Are you not he
That frights the maidens of the villagery,
Skim milk, and sometimes labor in the quern,
And bootless make the breathless housewife churn,
And sometime make the drink to bear no barm,
Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm? (II.i.)
An anonymous fairy speaks these lines upon recognizing the infamous Puck , a puckish spirit who is well known in English folklore for performing various pranks on unsuspecting villagers. The tone of the unnamed fairy approximates that of an adoring fan. The awe with which he lists Puck’s most typical pranks suggests just how much delight the fairy realm takes in promoting mischief. Puck makes this point explicitly in Act III when he declares, “And those things do best please me / That befall prepost’rously” (III.ii.).
What thou see’st when thou dost wake,
Do it for thy true love take.
Love and languish for his sake.
Be it ounce or cat or bear,
Pard or boar with bristled hair,
In thy eye that shall appear
When thou wak’st, it is thy dear.
Wake when some vile thing it near. (II.ii.)
This is the spell Oberon utters while squeezing the liquid from an enchanted flower onto Titania’s eyelids. Two things are worth noting here. First, Oberon’s verse is made up of rhyming couplets in iambic tetrameter. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fairies often speak in this meter rather than the more usual iambic pentameter of the Athenian nobles. Thus the very meter of the language is associated in this play with mischief. Second, this particular enchantment stands as the play’s primary act of mischief, which comically amplifies the discord among the play’s lovers in anticipation of eventual resolution.
Up and down, up and down,
I will lead them up and down.
I am feared in field and town.
Goblin, lead them up and down.
Here comes one. (III.ii.)
Puck utters these lines at the height of the chaos in the forest. The singsong quality of Puck’s verse links it to the theme of fairy mischief, and the repeated motif of “up and down” expresses the fairy’s delight in leading the unsuspecting Athenians astray. On the other hand, Puck’s repetition of this motif may convey his frustration at having to obey Oberon’s commands. Puck utters these lines immediately after the fairy king has instructed him to use the flower potion to restore order among the lovers, in which case they may indicate surliness.