Theseus, duke of Athens, has conquered Hippolyta, the Amazon queen, and is about to wed her. Meanwhile, two lovers, Hermia and Lysander, hide in the woods when Hermia’s father demands that she marry Demetrius. Hoping to win his favour, Helena tells Demetrius of their whereabouts, and the two go to the woods in search of the fugitives. The forest is also full of fairies who have come for the duke’s wedding. After their king, Oberon, argues with his queen, Titania, he tells his servant Puck to drop magic juice into her eyes as she sleeps. The magic juice will make her love the first person she sees when she awakes. He also tells Puck to drop the juice into Demetrius’ eyes, but Puck confuses Lysander with Demetrius and as a result Lysander falls in love with Helena. So does Demetrius, when Oberon tries to correct Puck’s mistake.
In the same woods a group of artisans are rehearsing a play for the duke’s wedding. Ever playful, Puck gives one of them, Nick Bottom, an ass’s head; when Titania awakens, she falls in love with Bottom. After some general confusion and comic misunderstanding, Oberon’s magic restores Titania and the four lovers to their original states. The duke invites the two couples to join him and Hippolyta in a triple wedding. The wedding celebration features Bottom’s troupe in a comically inept performance of their play, The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe.
Oberon and Titania
Oberon and Titania are King and Queen of the Fairies. Drayton says of Oberon, “A little Cockle-shell his Shield Which he could bery bravely wield: Yet it could not be pierced: His Speare a Bent both stiff and strong, And well-neere of two inches long; The Pyle was a Horse-flyes tongue, Whose sharpness naught reversed, And put him a coat of Mail, Which was of a Fishes scale.”
In the legends of Charlemagne, Oberon was said to be the son of Caesar and the Lady of the Hidden Island. He was the father of Robin Goodfellow, who later fostered the race of mischievous sprites called Pechs or Pucks. The legend of Huon of Bordeaux told that Oberon was the King of the large, enchanted forest called Mommur. This legend described him as a dwarfish figure of about 3 feet tall who had the ability to see into the future. He also was able to create terrifying lightning storms.
Titania was the wife of Oberon, king of the fairies. She eventually took over the place as queen of the fairies in English folklore from Mab. According to the belief in Shakespeare’s age, fairies were the same as the classic nymphs, the attendants of Diana. The queen of the fairies was therefore Diana herself, called Titania by Ovid (Metamorphoses, iii. 173).
The first Queen of the fairies in British folklore was named Mab. She appears to have a sinister and a harmless side. Sometimes, she appears a haglike, broom-flying fiend, while at other times, she is a benevolent, winged sylph.
Shakespeare depicted her in almost mockingly by saying:
‘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 forefinger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies,
Over men’s noses as they lie asleep.
-Romeo and Juliet
While Ben Johnson says:
This is Mab, the mistress Fairy,
that doth nightly rob the dairy;
And can hurt or help the churning
As she please, without discerning.
Puck is one of the most famous English sprites. In the Midlands he is called Robin Goodfellow, and is said to be the prototype for Robin Hood. In Ireland, he is called Pech or Puck, and is the leader of the Pixies. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare transformed him from a hobgoblin into a jovial but pranksterish wanderer of the night. In a couple of other Elizabethian plays such as The Devil is an Ass by Ben Johnson, Puck is portrayed as Belzebub’s servant in hell who was send to earth to foster evil and bring about misfortune. Puck was a failure at this because he was unable to do enough evil to please Belzebub, so he turned to Oberon for help.
“Amongst the rest was a good fellow devill So called in kindness, cause he did no evill, Known by the name of Robin (as we heare) And that his eyes as big as saucers were, Who came at nights, and would make kitchens cleane And in the bed bepinch a lazy queane, Was much in Milles about the grinding meale (And sure I take it, taught the Miller steale), Among the creame bowles, and milk pans would be, And with the country wenches, who but hee.”
– The Devil is an Ass
“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 If we have unearned luck Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue We will make amends ere long; So, goodnight unto you all. Give me your hands, if we be friends, And Robin shall restore amends.”
– Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream