Shakespeare’s fairies are rooted in English folklore, and the images of mischievous fairies playing tricks on humans, caring for human “changeling” children as their own, and even sweeping up after the “foolish mortals” were all common elements of old fairy tales. But the most familiar and popular element of the fairy world for an audience in Shakespeare’s time, were the fairy songs, and dances, or “fairy rings”. Stories in folklore always included fairies meeting in the middle of the night to sing and dance in circles as they practised their magic.
It is not surprising, then, that Shakespeare chose to make the music of the fairies an important part of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Fairy music provided a major crowd-pleaser for the audiences of Shakespeare’s time, who loved the entertainment of the songs, dances and fairy costumes. The lure of the crowd-pleaser made some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries include fairy dances in their plays purely for the sake of light entertainment, sometimes with bizarre results. For example, an anonymous play called Lust’s Dominion (c.1590) includes a dark scene about lust, revenge, and impending ruthless murder. In the middle of the scene, the fairy king Oberon appears with a troupe of dancing fairies. This is completely out of place with the rest of the action, thought probably very entertaining for the audience nonetheless.
Shakespeare’s fairies are very musical in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but the songs and dances are included as important parts of the plot. Titania’s fairies sing her a haunting lullaby to lull her to sleep, and she only awakes when Bottom appears as an ass. Oberon and Titania are reconciled after their dispute when Oberon calls for them to dance together. At the end of the dance the fairy king and queen are “new in amity”. They also promise to return to sing and dance on the following night to bless the marriages of the human lovers. In the final scene, at midnight, the fairies meet again. Click here to listen to the fairies' songs, spells, and dance music.
"Through the house give glimmering light,
By the dead and drowsy fire:
Every elf and fairy sprite
Hop as light as bird from brier;
And this ditty, after me,
Sing, and dance it trippingly."
"First, rehearse your song by rote
To each word a warbling note:
Hand in hand, with fairy grace,
Will we sing, and bless this place.”
[Song and dance]
A Midsummer Night's Dream, 5.1
Shakespeare’s fairies are drawn together by the music, and it gives their “fairy kingdom” a real feeling of society as they all participate in this communal activity. Even after the lovers have left their world, they bless them with their dance, and it closes the play (along with Puck’s famous epilogue) as a farewell to the human world.
Later performers of Shakespeare’s fairy play also became captivated by the songs and dances. They inspired Mendelssohn’s enchanting Midsummer Night’s Dream overture and incidental music, which captures the fairy world. Some productions became quite carried away with the fairy dances, using it as an opportunity to send large troupes of heavily costumed dancers onstage to impress the audience. The popularity of the fairy song-and-dance entertainment still exists today, as many productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream use these musical moments as a real opportunity to bring Shakespeare’s fairy world to life onstage.