WARNING: Bloody boring. I have the two pdfs in case you’re interested.

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A Comparison of Critical Views on the fairies in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s dream

The studies by Minor White Latham in The Elizabethan Fairies (Columbia University Press, 1930) and Roger Lancelyn Green in Shakespeare and the Fairies (Folklore, Vol. 73, No. 2, 1962) are examples of research generated by a timeless admiration for fairies. Both authors regard Shakespeare and his Midsummer Night’s Dream as the focal point for the emergence of the modern fairy, giving rich and detailed arguments to prove their point, but fail to identify the cognitive importance of the theme.

Later fairies were considered plain pranksters, whereas the tricks played by the ones depicted in Shakespeare, become blessings. Green suggests the elves in Brut, by Layaman and the fairies in Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale as possible inspirational sources. The resemblances are pointed out by Latham: the forest as ambiance, a preference for night time, a taste for singing and dancing, ability to find jewels, obsession for cleanliness, and presence of a human changeling (179). The references to kidnapping, mischief and danger have “been removed from the picture” (Latham, 180), presenting instead kind fairies “with a King and Queen who wish well to mortals” (Green, 93).

The two authors also identify Oberon as a clear allusion to the Auberon from Huon of Burdeux, and Titania to the Diana, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but at the same time agree that both king and queen differ a great deal from their predecessors. While humans feared Auberon, Oberon cares about Helena and wants to bless Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding. Titania’s love for the orphan Indian boy shows some tenderness that Diana lacked. Latham argues that the sovereigns, although dressed with virtues and strengths from their mythological relatives, show a distinct connection with humans; they are “unfailingly beneficent and altruistic” (181). Green sees this different attitude as a product of previous amorous relationships between the fairy and human royalties (92).

This possibility of carnal interaction, though, is intriguing since the fairies are small enough to fit inside acorn cups. The reduction of size is celebrated by Latham and Green as a turning point in the history of fairy-tales. According to both texts, no previous literature or references to spoken traditions seem to depict fairies as miniature creatures. The speech Shakespeare wrote for Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet about Queen Mab, describes the fairy as “In shape no bigger than an agate-stone”, ratifying the two critics view. After the Midsummer Night’s Dream is published, in the 1600’s, an abundant number of tiny fairies is seen in many literary works, immortalizing Cobweb, Peaseblossom, Mote, Mustardseed, Titania and Oberon.

The evidences and points of view of Latham and Green delineate the picturesque nature of Shakespeare’s fairies, but do not clarify why they outlived their ancestors. The first critic states that the new version destroyed the ancient belief (193), but why? The new invented god-like features might be as appealing as the early demoniac ones. Green comes closer to an answer, concluding that the “’otherness’ of sheer ‘fairydom’” is what gave the fairies descendents in the following three hundred years (103). The importance of what he called ‘otherness’ and ‘fairydom’ resides in the awe of mystery to the human psyche.

While there is something magical and unreachable in a character or theme, it will survive and be re-told, re-invented, re-lived. That may be because it is a challenge, or because it withholds the possibility of containing answers to the nature of Man and existence, but most importantly, the mystery is a favorite because it resembles the emotions and feelings that cannot be touched, giving them a credible portrait.

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