A Midsummer Night's Dream

what is the role of the supernatural in A Midsummer Night's dream?

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Magic is the delightful thread that runs through the tapestry of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Magic is about the supernatural elements of the mythic and fairy world (like Cupid's arrows on a starry night), but it's also a simpler, more natural force. There's the magic of love, the magic of the morning dew, and even the magic of poetry and art.



Supernatural characters in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ‘The Tempest’

By Vandana Varrier

1. Introduction

Shakespeare’s two most magical plays are A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. These plays contain many supernatural elements, e.g. magic and transformation. With these elements, Shakespeare produces a new dramatic genre. A play is a kind of magic, as the theatre itself is a place of magic. Considering that there is no play without characters, any of the characters of other plays do not differ from the miraculous characters of Shakespeare’s magical plays simply by being supernatural. What makes them different then? Shakespeare has probably discovered that the characters of his plays cannot be natural; therefore he wanted to express this by accentuating his characters’ unnaturalness. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest these characters are as ‘real’ as any other characters on the stage except that they explicitly declare that they are a part of a dream. My essay will compare two ‘honest’ characters, Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Ariel from The Tempest. The word ‘honest’ means in this respect that they play a role, the role of ‘the character’, but they believe that this is only a role and not life itself.

At the end of the essay some important features of the supporting fairy characters will also be mentioned, namely Peasblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Ceres, Juno and Iris in The Tempest. Moreover the difference between the upper social ranks in the two plays’ system will be shown, namely that in The Tempest there is equality between the supernatural characters, mostly because of two reasons. The first is that Prospero stands on a much higher level than the nymphs and other creatures on his island, which makes the others equally weak. The ‘society’ of the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is more wide-ranging. They have their king and queen and the higher and lower positions as in real society. The second reason is that Iris, Ceres and Juno are nothing but some reshaped versions of Ariel.

2. Correspondences between Ariel’s and Puck’s characters

The most conspicuous correspondence between Ariel’s and Puck’s characters is that they are both fairies, neither have a gender though both have male names (this is probably because of the age’s ‘male-centered thinking’). For this reason, they will be referred to as male characters in the essay.

Shakespeare took the characters from the world of classical English fairytales. Puck is a sprite, quick-witted and mischievous. The character of ‘Robin Goodfellow’ occurred many times in 16th century fairy tales. He is the brownie who vexes others on purpose, skims milk and eats the cream or pulls out the stool from under the old ladies who wished to sit down and he tells all these stories to the villagers himself. But a brownie is also warm-hearted, ‘if there was any work to be finished in a hurry at the farm […], all [the villagers] had to do was to leave the door […] open when they went to bed […] and when they woke the next morning […] the job [would be] finished’ (Jarvie 38). The character of Ariel is more of an original creation. He is quick-witted too, but not as much as his master, therefore Prospero cannot treat him as his equal. He is a great helper and a joyful creature as well. He is similar to his master, making magic on stage, as his master does.

Ariel can reshape himself to be a nymph, a goddess or an animal, which is real magic on stage. Puck never disguises himself, only others, which is caries out off-stage and the audience is shown only the end product. He also shows tricks and makes fun of others showing their weak points. He is a real brownie. There is a comparable scene in a Scottish fairytale, when the sister of Katherine Crackernuts had a similar experience as Bottom, ‘off jumped her pretty head, and on jumped that of a sheep’ (Jarvie 46). Thus Shakespeare clearly used fairytales and scenes from old English stories.

Another important part of old English tales is music, with which Ariel and Puck are both surrounded. Music is the way of telling stories for Ariel and this is the way for him to transform too (Pierce 169). In The Tempest, Ariel is the only character who sings, except for the drunken people, Stephano and Caliban. However there is a great qualitative difference between the two modes of singing; while Ariel makes magic with music, these men (if we can consider Caliban as a man) sing because of their lack of self-control. Drunken people often sing and are loud, but that is an unpleasant sound. The form of their song shows that too: they sing in anapestic tetrameter, which is much hastier than either an iambic or a trochaeic beat, and therefore it is much less solemn than the slow rhythms. This does not mean that Caliban’s music is not enjoyable or that it is harsh—he is a poet, whose poetry is beautiful—but it is earth-like while Ariel’s music is air-like. In their essence, Caliban is connected to the earth, while Ariel is a being of the air (Derlin 26). Ariel and Puck both sing in trochees, which make their songs more archaic than an iambic foot would be. The trochaeic beat alludes to the ancient legends of fairies and magic. The rhymes in Puck’s speeches are usually full rhymes or near rhymes, but always couplets (Nádasdy 201). Ariel’s rhymes have a huge variety of rhymes, couplets—almost all forms of quatrains. In Ariel’s songs Shakespeare reveals his metrical skills, and in Puck’s speeches he shows his rhyming skills of making rhymes. In both plays, he is great in making word-games. Both Ariel and Puck are capable of word-games, as well as other tricks (Poole 54).

Like a real sprite, Puck makes fun of Bottom off-stage, but tells the audience what happened (though the outcome can be seen), while Ariel scares Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo (Hibbard 80). The two scenes, Act III, scene 1 in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Act IV, scene 1 in The Tempest, are very similar. The two characters scare those who are inferior, though this has a different meaning in the two plays. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream the craftsmen are weak in the sense of being half-educated, which is acceptable, while in The Tempest the weak are evil and treacherous. Their punishment is of a different level—Ariel and Prospero scare the drunk for the sake of punishment, but Puck scares the craftsmen for the sake of fun. The way of putting their inferiors out into the wilderness is very similar, in both plays Ariel and Puck are like hunters setting out game (who are the inferiors). Puck only refers to hunting (‘Sometimes a horse I’ll be, sometimes a hound’, Act III, scene 1, line 103), while Ariel appears as a hunter setting the hounds. In this scene, Prospero is the one who talks about hunting (‘Let them be hunted soundly…’Act IV, scene1, line 265), that has the meaning that he is the master, while Ariel is a servant. This is important, because Ariel and Puck are both servants.

They are both helpers of their lords, who treat them as their best and most beloved servants. They both do what is asked of them with enthusiasm. If they are asked to go somewhere, they are fast, when they are asked to do something, they are precise, or if they are mistaken, then that is not their fault. They love helping their masters, whom they love, and they are proud of being able to do the things they are asked to do. They enjoy life as it is, and live it to the full.

They are lively, full of joy and optimism. They do everything with joy and they think that everything they do is proper. They both love serving a wise sovereign because they both believe that what they do by helping their masters is always correct. That makes their life easier; they do neither have to be alone nor think about occupying themselves with material questions such as what to eat or drink.

3. Differences between Ariel’s and Puck’s characters

Ariel is a servant because he has to be, Puck is a helper because he wants to be. Ariel gets freedom as a gift in the end for his great services, while Puck does not need freedom because he is free and serves Oberon for his own pleasure (and to have the comfort of belonging somewhere). Ariel is a native ruled by the conqueror and Puck is a conqueror himself conquering Nature and natives wherever he goes. In other words, Puck’s magic is natural while Prospero’s is learned from books, and because of that, Ariel’s magic has a learned aspect as well (Hibbard 82).

Ariel is called to be a servant, Puck is called to be gentle. The relationship of fairy and master is different in the two plays, which can be seen through the use of you and thou: Puck can say thou (except when he is trying to explain that he only made a mistake) to Oberon, and vice versa, but Ariel says you to Prospero, who says thou to Ariel. Prospero gives commands to Ariel but Oberon asks favors from Puck. Though they both enjoy their job, Ariel does it because he has no choice, but Puck does it for fun. Ariel cannot make mistakes because he is a slave that has to be precise; Puck can be mistaken, because he can solve the problems himself. They can both be scolded, but Ariel is because he had asked for something he is supposed to get, convinced or blackmailed not to cry for freedom. Puck is scolded because of a real mistake; he deserved to be scolded, and tries to set things right. He understands the situation and solves it. He is a friend to his lord or captain, and agrees to what he does. Ariel is a servant to his master and does not really know why he has to do what he does. He does it to satisfy his master.

If we consider that Prospero is said to be Shakespeare himself put on stage, then Ariel is his Character. Ariel wants freedom, as dramatic characters want freedom. According to Pushkin’s Anegin, the characters have their own life, and the writer does not need to provide a fully written manuscript only an outline, and the characters will come to life to make the story themselves. Ariel does want this freedom, but Shakespeare cannot give it to him because of the strict rules of the Elizabethan theatre—a character in a Renaissance play can only be free off-stage.

Freedom is a very important point in the case of Ariel. He has not been free for a long time. First, he was a slave to Sycorax, then to a tree and finally to Prospero. The tendency is that he gets more and more freedom, if one considers that being a slave to a wicked, old, perverted witch is much worse than being locked into a cloven pine. Serving a good and careful lord is almost freedom. If a servant’s life turns the other way, from worst to best, then the servant can hope for freedom. That is what Ariel does, he wants the most natural right of a creature: total freedom.

In contrast, Puck has freedom as he always had, so he does not need to think of fighting for it. Ariel has an aim to fight for—Puck has everything to be happy so he does not fight for anything but helps others for his pleasure. He has momentary tasks to do, but does not have a higher aim to reach.

This can be seen clearly at the end of the plays. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck is to be the same as he was before. He does not change, nor do his circumstances. That is why he can be a narrator, because he can be an outsider who is not changed by the happenings. Ariel’s circumstances change totally. With the freedom he gets, the main purpose of his life has gone away. He is a character, and one cannot tell what happens to the characters after the play. When lovers finally get married, for example, one does not examine whether they live ‘happily ever after’, but simply assumes it. One does not know how Ariel can get on with freedom and how he can make his living alone. But one knows that after the wedding, Puck will remain the same. That is why Puck’s future cannot be doubted though Ariel’s can. The latter has no purpose to exist after the end of the play. If Ariel is the character of the magician, then he cannot exist, only on stage. Characters do not exist after the play ends. And if Ariel does not have a purpose after the end of the play then he does not exist anymore either. That is another way to prove that Ariel is the character itself while Puck is only an aspect of his master.

Ariel’s name has a Biblical origin though ‘the source of the name is probably in the magical tradition’ (Pasternak Slater 127), meaning lion or fireplace of God, which is ‘independent from any Biblical model’ (Pasternak Slater 130); Puck’s is a talking name (meaning ‘impertinent child’). These names characterize the fairies: Puck is fresh and daring but big-hearted as well. Ariel is the helper and keeper of his master, he is basically good-hearted, but he can also reshape himself as a tempest or dogs to frighten intruders.

Ariel has a counterpart (namely Caliban), Puck is a narrator, a puzzler of the plot and an important character in one, and he does not need a counterpart. Ariel has to prove his loyalty and therefore he has to compete with Caliban. The two are much alike, both being the servants of Prospero, but the main difference between the two is that Ariel is a good-hearted and quick-witted spirit while Caliban is evil and slow. In other words, Ariel is spiritual and connected to air while Caliban is material, connected to earth. That is why the outcome of challenge—if one can call it that—cannot be doubted. In contrast, Puck has no rival and is always on his own. He travels around the world alone and does tricks to strangers. Ariel has an ‘island-mate’ to live with and to make fun of. Probably the relationship between Ariel and Caliban is not based on love, maybe more on envy, but they have at least ‘each other’, while Puck is totally lonely.

Ariel’s replies are mere echoes to his master’s questions, for example in Act IV, scene 1, lines 186-187, Prospero asks Ariel to ‘[…] go bring it hither for sale to catch these thieves,’ and Ariel’s replies ‘I go, I go’. Or a little earlier in Act I, scene 2, lines 250-251, when Prospero asks Ariel: ‘Dost thou Forget from what a torment I did free thee?’ to which the answer is nothing but a simple ‘No’. This is also to express his dependence on his master. Puck, on the contrary is answering questions in whole sentences, and argues with Oberon, for example in Act III, scene 2, lines 5-6; Oberon asks ‘What night-rule now about this haunted grove?’ For which the answer is ‘My mistress with a monster is in love’. He is as witty as to give evasive answers if it is needed, e.g.: Act III, scene 2, lines 88 and 92-93, Oberon: ‘What hast thou done? thou hast mistaken quite […]’ Puck: ‘Then fate o’er-rules, that, one man holding troth, / a million fail, confounding oath on oath’.

It can be seen through the above quotation that Ariel’s speeches are mainly in blank verse and he is singing very much, which has an important role in the play, while Puck talks in verse, in rhymes (heroic couplets). Verse is important in both plays. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck talks both in trochees and iambs, but the difference between them are that iambs are used to talk cool, and trochees are to say magical things. Trochees are much more archaic than iambs, and that is why the ancient magic is expressed in trochees. When Puck is talking in trochees, he expresses something of the magic, and when talking in iambs he is narrating or asking for tasks. Ariel mostly talks in blank verse, but sings to do magic. Magic is expressed in trochees here, too. The spells are made in trochaic tetrameters with a degenerate foot.

Ariel’s background is revealed by Prospero in Act I, scene 2, Puck is characterized by a fairy in Act II, scene 1. Puck’s characterization by the fairy is to convince the fairy that he is Puck, but Ariel’s characterization by Prospero is to convince Ariel who he is. Puck has an identity and he wears it with pride. Ariel has not got a real identity, his main characteristics are that he is a servant and longs for freedom. The characterization of the two characters shows two different ways of telling the antecedents. In The Tempest Prospero tells the whole story as a narrator and in A Midsummer Night’s Dream many characters tell it during their arguments. The reason for this is that in A Midsummer Night’s Dream there is no one main character, while in The Tempest, Prospero is the main character.

4. Fairies in the two plays

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream the fairies lack personality. They do what Titania tells them to do, they could not live without their mistress and they cannot do anything apart from serving her. They do not even think only repeat phrases, usually each other’s expressions (e.g.: ‘Ready’ ‘And I’ ‘And I’ ‘And I’ ‘What shall we do’ in Act III, scene 1, line170). They are the real servants who do not have a real will, but are happy with that and do not want to change this state of being. They can be related either to Ariel or to the other nymphs of The Tempest, but the main difference between the fairies of The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream is that Titania’s fairies have neither wishes nor feelings, while Ariel has both, even if he denies that (‘your affections would become tender […] mine would, sir, were I human’ Act IV. scene 1. lines 18-20.). “Most of the fairies are beautiful and ethereal [like Ariel] (Philips), Puck is often portrayed as somewhat bizarre looking” (Mandel).

In The Tempest, the fairies do have characteristics, like those in ancient Greek-Roman mythology. Ceres, the Roman goddess of the Earth, Iris, the Roman messenger and also the rainbow, and Juno, the queen goddess, greet and describe each other as in an Ancient Greek-Roman epic. The usage of set adjectives refers to the ancient tradition, too. The nymphs of The Tempest are servants similarly to the fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but their existence does not depend on their master. Instead, they accept and respect him and serve him for that. They are only visions from Prospero’s studies, that is why their personalities and behavior are limited. They cannot be anything else then what Prospero wants them to be based on his studies. Ariel personifies these visions, so the characteristics of the three nymphs are a strange mixture of Prospero’s will and Ariel’s personality.

Juno, Ceres and Iris reach toward a higher level, namely the level of ancient cultures, which was the main wish of all Renaissance writers and humanists. The reason for this is that they are created by an Italian scientist, Prospero, based on his books. On the contrary, Peasblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed remain on the level of servants when they speak, saying only one word at a time (e.g.: Act III, scene 2, lines 182-185: ‘Hail mortal!’ ‘Hail!’ ‘Hail!’ ‘Hail!’).

5. Conclusion

The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are set in another world than ours, which sets them apart from Shakespeare’s other plays. Perhaps Macbeth and Winter’s Tale can be related to these plays, but in these two there is no helping spirit to make other’s lives easier, only witches, either good or bad. Magic runs through the whole plays, not only when Prospero or Oberon actually make magic but it is ‘in the air’. The island of The Tempest can be called a dreamland (like Peter Pan’s Neverland), and in this respect both plays are two and a half hour-long dreams. The two dramas both make dream consciousness (Hibbard 78) that makes them different from any other plays, including Macbeth and Winter’s Tale.

In The Tempest the social standing of the characters is not pronounced to show the difference between Prospero and his servants. This is mainly because there is only one fairy: Ariel, but he is on stage in different faces. He is the only one who sings in the play, except for the drunken people, but not only as Ariel, but as Iris, Ceres and Juno. The relationship between Prospero and Ariel is not only a lord–servant relationship, but also a master–student relationship because of the very intimate environment. This intimacy sets the atmosphere of the play, which can be recognized by listening to the conversations between Prospero and Ariel.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, however, these levels do exist, showing a little fairy-society. This society is like the society of the real world, for example A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s human society, or Shakespeare’s contemporary society. The king and the queen reign while their servants serve them, with the servants having their own social system. Puck, who is a servant by his own will, is on a higher level than Peasblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed, who are more like servants by birth.

In summary, the main difference between the social systems in The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream is that in the former, society is based on Shakespeare’s outside world, while in the latter, there is no society but the master and his creatures (which can be called a positive tyranny as well), reflecting Shakespeare’s inner world.

6. References

1. Devlin, Diana. “Caliban – Monster, Servant, King.” Critical essays on The Tempest, William Shakespeare. Ed.: Linda Cookson and Bryan Loughrey. Gloasgow: Bell and Bain Ltd., 1998. 20-30.

2. Hibbard, G. R. “Adumbrations of 'The Tempest' in 'A Midsummer night’s Dream'.” Shakespeare Survey, an Annual Survey of Shakespearean Study and Pronunciation. Ed. Kenneth Muir (c1948), Stanley Wells (c1986). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Vol. 31. 77-85.

3. Mandel, Susannah and Adam Steward. The Tempest. 19.Apr. 2003. <www.sparknotes.com/shakespeare/tempest/>

4. Pasternak Slater, Ann. “Variations within a source: From 'Isiah XXIX.' to 'The Tempest'.” Shakespeare Survey, an Annual Survey of Shakespearean Study and Pronunciation. Ed. Kenneth Muir (c1948), Stanley Wells (c1986). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Vol. 25. 125-137.

5. Phillips, Brian and Stephanie Stallings. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 19. Apr. 2003. <www.sparknotes.com/shakespeare/msnd/>

6. Pierce, Robert B.. “‘Very Like a Whale’: Skepticism and seeing in 'The Tempest'.” Shakespeare Survey, an Annual Survey of Shakespearean Study and Pronunciation. Ed. Kenneth Muir (c1948), Stanley Wells (c1986). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Vol. 38. 167-175.

7. Poole, Roger “Music in 'The Tempest'.” Critical essays on The Tempest, William Shakespeare. Ed.: Linda Cookson and Bryan Loughrey. Gloasgow: Bell and Bain Ltd., 1998. 53-68.

8. Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales. Ed. Gordon Jarvie. Reading, Berkshire : Cox & Wyman Ltd. 1997.

9. Shakespeare, William. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The Oxford Shakespeare Complete Works. By Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1974. 171-191.

Shakespeare, William. “The Tempest.” The Oxford Shakespeare Complete Works. By Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1974. 1-22.

10. Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Szentiván éji álom. Trans. Nádasdy Ádám. Budapest: Ikon, 1995.

A Midsummer Night's Dream Theme of The Supernatural

Magic is the delightful thread that runs through the tapestry of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Magic is about the supernatural elements of the mythic and fairy world (like Cupid's arrows on a starry night), but it's also a simpler, more natural force. There's the magic of love, the magic of the morning dew, and even the magic of poetry and art.

The play stresses perspective so much that it eventually eggs the reader on to see the world as a different place through each of the characters' eyes. Each character has his or her own perspective, and so experiences the magic differently. Bottom finds his wondrous dreams to be magical, while the lovers, arguably the most impacted by magic, are totally oblivious to it. Titania finds magic in her love of a little boy, and Oberon embraces the magic of the supernatural elements in the seemingly natural world. Magic is certainly in the eye of the beholder


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