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Literature containing comedic elements has been composed since the Elizabethan Age. One of the most well known and renowned authors of comedic literature is William Shakespeare. Throughout his life Shakespeare composed many works that are still given praise in today's world. One of his most notable works is A Midsummer Night's Dream. In this play Shakespeare is able to construct a dream world that intertwines two completely different aspects into one singular world, one aspect is based upon fantasy, which includes the fairies, and the second world is based upon reality, which consists of the Athenians. The reality that exists in the play is in the hands of the fairies and they seem to have control over most of the things that occur throughout the play. These fairies are the ones that are supposed to symbolize the unseen forces that many believe can control the actions of the human world. Shakespeare was able to use the traditional thoughts of the members of the Elizabethan society to form his own interpretation of the fairies to represent the fantasy world that he constructed. Once he successfully constructed his molded fairies he incorporated it into his play in hopes that it would allow the audience to see how fairies and the fantasy world is capable to exist and not exist at the exact same time, and also affect the workings of the play and the aspects of reality.
To fully appreciate the relationship between the fairies and the humans one must accept the fact that during the Elizabethan time period the humans considered fairies to be real through the passing down of stories from one generation to the next. In relation to humans the Athenians thought that the fairies appeared identical and the only differing appearance was the fact that they were smaller (Latham 66). Their appearance was so close to that of a human that “many [times] human beings were mistaken for them” (Latham 67). The fairies were imagined as beautiful creatures and when their presence was required in a play the humans playing them were required to wear masks and their clothing was generally in the colors of green, red, and white (Latham 80). However beautiful the fairies were the most common color that the actors wore when they were on stage was black (Latham 85). The color choice of black was due to the fact that many people felt and thought that the fairies were actually evil. Since most people associate the color black with death it seems as if this color was a proper choice.
During the Elizabethan Era and in Shakespeare's play the fairies controlled the humans in many ways. Most of the time the fairies were have said to only have conducted pranks in the Elizabethan Era. These pranks were generally minor and even seen as funny even though the pranks may have been seen as comical the peasants ended up fearing the fairies which then turned an entire class of people to deem them as evil creatures. The fairies multitude of pranks did consist of many irrational actions, the most well known one of that time was their ability to change human babies and small children with creatures that were known as changelings (Nutt 6). The ‘changelings' would then assume the position of the human baby and would spend their time living out the life as if they were the human baby's replacement. This aspect of Elizabethan society even interested Shakespeare and forced him to incorporate it into his play. It is used when Oberon and Titania fight about the future of the Indian boy that they have just gotten in Act II, scene i.
There are many times during A Midsummer Night's Dream when it seems that the fairies are becoming apart of the human's lives. One of the most basic examples is when Puck, one of the most loyal fairies, plays a prank on Bottom and changes his head from a human one to that of an ass'. The prank does not stop there because he has placed that ‘love potion' onto Titania's eyes she wakes up from her sleep and ends up falling in love with the Athenian whose “ear is much enamored of thy note” (III.i.106). In this instance the two worlds of fantasy and reality come together when Bottom states, “And yet, to say the truth, reason and/ love keep little company together nowadays” (III.i.110 - 111). By stating this Bottom is showing that these two worlds, fantasy and reality, have never really been combined or associated together, yet up until this point, they have been described as two completely different worlds. Now that the fantasy world and real world are now acting as one forces the audience to see what previously has been thought impossible. It also makes the audience wonder that if it is possible for these two worlds to become one in a play that it can probably happen in their own world.
The situation that Puck has caused is a prime example of how the fairies are able to affect the world that the Athenians live in. Since the fairies are in a world that involves fantasy they have powers that the Athenians, who are in the ‘real world,' do not have. Due to these mystical powers the fairies are able to take control of many aspects of the Athenian society, their main one being able to control the human's emotions.
The way in which Shakespeare showed the fairies in “A Mid Summer Night's Dream allowed him to shape the way in which the entire Elizabethan culture viewed the fairies until “they gradually lost their harsher characteristics” (Latham 73). In A Midsummer Night's Dream the fairies are used as an example of how one's imagination is able to decipher what is reality and what is fantasy. One of Shakespeare's biggest feats was conveying this message while at the same time not frightening the audience. To accomplish this feat he had to change the way in which the fairies were perceived so that they posed no direct threat. The way in which he did this was he changed their appearance from one of evil to one of lighthearted deception and he also had them cast in a play that was a comedy.
To make the fairies appear less frightening Shakespeare changed their appearance by making them tiny and allowing them to have the ability to move around quickly (Nutt 5). The opinions that the Elizabethan society once held about the fairies was changing to a perception that they were full of good humor and shenanigans (Latham 180). Another aspect of the fairies that allowed the audience to see them as a more playful group was the names that Shakespeare assigned to each of them. He could have given them mean, evil, gruesome names, but, he chose instead to associate them to pleasant objects such as flowers (Latham 180). Some of the names that Shakespeare decided to give to the fairies were: Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed.
Shakespeare continues to attempt to change the Elizabethan society's views of fairies even during the conclusion of the play. Puck delivers a speech of apology for causing all the problems that occurred through out the play. 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,/ 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 (V.i.391 - 405). The most interesting part of this passage is that Puck talks about the theory that he and the fairies are only a figment of the imagination and that he and his ‘fairy friends' do not exist at all. This passage tells the audience exactly when the ‘dream,' that they just experienced, is over and the reality of their own life comes back into the picture.
The audience of this play is allowed to use their imagination and creativity in relation to the fairies. Shakespeare has composed a play that gives the audience the ability to believe in the fairies as a complete aspect of society or to see them as only a mythical imagination. In the audience's eyes “the fairies are both real and imagined” (Miller 258). Shakespeare has written a play that allows the audience to believe that the fairies are just a mystical aspect that does not really exist in their own world. The problem is that the audience may only imagine the fairies and only see them as mystical creatures because many people are brought up to believe in two different worlds, one of reality and another that is composed of their dreams. One is brought up hearing the phrases “Only in your dreams” or “Dreams are not always a reality,” statements like these make it difficult for humans to mix and accept the fantasy world and reality as a singular whole.
When Shakespeare set out to combine the fairies of the fantasy world and the Athenians of the real world he was able to expand the views that the Elizabethans held about reality. If Shakespeare had cast the fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream as evil or monstrous the audience would have been able to assume their existence to be impossible, however, because Shakespeare altered their appearance and actions he was able to allow the audience to accept the fact that their could be fairies living in their own daily lives. Allowing the humans and the fairies to “coexist in the complex vision [is a complete] defiance of all logic” (Miller 258). However, in a play this is where the two worlds are capable of becoming one. The fairies are able to portray this theory because they are able to exist and not exist in the audiences mind.
Latham, Minor White, Ph.D. The Elizabethan Fairies. New York : Columbia University Press, 1930.
Miller, Ronald F. "A Midsummer Night's Dream : The Fairies, Bottom, and the Mystery of
Things". Shakespeare Quarterly. 26 (1975) : 254- 268.
Nutt, Alfred. The Fairy Mythology of Shakespeare. New York : Haskill House Publishers, 1968.
Shakespeare, William.“MidsummerNight's Dream.” Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry and Drama, DiYanni, Robert. 1393