Ana Isabel Bordas del Prado.
Universitat de València, 2006.
Although there is little character development in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and no true protagonist, critics generally point to Puck as the most important character in the play. The mischievous and witty sprite sets many of the play’s events with his magic, through deliberate pranks on the human characters and unfortunate mistakes. (http://www.sparknotes.com/shakespeare/msnd/characters.html). The aim of this paper is to show who is Puck, his functions in the play, his relationships with other characters and his importance.
1. The origins of “that shrewd and knavish sprite”.
Puck or Robin Goodfellow is one of the most popular characters in English and Celtic folklore, being a faerie, goblin or devil. In fact, “Pouk” was a typical medieval term for the devil. Sometimes Puck was pictured as a frightening creature with the head of an ass, or as a queer little figure, long and grotesque, or as a rough, hairy creature, or as the representation of the Greek god Pan, as in the above picture. As a shape-shifter, Puck had many appearances, and he used them to make mischief.
The term “Robin Goodfellow” was a medieval nickname for the devil as well. Robin Goodfellow is one of the faeries known as “hobgoblins”, also famous for shape-shifting and misleading travellers, but sometimes a helpful domestic sprite. (http://www.boldoutlaw.com/puckrobin/puckages.html). The Shakespearean Puck well illustrates the traditional nature of this creature:
through bush, through brake, through brier:
Sometime a horse I’ll be, sometime a hound,
A hog, a headless bear, sometime a fire;
And neigh, and bark, and grunt, and roar, and burn
Like horse, hound, hog, bear, fire, at every turn.”
Midsummer Night’s Dream, act III scene I).
Puck is a representative of the Trickster figure, which appears in most folklores. The story of the trickster being tricked is a common motif. Shakespeare used this to create his Puck, since the character gets confused in A Midsummer Night's Dream and gives the love potion to the wrong couple of lovers. (http://quarles.unbc.ca/midsummer/myth.html). Aside from Shakespeare’s famous use of Puck, many other writers have referred to the spirit as well, like Ben Johnson, John Milton, Goethe or Rudyard Kipling. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puck_(mythology).
2. Who is Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
In A Midsummer Nigh’st Dream, William Shakespeare gave his Puck the name and nature of the more benevolent Robin Goodfellow. However, Shakespeare’s Puck is more closely tied to the fairy court than most Pucks or Robin Goodfellows. In a meeting between Puck and one fairy, the goblin sums up his nature in a perfect way:
“Either I mistake your shape and making quite,
Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite
Called Robin Goodfellow. Are not you he
That frights the maidens of the villagery,
Skim milk, and sometimes labour in the quern,
And bootless make the breathless housewife churn,
And sometime make the drink to bear no barm,
Mislead night-wanders, laughing at their harm?
Those that Hobgoblin call you, and sweet Puck,
You do their work, and they shall have good luck.
Are you not he?”
“Thou speakest aright;
I am that merry wanderer of the night.
I jest to Oberon, and make him smile
When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,
Neighing in likeness of a filly foal;
And sometime lurk I in a gossip's bowl
In very likeness of a roasted crab,
And when she drinks, against her lips I bob
And on her withered dewlap pour the ale.
The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,
Sometime for three-foot stool mistaketh me;
Then slip I from her bum, down topples she,
And 'tailor' cries, and falls into a cough;
And then the whole quire hold their hips and laugh,
And waxen in their mirth, and neeze, and swear
A merrier hour was never wasted there.”
(A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act II, scene I).
Oberon, the fairy king. He freely admits to be “a shrewd and knavish sprite”.
He is sent by Oberon to find the flower “love-in-idleness” and is told to apply
its juice to the eyes of Demetrius to make him fall in love with
For the sake of enjoyment, he also transforms the actor Nick Bottom’s head in that of an ass, so that Titania, the fairy queen, will fall in love with him, a beast, and will forget to look after a little Indian boy, whom Oberon wants to turn into a knight. Later, Oberon realises Puck’s mistakes, and orders him to produce a dark fog to lead the rival lovers within it by imitating their voices, and then to apply an antidote to Lysander’s eyes.
3. The role of Puck.
Though A Midsummer Night’s Dream divides its action between several groups of characters, Puck is the closest thing the play has to a protagonist. His mischievous spirit pervades the atmosphere, and his actions are responsible for many of the complications that develop the main plots in a chaotic way.
More important, Puck’s capricious spirit, magical fancy,
fun-loving humor, and lovely, evocative language permeate the atmosphere of the
play. Wild contrasts, such as the implicit comparison between the rough, earthy
craftsmen and the delicate, graceful fairies, dominate the play. Puck seems to
illustrate many of these contrasts within his own character: he is graceful but
not so sweet as the other fairies, and he is given to a certain coarseness,
which leads him to transform Bottom’s head into that of an ass just for
Puck is good-hearted, but capable of
cruel tricks. Finally, whereas most of the fairies are beautiful and ethereal,
Puck is often portrayed as somewhat bizarre looking. In fact, the fairy
mentions that some call Puck a
“hobgoblin,” a term whose connotations are decidedly less glamorous than those of “fairy”. (http://www.sparknotes.com/shakespeare/msnd/characters.html). What is not clear is the gender of Puck, since the character has been represented as male and as female along history. And he is also represented as a little, as a young and as a quite old goblin.
At the end of the play (in the epilogue), Puck makes a speech explaining his actions that serves to trivialize the play itself if it has offended the audience:
“If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended:
That you have but slumbered here,
While these visions did appear;
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I’m an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ’scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call:
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.”
(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act IV, scene II).
These lines essentially connect the audience with the play and compares them to the lovers who in the play did also awake from the mad happenings of the fairy world as if from a dream. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puck_%28Shakespeare%29). So, we can estate that Puck’s function in the play is crucial, since although he appears to be a kind of secondary character in some way, all the plots develop around him. Puck represents the difficulties of love, the power of magic, the nature of dreams and the relationships between fantasy and reality.
4. Puck’s relationships with the other characters.
One of the aspects that may draw attention is that although Puck seems to appear with most of the characters, he only interacts with Oberon, his master. In fact, all the dialogues in which Puck is present deal with Oberon, except in act II scene I, where Puck presents itself to a fairy, and in act III scene II, where he pretends to be Lysander with Demetrius and vice-versa. But in this case he is not present for both young men, as they just hear Puck’s voice. So, we can estate that Puck’s relationship and interaction with other characters is practically inexistent, but at the same time, his actions are essential for the development of the relationship between the other characters.
Puck sees himself as a naughty “master” that plays with mortal people as if they were puppets. He takes advantage of one of humankind’s weakness, love. For Puck, love is either a nuisance (played more evil than good) or just a funny thing that humans and other beings stupid enough to fall into it do to show him a laughing good time. As he puts it,
“Up and down, up and down;
I will lead them up and down:
I am fear’d in field and town;
Goblin, lead them up and down.”
(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act III, scene II).
In fact, one of the most famous quotations in the play is Puck’s statement: “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” because it captures the exaggerated silliness of the lovers’ behavior; second, because it marks the contrast between the human lovers, completely absorbed in their emotions, and the magical fairies, impish and never too serious. (http://www.sparknotes.com/shakespeare/msnd/characters.html).
5. No Puck, no Play.
How can a character that is not present in most of the play be regarded as the main one? The answer is really easy and simple: because without his mistakes, the plot is lost and senseless. Because without his mischief, the play would not be a comedy. Puck is the one who ties and unties, deforms and creates as he pleases. And although he has created all that chaos, at the end he resolves his mistakes by restoring the love balance in the two couples of lovers, impossible without his intervention.
Finally, is Puck who in a way carries the main message of the play and maybe “disguises” all the possible attacks to society or personal offences in his last speech. As Puck is magic, all happened was magic too, and as he is Puck, everybody will be given good luck!
o “Puck (Shakespeare)”, Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Ed. Wikimedia Foundation. 28 Nov. 2006.
o “Puck (mythology)”, Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Ed. Wikimedia Foundation. 28 Nov. 2006.
o “Shakespeare, the complete works of William Shakespeare”, The Online Library of Liberty. Ed. Liberty Fund. 28 Nov. 2006.
o “Mythology in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, Shakespeare On-line. Ed. Lisa Drysdale. 28 Nov. 2006.
o “Puck Through the Ages”, Puck, that shrewd and knavish sprite called Robin Goodfellow. Ed. Allen W. Wright. 28 Nov. 2006.
o “A Midsummer Night’s Dream, analysis of major characters”, Sparknotes. Eds. Phillips, B. and Stallings, S. 28 Nov. 2006.