( England: c. 1300-1700)
Jonathan Gil Harris
Puck, also known as Robin Goodfellow and Hobgoblin, is one of Shakespeare's best-known and most beloved characters. The "shrewd and knavish sprite" (2.1.33-34) of A Midsummer Night's Dream (c. 1595) who bowls, hides in gossips, misleads night wanderers, interrupts wise aunt's tales, and rejoices in his many practical jokes is by no means Shakespeare's invention, however. His Puck is but one dramatic rendering -- albeit a complex and in some ways nontraditional one -- of a mischievous prankster who pops up repeatedly in Tudor and Stuart writing, and who, prior to his emergence as a literary and theatrical character, had enjoyed a long but somewhat ambiguous history in English popular folklore.
Although Shakespeare conflates them (see 2.1.34, 40), Puck, Robin Goodfellow, and Hobgoblin were separate entities in medieval and early modern English folklore. Reginald Scot in The Discoverie of Witchcraft ( 1584) provides a catalogue of the various bogeys with which nurses would frighten small children: "changelings, Incubuss, Robin Goodfellow . . . , the Puckle, Tom Thumb, the Hobgoblin . . . and such other bugs" (86). Edmund Spenser likewise distinguishes between Puck and hobgoblins in Epithalamion:"Ne let the Pouke, nor other evil sprites / . . . Ne let hob Goblins, names whose sence we see not / Fray us with things that be not" (341, 343-344). How much Puck and Robin Goodfellow were identified with each other prior to A Midsummer Night's Dream, if at all, is uncertain. After Shakespeare, they were frequently conflated; for example, Puck is referred to in The Coleorton Masque (c. 1618) as both "honest