The Sources and Analogues of 'A Midsummer-night's Dream'
by Compiled by Frank Sidgwick
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[Duffield & Company Crest]



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Paulin Paris.

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A study such as the present one does not demand any elaborate investigation of the date or circumstances of the first production of the play, unless these throw light on the inquiry into its sources; but in any case it is always well to base a literary study on literary history. Here it will suffice to say shortly that A Midsummer-Night's Dream, first published in 1600, must have been acted before or during 1598, as it is definitely mentioned in Mores' Palladic Tamia of that year. A more exact determination of its date can only be derived from the internal evidence supplied by allusions in the text or by metrical and general style. Such allusions as have been discovered—for example, that reference to "the death of learning," V. i. 52-3—form here as elsewhere a battle-ground for critics of all sorts, but do not really assist us to an answer. More trustworthy testimony, however, is afforded by the general character of the play, and by Shakespeare's handling of his material; these considerations, combined with whatever other evidence is available, have caused the play to be assigned to the winter of 1594-5. So placed, it is the latest of the early comedies of Shakespeare, who makes an advance on The Two Gentlemen of Verona, but has not yet attained the firmness of hand which fills the canvas of The Merchant of Venice with so many well-delineated figures. Once arrived at this conclusion, we need not let ourselves again be led away into vagueness or critical polemics by an attempt to find any aristocratic wedding which this masque-like play seems designed to celebrate; such theorising, however interesting in other ways, does not concern and will not avail us now.

It is none the less of value to recognise at the outset that A Midsummer-Night's Dream is more of a masque than a drama—an entertainment rather than a play. The characters are mostly puppets, and scarcely any except Bottom has the least psychological interest for the reader. Probability is thrown to the winds; anachronism is rampant; classical figures are mixed with fairies and sixteenth-century Warwickshire peasants. The main plot is sentimental, the secondary plot is sheer buffoonery; while the story; of Titania's jealousy and Oberon's method of curing it can scarcely be dignified by the title of plot at all. The threads which bind together these three tales, however ingeniously fastened, are fragile. The Spirit of Mischief puts a happy end to the differences of the four lovers, and by his transformation of Bottom reconciles the fairy King and Queen, while he incidentally goes near to spoiling the performance of the "crew of patches" at the nuptials of Theseus by preventing due rehearsal of their interlude. It is perhaps a permissible fancy to convert Theseus' words "the lunatic, the lover, and the poet," to illustrate the triple appeal made by the three ingredients the grotesque, the sentimental, and the fantastic. Each part, of course, is coloured by the poet's genius, and the whole is devoted to the comic aspect of love, its eternal youth and endless caprice, laughing at laws, and laughed at by the secure. "What fools these mortals be!" is the comment of the immortal; the corollary, left unspoken by those outside the pale, being "What fools these lovers be!"

The sources from which Shakespeare drew the plots of his three dozen of plays are for the most part easily recognisable; and although in each case the material was altered to suit his requirements—nihil tetigit quod non ornavit—there is as a rule very little doubt as to the derivation. We can say with certainty that these nine plays were made out of stories from Boccaccio, Masuccio, Bandello, Ser Giovanni, Straparola, Cinthio or Belleforest; that those six were based on older plays, and another half-dozen drawn from Holinshed; that Chaucer, Gower, Lydgate, Sidney, Greene, and Lodge provided other plots; and so forth, until we are left with The Tempest, founded in part on an actual contemporary event, Love's Labour's Lost, apparently his only original plot—if indeed it deserve the name—and finally our present subject A Midsummer-Nights Dream.

The problem—given the play—is to discover what parts of it Shakespeare conveyed from elsewhere, and to investigate those sources as far as is compatible with the limits of this book. For this purpose, it is most convenient to adopt the above-mentioned division into three component plots or tales; and because these are rather loosely woven together, the characters in the play may be simultaneously divided thus:—

1. Theseus. The main (sentimental) plot of the four Hippolyta. lovers at the court of Theseus. Egeus. Philostrate. Lysander. Demetrius. Helena. Hermia.

2. Bottom. The grotesque plot, with the interlude Quince. of Pyramus and Thisbe. Snug. Flute. Snout. Starveling.

3. Oberon. The fairy plot. Titania. Puck. Fairies.

It may be observed that for these three plots Shakespeare draws respectively on literature, observation, and oral tradition; for we shall see, I think, that while there can be little doubt that he had been reading Chaucer, North's Plutarch and Golding's Ovid, not to mention other works, probably including some which are now lost, it is also impossible to avoid the conclusion that much if not all of his fairy-lore is derived from no literary source at all, but from the popular beliefs which must have been current in oral tradition in his youth.

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"And out of olde bokes, in good feith, Cometh al this newe science that men lere." Chaucer.

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As the play opens with speeches of Theseus and Hippolyta, it is convenient to treat first of these two characters. Mr. E.K. Chambers has collected (in Appendix D to his edition) nine passages from North's Plutarch's Life of Theseus, of which Shakespeare appears to have made direct use. For example, Oberon's references to "Perigenia," "Aegles," "Ariadne and Antiopa" (II. i. 79-80) are doubtless derived from North; and certainly the reference by Theseus to his "kinsman Hercules" (V. i. 47) is based on the following passage:—

... "they were near kinsmen, being cousins removed by the mother's side. For Aethra was the daughter of Pittheus, and Alcmena (the mother of Hercules) was the daughter of Lysidice, the which was half-sister to Pittheus, both children of Pelops and of his wife Hippodamia."

In modern phraseology, Theseus and Hercules were thus second cousins.

Of the Amazon queen North says:—

"Touching the voyage he [Theseus] made by the sea Maior, Philochorus, and some other hold opinion, that he went thither with Hercules against the Amazons, and that to honour his valiantness, Hercules gave him Antiopa the Amazon. But the more part of the other Historiographers ... do write, that Theseus went thither alone, after Hercules' voyage, and that he took this Amazon prisoner, which is likeliest to be true."

At this point we should interpolate the reason why Hercules went against the Amazons. The ninth (as usually enumerated) of the twelve labours of Hercules was to fetch away the girdle of the queen of the Amazons, a gift from her father Ares, the god of fighting. Admete, the daughter of Eurystheus (at whose bidding the twelve labours were performed) desired this girdle, and Hercules was sent by her father to carry it off by force. The queen of the Amazons was Hippolyta, and she had a sister named Antiopa. One story says that Hercules slew Hippolyta; another that Hippolyta was enticed on board his ship by Theseus; a third, as we have seen, that Theseus married Antiopa. It is not easy to choose incidents from these conflicting accounts so as to make a reasonable sequence; but, as North says, "we are not to marvel, if the history of things so ancient, be found so diversely written." Shakespeare simply states that Theseus "woo'd" Hippolyta "with his sword." Later in the play we learn that the fairy King and Queen not only are acquainted with court-scandal, but are each involved with the past histories of Theseus and Hippolyta (II. i. 70-80).

Apart from these incidents in Theseus' life, Chaucer supplies the dramatist with all he requires in the opening of The Knightes Tale, which we shall discuss in full shortly.[1]

"Whylom, as olde stories tellen us, Ther was a duke that highte[2] Theseus; Of Athenes he was lord and governour, And in his tyme swich a conquerour, That gretter was ther noon under the sonne. Ful many a riche contree hadde he wonne; What with his wisdom and his chivalrye, He conquered al the regne[3] of Femenye, That whylom was y-cleped[4] Scithia; And weddede the quene Ipolita, And broghte hir hoom with him in his contree With muchel glorie and greet solempnitee, And eek hir yonge suster Emelye. And thus with victorie and with melodye Lete I this noble duke to Athenes ryde, And al his hoost, in armes, him besyde. And certes, if it nere[5] to long to here, I wolde han told yow fully the manere, How wonnen was the regne of Femenye By Theseus, and by his chivalrye; And of the grete bataille for the nones Betwixen Athenes and Amazones, And how asseged[6] was Ipolita, The faire hardy quene of Scithia ..."

Egeus, whom Shakespeare makes a courtier of Theseus and father to Hermia, is in the classical legend Aegeus, father of Theseus; both Plutarch and Chaucer so mention him.

The name of Philostrate also comes from Chaucer, where, as we shall see, it is the name adopted by Arcite when he returns to court in disguise, to become first "page of the chamber" to Emelye, and thereafter chief squire to Theseus. It is in this latter capacity that Chaucer's "Philostrate" is nearest to Shakespeare's character, the Master of the Revels.

Of the four lovers, the names of Lysander, Demetrius, and Helena, are of course classical; Shakespeare would find lives of Lysander and Demetrius in North's Plutarch. The name of Hermia, who corresponds with Emilia or Emily of The Knightes Tale, as being the lady on whom the affections of the two young men are set, may have been taken from the legend of Aristotle and Hermia, referred to more than once by Greene. The name cannot be called classical, and appears to be a mistranslation of Hermias.[7]

The story of Palamon and Arcite has not been traced beyond Boccaccio, that fountain of romance, though he himself says the tale of "Palemone and Arcita" is "una antichissima storia." Possibly the story was taken, as much of Boccaccio's writing must have been taken, from tradition. Palaemon is a classical name,[8] and Arcite might be a corruption of Archytas. Boccaccio's Teseide (the story of Theseus) which was written about 1344, and may have been first issued wholly or in part under the title of Amazonide, is a poem in the vernacular consisting of twelve books and ten thousand lines in ottava rima.[9]

Chaucer, in the Prologue to The Legend of Good Women (which is presumably earlier than the Canterbury Tales) states that he had already written

" ... al the love of Palamon and Arcyte Of Thebes, thogh the story is knowen lyte.[10]"

Skeat says "some scraps are preserved in other poems" of Chaucer; he instances (i) ten stanzas from this Palamon and Arcite in a minor poem Anelida and Arcite, where Chaucer refers to Statius, Thebais, xii. 519;[11] (ii) three stanzas in Trolius and Crheyde; and (iii) six stanzas in The Parlement of Foules, where the description of the Temple of Love is borrowed almost word for word from Boccaccio's Teseide.[12] Finally, Chaucer used Palamon and Arcite as the basis of The Knightes Tale. By this time, while he retains what folk-lorists call the "story-radical," he has reduced Boccaccio's epic to less than a quarter of its length, and improved it in details. It stands as the first of The Canterbury Tales.


Old stories relate that once there was a Duke Theseus, lord of Athens, a conqueror of many lands. His latest conquest was "Femenye" (once called Scythia), whose queen Hippolyta he wedded and brought home, accompanied by her young sister Emilia. Now as he drew near to Athens, a company of ladies met him in the way, and laid before him their complaint, to the effect that, their husbands having fallen at the siege of Thebes, Creon the tyrant of Thebes would not let the bodies be buried or burned, but cast them on a heap and suffered the dogs to eat them. Duke Theseus, having sworn to avenge this wrong, sent Hippolyta and Emilia to Athens, and rode to Thebes, where in full battle he fought and slew Creon, and razed the city. The due obsequies were then performed.[13]

Amongst the slain were found, half-dead, two young knights named Palamon and Arcite, whom the heralds recognised, from the cognisances on their armour, as of blood-royal, and born of two sisters. Theseus sent them to Athens to be held to ransom in prison perpetually, and himself returned home in triumph.

So years and days passed, and Palamon and Arcite dwelt in durance in a tower; till on a morrow of May it befel that the fair and fresh Emilia arose to do observance to May, and walked in the garden, gathering flowers and singing. Now in a high chamber of the tower, which adjoined the garden-wall, Palamon by leave of his gaoler was pacing to and fro and bewailing his lot, when he cast his eyes through the thick-barred window, and beheld Emilia in the garden below; whereat he blenched, and cried out as though struck to the heart. Arcite heard him, and, asking him why he so cried out, bade him suffer imprisonment in patience; but Palamon replied that the cause of his crying out was the beauty of the lady in the garden. Thereupon Arcite spied out of the window at Emilia, and was so struck by her fairness

"That if that Palamon was wounded sore, Arcite is hurt as muche as he, or more."

So strife began between the two. Palamon said it were small honour for Arcite to be false to his cousin and sworn brother, since each had taken an oath not to hinder the other in love; nay, as a knight Arcite was bound to help him in his amour. But Arcite replied that love knows no law; decrees of man are every day broken for love; moreover Palamon and he were prisoners, and were like two dogs fighting for a bone which meantime a kite bears away. Let each continue in his love, for in prison each must endure.

Now a duke name Pirithous came to visit his friend Theseus; who being also a friend to Arcite begged Theseus to let him go free out of prison, which Theseus did. And Arcite was set free without ransom, but on condition that his life should be forfeit if he ever set foot again in any domain of Duke Theseus.

Yet now Arcite found himself in no better stead, being banished from the sight of his lady; and could even find it in his heart to envy Palamon, who might still blissfully abide in prison—nay, not in prison, in Paradise, where sometimes he might see her whom both loved. And on his part Palamon was jealous of Arcite, who might even now be calling together his kin in Thebes to make onslaught on Athens and win his lady Emilia.

"Yow loveres axe I now this questioun, Who hath the worse, Arcite or Palamoun?"

Now when Arcite had for a year or two endured this torment, he dreamed one night that the god Mercury appeared to him, and said to him, "To Athens shalt thou wend." Whereupon Arcite started up, and saw in the mirror that his sufferings had so changed him that he might live in Athens unknown. So he clad himself as a labourer, and went with one squire to Athens, and offered his service at the court, where for a year or two he was page of the chamber to Emilia, and passed under the name of Philostrate. And in the course of time he was so honoured that Theseus took notice of him, and made him squire of his own chamber, and maintained him nobly.

Meantime Palamon had lain seven years in prison, when it befel on the third day of May (as the old books that tell this story say) that, aided by a friend, he broke prison, having given his gaoler to drink of drugged wine, and so fled the city, and lay hid in a grove. Hither by chance came Arcite to do observance to May; and first Palamon heard him sing

"Wel-come be thou, faire fresshe May; I hope that I som grene gete may,"

and thereafter fall into a study, as lovers will, lamenting his hard fate that he should be passing under a false name, and daily be slain by the eyes of Emilia. Whereat Palamon started up, and reproached him, and challenged him to fight; and Arcite answered him no less boldly, saying he would bring him arms and weapons on the morrow, as well as meat and drink and bedding for the night.

So on the morrow the two donned their harness, helping each other to arm, and then fell a-fighting, Palamon like a wild lion, and Arcite like a cruel tiger, till they were ankle-deep in blood.

On the same day rode forth Theseus with Hippolyta and Emilia to hunt the hart, and Theseus was aware of the two knights fighting. He spurred his steed between them, and cried to them to hold their hands. And Palamon told him who they were, and why they fought. Theseus at first was angry, and condemned them both to death; but when the queen Hippolyta and Emilia and the ladies of their train pleaded for them, he relented, bethinking himself of what love is, for he himself had been a servant [lover] in his time; wherefore, at the request of the queen and Emilia, he forgave them, if they would swear to do his country no harm, and be his friends. And when they had sworn, he reasoned with them, that each was worthy to wed Emilia, but that both could not so do; therefore let each depart for a year, and gather to him a hundred knights, and then return to tourney in the lists for the hand of Emilia.

"Who loketh lightly now but Palamoun? Who springeth up for joye but Arcite?"

And thanking him on their knees, they took their leave and rode away.

Royal were the lists which Theseus made, a mile in circuit, and walled with stone. Eastward and westward were marble gates, whereon were built temples of Venus and Mars, while in a turret on the north wall was a shrine of Diana goddess of chastity. And each temple was nobly carven and wrought with statues and pictures.

Now the day of the tourney approached, and Palamon and Arcite returned each with a hundred knights.

"To fighte for a lady, ben'cite! It were a lusty sighte for to see."

Palamon brought with him Ligurge king of Thrace, and with Arcite was Emetreas, the king of India, each a giant in might. So on a Sunday they all came to the city.

And in the night, ere dawn, Palamon arose and went to the temple of Venus to pray that he might win Emilia for his wife; and, as it seemed, in answer to his prayer, the statue of Venus shook, and Palamon held it for a sign that the boon he asked was granted. Emilia meanwhile went to the temple of Diana, and prayed to the goddess, that she might remain a virgin, and that the hearts of Palamon and Arcite might be turned from her; or, if she needs must wed one of the twain, let him be the one that most desired her. To her appeared the goddess Diana, and told her that she must be wedded to one of the two, but she might not tell which that one should be.

And Arcite went to the temple of Mars, and prayed for victory; whereat the door of the temple clattered, and the fires blazed up on the altar, while the hauberk on the god's statue rang, and Arcite heard a murmur of "Victory." So rejoicing thereat he returned home

"As fayn as fowel is of the brighte sonne."

Thereafter in the heavens above strife began betwixt Mars and Venus, such that Jupiter himself was troubled to quell it; till Saturn (the father of Venus) comforted his daughter with assurance that Palamon should win his lady.

That day was high festival in Athens, and all Monday they justed and feasted, but went betimes to rest that they might rise early to see the great fight. And on the morrow there were lords and knights and squires, armourers, yeomen and commoners, and steeds and palfreys, on every hand, and all was ready.

Now a herald proclaimed from a scaffold the will of Duke Theseus, decreeing the weapons with which the tourney should be fought, and the rules of the combat. Then with trumpets and music, Theseus and Hippolyta and Emilia in a noble procession took their places; and from the west gate under the temple of Mars came Arcite with a red banner, and from the east, under the temple of Venus, Palamon with a white banner. And the names of the two companies were recited, the heralds left pricking up and down, the trumpet and clarion sounded, and the just began. Sore was the fight, and many were wounded and by the duke's proclamation removed from the fight; and many a time fought Palamon and Arcite together. But everything must have an end; Emetreus gave Palamon a wound; and though Ligurge attempted his rescue, he was borne down; and though Emetreus was thrust from his saddle by Palamon, Palamon was wounded, and had to give up the combat and the hope of winning Emilia. And Theseus cried to them that the tourney was finished, and that Arcite should have the lady; whereat the rejoicing of the people was loud.

But in heaven Venus wept, so that her tears fell down into the lists; yet Saturn promised that her sorrow should be eased soon.

And in truth as Arcite rode in triumph down the lists, looking up at Emilia, Pluto, at the bidding of Saturn, sent from hell a fury, that started from the ground in front of Arcite's horse, which shied and threw his rider; and Arcite pitched on his head, and lay as though dead. They bore him to Theseus' palace, cut his harness from off him, and laid him in a bed.

Theseus for three days entertained the knights of the tourney, and then all of them went their several ways. But Arcite lay dying; no longer had Nature any power;

"And certeinly, ther nature wol nat wirche, Far-wel, phisyk! go ber the man to chirche!"

On his deathbed he called Palamon and Emilia to his side, and bade farewell to his heart's queen, commending Palamon to her,

"As in this world right now ne knowe I non So worthy to ben loved as Palamon That serveth yow, and wol don al his lyf. And if that ever ye shul ben a wyf, Forget nat Palamon, the gentil man."

And his speech failed him, and his strength went out of him: but he still kept his eyes fixed on his lady, and his last word was "Mercy, Emilye!"

Theseus gave Arcite a costly funeral, and built his funeral pyre in the grove where Palamon had heard him lament on the morning of May. And when by process of time the grief and mourning for Arcite had ceased, Theseus sent for Palamon and Emilia; and with wise words bidding them be merry after woe, gave Emilia to Palamon, who wedded her, and they lived in bliss and in richness and in health.

"Thus endeth Palamon and Emelye. And God save all this faire companye!"

Such is Chaucer's tale of Palamon and Arcite. It was dramatised before Shakespeare's day by Richard Edwardes in a play now lost. Possibly the play of "Palamon and Arcite" four times recorded—in for different spellings—by Henslowe in his Diary[14] is Edwardes' play, but as the latter was performed at Oxford before Queen Elizabeth as early as 1566, it is at least equally possible that Henslowe's play is another version.

The complete Chaucerian form of the story of Palamon and Arcite is dramatised in The Two Noble Kinsmen, a play to which Shakespeare undoubtedly[15] contributed. The changes made by the authors—Fletcher and Massinger or Shakespeare, or all three—are little more than such limitations as are demanded by dramatic form; for instance, the Kinsmen, when discovered fighting, are dismissed for a month to find three knights, instead of being given a year to find one hundred. Chaucer's hint, that Palamon was assisted to escape from prison by a friend, is developed by the dramatists to make the sub-plot of the gaoler's daughter. The character-drawing is far more subtle than the poet's; Chaucer leaves the reader's sympathies equally divided, despite the fact that he says plainly that Arcite was in the wrong, because he violated the compact of the two kinsmen to assist each other in love.

We must now consider what justification there is for believing that the main plot of A Midsummer-Night's Dream was suggested by The Knightes Tale. Firstly, as has already been pointed out, the nuptials of Theseus form the beginning of both play and poem; though in the poem the actual ceremony has been performed, and it is his triumphant return to the city of Athens that is interrupted by the widows' appeal for justice; and in the play the action passes in the three or four days before the marriage. Secondly, the wedding-day is the first of May, and there are two references to that "observance of May"[16] which is given by Chaucer as the reason both for Emilia's walking in the garden and for Arcite's seeking of the grove where Palamon lay hid.[17] Thirdly, it can hardly be doubted that Shakespeare took the name of Philostrate from Chaucer; Egeus he would find also in North's Plutarch as the name of the father of Theseus; and it is possible that Chaucer's names for the champions, Ligurge and Emetreus, may have suggested Lysander and Demetrius. Finally, there are two or three minor indications; Lysander and Demetrius fight, or attempt to fight, for Helena, in the "wood near Athens," just as Palamon and Arcite fight for Emilia in the grove[18]; Theseus is a keen huntsman both in the poem and in the play[19]; and he refers[20] to his conquest of Thebes, which, as we have seen, is described in The Knightes Tale.

Apart from these details, I do not think Shakespeare is indebted to Chaucer. It is conceivable that the story of Palamon and Arcite affected, but did not supply, the plot of the four lovers in A Midsummer-Night's Dream; but Shakespeare has added a second woman. This completion of the antithesis is characteristic of his early work; with a happy ending in view, the characters must fall into pairs, whereas with Palamon, Arcite, and Emilia, one of the men must be removed. There is nothing to prevent the supposition that Shakespeare was acquainted from boyhood with Chaucer's story—either in Chaucerian form or possibly in the shape of a chap-book—and that he constructed a first draft of The Two Noble Kinsmen quite early in his career as a playwright, subsequently laying it aside as unsatisfactory, and, in his declining years, collaborating with another or others to produce the play on that theme.

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"But, for I am a man noght textuel, I wol noght telle of textes never a del; I wol go to my tale."—Chaucer.

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The second portion of our study will not detain us long, as there are no literary sources for the "rude mechanicals," and their interlude of Pyramus and Thisbe is derived from a well-known classical story. Shakespeare draws them from life, and from his own observation of Warwickshire rustics, as he drew the two Gobbos, Launce, Christopher Sly, and a host of minor characters. Doubtless he had met many of the crew of patches, perhaps beneath the roof of "Marian Hacket, the fat ale-wife of Wincot," where we may suppose him to have made merry with "Stephen Sly, and old John Naps of Greece, and Peter Turf, and Henry Pimpernell."

Bottom takes his name from the wooden reel or spool on which thread is wound; "bottom" simply meaning the base or foundation of the reel. The names of his comrades have no specific connection with the trades they ply; but "Starveling" is appropriate by tradition for a tailor—it takes seven tailors to make a man.

The episode of Bottom's "translation," or transformation into an ass, may have been suggested to Shakespeare by a passage in Reginald Scot's Discovery of Witchcraft (1584)—a book with which he must have been acquainted, as we shall see in discussing the fairy-section of the play. Scot mentions the supposed power of witches to change men into animals, and quotes (in order to discredit) some recorded instances. Chief among these is the story[21] of an English sailor abroad, who got into the power of a witch and was transformed by her into an ass, so that when he attempted to rejoin his crew, he was beaten from the gangway with contempt. This will be found in the third chapter of Scot's fifth book: Of a man turned into an asse, and returned againe into a man by one of Bodin's witches: S. Augustine's opinion thereof. "Bodin" is Jean Bodin, who wrote a book de Magorum Daemonomania (1581; a French version was published in the previous year), and mentions this story (lib. 2, cap. vi.). According to Scot, Bodin takes the story "out of M. Mal. [Malleus Maleficarum], which tale was delivered to Sprenger by a knight of the Rhodes."

Scot mentions further the famous story of the Golden Ass of Apuleius[22]; a legend of the reappearance of one of the Popes, a hundred years after his death, with an ass's head; and gives a charm to put an ass's head on a man.[23]

From these instances a literary origin for Bottom's transformation seems probable but Shakespeare may himself have fallen in with a survival of the witch-superstition Almost while writing these words I receive first-hand evidence that such a tradition is not yet extinct in Welford-on-Avon, a village, four miles from Stratford, with which Shakespeare must have been perfectly familiar. The witch, as usual, was an old woman, credited with the "evil eye" and the power of causing the death of cattle and farm-stock by "overlooking" them; and the native of Welford, from whom the story was communicated to me, would be prepared to produce eye-witnesses of various transformations of the old woman into some kind of animal—transformations effected not only at Welford, but even in the centre of Stratford on market-day!

Shakespeare had probably met with the story of Pyramus and Thisbe in more than one form. Golding's translation in 1575 of the story in Ovid's Metamorphoses[24] is reprinted in this book[25]; Chaucer included the Legend of Thisbe of Babylon as the second story in the Legend of Good Women; and there appears to have been also "a boke intituled Perymus and Thesbye," for which the Stationers' Register record the granting of a license in 1562. There is, too, a poem on the subject by I. Thomson in Robinson's Handeful of Pleasant Delites (1584).

The Historia de Piramo e Tisbe was very early in print in Italy, and continued to be popular in chap-book form until the nineteenth century at least.

In his commentary on A Midsummer-Night's Dream in the larger Temple Shakespeare, Professor Gollancz points out the existence of a Pyramus and Thisbe play, discovered by him in a manuscript at the British Museum.[26] This MS. is a Cambridge commonplace book of about 1630, containing poems attributed to Ben Jonson, Sir Walter Raleigh and others, though the greater portion of the contents appear to be topical verses and epigrams unsigned. Amongst these is "Tragaedia miserrima Pyrami & Thisbes fata enuncians. Historia ex Publio Ovidio deprompta. Authore N.R." In the margins are written corresponding passages in Latin from Ovid, whose story it follows closely.

The play is in blank verse of a poor kind with occasional rhyming couplets. After a prologue begins "Actus Primus and ultimus"; there are only five scenes in all, and the whole is quite short. The characters consist of Iphidius, father of Pyramus; Labetrus, father of Thisbe; their children, the protagonists; their respective servants, Straton and Clitipho; and Casina, "ancilla" or handmaid to Thisbe. There is also "a raging liones from ye woods." The moral of the play, as stated by Iphidius, is that

"the erraticall motions in children's actions Must to a regular form by parents be reduc'd."

These lines, and others in the play, would gain by being "reduc'd to a regular form."

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Siecles charmants de feerie, Vous avez pour moi mille attraits, Que de fois dans le reverie, Mon coeur vous donne de regrets. Tout ne fut alors que mensonge aimable; Tout n'est plus que realite; Rien n'est si jolie que la fable, Si triste que la verite!

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In The Midsummer-Night's Dream, Shakespeare presents a conception of fairy-land as original as that which owes its propagation to Perrault and the other French collectors of fairy-tales; its merits as a popular delineation of the fairy-world are proved by the fact that it has obtained the sanction and approval of tradition, passing almost at once into an accepted literary convention; so that even to-day it is not easy to shake off the inherited impression that the fairies are only what Shakespeare shows them to be. He did not, of course, invent them; he had doubtless both read of them and heard tales of them; but he invested them with a delicate and graceful fancy that has held the popular imagination ever since. Thanks to him, the modern English conception of the fairies is different from the conceptions prevalent in other countries, and infinitely more picturesque and pleasant.

As before, it will be convenient to deal first with the names of his characters.

Oberon is the English transliteration of the French Auberon in the romance of Huon of Bordeaux, and Auberon is probably merely the French counterpart of Alberich or Albrich, a dwarf occurring in the German Nibelungenlied and other works. Etymologically Alberich is composed of alb = elf and rich = king. The name Oberon appears first in English literature in Lord Berners' translation of Huon of Bordeaux (c. 1534), and afterwards in Spenser[27] and in Robert Greene's play James IV, which was acted in 1589.[28] But the king of the fairies in Chaucer[29] is Pluto, and the queen Proserpine.

Titania. Proserpine is the wife of Pluto (in Greek, form, Persephone, wife of Dis). In Elizabethan times, Campion's charming poem "Hark, all you ladies that do sleep"[30] keeps the name of "the fairy-queen Proserpina." Shakespeare appears to have taken the name Titania from Ovid,[31] who uses it as an epithet of Diana, as being the sister of Sol or Helios, the Sun-god, a Titan. Scot, in his Discovery of Witchcraft,[32] gives Diana as one of the names of the "lady of the fairies"; and James I, in his Demonology (1597) refers to a "fourth kind of sprites, which by the Gentiles was called Diana and her wandering court, and amongst us called the Phairie."

Curiously enough in Shakespeare's most famous description of the Fairy Queen, she is called Queen Mab;[33] this is said to be of Celtic derivation. Mercutio's catalogue of Mab's attributes and functions corresponds closely with the description of Robin Goodfellow.

Puck is strictly not a proper name; and in the quartos and folios of A Midsummer-Night's Dream, Puck, Robin, and Robin Goodfellow are used indiscriminately. In no place in the text is he addressed as "Puck"; it is always "Robin"[34] (once[35] "Goodfellow" is added). In the last lines of the play he twice refers to himself as "an honest Puck" and "the Puck," [36] showing that the word is originally a substantive. Dr. J.A.H. Murray has very kindly allowed the slips of the New English Dictionary which contain notes for the article 'Puck' to be inspected; his treatment of the word will be awaited with much interest. The earliest and most important reference is to Prof. A.S. Napier's Old English Glosses (1900), 191, where in a list of glosses of the eleventh century to Aldhelm's Aenigmata occurs "larbula [i. e. larvula], puca." Prof. Napier notes that O.E. puca, "a goblin," whence N.E. Puck, is a well authenticated word. Dr. Bradley suggests that the source might be a British word, from which the Irish puca would be borrowed; this word pooka, as well as the allied poker, has already been treated in the N.E.D. Puck, pouke, we find in O.E. (Old English Miscellany, E.E.T.S., 76), in Piers Plowman, and surviving in Spenser; but there are countless analogous forms: puckle, pixy, pisgy, in English, and perhaps (through Welsh) bug, the old word for bugbear, bogy, bogle, etc.; puki in Icelandic; pickel in German; and many more.[37]

We may note here the euphemistic tendency to call powerful spirits by propitiatory names. Just as the Greeks called the Furies "Eumenides," the benevolent ones, so is Robin called Good-fellow; the ballad of Tam Lin[38] refers to them as "gude neighbours"; the Gaels[39] term a fairy "a woman of peace"; and Professor Child points out the same fact in relation to the neo-Greek nereids.[40] Hence also "sweet puck."[41] The names of the four attendant fairies, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustard-seed, are Shakespeare's invention, chosen perhaps to typify grace, lightness, speed, and smallness.

The literary sources on which Shakespeare, in writing of fairies, probably drew—or those, at least, on which he could have drawn—can be shortly stated. We have already mentioned Scot's Discovery of Witchcraft (1584); this was no doubt the chief source of information regarding Puck or Robin Goodfellow, as well as of the fairies themselves. Shakespeare was doubtless also familiar with the treatment accorded to the fairy-world by Chaucer[42] and Spenser[43] and with the many tales of supernatural beings in romances like Huon of Bordeaux and others of the Arthurian cycle. There is also a black-letter tract concerning Robin Goodfellow,[44] but no one has yet proved that this pamphlet was in print before 1628, the date of the earliest surviving edition. Ultimately, however, this matters little, because the tract is evidently drawn largely from oral traditions about Robin, and so has a source common with that of much of Shakespeare's fairy-lore.

Minor allusions, chiefly, to Robin Goodfellow, he may have met with in various works[45] published before the assumed date of the play; but these, again, add nothing which Shakespeare could not have learned just as well from the superstitions of his day. What these were, and how he handled them, we must now proceed to discuss.

In approaching a subject such as fairy-lore, it is necessary to prepare the mind of the reader to go back to days not merely pre-Christian but even pre-national. Our fairies can no more justly be called English than can our popular poetry. Folk-lore—the study of the traditional beliefs and customs of the common people—is a science invented centuries too late;[46] for lack of evidence, it is largely theoretical. But it teaches its students continually to look further afield, and to compare the tales, ballads, superstitions, rites, and mythologies of one country with those of another. The surprising results thus obtained must not make us think that one country has borrowed from another; we must throw our minds back to a common ancestry and common creeds. "The attempt to discriminate modern national characteristics in the older stratum of European folk-lore is not only idle but mischievous, because it is based upon the unscientific assumption that existing differences, which are the outcome of comparatively recent historical conditions, have always existed." These are the wise words of a sound folk-lorist,[47] and should be laid to heart by all who take up the study.

We cannot begin to investigate the origins of the fairy superstition in the cradle of the world; we must be content to realise that there was a creed concerning supernatural beings common to all the European branches of the Aryan peoples, Greek, Roman, Celt or Teuton. When Thomas Nashe wrote in 1594 of "the Robbin-good-fellowes, Elfes, Fairies, Hobgoblins of our latter age, which idolatrous former daies and the fantasticall world of Greece ycleaped Fawnes, Satyres, Dryades, and Hamadryades," he spoke more truly than he knew.[48]

First of all, let us consider the word fairy. Strictly, this is a substantive meaning either "the land of the fays," or else "the fay-people" collectively; it is also used as an equivalent for "enchantment." It was originally, therefore, incorrect to speak of "a fairy";[49] the singular term is "a fay," as opposed to "the fairy." Fay is derived, through French, from the Low Latin fata, misunderstood as a feminine singular; it is in fact the plural of Fatum, and means "the Fates."

Reversing the chronological order, let us proceed to compare the functions of these beings. The Fates, whether the Greek Moirae or the Roman Parcae, were three in number, and were variously conceived as goddesses of birth or of death; the elements of the primitive idea are, at least, comprised in the conception that they allotted man his fate; we may also note that the metaphor of spinning was used in connection with their duties.

Leaving classical lands and times, we find in the tenth century, amongst the Eddic Lays of northern Europe, the following passage:—

"It was in the olden days ... when Helgi the stout of heart was born of Borghild, in Braeholt. Night lay over the house when the Fates came to forecast the hero's life. They said that he should be called the most famous of kings and the best among princes. With power they twisted the strands of fate for Borghild's son in Braeholt...."[50]

Here the "Fates" are the "Norns" of the northern mythology. We find them practising the same functions again in twelfth century Saxo Grammaticus,[51] who calls them "three maidens"; their caprices are shown when two of them bestow good temper and beauty on Fridleif's son Olaf, and the third mars their gifts by endowing the boy with niggardliness.

In commenting upon both the Eddic Lay and the Danish Historian, the editors remark that this point of the story—the bestowal of gifts at birth—survives in the chanson de geste of Ogier the Dane,[52] whose relations with the fairy-world may be narrated shortly as follows.[53]

At the birth of Ogier the Dane, five fairies promised him strength, bravery, success, beauty, and love; after them came Morgan le Fay, whose gift was that, after a glorious career, Ogier should come to live with her at her castle of Avalon. When the hero was over a hundred years of age, Morgan caused him to be wrecked near Avalon. In his wanderings he comes to an orchard, where he eats an apple. A beautiful lady approaches whom he mistakes for the Virgin; but she tells him she is Morgan le Fay. She puts a ring on his finger and he becomes young; she puts a crown on his head, and he forgets the past. For two hundred years he lives in unearthly delights, and the years seem to him to be but twenty. He then returns to earth to champion Christendom; but after triumphing over his foes he returns to Avalon.[54]

The tale of Ogier was long popular in Denmark—of which country he is the national hero—and also in France; and the notion of supernatural gifts at birth has obtained a very wide vogue. But Ogier's story also exhibits another very popular piece of superstition—that of a journey to or a sojourn in the supernatural world.[55] Our English parallel to Ogier, as Professor Child points out,[56] is Thomas of Erceldoune.

This leads us to the consideration of three English metrical Romances, which in all probability are derived from French sources, containing accounts of the visits to fairy-land made by Thomas of Erceldoune, Launfal, and Orfeo. The first and last of these are also known in the form of ballads; whether these ballads derive directly from the romances, or may be supposed to have existed side by side with them in the fifteenth century, is a question which must not delay us here. The romances and the ballads may all have been known to Shakespeare in book-form or in tradition.

The romance of Thomas of Erceldoune is a poem in three "fyttes" or sections, which is preserved wholly or in part in five manuscripts, of which the earliest may be dated about 1435. The poem tells us that Thomas of Erceldoune's prophetic power was a gift from the queen of Elf-land, with whom he paid a visit to her realm. The first "fytte" is occupied in narrating his sojourn;[57] while the other two set forth the predictions with which the queen supplied him. The romance is probably of Scottish origin, as the prophecies treat mainly of Scottish history; but the first "fytte" (which alone concerns us here, and indeed appears to be separate in origin from the other two) refers to an "older story." This, Professor Child says, "was undoubtedly a romance which narrated the adventure of Thomas with the elf queen simply, without specification of his prophecies."

Doubtless the older story was not originally attached to Thomas of Erceldoune, who, as "Thomas Rymour of Ercildoune," is a historical character. He lived, as is proved by contemporary documents, in the thirteenth century, at Ercildoune (Earlstoun on the banks of the Leader in Berwickshire), and gained a reputation as a "rymour," i.e. poet and prophet—in which character he was venerated by the folk for centuries.

But the Rymour does not concern us; the tale of a mortal's visit to elf-land would have been told of some one, whether Thomas or another; he was a prophet, and prophets needed explanation. His journal to fairy-land, as narrated in the fifteenth-century romance, survives in the well-known ballad of Thomas the Rhymer.[58]

Two points in romance and ballad may be noted. (i) In the romance the lady shows Thomas four roads, leading respectively to heaven, paradise, purgatory, and hell, besides the fair castle of Elf-land. The ballad is content with three roads, to heaven, hell, and Elf-land. (ii) Both in the romance and the ballad, and also in Ogier the Dane, the hero makes the same mistake, of supposing his supernatural visitor to be the Virgin Mary.[59]

A curious point about the first "fytte" is that it opens (ll. 1-18) in the first person; at line 41 Thomas is mentioned, and the poem continues in the third person to the end, with a single and sudden change to the first in line 208. I do not know whether any assumption as to the authorship of the romance can be based on such facts; the "I" question in early popular poetry forms an interesting study in itself.[60]

The English romance of Sir Launfal, which survives in a manuscript[61] of the fifteenth century, is therein said to have been "made by Thomas Chestre"; but in fact it is chiefly a translation from Marie de France's lay of Lanval, dating from the middle of the thirteenth century. The translator, Thomas Chestre, has, however, taken incidents from other "lais" by Marie de France, and enlarged the whole until it is some three hundred lines longer than the French original.

Shakespeare may have read the tale in print. Sir Lambewell appears to have been printed about 1558,[62] and to have remained in circulation at least until 1575,[63] but no complete copy is now known. A single MS. version of 1650 survives, however, in the Percy Folio.[64] This is another translation from the same French original, but made by some one acquainted with Thomas Chestre's version.

The story as told in the first of these manuscripts may be condensed as follows. Launfal had been ten years a steward to King Arthur before the King's marriage. He did not like Guinevere, who gave him no gift at her wedding; so he asked leave of the King to go home and bury his father. He went to Caerleon, with two knights given him by Arthur, and sojourned with the mayor; but when his money was spent, he fell into debt, and his knights returned to Arthur's court in rags; but at Launfal's request, they gave out that he was faring well.

One day Launfal rode out in poor attire into the forest, and sat him under a tree to rest. After a while, two fair damsels, beautifully attired and bearing a gold basin and a silk towel, approached him, and bade him come speak with their lady, Dame Triamour, daughter to the King of Olyroun, king of fairy. Launfal was led to where the lady lay, and "all his love in her was light."

On the morrow she promised him rich presents, and said she would come to him whenever he wished for her in a secret place; but he was never to boast of her love. Her presents came to him at the mayor's house of Caerleon, and he spent his riches charitably.

The King, hearing of an exploit of Launfal's, summoned him back to court. The Queen tempted him, but he repulsed her by saying he loved a fairer woman; this of course lost him Triamour. Guinevere (by a trick common in romances) accused Launfal to Arthur; but he was saved from disgrace by the appearance of Triamour, who then carried him off into fairy-land to Olyroun.

The romance of Sir Orpheo, a mediaeval version of the classical story of Orpheus and Eurydice, has come down to us in three manuscripts,[65] two of which are not quite complete, which are to be assigned to the fifteenth century at latest. As in the case of Launfal, it is doubtless a translation from the French; but as there is no extant original, this can only be presumed. Orpheus becomes Orpheo or Orfeo, and Eurydice becomes Erodys, Heurodis, or Meroudys; in the last the initial letter may be due to the m in "dame," the word preceding it.

The story is told as follows.

In all the world there was no better harper than King Orfeo [Sir Orpheo], and no fairer lady than dame Meroudys. On a morning in the beginning of May, the queen went forth with her ladies to an orchard, and fell asleep under an "ympe"[66] tree till it was long past noon. When her ladies woke her, she cried aloud, tore her clothes, and disfigured herself with her nails. They sought assistance and put her to bed in her chamber, whither the king came to visit her, and ask her what might help her. She told him how in her sleep she had been bidden by a knight to come and speak with his lord the king; she refused, but the king came to her, with a hundred knights and a hundred ladies in white on white steeds, and his crown was all of precious stones. He bore her away to a fair palace, and showed her his possessions. Then he took her back, but bade her be beneath the tree on the morrow, when she should go with them and stay with them for ever.

King Orfeo was greatly distressed, and none could advise him. On the morrow he took his queen and ten hundred knights to guard her beneath the ympe tree; but in vain, she was away with the fairy, and they knew not whither. King Orfeo in grief called together his barons and knights and squires, and bade them obey his high steward as regent; he himself went forth barefoot and in poor attire into the wilderness, with naught but his harp.

So for ten winters he abode in the forest and on the heath, in a hollow tree, or under leaves and grass, till his frame shrank and his beard grew long; and ever and anon, when the day was fair, he would play his harp, and the beasts of the forest and the birds on bush and briar would come about him to hearken.

Then on a hot day he saw the king of fairy and his retinue riding with hounds and blowing horns; and again he saw a great host of knights with drawn swords; and again he saw sixty ladies, gentle and gay, riding on palfreys and bearing hawks on their wrists. Their falcons had good sport, and Orfeo drew nigh to watch; and looking on the face of one of the ladies, he recognised Meroudys. They gazed at each other speechless, and tears ran from her eyes; but the other ladies bore her away. The king followed them to a fair country where there was neither hill nor dale, and into a castle, gaining entrance as a minstrel. Then he saw many men and women sleeping on every side, seemingly dead; among them he again beheld his wife. And he came before the king and queen of that realm, and harped so sweetly that the king promised him whatever he might ask. He asked for the fair dame Meroudys; and he took her by the hand, and they fared homewards.

In his own city he lodged awhile in poor quarters, and then went forth to play his harp; and meeting his steward, who knew the harp but not his master, told him he had found the harp ten winters ago, by the side of a man eaten by lions. This evil news caused the steward to swoon, whereupon King Orfeo revealed himself, and sent for dame Meroudys. She came in a triumphant procession; there was mirth and melody; and they were new-crowned king and queen. Harpers of Bretayne heard this tale and made the lay and called it after the king

"That Orfeo hight, as men well wote; Good is the lay, sweet is the note!"

The ballad which represents the debris of this romance has only been recovered in a single text, from the memory of an old man in Unst, Shetland, and it is incomplete in verse-form, though the reciter remembered the gist of the story. This version of the ballad is further complicated by the fact that the old man sang it to a refrain which appears to be Unst pronunciation of Danish—a startling instance of phonetic tradition.

It is not, however, to be understood from this that it was impossible for Shakespeare to have heard this ballad; English versions may have been current in his time. But even so, the ballad would add nothing to the knowledge he might gain elsewhere; it is simply a short form of the romance altered by tradition.[67]

There are half-a-dozen other English and Scottish ballads concerning fairies, none of much importance touching our present theme. They may be best studied in Child's collection, Nos. 35-41, where under Tam Lin he has put together the main features of fairy-lore revealed in traditional ballads.[68] One or two such points may be noted here.

We have seen that Ogier saw the supernatural lady after plucking and eating an apple from a tree. Thomas of Erceldoune, Launfal, and Meroudys, are sleeping or lying beneath a tree when they see their various visitors. Tam Lin in the ballad was taken by the fairies while sleeping under an apple tree. Malory[69] tells us that Lancelot went to sleep about noon (traditionally the dangerous hour) beneath an apple tree, and was bewitched by Morgan le Fay. In modern Greek folk-lore, certain trees are said to be dangerous to lie under at noon, as the sleeper may be taken by the nereids, who correspond to our fairies.

At certain intervals—every seven years, the ballads say—the fiend of hell takes a tithe from the fairies, usually preferring one who is fair and of good flesh and blood. Hence in Thomas of Erceldoune,[70] the elf queen is anxious that he should leave her realm, because she thinks the foul fiend would choose him (ll. 219-224).

The notion of the fairies' demand of a tithe of produce, agricultural or domestic, is parallel to this sacrifice.[71]

A third point on which fairy-lore usually insists is that the steeds of the fairies shall be white; here Thomas of Erceldoune is at variance with the other poems, the elf-queen's palfrey being a dapple-grey. It is curious to learn that this superstition still survives. "At that time there was a gentleman who had been taken by the fairies, and made an officer among them, and it was often people would see him and her riding on a white horse at dawn and in the evening."[72]

It will have been observed that the tale of Orfeo varies considerably from the classical tale of Orpheus; but this is not surprising; no one can imagine that it comes direct from the classics. A French original is presumed; indeed, there are references in early "lais" to a "Lai d'Orphey," indicating the existence of a poem which was probably the original of our King Orfeo. This original is presumed to have been a Breton lay, one of the many that were popular in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and the English version may have been taken from the supposed source through a French form.

Now, these Breton lays were chiefly on Celtic subjects, and placed their scenes in the Celtic realms of Great Britain, Little Britain, Ireland, or Scotland. The bards of Armorica doubtless picked up a good story wherever they could find it; and the classical story of Orpheus and Eurydice would appeal strongly to Celts, who have always been famous for harping. But why should these early Celtic singers have made such changes in the story, unless they had a similar story of their own which was confused with it? The parallel story has been adduced by Professor Kittredge[73] from an Irish epic tale, The Wooing (or Courtship) of Etain. The portions of the story which concern us here follow.

Eochaid Airemm, king of Ireland, found him a wife in Etain daughter of Etar in the Bay of Cichmany, and with her Mider of Bri Leith (a fairy chief) was in love. On a summer's day, as the king sat on the heights of Tara beholding the plain of Breg, a strange young warrior appeared, gave his name as Mider, and challenged Eochaid to a game of chess for a wager. Many were the games they played, and at first Eochaid won, and bade Mider carry out certain tasks. But at last Eochaid was defeated, and Mider for his reward asked to be allowed to hold Etain in his arms and kiss her. Eochaid put him off for a month; at the end of which time he called together the armies of Ireland, and took Etain into the palace, and shut and locked the doors, and ringed the house with guards. Yet at the appointed hour Mider stood in their midst, fairer than ever; and he sang to Etain:—

"O fair-haired woman, will you come with me into a marvellous land wherein is music, where heads are covered with primrose hair and bodies are white as snow? There is no "mine" or "thine" there; white are teeth, and black are eyebrows, and cheeks are the hue of the foxglove, and eyes the hue of blackbirds' eggs.... We see everything on every side, yet no man seeth us. Though pleasant the plains of Ireland, yet are they a wilderness for him who has known the great plain."

But Etain would not go to him, before Eochaid was willing to resign her. And the king would not, yet allowed Mider to embrace her before him. Mider took his weapons into his left hand, and Etain with his right, and bore her away through the skylight. The guards outside beheld two swans flying, and they flew towards the elf-mound of Femun, which is called the Mound of the Fair-haired Women.

For nine years Eochaid waged war against Mider, digging into the elf-mounds, until he hit upon the fairy-mansion; whereupon Mider sent to the side of the palace sixty women, all exactly like Etain. And first the king carried away the wrong woman, but when he returned to sack Bri Leith, Etain made herself known to him, and he bore her back to the palace at Tara.

It is reasonable to suppose, then, that some Armorican bard, hearing the classical tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, remembered the Celtic legend of Eochaid and Etain, and grafted the one on the other. Hades became Bri Leith, or the vaguely-defined beautiful unknown country; but the classical names displaced the Celtic. The confusion, however, did not at once cease. In one of the MSS. of Sir Orfeo it is said that Orfeo's father

"Was comen of king Pluto, And his moder of king Juno"

—confusion worse confounded. Moreover, as we have already seen, even Chaucer called the fairy-king Pluto and the queen Proserpina.

Again, to hark back to the other romances, we have found the word fay attached to the name of King Arthur's sister Morgan. Nothing is more remarkably certain than the close and constant association in mediaeval lore of the fairies and the fairy-world with the Arthurian cycle of romance;[74] King Arthur's sister was Morgan le Fay, whose son by Ogier was Merlin; and the romance of Huon of Bordeaux, which relates these facts, though strictly belonging to the Charlemagne cycle, contains the account of Oberon's bequest of his realm to King Arthur. Chaucer, whatever other doubts he may have had, was convinced on this point:—[75]

"In th' olde daies of the King Arthoure, Of which that Bretons speken gret honoure, Al was this land fulfild of fayerye; The elfqueen with hir joly companye Daunced ful ofte in many a grene mede; This was the olde opinion as I rede."

Now the Arthurian legends ultimately derive from Celtic tales, which must be supposed to have travelled from Wales into France by way of Brittany—Little Britain, or Armorica—in the eleventh and twelfth centuries; for there are Welsh versions independent of the Breton forms, though closely akin. Students of early Celtic literature have not as yet agreed about the historical relations between Welsh and Irish stories—whether the Welsh imposed their mythology and heroic legends on the Irish, or vice versa; but the general similarity between them is undeniable, and easily explicable by a common Celtic source.

Everything, then, points to the Celtic legends as the chief origin of the mediaeval fairy-lore; and the early Celtic literature, although its study, complicated by an unfamiliar language, has only recently been undertaken scientifically, has already revealed an extremely rich and complete store of romance that extends over a thousand years. From manuscripts which are attributed to the twelfth century (and even so contain matter rightly belonging to the ninth or tenth), we can trace the development of a creed concerning supernatural beings through the succeeding centuries, down to a time at which the written account is displaced by recorded oral tradition. A race of beings, who must originally have fallen from the Celtic Olympus, continue to appear, with characteristics that remain the same in essence, and under a designation that may be heard in Ireland today, through ten centuries of Irish tradition and literature.[76]

These people are called in Irish mythology the Tuatha De Danann, described from at latest 1100 A.D. as aes sidhe, "the folk of the [fairy-] hillock;" the name for fairies in Ireland now is "the Sidhe."[77] Originally, it may be, the aes sidhe were not identified with the Tuatha De Danann; and before the twelfth century the Sidhe were not associated with the Celtic belief in "a beautiful country beyond the sea," a happy land called by various names—Tir-nan-Og (the land of youth), Tir Tairngire (the land of promise)—which has now become "fairy-land." In the earliest heroic legends the Tuatha De Danann assist or protect mortal champions, and fall in love with mortal men and maids; but with the spread of Christianity (as might be expected) they lost many of their previous characteristics.[78]

To look back for a moment, we must note that so far we have touched no belief later than the fifteenth century, and already we have seen enough blending of various superstitions and legends to give our fairies a very mixed ancestry. Classical mythology, Celtic heroic sagas and northern Eddas in the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries, Saxo the Danish historian in the twelfth, and a series of romances, running through Celtic-Breton-French-English languages from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries—all combine to alter or add to the popular conception of fairies. Celtic Mider is of human stature, beautiful, powerful, dwelling beneath the earth; he attempts to carry off a mortal bride. Teutonic Alberich is a dwarf, presumably not handsome, but well disposed to mortals. But when we come to Huon of Bordeaux we find Oberon's characteristics are derived from varying sources. He himself describes[79] to Huon, in a fantastic romance-style, which attempts to associate him with as many classic heroes as possible, his parentage and birth:—

"I shall show thee true, it is Julius Caesar engendered me on a lady of the Privy Isle ... the which is now named Chifalonny [Cephalonia] ... after a seven year Caesar passed by the sea as he went into Thessaly whereas he fought with Pompey; in his way he passed by Chifalonny, where my mother fetched him, and he fell in love with her because she showed him that he should discomfit Pompey, as he did." We are almost supplied with the date of Oberon's birth.

He proceeds to narrate how all the fairies but one were invited to his birth, and that one, in anger, said that when he was three years old he should cease to grow; however, she repented immediately and added that he should be "the fairest creature that nature ever formed." Another fairy endowed him with the power of seeing into the minds of all men; and a third enabled him to go whither he would at a wish. "Moreover, if I will have a castle or a palace at my own device, incontinent it shall be made, and as soon gone again if I list; and what meat or wine that I will wish for, I shall have it incontinent."

Elsewhere[80] in the romance his handsome equipment and dress are described; his gown, his bow, and above all his horn, "made by four ladies of the fairy," who endowed it with four gifts; it cured all diseases by its blast, it banished hunger and thirst, it brought joy to the heavy-hearted, and forced any one who heard to come at the wish of its owner.

Horns, in English folk-lore, appear to belong rather to elves than to fairies[81]—the elves that haunt hills, and are known all over Europe; dwarfs, trolls, kobolds, pixies, and so forth. Teutonic witches are called horn-blowers. Again, the fairy-train or fairy-hunt is supposed to carry horns; we have seen it already in Sir Orfeo,[82] and in Thomas of Erceldoune,[83] the fairy-queen bears a horn about her neck.

But this Oberon of Huon of Bordeaux is mortal, and is not pictured as being abnormal in stature, any more than Mider. Shakespeare's Oberon and Mider are invisible (or can make themselves so), both have supernatural powers, and both are immortal.

The question of the size conventionally attributed to the fairies is of importance, because it shows that a confusion existed between the fays of romance with the elves of folk-superstition. Elves and their numerous counterparts in all European countries and elsewhere—we have just given a list of names which can easily be extended—are above all things small; they also are earth-dwellers, living in hills or underground chambers, and originally, perhaps, were supposed to be mischievous by nature. But even in Shakespeare's day, it would be impossible to say that fairies were benevolent and elves malevolent; the two kinds and their respective characteristics were already confused.

Robin Goodfellow, the Puck, or Hobgoblin, is however essentially mischievous. In a book contemporary with our play we find:—

"Think me to be one of those Familiares Lares that were rather pleasantly disposed than endued with any hurtful influence, as Hob Thrust, Robin Goodfellow, and suchlike spirits, as they term them, of the buttery, famoused in every old wives' chronicle for their mad merry pranks."[84]

But four years later, as we have seen,[85] Nashe confounds elves with fairies in deriving all alike from fauns and dryads. Robin is "mad-merry," "jocund and facetious," "a cozening idle friar or some such rogue" [in origin], and so forth—simply described by Shakespeare as a "shrewd and knavish sprite." The forms of mischief in which he delights are described in A Midsummer-Night's Dream, II. i. 33-57, and all these "gests" may be found in the contemporary Robin Goodfellow literature;[86] though we have observed that some of the functions attributed to Queen Mab in Mercutio's famous speech[87] belong rightly to Robin.[88]

Thus we see—to take into consideration but a few points of the myth—that the fairy-superstition and the elf-superstition were melted together in the popular pre-Shakespearean mind, and that Shakespeare himself, making a new division of the characteristics of the two, yet re-welded the whole into one realm by putting the Puck in subjection under the fairy king.

The main characteristics of Shakespeare's fairies, then, may be summarised shortly:—[89]

They are a community under a king and queen, who hold a court; they are very small, light, swift, elemental; they share in the life of nature; they are fond of dancing and singing; they are invisible and immortal; they prefer night, and midnight is their favourite hour; they fall in love with mortals, steal babies and leave changelings, and usurp the function of Hymen in blessing the marriage-bed. Oberon, "king of shadows," can apparently see things hidden from Puck.[90]

Titania, "a spirit of no common rate," is yet subject to passion and jealousy, and had a mortal friend, "a votaress of my order."[91]

The fairy of folk-lore in Shakespeare's day is nearly everything that the fairies of A Midsummer-Night's Dream are; we may possibly except their exiguity, their relations in love with mortals, and their hymeneal functions. His conception of their size as infinitesimal at least differs from that of the popular stories, where (as far as can be ascertained) they are shown to be about the size of mortal children.

We may conclude these remarks with the modern Irish-Catholic theory of the origin of the fairies:—

"When Lucifer saw himself in the glass, he thought himself equal with God. Then the Lord threw him out of Heaven, and all the angels that belonged to him. While He was 'chucking them out,' an archangel asked Him to spare some of them, and those that were falling are in the air still, and have power to wreck ships, and to work evil in the world."[92]

* * * *


A Midsummer-Night's Dream, like too many other plays of Shakespeare, has been unable to escape the inquisition of "deuteroscopists"—those who are always on the look-out for historical and other allusions. The dainty passage (II. i. 148-174), in which Oberon gives Puck directions how and where to find the magic herb that works the transformations of love in the rest of the play, appears to contain a reference to Elizabeth as "a fair vestal throned by the west" and "the imperial votaress." So much may be reasonably granted; but Warburton in his edition proceeded to identify "the mermaid on a dolphin's back" with Mary Queen of Scots, the dolphin of course being the Dauphin, and so forth. This interpretation of the alleged secret allegory was displaced in 1843 by one rather more plausible—though still needlessly fantastic.

Oberon's Vision, by the Rev. N.J. Halpin (Shakespeare Society, 1843) attempts to prove that in composing this passage Shakespeare was referring to the Earl of Leicester's attempt to win Elizabeth's hand, when she visited him at Kenilworth in 1575; the mermaid, uttering dulcet and harmonious breath, so that the rude sea grows civil, and the stars that shot from their spheres, are explained, by parallel passages from contemporary accounts, as parts of the pageant or "Princely Pleasures" which formed the Queen's entertainment. The Earl was simultaneously intriguing with Lettice, Countess of Essex, who ultimately became his wife; and it is she who, according to the Rev. Halpin, is intended by the "little western flower"; to him the passage means:—

"Cupid, on behalf of the Earl of Leicester, loosed an arrow at Queen Elizabeth; but the Virgin Queen's maidenhood was so unassailable that the bolt missed her, hitting the Countess of Essex, who succumbed."

In other words, Shakespeare mentions the Queen only in order to point out her rival's success!

It is as unnecessary to discuss the degrees of probability in Halpin's identifications as it was for him to elaborate them. Certainly it is likely that Shakespeare intended a compliment to his queen; it is possible that the "mermaid on a dolphin's back" was a reminiscence of a pageant which he might have visited Kenilworth at the age of eleven to see; and it may be true that he meant to hint at Leicester.

On the other hand, I think that another explanation is more obvious and more rational. Shakespeare had to introduce into his play the magic herb which was to alter the loves of those into whose eyes it was squeezed. We may reasonably guess that he had read somewhere one of the many popular legends that explain why the violet is purple, why the rose is red, etc.; there are some in Ovid's Metamorphoses[93] which Shakespeare read in Golding's translation. He saw an opportunity of paying a graceful compliment to Elizabeth by saying that the magic flower, once white, had been empurpled by a shaft of Cupid's drawn at the fair vestal and imperial votaress, who yet passed on untouched;

"And maidens call it love-in-idleness"

—a popular name for the common pansy.


[1] For The Knightes Tale, see Prof. Skeat's edition (modern spelling) in the "King's Classics," and his excellent introduction.

[2] was named

[3] realm

[4] called

[5] were not

[6] besieged

[7] See Mr. R.B. McKerrow's note on Nashe's reference to the name in Have with You to Saffron-Walden (Works, iii. 111).

[8] See Statius, Thebais, I, 13-14, etc. (Chaucer refers to "Stace of Thebes," Knightes Tale, 1436.) Athamas, having incurred the wrath of Hera, was seized with madness, and slew his son Learchus. His wife Ino threw herself, with his other son Melicertes, into the sea, and both were changed into sea-deities, Ino becoming Leucothea, and Melicertes Palaemon, whom the Greeks held to be friendly to the shipwrecked. The Romans identified him with Portunus, the protector of harbours.

[9] See Skeat's The Knight's Tale, xi-xv.

[10] little.

[11] In this passage, Statius describes the meeting between Theseus, returning in triumph with Hippolyta, and the widows of those slain at the siege of Thebes, who complain that the tyrant Creon will not permit their husbands' bodies to be either burned or buried. This episode, as we shall see, is the opening of the Knightes Tale, and reappears in a modified form in The Two Noble Kinsmen.

[12] J. M. Rigg's introduction to his translation of the Decameron (1903)

[13] This opening, derived from Statius (see note, p. 13), serves merely to introduce the main story, much in the same way as the Theseus story in A Midsummer-Night's Dream is simply the "enveloping action" of the play.

[14] W.W. Greg's edition, i 19-20, ii. 168. Henslowe's dates for the performances are 17 September, 16 and 27 October, and November, 1594. Against the first entry are the much-discussed letters "ne," which appear to mark a new play. It will be seen that according to the theory that A Midsummer-Night's Dream belongs to the winter of 1594-5, this Palamon and Arcite play was performed immediately before.

[15] Professor Gollancz considers that Shakespeare had no hand in the play.

[16] Cf. I. i. 167 and IV. i. 129-30.

[17] It is perhaps fantastic to interpret too literally Arcite's song to May—"I hope that I som grene gete may"—but, however little of their primitive significance now remains, celebration of the rites of May is by no means extinct. See E.K. Chambers, The Mediaeval Stage, I. 117: "their object is to secure the beneficent influence of the fertilization spirit by bringing the persons or places to be benefited into direct contact with the physical embodiment of that spirit."

Shakespeare's apparent confusion of a May-day with a Mid-summer-night may seem pardonable to the folk-lorist in the light of the fact that various folk-festivals appear to take place indiscriminately on May-day or Midsummer-day. See Chambers, op. cit. i. 114, 118, 126.

[18] Cf. III. ii. 331 and 401, etc.

[19] Cf. IV. i. 100-183.

[20] In V. i. 51.

[21] Reprinted in this book, p. 135.

[22] He might have added Lucius the Ass, a similar tale by Lucian of Samosata.

[23] Reprinted in this book, p. 139.

[24] Ovid, Met. iv. 55, sqq.

[25] See p. 73.

[26] Addl. MS. 15227, f. 56b.

[27] Faerie Queen, II. i. 6, II. x. 75.

[28] See A.W. Ward's English Dramatic Literature, i. 400, ii. 85.

[29] The Marchantes Tale, 983 (Skeat, E. 2227).

[30] A.H. Bullen's edition of Campion (1903), p. 20.

[31] Metamorphoses, iii. 173. Ovid, in the same work, uses "Titania" also as an epithet of Latona (vi. 346), Pyrrha (i. 395), and Circe (xiv. 382, 438). The fact that Golding gives "Phebe" as the translation of "Titania" in iii. 173, is a strong piece of evidence that Shakespeare sometimes at least read his Ovid in the Latin.

[32] Ed. Brinsley Nicholson, p. 32. Book III, chap. ii. (See p. 135.)

[33] Romeo and Juliet, I. iv, 53, sqq.

[34] In II. i. 40, "sweet puck" is no more a proper name than "Hobgoblin"; so also in l. 148 of the same scene. In neither case should the name be printed with a capital P.

[35] II. i. 34.

[36] V. i. 418, 421.

[37] Wright, English Dialect Dictionary, s.v. Puck, gives Scotland, Ireland, Derby, Worcester, Shropshire, Gloucester, Sussex and Hampshire as localities where the name is recorded.

[38] Text H in Child's Ballads, I. 352.

[39] Campbell's Popular Tales of the West Highlands (1890), vol. ii, tales xxv, xxvi, etc.

[40] Ballads, I. 314, and note.

[41] M.N.D., II. i. 40. (See note on p. 37.)

[42] The Wyf of Bathe's Tale, at the beginning; and elsewhere.

[43] The Faerie Queene, chiefly in Book II, where in Canto X, stanzas 70-76, he gives a fictitious list of the generations of fairies; the first "Elfe" was the image made by Prometheus, to animate which he stole fire from heaven; the list ends with Oberon, and Tanaquil the Faerie Queen.

[44] Reprinted in this book, pp. 81-121.

[45] Mr. Chambers, in his edition of the play, Appendix A, Sec. l8, gives (i) Tarlton's News out of Purgatory (1590) (see p. 63), (ii) Churchyard's Handfull of Gladsome Verses (1592) (see p. 141), (iii) Nashe's Terrors of the Night (1594).

[46] The word folk-lore has only been in existence sixty years, and the science is very little older; it was vaguely referred to as "popular antiquities" before that time.

[47] Alfred Nutt, The Fairy Mythology of Shakespeare (1900), p. 24. This little book is instructive and valuable.

[48] Nashe's Works, ed. R.B. McKerrow, i. 347.

[49] Gower, however, does so, as early as the fourteenth century; Confessio Amantis, ii. 371.

[50] The opening of the beautiful Helgi and Sigrun Lay as translated by Vigfusson and York Powell in Corpus Poeticum Boreale (1883), i. 131; see also the editors' Introduction, i. lxi, lxiv.

[51] Danish History, iii. 70, 77; vi. 181; cf. O. Elton's translation (1894), pp. 84, 93, 223, and York Powell's introduction thereto, lxiv.

[52] "It is worth noting that the Romance of Olger the Dane contains several late echoes of the old Helgi myth. a. The visit of the fairies by night to the new-born child ... e. His return to earth after death or disappearance ... Mark that Holgi is the true old form ... The old hero Holgi and the Carling peer Otgeir (Eadgar) are distinct persons confused by later tradition."—Corpus Poeticum Boreale, i. cxxx.

"The Fates ... bestow endowments on the new-born child, as in the beautiful Helge Lay ... a point of the story which survives in the Ogier of the Chansons de Geste, wherein Eadgar (Otkerus or Otgerus) gets what belonged to Holger (Holge), the Helga til of Beowulf's Lay."—Saxo, Danish History, lxiv.

[53] Cf. Child's Ballads, i. 319.

[54] In Huon of Bordeaux Merlin comes with King Arthur to Oberon's death-bed; Arthur introduces him as his nephew, the son of Ogier the Dane and "my sister Morgan."

[55] The mere mention of these subterranean explorations opens up an immense field of discussion and speculation that can here be only relegated to a note; we can treat at greater length none but those legends which bear directly on our subject. Odysseus visited Hades, Aeneas descended to Orcus or Tartarus, and they have their counterparts in every land and every mythology. Human aetiological tendencies supply explanations of any cavern or natural chasm—even a volcano must be the mouth of the entrance to hell or purgatory—from Taenarus, where Pluto carried off Proserpine, and the Sibyl's cavern, whence Aeneas sought the lower regions, to the famous Lough Dearg in Donegal, the entrance to "St. Patrick's Purgatory," and the Peak cavern in Derbyshire. The student may begin his researches with T. Wright's St. Patrick's Purgatory (1844). A very common tale in Celtic literature is that of the visit of some hero to the underworld and his seizure of some gift of civilisation—just as Prometheus stole fire from heaven.

[56] Ballads, loc. cit.

[57] A version of Fytte I will be found in this book, pp. 122-132.

[58] See Child's Ballads, No. 37, Thomas Rymer, i. 317-329; also the romance, Thomas of Erceldoune (E.E.T.S., 1875), where Prof. J.A.H. Murray prints all texts parallel, and adds a valuable introduction.

[59] A similar episode survives in a Breton folk-tale, cited by Professor Kittredge in Child's Ballads, iii. 504. In Huon of Bordeaux (E.E.T.S. edition, p. 265), Charlemagne mistakes Oberon for God.

[60] See Gummere, The Popular Ballad (1907), pp. 66-7.

[61] Cottonian, Caligula A. II. A later version is at the Bodleian, MS. Rawlinson C. 86, and a Scottish version in Cambridge University Library, MS. Kk. 5. 30.

[62] It was licensed to John Kynge the printer between 19 July 1557 and 9 July 1558. See Arber, Stationers' Registers, i. 79. Two fragments are in the Bodleian; see Hales and Furnivall, Bishop Percy's Folio Manuscript (1867), i. 521-535.

[63] In this year it is mentioned, as having been amongst Captain Cox's books, in Laneham's famous Letter. See Shakespeare Library reprint, p. xxx.

[64] Brit. Mus. MS. Addl. 27,879; see Hales and Furnivall, Bishop Percy's Folio Manuscript, i. 142.

[65] Harl. 3810 (British Museum), printed by Ritson in Ancient English Metrical Romances (1802) ii. 248; the Auchinleck MS. (W. 4. 1, in the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh), printed by D. Laing in Ancient Popular Poetry of Scotland, iii; and Ashmolean 61 (Bodleian Library, Oxford), printed by Halliwell in his Fairy Mythology, p. 36. The three are collated by O. Zielke, Sir Orfeo (Breslau 1880), a fully annotated edition. The last is used here.

[66] A grafted fruit tree; here probably an apple.

[67] It may be seen in Child's Ballads, i. 215, with a full analysis of the romance, and in the present editor's Popular Ballads of the Olden Time, Second Series, p. 208.

[68] Ballads, i. 338-340; see also various "Additions and Corrections" in the later volumes, and s.v. Elf, Elves, etc. in the Index of Matters and Literature.

[69] Morte Darthur (ed. Sommer), vi. l. 3.

[70] See below, p. 131.

[71] See J.M. Synge, The Aran Islands (1907), p. 48, and A. Nutt, Fairy Mythology of Shakespeare, p. 22.

[72] See Synge, op. cit., p. 47.

[73] See his admirable article on Sir Orfeo in the American Journal of Philology, vii. 176-202. The Courtship of Etain may be seen in English, translated from the two versions in Egerton MS. 1782. and the "Leabhar na h-Uidhri"—an eleventh century Irish MS.—in Heroic Romances of Ireland, by A. H, Leahy, i. 7-32.

[74] A. Nutt, Fairy Mythology of Shakespeare, p. 12.

[75] Wyf of Bathe's Tale, 1-6.

[76] See A. Nutt, op. cit., pp. 16-17; and various authorities given by G.L. Kittredge, op. cit., p. 196 notes.

[77] Pronounced shee.

[78] Mr. Alfred Nutt (op. cit., pp. 19-23) is at pains to show the close association of the Tuatha De Danann with ritual of an agricultural-sacrificial kind, in the aspect they have assumed—"fairies"—to the modern Irish peasant. The Sidhe have fallen from the high estate of the romantic and courtly wooers and warriors, as they must once have fallen from the Celtic pantheon.

[79] Chap, xxv. (E.E.T.S. edition, 72). Oberon recites his history again in chap. lxxxiv. (p. 264).

[80] Chap. xxii. (E.E.T.S. edition, p. 65, sqq.).

[81] Cf. Child's Ballads, Nos. 2 (The Elfin Knight), 4 (Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight), 41 (Hina Etin), and perhaps 35 (Allison Gross), with his note on the last, l. 314, referring to No. 36 (The Laily Worm and the Machrel of the Sea).

[82] See above, p. 51.

[83] See p. 124, l. 39.

[84] Tarlton's News out of Purgatory, published by Robin Goodfellow (1590), Shakespeare Society reprint, p. 55.

[85] See above, p. 41.

[86] See the extracts from Scot's Discovery of Witchcraft and the Robin Goodfellow tract, pp. 133-140 and 81-121.

[87] Romeo and Juliet, I. iv. 33-94. See above, p. 37.

[88] Had I been able to find a book, Veridica relatio de daemonio Puck, referred to in the article Diable in the Dictionnaire des Sciences Occultes (in Migne, tome 48, vol. i., p. 475), it might be that it would prove of great interest. In any case this allusion (pointed out to me by Mr. R.B. McKerrow) is an early instance of Puck used as a proper name.

[89] Abbreviated from E.K. Chambers' full analysis with references, Warwick Shakespeare edition of M.N.D. pp. 142-4.

[90] See II. i. 155.

[91] How far Shakespeare associated his fairy queen Titania with her nominal parent Diana, is a question that would make matter for an elaborate study in mythology and mysticism, and might yet lead to no result. Diana is Luna in the heavens; Lucina (the goddess of child-birth) and the Huntress on earth; and Hecate in the underworld, goddess of enchantments and nocturnal incantations, often also identified with Proserpina. Titania is a votaress of the moon; we have seen that fairies are intimately concerned with mortal babies, and that there is a fairy-hunt (see the quotation from James I's Demonology, p. 37 above); and we have also noted the confusion of Proserpina with the fairy-queen.—The Tuatha De Danann are said to be "the folk of Danu"—who is Danu? Hecate was called Trivia, on account of the above tripartition of Diana; her statues were set up where three roads met, and the fairy-queen in Thomas the Rhymer points out to him the three roads that lead to heaven, hell, and elf-land. Speculation is easily led astray.

[92] J.M. Synge, Aran Islands, p. 10.

[93] The metamorphosis of Hyacinthus, for instance, Bk. X, 162, sqq.; although there are others in the same book. See also the alteration in the mulberry caused by Pyramus' blood (pp. 77-80).

* * * * *













* * * * *


From Arthur Golding's translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses (1575), Book IV, ff. 52-3.

Within the town (of whose huge walls so monstrous high and thick, The fame is given Semiramis for making them of brick) Dwelt hard together two young folk, in houses joined so near, That under all one roof well nigh both twain conveyed were. The name of him was Pyramus, and Thisbe call'd was she, So fair a man in all the East was none alive as he. Nor ne'er a woman, maid, nor wife in beauty like to her. This neighbourhood bred acquaintance first, this neighbourhood first did stir The secret sparks: this neighbourhood first an entrance in did show For love, to come to that to which it afterward did grow. And if that right had taken place they had been man and wife, But still their parents went about to let[1] which (for their life) They could not let. For both their hearts with equal flame did burn. No man was privy to their thoughts. And for to serve their turn, Instead of talk they used signs: the closelier they suppressed The fire of love, the fiercer still it raged in their breast. The wall that parted house from house had riven therein a cranny, Which shrunk at making of the wall: this fault not marked of any Of many hundred years before (what doth not love espy?) These lovers first of all found out, and made a way whereby To talk together secretly, and through the same did go Their loving whisp'rings very light and safely to and fro. Now as at one side Pyramus, and Thisbe on the tother Stood often drawing one of them the pleasant breath from other: O spiteful wall (said they) why dost thou part us lovers thus? What matter were it if that thou permitted both of us In arms each other to embrace? or if thou think that this Were over-much, yet mightest thou at least make room to kiss. And yet thou shalt not find us churls: we think ourselves in debt For the same piece of courtesy, in vouching safe[2] to let Our sayings to our friendly ears thus freely come and go. Thus having where they stood in vain complained of their woe, When night drew near they bade adieu, and each gave kisses sweet Unto the parget[3] on their side the which did never meet. Next morning with her cheerful light had driven the stars aside, And Phoebus with his burning beams the dewy grass had dried, These lovers at their wonted place by fore-appointment met, Where after much complaint and moan they covenanted to get Away from such as watched them, and in the evening late To steal out of their fathers' house and eke the city gate. And to th' intent that in the fields they strayed not up and down, They did agree at Ninus' tomb to meet without the town, And tarry underneath a tree that by the same did grow; Which was a fair high mulberry with fruit as white as snow, Hard by a cool and trickling spring. This bargain pleased them both, And so daylight (which to their thought away but slowly go'th) Did in the Ocean fall to rest, and night from thence doth rise. As soon as darkness once was come, straight Thisbe did devise A shift to wind her out of doors, that none that were within Perceived her; and muffling her with clothes about her chin, That no man might discern her face, to Ninus' tomb she came Unto the tree, and set her down there underneath the same. Love made her bold. But see the chance, there comes besmeared with blood About the chaps, a lioness all foaming from the wood, From slaughter lately made of kine to staunch her bloody thirst With water of the foresaid spring. Whom Thisbe, spying first Afar by moonlight, thereupon with fearful steps gan fly And in a dark and irksome cave did hide herself thereby. And as she fled away for haste she let her mantle fall, The which for fear she left behind not looking back at all. Now when the cruel lioness her thirst had staunched well, In going to the wood she found the slender weed that fell From Thisbe, which with bloody teeth in pieces she did tear. The night was somewhat further spent ere Pyramus came there. Who seeing in this subtle sand the print of lion's paw, Waxed pale for fear. But when that he the bloody mantle saw All rent and torn; one night (he said) shall lovers two confound, Of which long life deserved she of all that live on ground. My soul deserves of this mischance the peril for to bear. I, wretch, have been the death of thee, which to this place of fear Did cause thee in the night to come, and came not here before. My wicked limbs and wretched guts with cruel teeth therefore Devour ye, O ye lions all that in this rock do dwell. But cowards use to wish for death. The slender weed that fell From Thisbe up he takes, and straight doth bear it to the tree, Which was appointed erst the place of meeting for to be. And when he had bewept and kissed the garment which he knew, Receive thou my blood too (quoth he), and therewithal he drew His sword, the which among his guts he thrust, and by and by Did draw it from the bleeding wound, beginning for to die, And cast himself upon his back. The blood did spin on high As when a conduit pipe is cracked, the water bursting out Doth shoot itself a great way off, and pierce the air about. The leaves that were upon the tree besprinkled with his blood Were dyed black. The root also, bestained as it stood A deep dark purple colour, straight upon the berries cast, Anon scarce ridded of her fear with which she was aghast, For doubt of disappointing him comes Thisbe forth in haste, And for her lover looks about, rejoicing for to tell How hardly she had 'scaped that night the danger that befell. And as she knew right well the place and fashion of the tree (As which she saw so late before) even so when she did see The colour of the berries turned, she was uncertain whether It were the tree at which they both agreed to meet together. While in this doubtful stound[4] she stood, she cast her eye aside, And there beweltered in his blood her lover she espied Lie sprawling with his dying limbs; at which she started back, And looked pale as any box; a shuddering through her strack, Even like the sea which suddenly with whissing noise doth move, When with a little blast of wind it is but touched above. But when approaching nearer him she knew it was her love, She beat her breast, she shrieked out, she tare her golden hairs, And taking him between her arms did wash his wounds with tears; She meint[5] her weeping with his blood, and kissing all his face (Which now became as cold as ice) she cried in woeful case: Alas! what chance, my Pyramus hath parted thee and me? Make answer, O my Pyramus: it is thy Thisbe, even she Whom thou dost love most heartily that speaketh unto thee: Give ear and raise thy heavy head. He, hearing Thisbe's name, Lift up his dying eyes, and, having seen her, closed the same. But when she knew her mantle there, and saw his scabbard lie Without the sword: Unhappy man, thy love had made thee die; Thy love (she said) hath made thee slay thyself. This hand of mine Is strong enough to do the like. My love no less than thine Shall give me force to work my wound. I will pursue thee dead, And, wretched woman as I am, it shall of me be said, That like as of thy death I was the only cause and blame, So am I thy companion eke and partner in the same. For death which only could, alas! asunder part us twain, Shall never so dissever us but we will meet again. And you the parents of us both, most wretched folk alive, Let this request that I shall make in both our names belyve[6] Entreat you to permit that we, whom chaste and steadfast love, And whom even death hath joined in one, may, as it doth behove, In one grave be together laid. And thou unhappy tree, Which shroudest now the corse of one, and shalt anon through me Shroud two, of this same slaughter hold the sicker[7] signs for ay Black be the colour of thy fruit and mourning-like alway, Such as the murder of us twain may evermore bewray. This said, she took the sword, yet warm with slaughter of her love, And setting it beneath her breast did to the heart it shove. Her prayer with the gods and with their parents took effect, For when the fruit is throughly ripe, the berry is bespect[8] With colour tending to a black. And that which after fire Remained, rested in one tomb as Thisbe did desire.

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