet to see a real faerie, despite my childhood attempts to find one. However, the fey do exist as a part of a large body of folklore created by the English countrymen to whom “fairydom is a part of the necessary machinery by which the scheme of things, as known to him is ordered and governed” (Latham 9). Yet because faeries are a product of both the peasants and Shakespeare’s imagination, they must exist in the Elizabethan reality. And through the medium of theater, the faeries do become real and have the ability to affect the Elizabethan reality as well as character’s within the play.
There are many ways faeries cross over from an imagined world to our reality. Traditionally they were spawned from a “rural belief, a[s a] race of English and Elizabethan spirits, [thought to be] indigenous to the country and the century” (Latham 24). There are three prevalent beliefs on the possible– real– origins of the fey. They were once thought to have been fallen angels (Latham 41) or “souls of men [who were] departed” (Latham 44) and because of this belief they were confused with ghosts (Latham 44). The third and strongest belief suggests that “they are of a world between Heaven and Hell and both their natures and homelands reflect this” (Latham 46). These beliefs of possible faerie origin helped to fuel the notion that faeries can be real and not imagined beings that existed nowhere except in the human mind. However, in all of these three cases the fey’s existence is possible because they are imagined and because the peasants believe strongly in them, they were able to cross over into “reality”.
Faeries exerted control over humanity in several different ways in the Elizabethan world and in Shakespeare’s play. In Elizabethan society, the most common forms of faerie existence were seen in the appearance of malicious pranks. They were thought to be fond of playing pranks on humans and causing minor problems, which generated the bulk of the peasants fear and made the fey appear evil.
However, their most famous prank is known as their ability to switch human babies and small children, usually those who were extremely beautiful, with creatures known as “changelings” (Nutt 6). These changelings then take the place of the human baby and grow up as the stolen child’s replacement. During the sixteenth century this aspect was the most stressed (Latham 148). Shakespeare even uses this part of faerie-lore within his play for Oberon and Titania, during Act II, scene i, are constantly struggling for control over their newly acquired Indian boy.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream there are many examples of how the fey’s existence becomes part of the real world. The most obvious example occurs when Puck has changed Bottom’s head to appear like an ass’, and Titania awakens to fall in love with the mortal whose “ear is much enamored of thy note” (Shakespeare 3.1.125). Here the two worlds, mortal reason and faerie imagination, collide in what Bottom says “And yet, to say the truth, reason and /love keep little company together nowadays” (Shakespeare 3.1.130-131). What Bottom points out here is that the two realms are never associated together– rather they are associated only as opposites. Therefore to have the fey realm and the human realm together twists the audience’s thinking in that if it can happen at the theater, then it could happen in their lives as well. And as many documents can attest, this belief holds true; for, in the development of the fey, part of their existence is fostered by the ideal that they have an effect on the real world.
When Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream he changed the way the Elizabethans saw the fey until “they gradually lost their harsher characteristics” (Latham 73). Shakespeare uses the faeries in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a symbol of what powers the imagination has over human reality both within the play and outside. But, in order to do show this without scaring his audience, he had to modify them so that they no longer posed any threat to them. Therefore he did two things. He first placed them within a Comedy and he changed the way they appeared from evil spirits to spirits of a playful trickery.
Instead of keeping up with their normal size he made them very small and gave them the ability to move swiftly (Nutt 5). He replaced much of the original anger and danger the Elizabethans associated to faeries into mere playfulness and trickster pranks (Latham 180). The names Shakespeare gave to the fey also changed. Instead of sounding menacing, they were now associated to garden flowers and other nice items (Latham 180). For example, Peasblossoms, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed are some of the names that Shakespeare uses to dispel the faeries’ evil demeanor within A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Even at the end of the play, when Puck steps forward to deliver his monologue of apology for all their behavior, performed in the play and perhaps that in the Elizabethan society as well, he says
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended-
That you have but slumb’red here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.
If you pardon we will mend.
And as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck …
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar called (Shakespeare 5.1.412-424).
However, what is interesting about this passage is that while Puck apologizes for the past behavior of all of the fey, at the same time he buys into the theory that they are imaginative creatures and therefore do not exist at all. Therefore, he is imposing the imagination upon the Elizabethan audience by telling them exactly when the “dream” is over and to resume a normal life. It’s this twisting of the screw on what is or isn’t a product of the imagination is what Shakespeare’s interpretation of the faeries is all about.
The faeries in A Midsummer Night’s Dream take on the paradoxical quality of being from a place “betwixt Heaven and Hell,” as explained above, in two different ways. Not only did Shakespeare change many of the Faeries physical aspects, he also changed many of their supernatural abilities. Even Oberon, in the play, tells the audience that “they are spirits of another sort” (Shakespeare 3.2.388) which alludes to these new changes. Some of the new supernatural abilities he gave the faeries included the powers to turn invisible to human eyes and immortality (Nutt 5). He also grounded the faeries back into the Natural world by making them connected to the elements (Nutt 6). They became part of the “airy” element and it was from this element where they gained the ability to change Nature and use Nature to produce feats of magic (Nutt 6). In the play, they are the ones who coat the flowers and grass with dew-drops in the morning and know how to turn flowers into potions to manipulate the natural beasts. They even have the ability exert control over Nature and use it to bend the fates of humans. It is in this respect where the faeries have the ability to control humanity and influence their lives. In the play,we see this as being portrayed when Oberon and Titania are discussing plans for a reconciliation. They both believe that if they were to get back together that the human’s fates, seen through livestock breeding, would improve (Shakespeare 2.1.93-116). However, the faeries imposition in human fate isn’t just concerned with worldly matters, they also help with matters of the heart.
Another belief surrounding Shakespeare’s faeries is that they desire to see everything live in harmony. Shakespeare himself had two things to say about his faeries. He believed that they were “devoted to making the world happier and more beautiful” (Latham 182) and that they
do not appear from underground or from Hell to inspire fear. They travel from the farthest steppe of India to ensure for the King of Athens and his bride joy and prosperity, a future of faithful love and fortunate issue (Latham 213).
While Oberon and Titania’s love affairs are not harmonious, they see the matters of the human characters, Demetrius and Helena and Lysander and Hermia as being of the utmost importance and needing their attention. It is Oberon who, seeing the dissatisfied lovers Demetrius and Helena, desire to use
the herb I showed thee [Puck] once.
The juice of it, on sleeping eyelids laid,
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next creature that it sees (Shakespeare 2.1.169-172)
so that “the story shall be changed” (Shakespeare 2.1.230) and Demetrius will fall in love with Helena.
Shakespeare knew what he was doing when he choose to combine faerie folklore and reality-bending to expand the Elizabethan views of reality. If the fey had been presented in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as evil spirits, the Elizabethan audience would have had no problem blocking out the possibility of their existence. Yet, because the theater reality allows faeries to exists through a combination of physical elements and the imagination, Shakespeare argues that there is a possibility that faeries exist in their reality as well. For the fey and humans to “coexist in the complex vision” is a “defiance of all logic” (Miller 258) yet it is within A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a theater’s reality where this paradox can prevail. The fey, as portrayed in A Midsummer Night’s Dream prove this theory true because they exist and don’t exist to the Elizabethan audience. Which leads us back to Descartes’ belief that if you believe in something imagined, then it must exist as well in reality.
Latham, Minor White, Ph.D. The Elizabethan Fairies. New York : Columbia University Press, 1930.
Nutt, Alfred. The Fairy Mythology of Shakespeare. New York : Haskill House Publishers, 1968.
Miller, Ronald F. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream : The Fairies, Bottom, and the Mystery of Things”. Shakespeare Quarterly. 26 (1975) : 254- 268.
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. from The Complete Pelican Shakespeare. general ed. Alfred Harbage. England : Viking Press, 1977. 150-174.