A Spry Spirit of the Night
A Midsummer Night’s Dream contains some wonderfully lyrical expressions of lighter Shakespearean themes, most notably those of love, imagination and dreams. What makes A Midsummer Night s Dream a wonderful play is not the comical aspect of its story but its unique lyrical qualities. If A Midsummer Night’s Dream can be said to convey one message, it is that the creative imagination is in tune with the supernatural world and is best used to confer the blessings of nature upon mankind and marriage.
One of the more interesting characters in A Midsummer Night s Dream is the mischievous fairy Puck also known as Robin Goodfellow. Puck s interesting past and sometimes seemingly ambiguous lines make this spirit seem both confusing and overly complex to anyone uninformed of Greek and Roman mythology. What might surprise some people is that Puck and Robin Goodfellow were not original creations of Shakespeare but existed independently long before his play. Shakespeare most likely drew upon what he d heard from folklore and perhaps studied what had been already written about Puck and Robin Goodfellow before creating his own interpretation of the two.
Parallel words exist in many ancient languages – Puca in Old English, Puki in Old Norse, Puke in Swedish, Puge in Danish, Puks in Low German, Pukis in Latvia and Lithuania — mostly with the original meaning of a demon, devil or evil and malignant spirit. This similarity makes it uncertain whether the original Puca sprang from the imaginative minds of the Scandinavians, the Germans or the Irish (Edwards p.143).
As a shape-shifter, Puck has had many appearances over the years. One Irish story has him as an old man. He’s been pictured like a brownie or a hobbit. In some paintings, he looks like Pan from Greek mythology. In others he looks like an innocent child. Puck uses his shape-shifting to make mischief. For example, the Phouka would turn into a horse and lead people on a wild ride, sometimes dumping them in water. The Welsh Pwca would lead travelers with a lantern and then blow it out when they were at the edge of a cliff.
The other half of Puck s character is Robin Goodfellow derived from English folklore. The spirit was not actually good by nature, but was called Goodfellow as a sort of appeasement, meant to deflect the sprit’s pranks towards other people. Hobgoblin was another name for this spirit, perhaps more descriptive of its true nature. Robin Goodfellow, was not only famous for shape shifting and misleading travelers. He was also a helpful spirit much like the brownies. He would clean houses and such in exchange for some cream or milk. If offered new clothes, he’d stop cleaning. There are stories of the Phouka and Puca doing similar deeds. There are records for a Robin Goodfellow ballad in 1588. A little less than a decade later, William Shakespeare gave his Puck the name and nature of the more benevolent Robin Goodfellow. However, Shakespeare’s Puck is more closely tied to the fairy court than in most other interpretations. Robin Goodfellow inspired many more plays in the 16OO s, and there were many 17th century broadside ballads about him.
Puck makes his first entrance in Shakespeare s play in Act II Scene 1. He is considered by another fairy to be a lob of spirits (line 16) meaning uncouth or unsophisticated. Puck takes pride in being a trickster and boasts about the mischief he has caused. In Act III scene 1 Puck finds the players practicing near the cradle of the fairy Queen. He s curious what such crude people could be doing in the woods. When he discovers that they re preparing for a play he says. I’ll be an auditor; an actor too, perhaps, if I see cause. This passage points out the fine line between the actor and the audience. The play insists that the audience is complicit in the creation of the illusion, which sustains the theatrical experience. After Puck changes Bottom, he chases the rest of the players through the woods transforming himself into different animals and even fire. This fits the definition of Puck s pre-Shakespearian personality, as he was known to lead travelers on a chase sometimes to their doom. In Act III Scene 2 Oberon asks Puck, How now, mad spirit? Mad referring to Puck being prone to trickery, playful. Puck replies that he had found a group of ill-bred fools preparing a play for Theseus s wedding. That he changed the shallowest thick skin into a monster and scared the rest away so that when the fairy Queen awoke she instantly fell in love with the transformed man. Farther into the Act Oberon discovers that Puck unintentionally anointed the wrong Athenian man with the love flower. He tells Puck to bring Helena to Demetrius so he might charm his eyes to her appearance. In reply Puck says, I go, I go; look how I go, swifter than arrow from the Tartar s bow. The reference to the Tartar s bow refers to the Tartars, natives of Tartary in Central Asia, and associated with the Mongol hordes that threatened parts of Europe in the middle Ages. Their bows were said to have special power. Oberon anoints Demetrius with the love flower and Puck returns with Helena followed by her new would be lover Lysander. Puck addresses Oberon Captain of our fairy band (Oberon), Helena is here at hand; and the youth, mistook by me (Lysander), pleading for a lover s fee (pleading for love in return). Shall we their fond pageant see? Lord, what fools these mortals be! Puck insinuates that he is watching a pageant or a play in which the lovers are actors for his amusement. He also says in his next line And those things do best please me, that befall preposterously. This means he likes things that are full of disorder. After the lover s quarrel Oberon scolds Puck for his negligence or his trickery whichever caused him to anoint the wrong Athenian with the love flower. Puck tells Oberon that it was not trickery that caused the incident but that Oberon told him he would recognize the man by his Athenian garments. He tells Oberon that even though it was an accident he was glad he made the mistake because their arguing was esteem as sport. Oberon tells Puck to make a fog as black as Archeron and to lead the lovers around the woods until they fall asleep next to each other. Archeron refers to the river of the underworld in Greek mythology. Puck is to then anoint Lysander so that he may fall back in love with Hermia. Puck warns that he must do this fast because night is fading and Aurora, the goddess of dawn, is approaching and all the other ghostly spirits have already gone to bed. By mentioning these spirits Puck is drawing attention to the difference between himself and Oberon and those other spirits. Oberon’s reply to him stresses that unlike the ghosts and damned spirits, the fairies choose to travel around the globe to remain in the night, but are not compelled to do so. He emphasizes this aspect of their nature when he says I with the morning’s love have oft made sport. Puck proceeds to lead the lovers around and round until they fall down exhausted and sleep. Puck says to himself at the end of Act III, Jack shall have Jill; naught shall go ill; the man shall have his mare again, this was a proverb meaning all shall be well again.
In Act V Puck makes his final appearance to give some closure to the play and to grant blessings on Theseus and Hippolyta s house. In closing he says. If we the shadows have offended, think but this, and all is mended, that you have but slumber’d here while these visions did appear. Meaning if you did not like the play pretend that this was all a dream. And this weak and idle theme, no more yielding but a dream, gentles, do not reprehend: if you pardon, we will mend. If our play was no more provoking than a dream, do not be angry we will make it better. And, as I am an honest Puck, if we have unearned luck now to scape the serpent s tongue, we will make amends ere long. Meaning that if we have escaped the audience s hissing with this apology we will forever apologize after each play. Else the Puck a liar call; so, good night unto you all. Give me your hands, if we be friends, and Robin shall restore amends. If we shall be friends then please applaud, and we shall make the improvements to the play as promised.
Shakespeare s interpretation of Puck combines the mischievous creature Puck from the various folklores with a witty humor and the more benevolent natured Robin Goodfellow. This combination results in a character that is more accessible to the audience than the original Puck. After Shakespeare s play Puck will forever be remembered not as an evil spirit but as a lighthearted prankster that has a little something in common with everyone.