One of Shakespeare’s trademark characteristics in his writing is his blending of the real and the supernatural. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is no exception, as the world of humans and the world of fairies mingle and interact in the woods outside of 16th century Athens. Shakespeare was not the first to imagine these mischievous creatures, however: behind Shakespeare’s Puck lies a vibrant history of folklore that stretches across the many cultures of Europe.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the true origin of the name Puck is unknown. Rather than stemming from one source, it appears that “Puck” is the result of a mixing of terms stretching from Iceland to Germany, and everywhere in between. Many of the other forms of the word, including “Puca”, “Powke”, “Puke” and “Pouke”, were used to describe a much more evil entity than Shakespeare’s Puck. The Norwegian “Puke” was used to describe an evil spirit, while the version from Old Icelandic, “Púki”, was used as a name for the Devil itself. Rather than being portrayed as entirely good or evil, however, many traditional stories depict them as round characters with emotional ranges, much like humans. They are also traditionally larger than the fairies in modern-day stories, looking more like small children than the insect-like size of fairies like Tinkerbelle or Thumbelina.
While most cultures have some version of fairies or spirits in their folklore, the different beings vary widely in their intentions. Shakespeare’s use of the name is unique and interesting: rather than shed an evil light on Puck and the Fairy world, Shakespeare takes a lighter approach to the comedic bunch, portraying them as more mischievous pranksters than evil beings. Titania’s speech in Act II scene four describing the effect of the quarrel in Fairy world demonstrates the fairies’ immense power
As in revenge, have sucked up from the sea
Contagious fogs, which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents.
The ox hath therefore stretched his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attained a beard (I.1:73-80)
Despite their absolute power over the human world, however, they exhibit control, only playing small pranks on the lesser beings. And when the fairies meddle in human affairs too much and alter the course of the story, they actively work to remedy their mistakes. The benevolence of Shakespeare’s fairies was a relatively novel portrayal, departing from the evil and sinister conceptions of Puck as seen in earlier texts.
Since the 17th century, popular depictions of fairies have changed drastically. Fairies have been largely sexualized, as today’s fairies are normally young, attractive women. Fairy literature has also moved from high culture to children’s literature, stripping away many of the adult themes and dynamic relationships that are present in Shakespeare’s work. Despite these changes, however, fairy literature is still used to teach humans valuable lessons about the world in which they inhabit, whether they are told to adults or to children.