Plays, Poems & New Writing Research article

Entering the Otherworld

The supernatural is an area of darkness which features heavily in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

9 minute read

Shakespeare was more deeply interested in the supernatural than any other playwright of his generation. In a theatre trying out forms of dramatic realism, he remained committed to other realms and other seas, and he transformed them. What drove him? Shakespeare’s fairies, witches and ghosts share as their background the seismic event of Reformation. For Protestants, what had been normal ideas within the medieval church now became illicit, suspect acts of magic which might even amount to diabolism. Shakespeare was fascinated by the dark and ominous aspects of the otherworldly beings about whom he wrote.

Two actors holding each other, they are both in heavy, fantastical costumes

Jack Laskey as Oberon and Marianne Oldham as Titania in our 2023 production. Photographer: Helen Murray.

Shakespeare’s fairies are much darker than many realise. Take Oberon: the name occurs often in conjurations from the Middle Ages onwards. Oberon teaches ‘knowledge in physic and… the nature of stones, herbs and trees and of all metal.’ That sounds benign, but was Oberon trustworthy? True, his role in romance is compassionate helper of those in distress; for example, he sends fairy knights to defend a noblewoman condemned to be burnt. However, fairy knights can also be sexual predators; one, Sir Degarré, offers to help a lady lost in the woods, just as Oberon tries to help Helena. But Degarré declares his love for the lady, and then rapes her savagely. This other world of the forest fairies seems courtly and polite, but can be deadly.

The queen of the fairies is a problematic figure too. Andrew Man, accused of witchcraft in 1598, gave his view of her: ‘[she] promised me that I should know all things… and…cure all sorts of sickness’. In exchange, Andrew becomes the queen’s lover. In romances, too, the queen of the fairies is predatory. When Malory’s Morgan le Fay finds Lancelot sleeping under a tree, she imprisons him and tries to force him to love her. Andrew also says the queen has ‘sundry dead men in her company’. Early Christian sources describe dreams of a goddess called Diana who leads the furious horde of dead men into the air. Despite the efforts of the rational clergy, these dreams were never fully annihilated. Reginald Scot cites them: ‘the witches themselves…do hear in the night time a great noise of minstrels, which fly over them, with the lady of the fairies, and then they address themselves to their journey.’ That encounter could be an exciting, even redemptive experience for earthbound masculinity, but while Andrew Man becomes a prophet and holy healer, Bottom the dreamer remains earthbound, despite giving the fairy queen carnal access to his body. What Shakespeare had learnt from the hard thinking of the Reformation was the power of bodily comedy to desacralize. The dark upper air could be relieved of the pressure of the demonic by showing the chief demoness to be merely a lustful woman, the animals who once formed her train merely a peasant with a donkey’s head. Such debunkings suggest deep fear.

Two actors dressed in bright clothing on the globe stage. One is sat down and dressed like a piñata, the other actor is massaging their shoulders and smiling at them

Victoria Elliot as Titania and Sophie Russell as Bottom in our 2021 production. Photography: Tristram Kenton.

We tend to assume that fairies are white, or at least that Shakespeare thought they were. Not so. Many fairies in folklore are explicitly described as dark skinned, or swart. Perhaps that’s why it made sense to display indigenous peoples as fairies:

The Lest Man and Horse in the World

The First being a little Black-Man, being but 3 foot high, who is distinguished by the name of the Black Prince, and has been shown to most Kings and Princes in Christendom.  The next being his wife, the little woman, not 3 foot high… straight and proportionable as any Woman in the Land, which is commonly called the Fairy Queen, she gives a general satisfaction to all that sees her, by diverting them with dancing.

In Shakespeare’s plays, fairies can also be enslaved as social others by magicians; like Sir John Hawkins, Prospero takes an enslaved indigenous person from one slave, in order to enslave him and make use of him. Now, the whole point about a conjured spirit is that it is your slave; it must do what you say.  At the same time, conjured spirits could be subversive, disturbingly acting on their own desires rather than those of their master.  Supposedly nothing more than the willed embodiment of those desires, they could create a worrying split in the integrity of the self by proving themselves different rather than reassuringly the same.  In particular, they constantly tried to reverse the relation of ownership, seeking to enslave the master who had enslaved them.  (This might seem more familiar if you think of the Faustus legend; summoned fairies are often little different from Mephistopheles).  The spectre of the slave’s disobedience and even revolt lurks within fairy spells of conjuration.  Most significantly, the fairy summoned, according to one spell, could not be dismissed, but had to remain with the summoner forever.  The idea of the slave-trading society as bound to its slaves, unable to escape from their uncanny and imperfect replication of its desires, is represented in the permanence of the fairy-master relationship.

Photographer: Helen Murray

Like the slave and the slave trade as a whole, the fairy advances his master’s social position by apparent sleight-of-hand; the wealth he produces is unearned. What is the status of the troubling changeling boy, usually portrayed as South Asian? Why might he particularly fit into the fairy court?

the King came; who at last appeared clothed or laden with Diamonds, Rubies, Pearls, and other precious vanities, so great so glorious!…. his fingers every one with at least two or three Rings Diamonds, Rubies as great as walnuts (some greater) and Pearls such as mine eyes were amazed at.

Fairies themselves were often described as exotic and foreign, to which others give an anthropological and descriptive response. They are, among other things, a model for how to live alongside an exotic race, and as such they are part of the zero-sum game that was the mercantile empire being built in Shakespeare’s lifetime.

In witch trials, we hear of poor women who give up their newborns to the queen of the fairies in exchange for magic powers. In this context, Titania’s account of how she acquired the little changeling boy becomes suspect; how sisterly it all sounds, but what if the ‘votaress’ who gives him up were to tell this story? What if all the pain she suffers, her deadly childing, the loss of her baby through death, are simply things Titania does not see? Titania is allowed to take the child with a clear untroubled conscience, but Shakespeare knew perfectly well that fairy abductions of changeling children were evil, as the lines in Hamlet show: ‘No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,/ So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.’ In overturning Titania’s rule, Shakespeare is striking out a line of frightening female figures. Critics have stressed the sexuality in Oberon’s interest in the changeling, but have tended to take Titania’s word for it that her interest in the boy is purely maternal, oblivious of all evidence to the contrary from the figure’s background. Usually such kidnapped boys become the queen’s paramours.

Titania appears elsewhere in Shakespeare’s imagination as the goddess of witches in Macbeth, called Hecate. If we take seriously the claims of the text as we have it, and read it as an integral whole, a strand of the play opens up which is otherwise obscure, a strand which we may dislike because it threatens to connect Macbeth with the most troubling and egregious fantasies of continental witchcraft, and so fingering the stage as one of the proximate causes of the leakage of Continental witchcraft beliefs into English and Scottish witch trials. ‘Pale Hecate’ and her dark offerings are, after all, what ‘witchcraft celebrates’. This Hecate is pale because she is the waning moon, the goddess of the darkest night. Lyrically and figuratively, the play connects her with witches, witches who were called ‘feyries’ by Holinshed. The weird sisters’ interest in babies and the disappearance of Lady Macbeth’s suckling also connect Hecate back to Titania.

So Oberon, Titania, and Hecate are alike rulers of the restless dead; what then of Shakespeare’s ghosts? The historian Nancy Caciola writes eloquently about the way the very category ‘restless dead’ might be a simplification of the complex process of dying. ‘There is a liminal period in which the death of the personality is absolute, but the death of the flesh is not yet complete. It is only when the body has passed through its ‘wet’ enfleshed stage, and become ‘dry’ bones that it is fully defunct. In some parts of Europe, the soul remained in the vicinity of the body for up to 40 days; the dead of Scandinavia ‘lived’ in the grave until they faded from memory. Hamlet sustains his father’s ghost unnaturally by his continued remembrance. Many, perhaps even most of the early modern revenants and stage ghosts were corporeal. So the very Danish ghost of old Hamlet, whose bones have burst their cerements, should make us think of vampires rather than bodiless spirits.

An actor wearing a mask covered in moss, with twigs woven into their hair

Michelle Terry as Puck in our 2023 production. Photography: Helen Murray

In the cases of both Oberon and the revenant of Old Hamlet, the plays seem to want to rule out one category of being, the demon or devil. While Puck describes the spirits of the dead hastening back to their graves, he does so in order that Oberon can say that ‘we are spirits of another sort’, able to live in full sunlight. However, this is contradicted by the fact that the audience does not see the fairies except at night, and by the fact that after midnight is ‘fairy time’. Similarly, Old Hamlet has provoked a critical outpouring about whether he is a devil or not, all of which ignores the question of what kind of dead person he is. And yet it is this question that is most naturally prompted by a reading of Shakespeare’s supernatural characters. When Hamlet asks ‘be thou a spirit of health, or goblin damned’ he is not only asking if the ghost is damned; he is also asking if it is a goblin, a restless and devouring undead entity, subject to conjuration, but impossible to fathom or control. If he is, he is strangely like Shakespeare’s fairies and witches..


[i]   British Library N. Tab 2026/25, 19.
[ii]   Sir Thomas Roe, in The Embassy of Sir Thomas Roe to the Court of the Great Mogul, ed. William Foster, 2 vols, London: The Hackluyt Society, 1899, p. 412.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays in the Globe Theatre until 12 August as part of our Summer 2023 season.

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