While the fairies shown in the play would have been known by Shakespeare’s audience, there was a clear difference between the fairies of traditional folklore and the fairies that Shakespeare describes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In traditional English folklore, fairies were “made” for, and by, the middle and lower classes; their stories were most believed and the most encounters were experienced by these people. Fairies in folklore were alternatingly deadly and wildly helpful, giving humans who stumbled upon them presents or death. In the play, Shakespeare departs from more traditional depictions of fairies and instead characterizes these magical creatures as the equivalent of nobles, with eloquent speech, flowery descriptions, and courtly titles befitting of a royal setting. Shakespeare pushes this view of fairies from the very beginning of the play and, in doing so, creates a new view of fairies for his audience. Shakespeare’s authorial choices when changing the folkloric characteristics of his fairies would not have gone unnoticed by his audience, and would have influenced the way they interpreted the play by cutting the ties that folkloric fairies had to rural English life. The play’s fairies would have been easy for audience members to relate to because of their newly urban characteristics.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare transforms traditional fae characters into gentrified versions of themselves to make them acceptable for consumption in a world that was moving away from a belief in fairies and towards the expectations of an early modern society. Although Shakespeare’s dramatization of the fairy world caters to an increasingly urban citizenry, his departure from more traditional depictions of fairies erases the actual stories that Shakespeare based his characters off of. By understanding the differences between Shakespeare’s fairies and traditional fairies of folklore, we can also understand the power that these deletions had in the eyes of Shakespeare’s audience and to the people whose stories he was erasing.
"Forgotten Fairies: Traditional English Folklore in "A Midsummer Night's Dream","
The Criterion: Vol. 2018
, Article 5.
Available at: https://crossworks.holycross.edu/criterion/vol2018/iss1/5