Shakespeare's Faeries

Francis A. Lackner, Jr.

Delivered to

The Chicago Literary Club
October 28, 2002

Copyright 2002 in all media by Francis A. Lackner, Jr.

I have bedimm'd
The noontide sun, call'd forth the mutinous winds,
And 'twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove's stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck'd up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth
By my so potent art.
Thus speaks Prospero as he concludes the plot of The Tempest in Act 5.

The faeries of Shakespeare's plays are frequently seen as comic relief, or simply puzzling vestiges of another time; the jovial transition between scenes, the replay in a minor scene of the major theme. Ariel frequently flits about in gauzy garments of indeterminate gender. Puck appears as a harmless sprite. The Witches tend their cauldrons in various rags, while the makeup artists run riot with pocked noses, cleft chins, hideous warts, and ragged hair. In short, they are unimportant and as such frequently cut in modern productions.

I would suggest, rather, that the fae are to Shakespeare the representatives of the supernatural, and that this world beyond ours was perceived very differently then than is the case today. I submit that the supernatural world in Shakespeare's day was viewed as controlling the human, rather as the classic Greek gods toyed, played with, and ultimately controlled the destinies of men from Mt. Olympus. Men do not, in this understanding, control their own destinies as we would believe today. There is a large measure of humor here as well, in tricks, practical jokes, mistaken identities, and mismatched lovers. I would propose that these tricksters represent another view of the world, neither religious nor scientific, but one in which we humans appear more as puppets in a Punch and Judy show, wondering who is pulling the strings that control us. One of my favorite theatrical images remains a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in which the characters were delivered onstage on a baggage carousel, watched from above by Oberon and Puck.

How can we of the 21st century understand this concept? We are steeped in science and logic, in cause and effect. We have built telescopes that orbit around the Earth to see to the most distant galaxies, have sent men to the moon, and have divined the genetic code to our own being. We control the visible world. We firmly believe that any unexplained phenomena will shortly yield to science if sufficiently important.

It was different in the late 16th century, the late Elizabethan age in which Shakespeare wrote. Let me burden you with an historical snapshot. England was still in the throes of the Reformation, and the success of the Church of England, created whole by Elizabeth's father, was by no means certain: Elizabeth's half-sister, Bloody Mary, was a staunch Catholic. The New World had been discovered only a half-century before, had as yet no English-speaking settlers, and offered a ripe source of mysterious places, characters, peoples, and adventures. Constantinople had fallen but a century before, and the Turk was the great threat of the day their high-tide would not threaten the gates of Vienna for another century. They too provided a rich source of intrigue, plot, and characterization. Newton was a century in the future, and William Harvey and his study of the blood was but a generation prior to Shakespeare's career. The Black Death had decimated Europe's population without any known cause within the past century and continued to torment the populace with a dread uncertainty. The Spanish Armada was contemporaneous with his early career; the entire period was dominated by the New World and the power of Spain. None of the physical sciences existed in any form we would recognize, Euclid's 2000 year-old geometry still ruled mathematics, as did Galen's equally ancient medicine. Their world was full of uncertainties, controlled by forces they did not, and could not, understand. It was this apparent randomness and lack of control that produced a belief in faeries and other supernatural beings. The theatre had emerged from the shadow of the church and the medieval mystery plays only in the generation before Shakespeare, and was immensely popular, although still struggling with the controls of church and state. In short, we are dealing here with a post- medieval, pre-scientific society in the midst of an intellectual upheaval.

The evil created by greed and the lust for power is certainly the driving force in the Scottish play, and Macbeth and his lady the central characters, but who inspires their lust? They clearly do not have it when first we meet them. Who or what starts the action? I would like to suggest that neither Macbeth nor his Lady is the source of the dramatic spark. The witches are not an excuse for bad makeup, but are central characters, catalysts if you will, in the action. The Witches set the stage, initiate the action, and later foretell the conclusion of the tragedy. The action of the play confirms the predictions of the Witches throughout.

Two points are central at the outset: the Witches initiate the action of Macbeth in the first scene. The second is that Macbeth, at the outset, is blameless and without ambition, and is a loyal and valiant supporter of the king. The first point is clearly shown by giving the Witches the opening scene. It is in the crucial third scene of Act I that the Witches entice Macbeth and Banquo with visions of the future which they find fantastical, and thus set the action of the play in motion. The Witches seal the incantation in the famous phrase:
"The Weird Sisters, hand in hand,
Posters of the sea and land,
Thus do go about, about;
Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine,
And thrice again, to make up nine.
Peace! The charm's wound up."
Macbeth muses on the import of the Witches prediction:
Two truths are told,
As happy prologues to the swelling act
Of the imperial theme .
Cannot be ill, cannot be good: if ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am thane of Cawdor:
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature? Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings:
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smother'd in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not.
The balance of Act I confirms Macbeth and his Lady in the temptation to regicide. Act II then brings the deed itself and the accession of Macbeth to the throne as predicted by the Witches. Banquo starts Act III with a reprise of the Weird Sisters predictions and sets the conflict of the balance of the play between himself and the newly crowned Macbeth.

Act Four opens with the Witches and Hecate at their cauldron, brewing up more trouble. This is the scene of the famous "Double, double toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble," which is actually the refrain of the chant they sing. Just after the conclusion of their chant, Macbeth enters as one of the Witches says, "By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes." Macbeth enters, and immediately starts to demand answers from the hags in no uncertain terms:
I conjure you, by that which you profess,
Howe'er you come to know it, answer me:
Though you untie the winds and let them fight
Against the churches; though the yesty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up;
Though bladed corn be lodged and trees blown down;
Though castles topple on their warders' heads;
Though palaces and pyramids do slope
Their heads to their foundations; though the treasure
Of nature's germens tumble all together,
Even till destruction sicken; answer me
To what I ask you.
Macbeth is then given a vision of three apparitions with projections for the future, one, to beware the Thane of Fife; second that none born of woman shall harm him; and third that he shall have nothing to fear until Birnam Wood shall rise against him at Dunsinane Hill. Macbeth demands more information, but the spirits refuse and sink into the ground.

The balance of the play confirms the improbable conditions foretold to Macbeth. Birnam Wood does rise against him. Macduff was not "born" of woman, but cut from his mother in a Caesarian section. The Thane of Fife, has dogged him throughout.

Thus the Witches and their coven control the entire action of the play, from beginning to end. Theirs is the opening scene, theirs to tempt Macbeth with visions of power, theirs to show the manner of his downfall. The actions of the human players serves to demonstrate, even in the face of their better interest and nature, the power of the spells cast over them by the netherworld.

The lighter side of the netherworld emerges in A Midsummer Night's Dream, where Oberon's marital failings with Titania are reflected in the wooings and nuptial arrangements of the human world. Again, while the fare is light, it is not the human King, Theseus, and his intended Queen that rule the action, much as they might like to think they do. Oberon, the King of the netherworld, controls the action through liberal use of pixie dust, the mis- intended results of which drive the action of the plot. Not until Oberon and Titania are resolved to each other do the human counterparts fall into place.

This is a comedy of mistaken identity, of manners, almost formulaic in structure. That discussion is not, however, what is of interest here. This is also a play of two intersecting worlds, that of the human and that of the faeries. The humans are ruled by Theseus, who has just conquered Hippolyta in battle and now means to wed her and conquer her in nuptials as well. The faeries are ruled by Oberon, whose wandering eye for the fair sex is well-known, but whose ire has been raised by the wanderings of his long-standing queen, Titania. The primary plot is in the resolution of the infidelities of Oberon and Titania. The human plot is entirely dependent on the activities of the faery plots, usually as a by-product. When Oberon has restored Titania to her "rightful" place, the play concludes. What is instructive is the manner in which Oberon, as the lord of the netherworld, controls the action of the human world through Puck; his efforts to control Titania are somewhat less successful. As the problem of the netherworld is resolved, that is, as Titania and Oberon are resolved to each other, the action of the human world is equally resolved, and all ends happily.

The mismatch starts in the opening scene, where Hermia, intended for Demetrius, is likewise being pursued by Lysander. Lysander should be courting Helena, who dotes on him in vain. Puck and the faerie world are introduced in the third scene, where we learn of Oberon's plan for a revel, and of his wrath at his queen Titania's amours with a new changeling boy. Puck is neatly captured by the Fairy he meets:
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.
Puck's reply is also instructive to the whole thrust of the argument that I am making:
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.
Oberon and Titania arrive in a mutual snit, she at his amorous wanderings, he at her changeling boy. Oberon demands the boy as the price of domestic peace, but she refuses, and they part in discord. Oberon thereupon vows revenge, and sets Puck to work. His purpose is to make a fool of Titania by making her fall in love with the next vile thing she sees; but in the time it takes Puck to get the magic flower, Oberon hears the plight of Helena in a wooded exchange with Demetrius. When Puck returns, Oberon sets off to wreak his havoc on Titania, and sets Puck to work on the human lovers. Puck, of course, hears right but mistakes the lover in question and sets the mistaken-identity plot in motion. Oberon, in working his magic on Titania, uses the human mechanicals, and particularly Bottom, as comic foils:
What thou seest when thou dost wake,
Do it for thy true-love take,
Love and languish for his sake:
Be it ounce, or cat, or bear,
Pard, or boar with bristled hair,
In thy eye that shall appear
When thou wakest, it is thy dear:
Wake when some vile thing is near.
Then, as Oberon has bewitched Titania, Puck does the same for the Athenian lovers, setting them completely at odds and puzzlement. Act III sets the mechanicals to work at rehearsal; Puck's speech as they start is again informative:
I'll follow you, I'll lead you about a round,
Through bog, through bush, through brake, through brier:
Sometime a horse I'll be, sometime a hound,
A hog, a headless bear, sometime a fire;
And neigh, and bark, and grunt, and roar, and burn,
Like horse, hound, hog, bear, fire, at every turn.
Titania, of course, falls for Bottom as an ass, making a fool of herself, and the human mechanicals are played for comic relief throughout. Shortly it plays out that Puck has gotten the mischief with Titania right, but has not fared so well with the human lovers. Oberon realizes the error and casts a new spell to cure it, causing more merriment as the lovers still are not paired right. The latter part of Act III, scene 2, starting with the famous speech, "Up and down, up and down; I will lead them up and down," as Puck leads the lovers, is a classic scene of misdirection.

Titania then awakes, with a tremendous dream of having loved an ass, only to discover that she loves Oberon the more. Equally, the human lovers awake, each to discover that they have rediscovered their love for the appropriate opposite number. The supernatural world departs as dawn breaks, leaving the mortals to wed with Theseus. Theseus speech at the opening of Act Five completes the argument:
More strange than true: I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!
The balance of Act V is taken up with the play-within-a-play of Pyramus and Thisbe, until Puck and Oberon enter to close the play.

Romeo and Juliet is, of course, a tale of lovers, but consider the famous Queen Mab speech, spoken by Mercutio, and regarded by many as the turning point in the play that turns it to tragedy rather than comedy:
O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies' midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman,

And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers' brains, and then they dream of love;
O'er courtiers' knees, that dream on court'sies straight,
O'er lawyers' fingers, who straight dream on fees,
O'er ladies ' lips, who straight on kisses dream,
Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues,

True, I talk of dreams,
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy,

I fear, too early: for my mind misgives
Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night's revels and expire the term
Of a despised life closed in my breast
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.
But He, that hath the steerage of my course,
Direct my sail! On, lusty gentlemen.

Clark Wagner explored Hamlet in some depth at our Closing Meeting this past season, but I propose a different argument about the mad Dane, which only makes sense in the light of the Ghost of Hamlet's father. I suggest that the Ghost of Hamlet's father, again a visitor from the supernatural, sets the play in motion and goads Hamlet to action at crucial intervals. Hamlet, prior to his encounter with the Ghost, personifies teen-age angst in Act I, scene 2:
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on't! ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely

Hamlet's life is given intense and sudden direction when he hears from his father's ghost shortly after this that the death of his father, supposedly due to the sting of a serpent, was in fact a vicious murder committed by his brother, the present king, with the connivance of his mother, the present queen:
If thou didst ever thy dear father love--
Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.


Murder most foul, as in the best it is;
But this most foul, strange and unnatural.

Haste me to know't, that I, with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love,
May sweep to my revenge.

Now, Hamlet, hear:
'Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,
A serpent stung me; so the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forged process of my death
Rankly abused: but know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father's life
Now wears his crown.
Further, the Ghost charges Hamlet to action to avenge his murder:
If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not;
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.
This spurs Hamlet first to verify the regicide, then to plot the revenge on his father's murderer. This requires exposing the crime and its culprit, first, then taking action to avenge the deed. Complicating matters for Hamlet, the ghost has spoken only to him. Others have heard strange noises on the parapet, but Hamlet is the only one to whom the ghost has spoken. This puts Hamlet in a dangerous position, having privileged information of the regicide of a popular king and being the rightful heir to the throne, but not knowing who the allies of the regicide might be, and who his own allies, and this certainly accounts for some of his spells of feigned madness, which I would argue are merely self-preservation by deception. Hamlet remarks as much to Horatio, the only other nobleman who knows of the existence of the Ghost:
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. But come;
Here, as before, never, so help you mercy,
How strange or odd soe'er I bear myself,
As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on
The ghost reappears once more in Act III to goad Hamlet and to spur him to action: Do not forget: this visitation
Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose. Hamlet may at first seem an unlikely example for this discussion, but, without the Ghost, the play would have no impetus. A popular king would have died suddenly and unfortunately, with no one the wiser that a foul deed had been committed. The Ghost, by revealing the truth and spurring Hamlet to action, sets in motion the entire thread of the play, until the final scene becomes inevitable.

Shakespeare's final opus is perhaps also his strongest statement on the supernatural, magic, and the entire faerie clan. It is also his farewell address. The Tempest offers one of the great characters in the canon, Prospero, one of the most carefully drawn of all Shakespeare's characters, the one who dominates the structure of the play, its actions, and the other characters. Is it indicative then, that Prospero is also a master of the magical arts, to such an extent that he had lost his dukedom due to his attentions to his studies instead of his rule? Magic, faeries, and the underworld are infused throughout this play, so that reality is only as the master wishes it to appear to the human participants, whether his daughter Miranda, the sailors, or the members of the court, perhaps even, by extension, the audience. Recall the quotation I used at the outset, in which Prospero delineates his powers.

The Tempest is, again, a story in which a master of the supernatural, Prospero, controls both of the worlds in which he acts. One world is that of the island to which he has been confined by shipwreck, which is primarily that of magic; the other is that of Milan, the world of human reality, from which he has been exiled unjustly, and of the seafarers from that city who appear to be shipwrecked as well. As with Midsummer Night's Dream, once Prospero has resolved the fate of his usurping brother, the action of the play is resolved happily for all.

The action of the play opens with an apparently brutal storm and shipwreck, but it shortly appears, as Prospero relates it to Miranda, that the storm was but a figment of the sailor's imagination, caused by Ariel to bring the Duke of Milan and his court onto their island so that he, Prospero, could right the wrong done him many years before. The human characters are led about so as to keep them isolated one from another and to confuse them until Prospero is ready to resolve the plot and reclaim his dukedom. Then all are resolved one to another, Prospero happily giving his daughter in marriage, Ariel set free, and Caliban released to rule his enchanted island.

What then are the fae? What can we derive from Shakespeare's plays, or from other contemporary documents? What is their source, their powers? What is their relationship to the human world? In any age, there are events, either isolated or in sequence, that simply do not make sense in the course of everyday life. It can be the simple disappearance and reappearance of familiar objects. It can be unexpected actions of people with whom one thought oneself familiar. It can be the whimsical nature of diseases and events. The wars of the Reformation left many men skeptical of theological cant, yet unable to explain day-to-day events and coincidences. This reinforces belief in a parallel world of beings, born in the folk culture of King Arthur and his magic, who control the fates of men in a capricious, unpredictable fashion.

Much like the Greek gods, the faeries were tricksters, controlling the fates of men, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. As the Greek gods figure prominently in the dramatic literature of ancient Greece, so the faery clan was to Shakespeare and the Elizabethans. When the supernatural appears, it is frequently to shape and direct the actions of the human characters, and the plays in which they appear can best be understood in that light.

I opened with a quote from Prospero. Let his closing be mine as well:
Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have's mine own,
Which is most faint: now, 'tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.