Supernatural Beliefs, Magic, Music and Fairies
By Angela Almeida
William Shakespeare lived at a time in which believing in supernatural elements was absolutely normal among the people. The origins of magic and the supernatural are unknown for the most part, but it is supposed these beliefs gained momentum due to the fact people were scared of the unknown and then began linking through tradition and/or religion from there (Alchin). The Elizabethan people believed in things like spirits/ghosts, witches, and the mystical properties of animals as well as herbs, usually for healing purposes. If you did not believe in the supernatural, you were considered foolish so it is understandable as to why Shakespeare incorporated both fairies and magic in his play A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Fairies were complex characters for the Elizabethan people. They believed that fairies were actual beings which looked like normal people and who were “…known to appear in visible and material form” (Latham 28). Because they believed in witches and ghosts/spirits as well, fairies were not something seen as good, rather they were seen as wicked spirits. Scholars at the time defined and classified them “…in the connection with witches and witchcraft,” and as “…spirits of the devil,” which existed on earth rather than heaven or hell and seen as fallen angels if they weren’t seen as demons (34). Fairies were also known for mischief in their practices, such as stealing from humans and also carrying them away completely to Hell, using their powers to plague humans with diseases and blindness, taking cattle and livestock or making crops fail to grow (34). Some people made spells and charms in hopes of warding off the fairies because they were thought to bring something more scary than tricks; death. The magical elements in A Midsummer Night’s Dream had a connection with what the beliefs were at the time and this is just a possible idea of where Shakespeare took reference for the magic love juice scene(s) in which Puck, a fairy, puts the potion into the lovers’ eyes and how the fairies, mostly Titania, care for the changeling human they “stole”.
Given that information, Shakespeare overall took a different approach to the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Although the fairies in this play are mischievous, they are not so harmful as they were believed to be by the Elizabethan people, but rather more comical as we see in Puck. Shakespeare capitalized on the fact that this was a play with an audience looking for entertainment and since most folklore stories told had “…fairies meeting in the middle of the night to sing and dance in circles as they practised their magic,” Shakespeare incorporated that into his play (The Music of Fairies). Not only were songs for the audiences’ entertainment, they helped guide moments in the play along, especially since the characters were fairies who carried that mystical persona along with them. We can see how music helped guide the plot and kept it magical in scenes such as when Titania’s fairies sing her a lullaby and she falls asleep only to wake up to Bottom appearing as an ass, or when Oberon and Titania are done fighting and Oberon calls for them to dance together in celebration of their feud ending. Images like these, make the fairies innocent and magical, taking the audience away from their original thoughts.
Alchin, Linda. “Elizabethan Superstitions.” Elizabethan Superstitions, May 2012.
Latham, Minor White. The Elizabethan Fairies: the fairies of folklore and the fairies of
Shakespeare. No. 9. Columbia University Press, 1930.
“The Music of the Fairies.” Finding Shakespeare, Finding Shakespeare, 29 Mar.