Fairies, Fractious Women, and the Old Faith: Fairy Lore in Early Modern British Drama and Culture

Fairies, Fractious Women, and the Old Faith: Fairy Lore in Early Modern British Drama and Culture

Fairies, Fractious Women, and the Old Faith: Fairy Lore in Early Modern British Drama and Culture

Fairies, Fractious Women, and the Old Faith: Fairy Lore in Early Modern British Drama and Culture

Synopsis

Fairies, unruly women, and vestigial Catholicism constituted a frequently invoked triad in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century drama which has seldom been critically examined and therefore constitutes a significant lacuna in scholarly treatments of early modern theater, including the work of Shakespeare. Fairy tradition has lost out in scholarly critical convention to the more masculine mythologies of Christianity and classical Greece and Rome, in which female deities either serve masculine gods or are themselves masculinized (i.e., Diana as a buckskinned warrior). However, the fairy tradition is every bit as significant in our critical attempts to situate early modern texts in their historical contexts as the references to classical texts and struggles associated with state-mandated religious beliefs are widely agreed to be. fairy, rebellious woman, quasi-Catholic trio repeatedly stages resistance to early modern conceptions of appropriate class and gender conduct and state-mandated religion in A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Cymbeline, All's Well That Ends Well, and Ben Jonson's The Alchemist.

Excerpt

This project began, as so many solid research leads do, with a student's question. My introductory Shakespeare class and I had read The Comedy of Errors and Anthony and Cleopatra; we had historicized these texts and their portrayals of intransigent, sexually aggressive women by examining popular early modern English beliefs about witchcraft. When we got to Helena, the king-healer, husband-chaser heroine of All’s Well That Ends Well, one of my students asked, “Why isn’t she a witch?” I found that I had no satisfactory answer for him—at least, no answer that I felt satisfied offering.

Thus began a spate of research on early modern English witches who practiced healing arts on their social betters and lived to tell about it, and women who engaged in politically pregnant prophesying in a country in which the delineation between church and state had blurred, but managed to dodge severe punishment for sedition. With increasing frequency, I read about women who claimed to do all of this not with the aid of the devil, but with the assistance of fairies. Often, indeed, specifically with the aid of the fairies’ mysterious, overtly sexualized mistress, the fairy queen. Soon, I found myself reading about witches only to find the snatches of material that their depositions contained about encounters with fairies—snatches only because this material was not deemed important by early modern court reporters for one quite simple reason: it was not damning, while talk of covens and demonic pacts and copulation with the Prince of Darkness himself most certainly was. To utterly kill the suspense, Helena of All’s Well would not have been regarded as a witch by Shakespeare’s early seventeenth-century audiences, even though she engages in questionable healing and sexual practices, because these same attributes might well have aligned her with the fairy faithful—a class of people increasingly regarded as merely foolish by the London literati and by early modern legal authorities, and therefore not liable to the torturous interrogations and punishments meted out to those whose spiritual company emanated from the fiery confines of the Other Place.

In early modern England, fairies were associated with women and . . .

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