Shakespeare Quarterly 52.1 (2001) 67-106
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Why Does Puck Sweep?: Fairylore, Merry Wives, and Social Struggle
Why does puck sweep? At the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Oberon and his troupe of fairies enter the Athenian palace to bless the aristocratic newlyweds as they set out to consummate their marriages. After waxing lyrical about screeching predators and demonic spirits, Puck describes his nocturnal mission as an oddly mundane hallowing: "I am sent with broom before, / To sweep the dust behind the door" (5.1.389-90). 1 When the fairies saunter casually into the ducal palace, the magic that had been located specifically within the forest is unleashed onto Theseus's domestic, if hyperrational, human sphere. In this moment, class tensions and marital disputes are also overshadowed by the play's culminating interest in aristocratic reproduction. But why in helping to achieve this closure does the mischievous Puck play the role of housewife? Why does the reproduction of the social world, a goal at the very heart of romantic comedy, rest on a task usually too banal for representation--disposing of dirt left in domestic corners? Why introduce a homey image in a play concerned with the grand affairs of state or the chaotic force of the imagination, one situated, albeit loosely, in the remote world of classical Athens?
I suggest that Puck's sacred sweeping links good housewifery with dramatic closure and political authority and, for the brief moment that it does so, allows a glimpse of an Englishness founded on principles that the play has not generally endorsed--the vernacular broadly defined. As Puck assumes the part of the very English Robin Goodfellow, the exotic mythological realm to which he is attached expands to include local and domestic associations that reverberate oddly with the flexible civic monarchy that founds social order in Dream. Shakespeare's later comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor repeats but perhaps helps to clarify this curiosity, for the fairies who emerge in its final scene produce a different but equally unexpected moment of disjunction. Why would housewives, who have figured so prominently in this play, seemingly turn away from their domestic province to dream up a fairy spectacle in the forest? How does attention to ethereal spirits square with the [End Page 67] play's interest in the foundational status of prosaic household life? By positioning domesticity and "popular" discourse differently, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Merry Wives of Windsor test the range of early modern connections among housewifery, class status, and fairylore. In putting forth this claim, I should make clear that I attempt neither to recover some discrete entity called "the popular" nor to establish how truly widespread, oppositional, or lower-class a particular belief system might be in a given period. Instead I look at how drama represents the "consumption" or "use" of something designated as popular by different social groups. 2 Fairylore becomes a channel through which Shakespearean drama grapples with the class-specific practices that subtend debates about English community in the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries; and it is this broader debate--about domestic ideology and community--that I hope to illuminate by scrutinizing two of its local dramatic instances.
Folklorists suggest that fairy discourse spanning many centuries designates belief in these spirits as both domestic and fading; that is, it constitutes a belief system held reverently until just recently, such that "believers" simply represent the unenlightened part of any given culture. As recipients of fairy tales, children (a term signifying differently over the centuries) constituted a privileged group who could still cling, temporarily, to a belief system that many would be encouraged to renounce when they entered adulthood. Children marked the site of the culture's continuity with a legendary past, even when the myth of this fading system was false; that is, even when many parts of the population still believed fervently in fairies or never had [End Page 68] done so at all. Two evolutionary narratives were at work: early modern writers projected an individual chronological evolution...