The Transformations of Oberon

The Transformations of Oberon:
The Use of Fairies in Seventeenth-Century Literature
by Michael Marc Levy.
PhD thesis, U of MN, 1982, 256 pp. University Microfilms order number

The longaevi, the good people, the fairies, have figured in English literature since Beowulf. In the seventeenth century a number of poets made use of them, borrowing sometimes from Shakespeare and Spenser, sometimes from tradition and contemporary folklore.

Occasionally used for mere ornamentation, the fairies far more often serve as a vehicle for political statement. Spenser had equated Elizabeth with Gloriana and England with Fairyland, imbuing both with supernatural glory, and similar associations permeated Elizabeth’s court. This practice continued under the Stuarts in Jonson’s Oberon, which proclaimed James I’s son, Henry, as Fairy Prince. Under Charles I, however, the metaphoric connection between England and Fairyland was used primarily for satire. Drayton, strongly critical of the supposed immorality of the Stuarts, uses a corrupt Fairyland to castigate Charles’ court in “Nimphidia” and The Muses Elizium. Earlier, Corbett’s “The Faeryes Farewell” had already used the longaevi to criticize both Catholic corruption and Puritan radicalism. William Browne and Herrick continue this tradition.

Rooted as they are in British history, the fairies also form a convenient symbol for the past, the old ways and values, and appeal to a sense of notalgia. This is their role in The Muses Elizium, their chaste sexuality contrasting with Venus’s lust, and in “King Oberon, and the Pygmees,” the Duchess of Newcastle’s glorification of the martyred Charles I. In The Faithful Shepherdess, Fletcher uses the fairies to domesticate the Italian pastoral tragi-comedy. They are adapted to the same purpose by Randolph in Amyntas and Jonson in The Sad Shepherd.

Shakespeare popularized small fairies and was imitated by Drayton, Browne, Herrick, and others. Several poets use this diminutiveness for comic purposes. By taking away a character’s physical stature, they rob him of dignity and make him a more obviously eligible satiric target. In such poems as “Oberon’s Feast,” however, Herrick’s presentation of the microcosmic world differs from that of the other poets in its close and careful observation and use of realistic detail. Indeed, the observer par excellence of small things, Herrick more than any other poet describes what he actually sees in the world of the tiny, and creates from these observations a veritable civilization in miniature.