Illusion and Fairies in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream
The main theme of love in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is explored by four young lovers, who, for the sake of their passions, quit the civilized and rational city of Athens, and its laws, and venture into the forest, there to follow the desires of their hearts - or libidos as the case may be. In this wild and unknown wilderness, with the heat and emotion commonly brought on by a midsummer night, they give chase, start duels, profess their love and hatred and otherwise become completely confused and entangled in the realities and perceptions of their own emotions. What better opportunity for Shakespeare to introduce a world of fairies then this? Shakespeare's fairies live in this wild forest were they love, fight, play and helpfully sort the poor young lovers out before sending them off, back to their own civilized world. Like many of the other elements in this play Shakespeare gives his fairies a healthy mix of illusion and reality. The Fairies use illusion in their exploits and Shakespeare uses them in the Dream in such a way that one might ask: are they even real or are they themselves an illusion?
Because of Shakespeare's unique portrayal of the fairy world of A Midsummer Night's Dream it is often criticized as being contrary to the popular folk beliefs of fairies at the time. The fairies in the Dream which are described as "Diminutive, pleasing and picturesque sprites" are thought to "present themselves as a new race of fairies, as different from the popular fairies of tradition as are those fairies from the fays of medieval romances" (Latham 180). It is this "diminutive" stature of the fairies that is brought up the most often by critics who believe that Shakespeare was inventing his own breed of fairies in this play. Indeed their tiny size is mentioned again and again throughout the play with their ability to "creep into acorn cups" to hide (II, i, 31) and the danger of them being "overflowen with a honeybag" from a humble-bee (IV, i, 15). It is also noted that the fairies of the Dream show none of the maliciousness or harmful nature that many Elizabethan fairies were said to possess, and their association with flowers is marked as completely new (Latham 181 & 186). And to top it off Robin Goodfellow had apparently never been associated with the term Puck before 1594, Puck being a "generic term applied to a class of demons" (Latham 219). In The Anatomy of Puck however
Katharine M. Briggs states that Shakespeare did not in fact make up his fairies but "drew straight from his native folklore some elements that had hardly appeared in literature before" (45). She states that the "fairy smallness [was] not new to folk-lore, but nearly new in literature" (45), and makes comparison to the Scandinavian Light Elves who were not only small in size but also took a special care of flowers (46). She also notes that the kindly nature of these fairies does not violate...