Summer School 2011, dress rehearsal of Midsummer Night’s Dream, at the Emily Laws School of Acting: Mustardseed, Titania, Cobweb & Peaseblossom.
I have often mentioned before how the robust elf of British tradition has undergone a transformation over the last few centuries into a tiny, winged being. In this post I’d like to identify some culprits for this process.
Who are we going to blame?
The perception that the frightening and serious fairies of the British Middle Ages had undergone a change at some stage had been with me in vague terms for many years. Recently, however, I finally got round to reading Minor White Latham’s 1930 book, Elizabethan Fairies. His study crystallised my thoughts and confirmed what I had always suspected: that William Shakespeare is the major culprit and that 1594/5 marks the turning point in our perception of Faery. Later poets followed the bard’s lead, but it was Midsummer Night’s Dream that started the trend.
The idea of small fairies was definitely well-established before our major playwrights and poets got their hands on the subject. For example, from Reginald Scot’s list of fairies, found in his book The discoverie of witchcraft of 1584, we know there was traditional belief in a character called Tom Thumb. This may surprise British readers, at least, for we think of him as a leading character in pantomimes and nursery stories. This elf was small, as the name tells us: “but an inch in height, or a quarter of a span” according to a chapbook published in 1630 (a span is the distance from the thumb tip to the little finger tip- standardised at 9″ in imperial measurements). In his play, The sad shepherd, Ben Jonson also described “span long Elves” carrying changelings (1637, Act II, scene 8)- I might point out that, if you think about it, this should be impossible.
Child sized fays
Generally, it was accepted that there might be both adult sized fairies and those that were shorter, perhaps only appearing like children. We see both of these in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, of 1599, when an adult woman, Mrs Anne Page, decides to play a trick on Falstaff: she dresses her daughter Nan as the fairy queen, accompanied by some attendants- her “little son” and some other children disguised as “urchins, ouphs and fairies, green and white” (Act IV, scene 4). Nan is a young woman of marriageable age- in her mid- to late-teens perhaps; her court would appear to be infants under ten. From this episode it seems apparent that a variety of sizes were accepted as normal in Faery by Elizabethan audiences but that the ouphs (elves) and fairies that were seen might very commonly be the size of young children: in The woman’s prize, for example, Beaumont and Fletcher have a character threaten that “children of five year old, like little fairies, will pinch thee into motley.” (Act II, scene 2)
A few thoughts on the word on ‘urchin’ that’ used in the play as a substitute term for fairy. The word comes from the French, herisson, meaning hedgehog, and it was apparently adopted because of the habit of certain fays (especially pixies) of shape-shifting into the form of hedgehogs. The terms were for a while interchangeable, until ‘urchin’ increasingly became attached to poor and misbehaving boys (by way of spiteful and prank filled pixies, I assume). The word is also used to denote fays by Thomas Nashe in Strange Newes (1592), in which he equates “fairies and night urchins,” in the anonymous play The mayde’s metamorphosis of 1600 and in Thomas Dekker’s Whore of Babylon (1607).
Another regularly used term that likewise has some connotations of smallness is ‘puppet.’ This featured in Robert Greene’s James IV of 1594, where Oberon, king of the fairies, is described as “not so big as the king of Clubs” and his subjects as being “Puppets,” and it appeared regularly subsequently: in The Tempest in 1611 Shakespeare called fays “demi-puppets;” the term’s also used in Randolph’s Amyntas in 1632 and in Henry More’s An antidote against atheism of 1653 (referring to the “dancing places of those little Puppet-Spirits” in Book III, chapter 11). In The mayde’s metamorphosis there’s also reference to “mawmets” tripping lightly as a bee. The word has the same sense of a puppet-like being and certainly conveys an idea of diminutive statute- as underlined in Amyntas, where a fairy wife might be sought for in a nutshell.
The Dream performed at Dewey Mountain, New York, 2017; picture from Adirondack Daily Enterprise
This vocabulary all implies a changing attitude to fairies: that they coming to be seen as tiny, inoffensive, pretty, charming. We’ve run ahead of ourselves slightly, though, and ought to retrace our steps to 1595 and the first production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. Latham has this to say of Shakespeare’s use of fairy themes:
“That the disappearance of the fairies as credible entities should have been hastened by the influence of Shakespeare is one of the greatest ironies of their history. Of all the Elizabethans who made mention of them, there is no one who showed himself more cognizant of the belief in their existence, and no one who featured more prominently their traditional power and activities.” (p.177)
Latham goes on to enumerate the traditional fairy-lore in Shakespeare’s plays: their dangerous enchantments; their substitution of changelings; their pranks- sometimes harmless, sometimes malicious; their generosity to favourites; their midnight dances; their pinching of those who fail to meet their standards; their pixy-leading. All of this authentic material was, however, overwhelmed and displaced by what he created in the Dream. Latham summarises this ‘new Elizabethan’ fairy very succinctly:
“Diminutive, pleasing, and picturesque sprites, with small garden names and small garden affairs, associated with moon-beams and butterflies, they present themselves as a new race of fairies, as different from the popular fairies of tradition as are those fairies from the fays of the medieval romances. ” (p.180)
The medieval fays are the magician women like Morgan le Fay, in some respects related to Titania, but not reigning over a fairy kingdom and much more engaged in the affairs of human kind. What became the conventional fairy after the Dream was this, according to Latham:
- they were subjected to a royal court and lost their independent status;
- they lose their mischievous and changeable sides and become uniformly good;
- they’re devoted to making the world happier and more beautiful, without imposing any taboos and codes or exacting any penalties;
- they dislike and avoid disturbance and disruption;
- they love children and are solicitous of the welfare of all humans;
- they are “extravagantly” attached to flowers, tending them, named after them, decorated with them; and,
- they’ve shrunk. No longer are they infant sized, now they’re tiny: they can hide in acorns; they make their coats from bats’ wings; their fans are butterfly wings; they may drown in a bee’s honey bag should it burst.
It’s these last two characteristics, combined with their new, benign, nature, that marks the real departure for British fairies. Worse still, they have become comic and ridiculous (as in the whole episode involving Titania and Bottom). Their dignity and their stature had been diminished and they had become an entirely new race of spirits.
Exeter Drama Company‘s 2015 production of Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The earliest example of this change came almost immediately from Shakespeare himself, in Romeo and Juliet. In Mercutio’s famous description of Queen Mab, she is reduced to a being “In shape no bigger than an agate stone/ On the forefinger of an alderman.” Other poets then picked up upon the conceit of a minute fairy and had great fun with it. During the first decades of the next century, several notable writers fixed the idea in the public imagination. These included most notably:
- Edward Fairfax, in his 1600 translation of Torquato Tasso’s Godfrey of Bulloigne, was an early adopter of Shakespeare’s new vision of Faery. His fays are tiny enough to sit under “every trembling leaf” and they are intimately associated with blossoms: for example “Among the nymphs, the fairies, leaves and flowers” (Book 4, stanza 18 and Book 17, stanza 61);
- Michael Drayton, author of such works as Nimphidia and The Muses’ Elizium, in which fairies use acorn cups as boats, ride upon earwigs and make wedding dresses from primrose leaves. In his 1613 Poly Olbion, Drayton imagines frisking fairies “as on the light air borne/ Oft run at barley break upon the corn/ And catching drops of dew.” In the Eighth Nymphal the abiding impression of tininess is expressed directly: “Why, by her smallness you may find,/ That she is of the fairy kind”;
- William Browne– the third book of his Britannia’s pastorals (c.1625) revels in the possibilities of microscopic fays, whose bread is hazelnut kernels, whose wash basins are sea shells and who dine upon the udders of mice and hornet’s eggs; and,
- Robert Herrick (1591- 1674), in whose verses “dwarfish Fairyes elves” dine off mushrooms, instead of tables, upon single grains of wheat, washed down with drops of dew. His Queen Mab’s bed is formed of six dandelion heads, with curtains of gossamer. In his 1648 collection Hesperides, Herrick includes five fairy poems for which he is particularly remembered: Oberon’s Feast, Oberon’s Palace, Oberon’s Chapel (or the Fairy Temple), The Fairies and The Beggar to Mab, the Fairy Queen. All are easily accessible and give an authentic picture of the British fairy as it was conceived after Midsummer Night’s Dream.
These depictions pretty much sealed the fate of the fays. They were now without question “pygmies” (Peter Heylyn, Cosmographie (1648), Book IV, p.196; Milton, Paradise lost (1667), Book IX, line 634). They are, too, irredeemably linked to images of cuteness and harmlessness: for example in the 1660’s ballad The spring’s glory, “The fairies are tripping and lambs are skipping, /Pretty birds chirping in the wood do sing.”
One last citation will do, which is from the Poems and fancies of Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle, published in 1653. The book is full of fairies and they are uniformly minute, evidently inspired by Drayton and Herrick. Queen Mab and “all her fairy fry” dance on mole hills, sit under flowers and eat off mushrooms spread with spiders’ webs instead of table cloths (Pastime in fairyland).
So it is, that little girls in petal like dresses have become fixed in our minds- not just on the stage but in the work of many artists (not least Cicely Mary Barker, Margaret Tarrant and the many other children’s book illustrators of the mid-twentieth century). In a recent post I laid a heavy burden of blame upon Paracelsus for distorting our concepts of the fairy realm; reluctantly, perhaps, this must be shared with William Shakespeare. The trends towards smaller and less fearsome fairies were already present in English culture, doubtless, but Shakespeare’s work accelerated and magnified them, an impact exaggerated further by his very status in the literary world.
2016 production of The Dream by Millennium Charter Academy at Andy Griffith Playhouse, Mount Airy, North Carolina.
See Latham, of course (although the book can be rare and expensive), many of my previous posts and, in my 2017 book British fairies, chapters 1 and 28 particularly. In another posting I’ve also developed some of Latham’s ideas on representations of fairy faces in Tudor drama.
An edited and expanded version of this post will be found in my book Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse. See my books page for more information.