Fairies in Shakespeare

One doesn't have to know me terribly well, to know I have a soft spot for fairies. I could write about why another time, but sufficeth to say, I have one. If you've been reading a long time, and REALLY been paying attention, you may also remember that my book arch nemesis, the book that I've never been able to conquer is Edmund Spenser's 'The Faerie Queene'. Well, all this converged at the beginning of this month when I was thinking of what I could do in terms of reading this year. For the last few years, I've picked an author and read at least a broad swath of their most famous works, to really get to know them, as I did with James Joyce a few years ago. So this year I decided to try something a little different - instead of reading one author's many books, I'm going to work my way up to reading the Faerie Queene, later this year.

So, this coincided nicely with Ms Allie at A Literary Odyssey, who decided this month to have a Shakespeare Reading Month. Spenser and Shakespeare were near contemporaries, and both of them have some rather famous forays into fairyland. More importantly, the writers of Shakespeare and Spenser's time, in many ways, began to invent the idea of fairies that we have today. The Elizabethan fairy is both familiar and foreign to our modern idea of fairy-folk.

This is not to say, of course, that Shakespeare and his contemporaries just cut the idea of the Fairy from whole cloth. It seems, in fact, to be a feature of the human drive to mythologize something that is classifiable as a fairy, and we see incarnations of the 'Wee Folk' throughout the folk traditions of many world cultures. In Shakespeare's day, in fact, this line was far hazier than it is now, when we think of a fairy as a very specific type of being (with wings and sparkles and flower petal clothing - its alright, we can all confess together, its true, that's what we all think of, right?). In Shakespeare's most famous exploration of the fey world, "Midsummer's Night Dream", this is actually fairly apparent, fairly quickly - while we often forget this, now, the setting for MND is Athens, the lord of the city is the Greek mythological hero Theseus, and his lady is Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons. The setting and characters, then, hearken back fairly strongly to a classical tradition. Mab and Oberon, even, are character-wise really not a far leap from the Greek Gods, if one thinks about it, and the role of Puck as the messenger of the King is a fairly close parallel to Hermes/Mercury. At the same time, the action takes place in a wood, the sort of wild place that the Greeks would have populated with Nymphs and Dryads.

This sylvan divine aspect of the fairies is repeated again in the other of Shakespeare's plays that grapples, though very differently, with the faeries: The Merry Wives of Windsor. MWW is set in England, so the strong classical allusions of the MND fairies is lacking, here, but there is still a strong thread of connection  to lost and ancient gods, as the wives trick Falstaff into dressing as a stag and going into the forest, to meet them - then proceed to dress some of the people of the town as fairies to come and torment him. The Horned Man, or the Horned God, is an old remnant of the pre-Christian past of Western Europe (one that lives on today in many varieties, for instance, of neo-pagan faiths). The connection with fairies, here points to their position as fallen Gods of a sort. There's further evidence of this in the name of Queen Mab, in the (in)famous 'Queen Mab' speech that Mercutio offers up in Romeo and Juliet. Mab is probably derived from the Celtic Medb, or as its often transliterated, Maeve, the name of one of the great queens of the Tuatha de Danaan, the 'Gods and Fighting Men' of the Irish/Celtic mythological cycle.

The fairies, then, in England were not terrifically different from Gods - albeit fallen ones, now subservient to the power of Christianity. Many of the fairy stories we have, with a bit tweaking, ore almost indistinguishable from the mythological tales of the Gods of the Celts, the Scandinavians, or the Greeks, with many of the same tropes: descent into the underworld, rewards for virtue and punishment for vice, seduction of mortals by the immortals, rites of appeasement and sacrifice, etc.

But the question, of course, comes up - we DON'T think of the fairies now as being like Gods, really, whatsoever, short of a somewhat shaky connection to immortality, and a certain degree of magical power.  Fairies, in most of our modern ideas, do not live lives bigger than human lives, but rather paradoxically, smaller - literally as well as figuratively. The Elizabethan Age is when you begin to see this shift, from fairies as simply strange, unknowable semi-divines, to fairies as amusing, petty imitation of human life. One of Shakespeare's contemporaries, Michael Drayton, wrote  a narrative poem on this subject, entitled 'Nimphidia' (another interesting parallel to Greek myth), the outlines of which could live quite comfortably in the pages of Peter Pan, The Water Babies, or a Tinkerbell cartoon. In Nimphidia, the fairies are so small that ride in spacious coaches made of snail shells, pulled by gnats or flies:

The seat the soft wool of the bee, 
The cover, gallantly to see, 
The wing of a pied butterflee ; 
      I trow 't was simple trimming. 
The wheels composed of crickets' bones, 
And daintily made for the nonce, 
For fear of rattling on the stones 
      With thistle-down they shod it;

This image is not one of the strange old tales of fairies that can strike terror into the country man's heart - this is pure Disney. Much of the writing I've read on this subject seem to treat this decline of fairies from Gods to be worshipped to doll-like children's characters, feel uncomfortable with the shift - its often depicted as a debasement, where Christianity is the bad guy, and the fey are a noble old religion being shoehorned into irrelevance to make way for the One True God, or begin used as a tool to browbeat people into submission to new social mores. 

The interesting thing to me, though, is that, clearly given the longevity of the itsy-bitsy fairy, the feeling of these new Elizabethan fairies is a powerful and resonant one to the popular imagination. MND is (rightly, I think) frequently listed as one of Shakespeare's greatest works,  and carries inside of its playful whimsy a great deal of emotional maturity, something we perhaps don't necessarily associate with the 'kids stuff' of the adorable little fairy. What were these fairies DOING for the Elizabethan, that made them so attractive?

Well, aside from the need for cute (go ahead, TRY to tell me this isn't a big part of the human psyche - you know you have another browser tab open with adorable LOLCats in it), the Elizabethan Fairy was a remarkably flexible tool for storytelling and dialogue. Take, the fairy story inside of Midsummer's Night Dream for a moment, for example, and pretend it isn't about fairies: Its a story of a court in which the King and Queen are as human, jealous, persnickety and difficult as everyone else, where the Queen ends up making out with a Donkey, and where the King ends up looking perhaps a bit incompetent in his hiring processes. The revelation for me in understanding this was to realize that this story was written in the height of the English Renaissance, at the beginning of the century filled with the birth of the modern mind: Don Quixote, Paradise Lost, The Anatomy of Melancholy - these are books of the 17th century. It was an age in which people began to take a cynical eye to their oldest and most sacred institutions. But its also a century in which people were murdered by the state for being Catholic, Protestant, Puritan, Anglican, Huguenot, etc, in turn. Its a century that would produce the secret police of King Louis XIV or Oliver Cromwell. The production of MND occurred in a time when people began to try to say what they thought, and the powers that be were still structured to silence them. Fairies are, comparatively, safe ways to talk and think about the larger world. Its interesting in fact to think that this same Queen Mab of so much of Shakespeare's work is the Queen Mab that Shelley would use a few hundred years later to lay out his philosophical support for everything from pacifism to atheism to radical democracy (I'll be reading Shelley's Queen Mab later this year). I am led to wonder if its any coincidence that the forces of the fey in Shakespeare's plays are generally arrayed to help those who are generally in the position of less power in the larger world: The marriages in MND are subverting the patriarchy and the state, the person the fairies are initially trying to help is a woman, Puck uses Bottom to humiliate someone in the monarchy, the false fairies in MWW are being used by women to punish a member of the nobility who is trying to seduce them. The Queen Mab in the speech of Mercutio tweaks everyone from the Parson to the Soldier.  

But, the really remarkable thing about the fairies to me is that at they humanize those in power, instead of demonizing them. MND, again, as an example, certainly has some subversive things to say about power, but its certainly not a polemic. Its a play by a man who saw the injustices and idiocies of his society, but also a man who its difficult to believe wanted to overthrow the monarchy. Polemics a-plenty were written before and after the fairies made their entrance, and had their strong effects on history - polemic helped produce the bloody civil wars of England, the revolution of France, etc. But Polemics encourage you to hate those in power. The stories of the fairies encourage you, perhaps, to roll your eyes at them, and to simply think. No one ever threatened a fairy revolution. The majority of people don't WANT a revolution most of the time - revolutions are violent, unpredictable, and frequently more destructive than they are productive. They simply want to be able to talk and think about the things they worry about in the world around them. The fairies gave the Elizabethans a way to do this (Nimphidia bears reading in this light, as well). The fairies as arbiters halfway between heaven and hell, allowed people to live in a world that contained greys. 

This is the real message, to me, of the famous 'If we spirits have offended" speech: the play only wants to tell a story, and it wants to have characters that are human. It doesn't mean to teach or push, or change minds and hearts. It only wants to tell stories - that's why it has the power that it does. Offense could be taken - it quite possibly was taken, by everyone from nobility that didn't like being painted as buffoons, to the pious who didn't want to look at a world as suffused with the erotic as MND is - but its not intended. And if its taken? Let it go.  Fairies aren't gods, they do not need acolytes and worship and dogma - they simply, like all the rest of us, have lives to live, stories to tell, and they'd like to go through life feeling, at the end, that someone was glad to have seen them.