by: Augustine Skottowe

The following article is reprinted from The Life of Shakespeare: Enquiries Into the Originality of His Dramatic Plots and Characters. Augustine Skottowe. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1824.

Few plays consist of such incongruous materials as A Midsummer Night's Dream. It comprises no less than four histories:--that of Theseus and Hippolyta;--of the four Athenian lovers;--the actors;--and the fairies. It is not indeed absolutely necessary to separate Theseus and Hippolyta from the lovers; nor the actors from the fairies; but the link of connection is extremely slender. Nothing can be more irregularly wild than to bring into contact the Fairy-mythology of modern Europe, and the early events of Grecian history; or to introduce Snub, Bottom, Flute, Snout, and Starveling, "hard-handed men, which never laboured in their minds till now," as amateur actors in the classic city of Athens.

Of the characters constituting the serious action of this play Theseus and Hippolyta are entirely devoid of interest. Lysander and Demetrius, and Hermia and Helena, scarcely merit notice except on account of the frequent combination of elegance, delicacy, and vigour, in their complaints, lamentations, and pleadings, and the ingenuity displayed in the management of their cross-purposed love through three several changes. In the first place, there is a mutual passion between Lysander and Hermia: Demetrius loves Hermia, he having previously loved Helena, who returned his love. In the second stage, Lysander deserts Hermia, and urges his suit to Helena, who remains faithful to Demetrius; and, thirdly, Lysander disclaims his love for Helena, and renews his vows to his first love, Hermia; Demetrius relinquishes Hermia, and renews his affection for Helena.

Bottom and his companions are probably highly drawn caricatures of some of the monarchs of the scene whom Shakespeare found in favour and popularity when he first appeared in London, and in the bickerings, jealousies, and contemptible conceits which he has represented, we are furnished with a picture of the green-room politics of the Globe.

After perusing any half-dozen dramas of the early part of Elizabeth's reign, we can readily concur with Steevens, in thinking that the doggerel nonsense of Bottom and his worthies, is only an extract from "the boke of Perymus and Thesbye," printed in 1562. The conjecture, however, is equally plausible, that Shakespeare emulated the style in which the story of these unhappy lovers is narrated in the fourth book of Golding's version of Ovid's Metamorphoses:

"Within the towne of whose huge walles so monstrous high and thick,
(The fame is given Semyramis for making them of bricks,)
Dwelt hard together two young folke in houses joynd so nere
That under all one roofe well nigh both twayne convayed were.
The name of him was Pyramus and Thisbe call'd was she,
So faire a man in all the East was none alive as he.
Nor nere a woman, maybe nor wife, in beautie like to her."

Manifold are the opinions that have been advanced respecting the origin of the fairy mythology of our ancestors. The superstitions of the East and of the North, and of Greece and of Rome have been resorted to in search of a clue which would lead to a consistent history of its rise and growth.

It appears safe to assume that the oriental genii in general, and the Dews and Peries of Persia in particular, are the remote prototype of modern fairies. The doctrine of the existence of this particular race of spirits was imported into the north of Europe by the Scythians, and it forms a leading feature in the mythology of the Celts. Hence was derived the popular fairy-system of our own country, which our ancestors modified by the mythology of the classics.

The Peries and Dews of the orientals were paralleled by the Scandinavian division of their genii, or diminutive supernatural beings, with which their imaginations so thickly peopled the earth, into bright or beneficent elves, and black or malignant dwarfs; the former beautiful, the latter hideous in their aspect. A similar division of the fairy tribe of this country was long made, but, by almost imperceptible degrees, the qualities of both species were ascribed to fairies generally. They were deemed intermediate between mankind and spirits; but still as they partook decidedly of a spiritual nature, they were, like all other spirits, under the influence of the devil; but their actions were more mischievous than demonaical, more perplexing than malicious, more frolicksome than seriously injurious. Possessing material bodies, they had all the wants and passions of human nature: being spiritual, they had the power of making themselves invisible, and of passing through the smallest aperture.

Of the diminutiveness of these interesting sprites, Shakespeare presents a pleasing idea, by his representation of them as in danger of being overwhelmed by the bursting of a honey-bag newly gathered from the bee; as seeking refuge from peril in the beds of acorn cups; and as, in comparison with the cowslip, short in stature; but he has left it to the imagination to paint that unfading and unalterable beauty of form and feature for which they were celebrated, and to clothe them in the tasteful apparel which they arranged and wore with matchless delicacy and grace. The long yellow ringlets that waved over their shoulders, were restrained from concealing the delicacy of their complexions, or the beauty of their brows, by combs of gold. A mantle of green cloth, inlaid with wild flowers, reached to their middle; green pantaloons, buttoned with tags of silk, and sandals of silver, formed their under-dress. On their shoulders hung quivers stored with pernicious arrows; and bows, tipped with gold, ready bent for warfare, were slung by their sides. Thus accoutred, they set forward on their perambulations, mounted on milk-white steeds, so exquisitely light of foot, that they left not the print of their hoofs on land newly ploughed, nor even dashed the dew from the cup of the harebell.

The employments assigned to these beautiful diminutives are at once appropriate and elegant. Of some, says Shakespeare, it is the business to seek "dew-drops,"

"And hang a pearl in every cowslip's ear;"

Of other to

"fetch jewels from the deep;"


"Some, to kill cankers in the musk-rose buds;
Some war with rear-mice for their leathern wings,
To make my small elves coats; and some keep back
The clamorous owl, that nightly hoots, and wonders
At our quaint spirits."

Titania's commands are admirably adapted to the capabilities of the delicate and fragile forms on which they are laid; the tasks she assigns them yielding delight in their performance:

"Be kind and courteous to this gentleman;
Hop in his walks, and gambol in his eyes;
Feed him with apricocks, and dewberries,
With purple grapes, green figs, and mulberries;
The honey-bags steal from the humble-bees,
And, for night-tapers, crop their waxen thighs,
And light them at the fiery glow-worm's eyes,
To have my love to bed and to arise;
And pluck the wings from painted butterflies,
To fan the moon-beams from his sleeping eyes.

The government of fairy-land was strictly monarchial. Oberon and Mab, the king and queen, resided in an elegant palace formed of mother-of-pearl, ivory, spices, precious stones, jewels, and gold. They maintained a splendid court and numerous retinue, and were strict in the exaction of tend and duty from their subjects. The plan of his drama must have been entirely different to have enabled Shakespeare to exhibit Oberon and Titania amidst this splendid mockery of terrestrial magnificence; and he has placed them, with perfect propriety, in the recesses of rural obscurity. The description of the "close and consecrated bower" dedicated to the repose of Titania, is conceived in the perfect spirit of fairy beauty, and profuse in luxuriant sweetness.

"A bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where ox-lips and the nodding violet grows;
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With swee musk-roses, and with eglantine;
There sleeps Titania, sometimes of the night,
Lull'd in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell'd skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in."

It was a principal delight of fairies to

"meet in grove or green,
By fountain clear, and spangled star-light sheen."

* * *

"On hill, in dale, forest, or mead,
By paved fountain or by rushy brook,
Or on the beached margent of the sea,
To dance their ringlets to the whistling wind."

Almost every meadow exhibits specimens of fairy circles, which are ringlets of grass, higher, sourer, and of a deeper green than the grass immediately surrounding them: their description in The Tempest, as

"green-sour ringlets whereof the ewe bites not,"

is founded on extreme accuracy of remark. The midnight frolicks of the fairies parched up the grass whereon they danced, and the luxuriant verdure of their orbs was the effect of their care to repair the injury they had caused by refreshing them with moisture, an office assigned to one of Titania's attendants:

"And I serve the fairy queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green."

As the power of the magician was absolute within his circle, so was the fairy irresitible within her ring. It was thought dangerous for cattle to encroach on her boundaries, and when the damsels of old gathered dew from the grass for the improvement of their complexions, they left undisturbed such as they perceived on fairy rings, apprehensive that by subjecting themselves to their power, the fairies would maliciously destroy their beauty.

Of all spirits it was peculiar to fairies to be actuated by the feelings and passions of mankind. The loves, jealousies, quarrels, and caprices of the dramatic king, give a striking exemplification of this infirmity. Oberon is by no means backward in the assertion of supremacy over his royal consort, who, to do her justice, is as little disposed, as any earthly beauty, tacitly to acquiesce in the pretensions of her redoubted lord. But, knowledge, we have been gravely told, is power, and the animating truth is exemplified by the issue of the contest between Oberon and Titania: his majesty's acquaintance with the secret virtues of herbs and flowers, compels the wayward queen to yield what neither love nor duty could force from her.

Let it not be too hastily inferred from the diminutiveness of these testy beings, that their quarrels are indifferent to the sons of men. Alas! mortals know not how deep is their interest in the domestic harmony of the fairy court!

Shakespeare has given an elegant summary of the calamities believed to be attendant on the dissensions of the king and queen of Fairy: the winds,

"As in revenge, have suck'd up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land,
Have every pelting river made so proud,
That they have overborne their continents:
The ox hath therefore stretch'd his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat; and the green corn
Hath rotted, ere his youth attain'd a beard:
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrain flock;
The nine men's morris is fill'd up with mud;
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green,
For lack of tread, are undistinguishable:
The human mortals want their winter here;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest:--
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatick diseases do abound:
And thorough this distemperature, we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose;
And on old Hyems' chin, and icy crown,
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set: The spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries; and the 'mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which:
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original."

Not of such an awful nature, however, were all the evils to which the human race were subjected by the quarrels or malignity of fairies. It was an inconvenience, indeed, that they intruded nightly into dwelling houses, and revenged any neglect of the domestics to provide clean water for their ablutions, or bread and milk for their repast, by skimming the bowls set for cream, obstructing the operation of butter making, and interfering with the working of the beer. But these nocturnal visits were not without corresponding advantages. Particularly attached to cleanliness, the fairies rewarded good servants by dropping money into their shoes, and rings into the pail, by sweeping the house, grinding the corn, threshing the wheat, and carding the wool: with exemplary justice, they punished the sluttish by pinches till they were black and blue, and sore from head to foot; invisible hands stripped the bed-clothes from the sluggard, and then, as Robin Goodfellow says in the old ballad,

"'Twixt sleep and wake
I do them take,
And on the key-cold floor them throw."

A respectful attention to their wants and inclinations, however, never failed to propitiate their good will, which, as a last act of favour, they displayed by conferring a blessing on the house and its inhabitants. It is with this friendly feeling that Puck proclaims of Theseus' dwelling--

"not a mouse
Shall disturb this hallow'd house:
I am sent with broom, before,
To sweep the dust behind the door."

And Oberon commands,

"Through this house give glimmering light,
By the dead and drowsy fire:
Every elf, and fairy sprite,
Hop as light as bird from brier."

* * *

"With this field-dew consecrate,
Every fairy take his gait;
And each several chamber bless,
Through this palace with sweet peace:
Ever shall in safety rest,
And the owner of it blest."

Nor less important is to be reckoned their attendance on the night of the nuptials of their favourites, for purposes which the poet very perspicuously describes:

"To the best bride-bed will we,
Which by us shall blessed be;
And the issue there create,
Shall be ever 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."

Among other encroachments of the clergy upon the province of spiritual agents, was that of taking into their own hands this charitable deed of the fairies; and, completely to turn the tables on those whose rivals they made themselves: the pretext of the priests was, that pious exorcisms were necessary to dissipate the illusions of the very spirits whose actions they emulated! No poet had ever a keener insight into these matters than Chaucer, and he is exquisitely happy in his ridicule of the clergy's absurd and ambitious substitution of themselves in the place of the fairies:

"I speke of many hundred yeres agoe,
But now can no man see non elves mo.
For now the grete Charite and Prayers
Of Limitours and other holy freres,
That serchen every lond and every streme,
As thick as motes in the sunne beme."

* * * *

"This maketh that there ben no fairies,
For there as wont to walken as an elfe,
There walketh now the Limitour himself,
And as he goeth in his Limitacioune,
Wymen may now goe safely up and downe,
In every bush and under every tree,
There nis none other Incubus but he."

To a belief in magic, witchcraft, and the agency of spirits, was always superadded that of the power of charms both to create love, and cause infidelity and hatred. The singular tergiversations of the lovers Lysander, Demetrius, Hermia, and Helena, are all effects of such a power: the love of Titania for Bottom, with his asse's head, is a similar instance, and it was, doubtless, by the same means that the queen had led Theseus

"through the glimmering night,
From Perigenia, whom he ravished;
And made him with fair Æglé break his faith,
With Ariadne and Antiopa."

The whole circle of poetry does not contain a passage richer in poetical beauties and of sweeter versification, than that wherein Shakespeare describes the power of the heart's-ease to create love. Elizabeth never received a more graceful compliment.

"Thou remember'st
Since once I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin's back,
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath,
That the rude sea grew civil at her song,
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres
To hear the sea maid's music.
That every time I saw (but thou could'st not)
Flying between the cold moon and the earth
Cupid all arm'd: a certain aim he took
At a fair vestal, throned by the west,
And loos'd his love-shaft smartly from his bow
As it should pierce an hundred thousand hearts.
But I might see young Cupid's fiery shaft
Quencht in the chaste beams of the watery moon;
And the imperial vot'ress passed on
In maiden meditation, fancy free.
Yet, mark'd I where the bolt of Cupid fell;--
It fell upon a little western flow'r
Before milk-white, now purple with love's wound,
And maidens call it "Love in Idleness."

Among other mischievous propensities which were attributed to fairies, was that of stealing the unbaptized infants of mortals, and leaving their own progeny in their stead. Before they put a newborn child into the cradle, the Danish women were accustomed to place either there, or over the door, garlic, salt, bread, and also steel, or some cutting instrument made of that metal, as preventives against so great an evil. The child of a pagan was lawful game for every waggish sprite, and, in a pilfering excursion to the East, Titania found no obstructions to her success from precautions similar to those of the northern matron. She had for her attendant

"A lovely boy, stol'n from an Indian king;
She never had so sweet a changeling:
And jealous Oberon would have the child
Knight of his train, to trace the forests wild:
But she, perforce, withholds the lovely boy,
Crowns him with flowers, and makes him all her joy."

The poet has not left it to this exploit of Titania, nor to the return of Oberon "from farthest steep of India," to proclaim that celerity of motion by which the fairies were distinguished. The king boasts that they

"----the globe can compass soon,
Swifter than the wand'ring moon."

Puck undertakes to

"Put a girdle round the earth
In forty minutes;"

and the following lines seem almost to invest the fairy tribe with the power of ubiquity:

"Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire,
I do wanter every where,
Swifter than the moones sphere."

The tribe of fairies generally was deemed mischievous, and Puck, Robin Goodfellow, or Hobgoblin, as he was variously called, enjoyed the reputation of being the master-spirit of wickedness among them. Delighted by every combination of the preposterous, his never-wearying pursuit of mischief rendered his name universally terrific. If he met a person returning home at night, his delight was to lead him by a feigned voice out of his way: such is the exploit of Puck when he entangles Lysander and Demetrius in the mazes of a wood, and separates them from each other:

"Up and down, up and down;
I will lead them up and down:
I am fear'd in field and town;
Goblin, lead them up and down."

At other times he assumed the shape of an animal, making his metamorphosis the vehicle of a prank:

"Sometimes a horse I'll be, sometimes a hound,
A hog, a headless bear, sometimes a fire;
And neigh, and bark, and grunt, and roar, and burn,
Like horse, hound, hog, bear, fire, at every turn."

It would be tedious to recapitulate the whole of Robin's gambols, and useless also, as Shakespeare has given an elegant summary of his frolics.

FAIRY: Either I mistook your shape and making quite,
Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite,
Call'd Robin Goodfellow: are you not he,
That fright the maidens of the villagery;
Skim milk; and sometimes labour in the quern,
And bootless make the breathless housewife churn;
And sometimes 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:
Are not you he?

PUCK: 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 sometimes 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 dew lap pour the ale,
The wisest aunt, telling the sadest 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 loffe;
And waxen in their mirth, and neeze, and swear
A merrier hour was never wasted there."

The subject of darkness and night, as connected with the appearance of spirits, will demand so much of our attention in Hamlet, that nothing more is necessary here than to notice the several allusions to the same superstition in the present play.

"Now the hungry lion roars,
And the wolf behowls the moon;
Whilst the heavy plowman snores,
All the weary task fordone.
Now the wasted brands do glow,
Whilst the scritch-owl, scritching loud,
Puts the wretch, that lies in woe,
In remembrance of a shroud.
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 Hecat's team,
From the presence of the sun,
Following darkness like a dream,
Now are frolick."

It was an indication of the comparative purity of the fairies that they delighted most to celebrate their revels in "spangled star-light sheen," or beneath the mild effulgence of the moon. But the slight relation which they bore to demoniacal spirits is more decisively proclaimed, by the superior privilege they enjoyed of protracting their gambols till day-light actually broke upon them.

PUCK: My fairy lord, this must be done with haste;
For night's swift dragons cut the clouds full fast,
And yonder shines Aurora's harbinger;
At whose approach, ghosts wandering here and there,
Troop home to church-yards: damned spirits all,
That in cross-ways and floods have burial,
Already to their worm beds are gone;
For fear lest day should look their shames upon,
They wilfully themselves exile from light,
And must for aye consort with black-brow'd night.

OBERON: But we are spirits of another sort:
I with the morning's love have oft made sport;
And, like a forester, the groves may tread,
Even till the eastern gate, all fiery-red,
Opening on Neptune with fair-blessed beams,
Turns into yellow gold his salt-green streams."

An air of peculiar lightness distinguishes the poet's treatment of this extremely fanciful subject from his subsequent and bolder flights into the regions of the spiritual world. He rejected from the drama on which he engrafted it, every thing calculated to detract from its playfulness, or to encumber it with seriousness, and giving the rein to the brilliancy of youthful imagination, he scattered, from his superabundant wealth, the choicest flowers of fancy over the fairies' paths: his fairies move amidst the fragrance of enameled meads, graceful, lovely, and enchanting. It is equally to Shakespeare's praise, that A Midsummer Night's Dream is not more highly distinguished by the richness and variety, than for the propriety and harmony which characterises the arrangement of the materials out of which he constructed this vivid and animated picture of fairy mythology.


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