We all know him as the rock star of A Midsummer Night's Dream: Puck, aka Robin Goodfellow, that mischievous sprite who has this to say of himself:
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.
Puck is such a dynamic figure on stage, and has such a history in the annals of folklore, that he is almost like a long lost friend when he appears and gloats over the feud between his master Oberon and his mistress Titania. And of course, we all recognize the Faerie King and Queen themselves, though Shakespeare might have given them names that differ a bit from what British lore calls them. The play is set in an Athenian grove, after all.
But why did Shakespeare write about Faeries? Most of the dramatist's work recounts the deeds and tragedies of kings, princes, and emperors. Why write about the denizens of the Faerie world?
Shakespeare grew up in the central English Midlands, in Stratford-Upon-Avon. In the playwright's day, the Midlands were a maze of farms, fields, and forests. Shakespeare would have absorbed a good deal of local folklore, and like anyone in the area would have held a belief that Faeries lived in every garden, grove, and thicket. That he was well versed in Faerie lore is evident in the play here, as well as in the Queen Mab speech in Romeo and Juliet, and the legends of the forest spirit Hern that play prominently in The Merry Wives Of Windsor. In each of these plays the Faerie lore is well presented and accurate, proof that Shakespeare was paying attention when Faeries were being described by the storytellers and farm wives of his community. Though he became the toast of aristocratic London, Shakespeare never lost the Faerie beliefs of a Midlands farm boy.
And while Puck and Oberon prance about wreaking magical havoc on unsuspecting mortals, there are several smaller roles given to Faeries who may be worth thinking about. Let's take a peek at five Faeries to whom Shakespeare assigned minor roles, but whom the iconic playwright seems to know well and to regard perhaps lovingly.
The Five Faeries of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream
While Shakespeare paid his due to Faerie royalty in the figures of Titania and Oberon, the Bard of Avon seemed just as taken with the less stately Faeries of forests and gardens. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the first Fairy to appear is a sweet little thing whose name we never learn (she is simply called Fairy), but who is very much tied to the green and growing flowers of the thicket. On first meeting her Puck asks where her travels have taken her, and she answers:
Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire,
I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moon's sphere;
And I serve the fairy queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green.
The cowslips tall her pensioners be:
In their gold coats spots you see;
Those be rubies, fairy favours,
In those freckles live their savours:
I must go seek some dewdrops here
And hang a pearl in every cowslip's ear.
This Faerie's job seems to be enhancing the flowers of glade and grove: she places dewy teardrops that shine like rubies upon the yellow flowers of the primroses (cowslips), and says that these are a blessing from enchanted beings, “fairy favors,” for flowers that give their loyalty to the Faerie Queen. She is also a Faerie with a sense of humor. Recognizing Puck, she begins happily describing the pranks she has heard of him performing:
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
That frights the maidens of the villagery;
Skim milk, and sometimes labour in the quern
And bootless make the breathless housewife churn;
And sometime make the drink to bear no barm;
Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm?
Those that Hobgoblin call you and sweet Puck,
You do their work, and they shall have good luck
She obviously finds Puck's mischief quite charming, and has taken some time to learn of his tricks. There is a good deal of flirting lurking in the lines of her speech and Puck's answering dialogue, where he expounds on other misdeeds to get a favorable response from the flower Faerie. It is only the Faerie King's appearance that chases the little sprite away.
In another scene, we meet the members of the Faerie court, who seem to have a good deal of magic in their songs. The Faerie Queen orders them to guard her sleep, and they do so by casting a musical spell over the dozing monarch, protecting her from various varmints that haunt a garden or forested area:
You spotted snakes with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen;
Newts and blind-worms, do no wrong,
Come not near our fairy queen.
Weaving spiders, come not here;
Hence, you long-legg'd spinners, hence!
Beetles black, approach not near;
Worm nor snail, do no offence.
Snakes, hedgehogs, worms, and beetles are all garden creatures, tiny beasts who live amongst plants and flowers. What is interesting is the magic of the song. Throughout folklore, Faeries are able to weave enchantment through music. In Through The Faerie Glass (Llewellyn, 2010) there is a thorough discussion of this, which includes this passage regarding the music of Norwegian faeries, which are referred to as Elves in that language:
“The Norwegians call the Elves Huldrafolk, and their music Huldraslaat: It is in the minor key, and of a dull and mournful sound. The mountaineers sometimes play it…There is also a tune called The Elf King’s Tune, which several of the good fiddlers know right well, but never venture to play, for as soon as it begins both old and young, and even inanimate objects, are impelled to dance, and the player cannot stop unless he can play the air backwards, or that someone comes behind him and cuts the strings of his fiddle.”
The chapter goes on to relate many stories of the beauty and danger of Faerie song, and how it can enchant humans, nymphs, and even the Gods themselves. Shakespeare seems to have known these stories, and has given his courtly Faeries the same musical gifts of charming away any creature that would do harm to their queen.
Soon we have names for the queen's retinue of garden Faeries: Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed are each introduced to the mortal Bottom by the Faerie Queen, who is under a spell laid on her by Puck, and so fancies herself in love with the loathsome peasant who now has the head of an ass.
We tend to think of Faeries as female, and the Fairy we've met in Act Two fits the bill, though her gender is never actually mentioned. But now, as Bottom greets each Faerie, he uses the masculine pronoun:
Bottom: I shall desire you of more acquaintance, good Master
Cobweb...Your name, honest gentleman?
The fact that these Faeries are portrayed as male may be simple pragmatism: in Shakespeare's time only males were allowed to work as actors, and female parts were played by cross dressing boys. Shakespeare may have simply written parts for some of the boys in his acting troupe, which allowed them to show their true form.
But Shakespeare must have also known that Faeries come in both genders, and many tales of lovely and dangerous Fae involve male Faeries. Stories are told of Finvarra, the Irish Faerie king who has seduced countless human women and carried them off to the Faerie court of Knockma. In Through The Faerie Glass, the story is told this way:
“There is an Irish tale in which a woman named Ethna is kidnapped by Finvarra. Her husband, a rich lord, digs deeply into the earth, until they have dug down so deeply that his workers can put their ears to the soil and hear the Faerie music. They litter the earth with salt, so that they will not be affected by the song they hear.
Afraid that the mortal diggings will reach Knockma, his feasting hall, Finvarra orders the humans to stop digging, and states that he in turn will release Ethna.
This he does, but upon her return the woman never smiles or speaks, listening always for the Faerie music that beguiled her. She wastes away, always longing for that sound.
Finally her husband has a dream in which he is told to unlace his lady’s girdle and burn it. He does this, and her spirit is returned to our world. The lord’s wife is the same happy woman he married.”
Shakespeare's courtly Faeries are not so dangerous as Finvarra, but they are magical nonetheless, each imbued with the forces of plants and small creatures. Two are flower faeries, and have names that place them squarely within English foliage. Peaseblossom is a name for Carlin peas, which the English used for making porridge (hence the rhyme 'pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold'). Bottom, upon meeting Peaseblossom, says “I pray you, commend me to Mistress Squash, your mother, and to Master Peascod, your father,” (III:i:184-186) naming the plants surrounding his namesake in a typical English garden.
Mustardseed is of course named for the basis of a condiment, and one for which the English are very proud. That Shakespeare had a fitting British respect for mustard is seen in another play, King Henry IV, in which Henry comments “His wit's as thick as Tewksbury mustard.” Tewkesbury, just south of Shakespeare's childhood home, is an area reputed for its spicy mustard, and any local farmer would have credited the spirits that haunted his garden for the sharp taste of his product. In fact, Bottom tells Mustardseed “I promise you your kindred had made my eyes water ere now.” (III:i:193-194).
The other two attendants have stranger garden names, Cobweb and Moth. Moths are a typical visitor to an English garden, and are often denizens of night, flying under the sheen of the moon's glow. Their translucent white wings and gray coloring give them an Otherworldly appearance, and in myth and lore they are often associated with Faeries. They are silent, graceful creatures, and indeed Shakespeare's Moth never has the chance to speak.
Cobweb is the namesake of a spider's handiwork. Draped over roses and ferns, glistening with dew, cobwebs shine in the light of the rising sun. But they are also creepy, a reminder that eight-legged visitors have left their mark. The spider is a creature that most humans find disturbing, bothersome and a bit scary.
But in Shakespeare's day, before adhesive bandages, cobwebs served a valuable function: they bandaged cuts. Sticky and a bit gooey, a cobweb can be used to cover a nick and hold the skin edges together. So this Faerie has a healing magic that Bottom recognizes, saying: “good Master Cobweb: if I cut my finger, I shall make bold with you” (III:i:181-182).
Faeries are ethereal. For the four confused lovers in Shakespeare's play, Faerie magic and mischief diminishes and disappears when the sun rises over the Athenian grove that is quite remarkably like an English forest. But for the playwright there is no tidy ending. The Fae creatures will return throughout his work, bringing unsettling dreams to Romeo, haunting Windsor for the Merry Wives, and aiding an aging magician and his virgin daughter to escape their long exile on a distant island. In his own final days, Shakespeare returned to Stratford-upon-Avon to retire amidst the lore and Faerie presence his plays assure us that he loved and thought of often. We can only assume that he cultivated a garden overgrown with Faerie-haunted mustard and Carlin peas, and that he wandered the Midlands forests, hoping for a peripheral glimpse of that “merry wanderer of the night,” Puck himself, whom the good Bard of Avon made known to fans of English drama ever after.
Your Own Faerie Garden
Certain plants will attract the Fae more than others. If you have a garden, even a small one on a windowsill, you may attract Faeries by cultivating some of these:
- Primrose (cowslips), which have long been associated with Faerie presence.
- Bluebells, which according to British lore attract prophetic Faeries.
- Roses, associated with the Fae throughout lore and legend.
- Ferns, associated with male Faeries.
- Cabbage, associated with female Faeries.
- The Fae also love shiny objects. Placing marbles or silver colored stones in your garden may attract their attention.
There are more spells and lore about attracting Faeries to your home and your garden in Through The Faerie Glass. And of course, more Puck.
Klein, Kenny: Through The Faerie Glass: A Look At The Realm Of Unseen And Enchanted Beings: Minneapolis: Llewellyn, 2010
Shakespeare, William: A Midsummer Night's Dream: New York: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1910