Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream is likely the most influential fairy tale of all time, albeit geared towards adults. It also gave us three of the most famous of all … Oberon, Titania and of course, Puck.
Oberon has an odd provenance, starting with ties to the Merovingian dynasty, who are rumored by some to be descendants of the blood line of Jesus Christ no less. To the Merovingians, Oberon was a sorcerer, a denizen of the otherworld. Shakespeare not only makes him a fairy, but the king of the fairies.
In the course of the story, Oberon uses his agent, Puck to perform a bit of herbal magic, who using the nectar from a magical flower, sprinkles it into the eyes of the sleeping Titania. Not content with that, he also instructs Puck to do the same to another character, which creates all sorts of havoc.
Traditional British folklore leaves the queen of the fairies nameless, and so Shakespeare calls her Titania. He made a habit of taking elements from the Romans for his plays, and Titania is no exception, being a daughter of the Titans in Roman mythology and the writings of Ovid.
Titania is no Tinkerbell, but every bit the match for Oberon.
Puck however does have deep English roots. Often thought of as a sprite, more the traditional style of fairy today, he’s often portrayed as a child. His mischievous side is well noted and integral to the plot of the play, carrying forward much of the action.
There is some confusion over whether Puck is named Puck, or is named Robin Goodfellow and is a puck, which many sources claim many lines of folklore, including the Irish Pooka. Perhaps the best definition of who is though, is spoken in his own words
Thou speak’st aright;
I am that merry wanderer of the night.
I jest to Oberon and make him smile
When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,
Neighing in likeness of a filly foal:
And sometime lurk I in a gossip’s bowl,
In very likeness of a roasted crab,
And when she drinks, against her lips I bob
And on her wither’d dewlap pour the ale.
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.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Now the hungry lion roars
And the wolf behowls the moon,
Whilst the heavy ploughman snores,
Now the wasted brands do glow,
Whilst the screech-owl, screeching loud,
Puts the wretch that lies in woe
In remembrance of a shroud.
Over hill, over dale,
Through bush, through briar,
Over park, over pale,
Through blood, through fire,
I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moone’s sphere;
And I serve the fairy queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green.
I must go seek some dewdrops here,
And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.
Farewell, thou lob of spirits; I’ll be gone:
Our queen and all her elves come here anon.
Now it is the time of night
That the graves all gaping wide,
Every one lets forth his sprite,
In the church-way paths to glide:
And we fairies, that do run
By the triple Hecate’s team,
From the presence of the sun,
Following darkness like a dream,
Now are frolic: not a mouse
Shall disturb this hallow’d house:
I am sent with broom before,
To sweep the dust behind the door.
Through the house give gathering light,
By the dead and drowsy fire:
Every elf and fairy sprite
Hop as light as bird from brier;
And this ditty, after me,
Sing, and dance it trippingly.
First, rehearse your song by rote
To each word a warbling note:
Hand in hand, with fairy grace,
Will we sing, and bless this place.
Now, until the break of day,
Through this house each fairy stray.
To the best bride-bed will we,
Which by us shall blessed be;
And the issue there create
Ever shall be fortunate.
So shall all the couples three
Ever true in loving be;
And the blots of Nature’s hand
Shall not in their issue stand;
Never mole, hare lip, nor scar,
Nor mark prodigious, such as are
Despised in nativity,
Shall upon their children be.
With this field-dew consecrate,
Every fairy take his gait;
And each several chamber bless,
Through this palace, with sweet peace;
And the owner of it blest
Ever shall in safety rest.
Trip away; make no stay;
Meet me all by break of day.
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,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
We will make amends ere long;
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.