Shakespeare’s plays changed almost everything that we think about faeries.
Before Shakespeare wrote about them, most people were terrified of faeries. One of the most frightening was a faerie called Robin Goodfellow. He was blamed for bad luck, poor harvests, and even death.
Then, Shakespeare suggested that faeries might not be evil… just mischievous.
During Shakespeare’s era, that was a radical idea.
In the 16th century, our modern-day ideas of faeries were born in Shakespeare’s plays.
His most famous faerie play is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That story included human-sized faeries such as Titania and Oberon, and lesser spirits–including tiny ones–who served them.
One of the leading characters is Puck, who—as Robin Goodfellow—had an evil reputation before this play.
However, in Act 2, Scene One, a character called “Fairy” asks Puck if he is
“…that shrewd and knavish sprite
Called Robin Goodfellow. Are you not he
That frights the maidens in the villagery…”
Fairy then lists a series of other insults and injuries for which Robin Goodfellow was best known such as spoiling milk, and causing travelers to become lost. Puck replies,
“Thou speakest aright,
I am that merry wanderer of the night…”
And so Shakespeare introduces the idea that faeries are not necessarily malicious, just pranksters. By using Robin Goodfellow (aka Puck), Shakespeare has chosen one of England’s most notorious faeries to make his point.
Shakespeare’s audience was stunned by this idea, but–in time–it began to gain popularity.
In Act 4, Scene One of Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, he reinforces this idea when shipwrecked Stephano says,
“Monster, your fairy,
Which you say is a harmless fairy,
Has done little better than play the Jack with us.”
Throughout this play, the audience sees the contrast between the clumsy underworld spirit, Caliban, and the ethereal, whimsical spirit of the air, Ariel.
An even earlier tradition
Whether Shakespeare planned it or not, he educated an entire generation on the qualities and characteristics of faeries. Those images remain with us today.
But he was not the first to try to correct society’s misconceptions about the fae world.
In 1584, about ten years before A Midsummer Night’s Dream, English religious historian Reginald Scot wrote a book called Discoverie of Witchcraft. In that book, Scot chided people for their senseless fear of faeries, “that we are afraid of our owne shadowes.”
King James tried to have Scot’s books burned, but the common sense in this text has been quoted repeatedly over the centuries.
Despite the efforts of Scot, Shakespeare, and others, it was nearly impossible to immediately overcome people’s fears. Perhaps they enjoyed ‘a good scare’ or they liked to blame faeries for their own mistakes.
But, Shakespeare’s ideas slowly took root. As hundreds of thousands of people saw his plays, they began to accept the idea that some faeries might be happy and mischievous.
Shakespeare was probably the single greatest contributor to our modern conceptions of faeries. And while Shakespeare’s faeries are not always good, they are certainly no worse—and generally far better—than the mortals in his plays.
And so, to Ireland…
In studying the roots of Shakespeare’s faerie beliefs, folk historian Alfred Nutt said, “we must quit Britain and the woodland glades of Shakespeare’s Arden and turn for a while to Ireland.”
Why Ireland? Very simply, it is one of our best resources when we study the fae world.
And so, at this website, you’ll find plenty of information about Irish mythological history… and the lore of the fae.