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Folk-lore of Shakespeare

Thomas Firminger Thiselton-Dyer

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Tags: Folklore

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This is a comprehensive study of the folklore aspects of Shakespeare. The Reverend Dyer, who also wrote Folk-lore of Women, delves into the source of passages in Shakespeare which were mysterious even back in Victorian times. Although usually he manages to clear up the mystery, in few instances he has to admit defeat. This book is vital if you want to really understand Shakespeare's cultural context and times. He covers everything from the supernatural (fairies, witches, mermaids) to the mundane: games, weddings, dance, punishments, proverbs, animal lore.

This book has 542 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1883.

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Excerpt from 'Folk-lore of Shakespeare'

The wealth of Shakespeare's luxuriant imagination and glowing language seems to have been poured forth in the graphic accounts which he has given us of the fairy tribe. Indeed, the profusion of poetic imagery with which he has so richly clad his fairy characters is unrivalled, and the "Midsummer Night's Dream" holds a unique position in so far as it contains the finest modern artistic realisation of the fairy kingdom. Mr Dowden in his Shakspere Primer (1877, pp. 71, 72) justly remarks:—"As the two extremes of exquisite delicacy, of dainty elegance, and, on the other hand, of thick-witted grossness and clumsiness, stand the fairy tribe, and the group of Athenian handicraftsmen. The world of the poet's dream includes the two—a Titania, and a Bottom the weaver—and can bring them into grotesque conjunction. No such fairy poetry existed anywhere in English literature before Shakspere. The tiny elves, to whom a cowslip is tall, for whom the third part of a minute is an important division of time, have a miniature perfection which is charming. They delight in all beautiful and dainty things, and war with things that creep and things that fly, if they be un-comely; their lives are gay with fine frolic and delicate revelry." Puck, the jester of fairyland, stands apart from the rest, the recognisable "lob of spirits," a rough, "fawn-faced, shock-pated little fellow, dainty-limbed shapes around him." Judging, then, from the elaborate account which the poet has bequeathed us of the fairies, it is evident that the subject was one in which he took a special interest. Indeed, the graphic pictures he has handed down to us of—

"Elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves;
 And ye, that on the sands with printless foot,
 Do chase the ebbing Neptune, and do fly him
 When he comes back; you demy-puppets that
 By moonshine do the green-sour ringlets make
 Whereof the ewe not bites," &c.,

show how intimately he was acquainted with the history of these little people, and what a complete knowledge he possessed of the superstitious fancies which had clustered round them. In Shakespeare's day, too, it must be remembered, fairies were much in fashion; and, as Johnson remarks, common tradition had made them familiar. It has also been observed that well acquainted, from the rural habits of his early life, with the notions of the peasantry respecting these beings, he saw that they were capable of being applied to a production of a species of the wonderful. Hence, as Mr Halliwell Phillipps has so aptly written, "he founded his elfin world on the prettiest of the people's traditions, and has clothed it in the ever-living flowers of his own exuberant fancy." Referring to the fairy mythology in the "Midsummer Night's Dream," it is described by Mr Keightley as an attempt to blend "the elves of the village with the fays of romance. His fairies agree with the former in their diminutive stature—diminished, indeed, to dimensions inappreciable by village gossips—in their fondness for dancing, their love of cleanliness, and their child-abstracting propensities. Like the fays, they form a community, ruled over by the princely Oberon and the fair Titania. There is a court and chivalry; Oberon would have the queen's sweet changeling to be a "knight of his train to trace the forest wild." Like earthly monarchs, he has his jester, "the shrewd and knavish sprite called Robin Goodfellow."

   Of the fairy characters mentioned by Shakespeare may be mentioned Oberon, king of fairyland, and Titania his queen. They are represented as keeping rival courts in consequence of a quarrel, the cause of which is thus told by Puck ("Midsummer Night's Dream," ii. I):—

"The king doth keep his revels here to-night:
 Take heed the queen come not within his sight;
 For Oberon is passing fell and wrath,
 Because that she as her attendant hath
 A lovely boy, stolen from an Indian king;
 She never had so sweet a changeling;
 And jealous Oberon would have the child
 Knight of his train, to trace the forests wild;
 But she perforce withholds the loved boy,
 Crowns him with flowers and makes him all her joy;
 And now they never meet in grove or green,
 By fountain clear, or spangled starlight sheen," &c.

   Oberon first appears in the old French romance of "Huon de Bourdeaux," and is identical with Elberich, the dwarf king of the German story of Otnit in the Heldenbuch. The name Elberich, or, as it appears in the "Nibelungenlied," Albrich, was changed, in passing into French, first into Auberich, then into Auberon, and finally became our Oberon. He is introduced by Spenser in the "Fairy Queen" (Book ii., cant. i., st. 6), where he describes Sir Guyon:—

"Well could he tournay, and in lists debate,
 And knighthood tooke of good Sir Huon's hand,
 When with King Oberon he came to faery land."

And in the 10th canto of the same book (stanza 75) he is the allegorical representative of Henry VIII. The wise Elficleos left two sons,

                        "of which faire Elferon,
The eldest brother, did untimely dy;
Whose emptie place the mightie Oberon
Doubly supplide, in spousall and dominion."

"Oboram, King of Fayeries," is one of the characters in Greene's "James the Fourth." 

   The name Titania for the queen of the fairies appears to have been the invention of Shakespeare, for, as Mr Ritson remarks, she is not "so called by any other writer." Why, however, the poet designated her by this title, presents, according to Mr Keightley, no difficulty—"It was," he says, "the belief of those days that the fairies were the same as the classic nymphs, the attendants of Diana. The Fairy Queen was therefore the same as Diana whom Ovid (Met. iii. 173) styles Titania." In Chaucer's "Merchant's Tale," Pluto is the King of Faerie, and his queen, Proserpina, "who danced and sang about the well under the laurel in January's garden."

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