Puck’s Motivation and Depiction in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
What motivates Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Also known as Robin Goodfellow, the spirit Puck is based on legend contemporary to Shakespeare (OED). His origins are as curious as his character: the Oxford English Dictionary traces the origin of Puck to “the pouke… commonly identified with the biblical devil.” In the sixteenth century Puck becomes associated with Robin Goodfellow, “[a] sportive and capricious elf or goblin believed to haunt the English country-side” or, in the words of a Fairy in Shakespeare’s play, a “shrewd and knavish sprite” (II, i: 33). Puck plays a critical role in the plot development of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
True to legend and reputation, Puck carries out all sorts of mischief. He transforms Bottom into an ass-headed figure, and to witness Bottom’s face follows the metamorphosed Bottom “[t]hrough bog, through bush, through brake, through / brier” (III, i: 102). When Oberon orders him to anoint Titania’s and Demitrius’ eyes with a magical love “juice,” Puck mistakes Demetrius for Lysander and causes much confusion. He is also responsible for Titania’s misplaced love. When she awakes and falls in love, the object of her mad affection is none other than Bottom, the ass.
What are Puck’s motives? The answer is offered partially by Puck himself: he is a “merry wanderer,” attempting to create many “a merrier hour” (II, i: 43, 57). But what fuels Puck’s fundamental desire to create such merriment? This question takes a more intriguing turn if we consider Puck as Shakespeare’s on-stage representative.
First, like an author, Puck moves between worlds; he is a spirit who often interacts with mortals, just as Shakespeare bridged his fictional world and the real one around him. Second, Puck acts as the author’s voice in the epilogue:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended—
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream… (V, i: 415-420)
Here Puck accounts for the play’s title and apologizes for any offenses that the audience may have felt while watching the “shadows” perform a “weak and idle theme.” Shakespeare might well be speaking his own mind through Puck in these lines. From elsewhere in the play, we know that Shakespeare endorses the concept of an author addressing an audience by proxy. Bottom makes just such a proposition, proposing to write a disclaimer into the introduction of his play: “Let the prologue seem to say… that Pyramus is not killed indeed… tell them that I am not Pyramus, but Bottom / the weaver. This will put them out of fear” (III, i: 16-20).
Another parallel between Puck and Shakespeare occurs when Puck stumbles in upon a rehearsal of Pyramus and Thisby: “What, a play toward? I’ll be an auditor; / An actor too perhaps, if I see cause” (III, i: 74-75). Puck is an auditor by virtue of his presence and an actor in the sense of a participant, for he eventually transforms Bottom. Shakespeare is an auditor too, an avant-premiere audience of both the play and this “play within a play.” He acts vicariously through Puck, sharing the motive both to generate comedy and to further the dramatic plot.
If we consider Puck as Shakespeare and vice versa, it is easier to interpret Puck’s motives. Like Shakespeare, he wants to stage an entertaining production that is compelling to the end. Appropriately enough, the word mischief originates from the Old French meschever: mes, badly, and chever, to come to an end. Puck sustains the play to its conclusion by promoting the “entertainment value of subversion” that is so central to Shakespearean drama. If not always merry, Puck’s mischief certainly keeps the audience engaged.
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