Fairies in Shakespeare: Meaning, Overview

Fairies in Shakespeare: Meaning, Overview
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  • 0:00 Fairy Roles
  • 0:40 Oberon & Titania
  • 1:31 Puck
  • 3:06 Ariel
  • 4:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Richard Davis

Richard teaches college writing and has a master's degree in creative writing.

When it comes to Shakespeare, the fairies aren't just tiny things with wings. In this lesson, we'll discuss the important role that fairies (and fairy-like beings) play in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' and 'The Tempest.'

Fairy Roles

When someone says the word 'fairy,' you might think of wings, a wand, and possibly a tiara. These whimsical, somewhat 'fluffy' characters aren't the only kind of fairies, however. In fact, the fairies in Shakespeare's plays are every bit as important as the human characters.

Shakespeare's fairies serve a number of purposes. They have magical powers that often advance the plot or add complexity. They can manipulate human characters into acting in ways they normally wouldn't, creating both relationships and rivalries. In other words, these characters do more than sprinkle a bit of fairy dust. Let's look at some specific examples.

Oberon & Titania

Let's start with A Midsummer Night's Dream. The human characters in this play face a variety of subplots and surprises, most of which are influenced by the actions of fairies. At the heart of the play's action is the conflict between the fairy king and queen Oberon and Titania.

Oberon and Titania's dispute has to do with a changeling (a human child stolen by the fairies). Oberon wants the changeling to become one of his soldiers, but Titania refuses. In response, Oberon orders one of his more devious henchmen to put a love charm on Titania while she's sleeping, which will distract her long enough for Oberon to steal the changeling. If used correctly, the love charm will make Titania fall madly in love with the first living thing she sees when she wakes up. As is often the case in Shakespeare's plays, things don't go according to plan.

Puck

The name of the henchmen Oberon calls upon is Puck. Puck is a trickster, one who breaks the rules and uses their wits to deceive other characters.

Puck places a love charm on Titania, but also gives a stranger a donkey's head, and Titania of course falls for him. Nevertheless, this complication is minor compared to what happens with the four other human characters in the play, whose already tangled love triangles get even more tangled.

Fortunately, before things can get too ugly, Oberon orders Puck to clean up his mess. Once the damage is undone, Puck uses his magic to convince the human characters that all of their experiences in the woods were just dreams.

Still, Puck's role doesn't end there. At the end of the play, after all of the human characters have left the stage, Puck seems to cast a similar spell on the audience, suggesting that we consider the whole of A Midsummer Night's Dream as a dream. In doing so, he delivers one of the most famous speeches in Shakespeare's body of work:

'If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream. . .
'

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