The role of the fairy in culture drastically changed during the Early Modern Period. Prior to the 1500s, fairies were considered powerful, pernicious, and unpredictable. It was considered bad luck to name or speak of the Fair Folk, which ensured fairies were not included in original stories or added into old ones. To speak too much of the Fair Folk could draw their attention, and writing about fairies seems to have been taboo. As England urbanized and people began moving away from the country, fairy beliefs slowed and fell away. The country folk still believed in the Folk, but educated city men knew differently. Some fairy stories followed country folk to the cities, but most were left in the becks and moors of the countryside. Reason was also gaining precedence over imagination, and more and more, religion and myth were abandoned for capital and advancement.
William Shakespeare saw the potential of fairies and the waning belief in the fear-mongering fairy lore of old. He included fairies in his play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In this play, Shakespeare presented fairies as they had never been seen before: small and non-threatening, engaged in commerce, and generally benevolent towards humans. These fairies creep into flowers, do battle with bats, and protect their queen from snakes and bad dreams. By collecting and combining the folklore of his time and adding a dash of inventiveness, Shakespeare placed “new forms of economic exchange within an ostensibly folkloric narrative” and changed the very weft of Faerie. He drew fairies deeper into economic exchange and conspicuous consumption as he described them smaller and smaller (Swann 454). He also made the fairies benevolent perpetrators of mischief and fortune rather than the demonic creatures of lore. As England moved from a rural society to a commercial one, fairies moved right along with the populace and displayed things in a way people could understand. They gave voice to the doubts and strangeness of all the new changes. Shakespeare essentially created a new Fairyland, one drawn upon by every fantasy writer to come after him. Fairies are no longer frightening, child-sized, or strictly rural. They have become something tiny and evanescent, kind and merry, and attached to the beauty of nature while still enjoying the abundance of capitalism.
The Bard took the fairy lore of his youth and deftly wove it into his plays, first making fairies tiny with Queen Mab in Romeo and Juliet, then making them benevolent in Midsummer Night’s Dream. Queen Mab is a tiny, conspicuous consumer, driving a coach—the latest in Elizabethan technology. But her coach and accruements are made of trash—a walnut shell for a coach, beetle wings for decoration, and cricket bones for a whip. She mildly parodies the consumerist culture in which Shakespeare lives, a mirror of what he sees in the streets. While she does influence dreams and occasionally tie elf-knots into sleeping maidens’ hair, Mab is essentially harmless to humans. Her mischief cannot extend to taking children or causing real harm. Meanwhile, in Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Oberon and Queen Titania are not concerned with trouble either. In fact, the queen’s mortal pageboy was not stolen but placed in her arms by a dear mortal attendant dying from the birth. While Puck creates mischief, it is done in merriment and with the aim of making the lives of the mortals better. Oberon reminds Puck they are “spirits of another sort” (1. 3.3. 389). Titania’s fairies also sing a song against “spotted snakes,” “thorny hedgehogs,” and “newts and blind-words” (111. 2.2. 9-11). If the fairies must ward off such small, relatively harmless creatures, then they themselves cannot be very large or frightening, instead “endowed with gentle benevolence and unalloyed goodness” (Blount 10). Oberon and Titania are in Athens to bless a marriage bed and offer good things to the forest and the people.
Edmund Spenser also wrote about fairies in his epic Faerie Queene and employed courtly fairy lore, which drew on medieval romances and “complimented Elizabeth and her successors by portraying them as ‘faery’ monarchs” (Swann 452). His piece is almost purely political and allegorical. Though his fairies were mortal-sized, they had little agency other than driving the action of the plot forwards. Spenser did draw on fairy myth, and created a good bit of his own, but he gave everything a double or triple meaning, which ensured his fairy poetry upheld the ideals of Elizabethan society and gave the fairies very little to do themselves. Once again, fairies serve as mirrors of Elizabethan societies and figures.
Shakespeare both changed and standardized fairies more than any writer before him. Though Shakespeare was the first to write about small fairies, the tradition of tiny fey became so ingrained by the eighteenth century that Samuel Johnson in his notes on Shakespeare “remarks curtly of ‘the fairy kind,’ that they are ‘an order of Beings to which tradition has always ascribed as sort of diminutive agency, powerful but ludicrous, a humorous and frolikc controlment of natures, well express by the songs of Ariel’” (Green 97). Other Early Modern writers leapt onto Shakespeare’s satiric fairies and Spenser’s flattering fay, and they began writing poetry about fairies in which the creatures were tiny reflections of English court life, complete with glittering grand halls and glorious feats made of trash and disguising bits. William Browne, in the mid 1620’s, published a description of one decadent feast given by the fairies in which “crammed grasshopper,” “two hornets legs,” “a batt [sic]…serv’d with the petty-toes,” “three fleas in souse,” and “the udder of a mouse” were served (Swann 461). The grotesque feast mocks the Spanish court, which had tried to impress King Charles just before the composition of the poem, and it reiterated the idea that fairies lived in miniaturized versions of English court life. Though mocking one world, the fairies also flatter the English nobles. In all the poetry following Shakespeare and Spenser, the tiny fairies served a societal purpose. Indeed “tiny fairies were figures of contradiction and inherent mockery, allied with mythic and folkloric past, yet also firmly ensconced within contemporary practices of material display that were rendered absurd when miniaturized” (Swann 464).
Robert Herrick wrote about tiny fairies in 1648; his “Oberon’s Feast” is a telling-tale of tiny things with consumerist fairies and lavish “attention on the wardrobes, coaches, banquets, and palace décor of the tiny fairy monarchs” (Swann 449-50). Ben Jonson‘s “Queen Mab,” published in 1603, features a mischievous fairy queen engaging in more of the traditional fairy behaviors: pinching messy dairy maids, stealing children, and influencing dreams. While she may display the amoral mischief of early fairies, Mab is not one of their as dangerous as the earlier fairies. There is less to fear in Mab and more to mock. Michael Drayton‘s “Nymphidia,” published in 1627, features Queen Mab and King Oberon as tiny fairies caught up with their own jealousies and intrigues as they mimic humans with coaches and jewels made from snail shells and insect pieces. The fairies are again mirroring humans. While they remain immoral, intemperate, and hedonistic, the fairies written after Shakespeare are not to be feared.
Though the poetry mocked the consumerist lifestyles affected by the wealthy, the fairies also reinforced the right to power and riches and deferred those interested in climbing social ladders. Fairies served to “naturalize the elaborate feats, clothing, and houses of the genteel: by using figures associated with traditional folklore, Stuart poets attempted to obfuscate the conditions of social mobility and economic change which underpinned the contemporary pursuit of luxurious display” (Swann 469). These tiny folk were now so benign and ridiculous they had nothing alien or other about them. Fairies were entirely tamed and reinforced the rules of society even as it parodied society’s excess.
Green, Robert Lancelyn. “Shakespeare and the Fairies.” Folklore, 73.2 (1962): 89-103. Web.
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ed. Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen. William Shakespeare Complete Works. New York: The Modern Library, 2007. 365-412. Print.
Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Ed. Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen. William Shakespeare Complete Works. New York: The Modern Library, 2007. 1675-1743. Print.
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Ed. Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen. William Shakespeare Complete Works. New York: The Modern Library, 2007. 1-51. Print.
Swann, Marjorie. “The Politics of Fairylore in Early Modern English Literature.” Renaissance Quarterly 43.2 (2000): 449-73. Web.