Shakespeare’s Faeries – Welsh and English


Many commentators have observed that the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are not like the fairies commonly found in English children’s stories. Shakespeare’s depiction of fairyland may have its origin in an account of Welsh fairies written originally by Giraldus Cambrensis in the twelfth century and published in Latin during Shakespeare’s lifetime.  The essential difference between the two types is that English fairies are insect-like and non-human, whereas the Welsh type resemble human beings, albeit much smaller in stature.

“…there is ample reason to think that Shakespeare would know of the Welsh fairies themselves:  it is plain that in 1595-9 he was interested in matters Welsh.”  So writes Harold F. Brooks in his Arden Edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Continuing the “matters Welsh” theme, the emergence of Welsh fairies in Shakespeare’s work, comes in Romeo and Juliet in a speech by Mercutio in which Queen Mab brings influence from fairy-land to the human world:  her size is “no bigger than an agate stone/  On the forefinger of an alderman…. Her chariot is an empty hazel nut.”  So we could say that ‘she’ is very small, but has a resemblance to homo sapiens:  she is distinctly human-like; she is personified as ‘Queen’.  She is of the Welsh type of fairy, not the English.

It seems that Shakespeare was aware of Wales and its culture.  He may have experienced some of this from his fellow actors.  Shakespeare’s colleagues in the Chamberlain’s Men included Augustine Phillips, who left a number of musical implements in his will of 1605. It is generally accepted that Phillips was the music-master of the troupe. He was a Londoner; but we do not know if he was brought-up Welsh-speaking. Two other actors with Welsh names were members of the company – Robert Goughe and John Rice (Rees).  One of this troupe (perhaps the youngest) could sing in Welsh:  Lady Mortimer sings in Welsh in 1 Henry IV ( written 1597-8) and it is most likely that ‘she’ actually did so on stage.  She, according to Mortimer (and the Queen Mab imagery is evident even here),

Makes Welsh as sweet as ditties highly penn’d

Sung by a fair queen in a summer’s bower

With ravishing division on her lute.


In As You Like It (1599) the printed text has Jacques saying ‘Ducdame’.  This makes no sense in English or in Greek, but it does in Welsh, as Dewch gyda fi – come with me. This fits the action. It is very likely that this construction is an attempt to represent what was said on the stage.  So, Welsh was spoken on the Shakespearian stage.

Shakespeare’s Queen Mab is very small, but she is vigorous, determined and sometimes malicious:  “…she gallops night by night/  Through lovers brains.”  She represents dreams and wish-fulfillment; apart from her size, physically and mentally she resembles a human being. In her smallness, she resembles the fairies in the English tradition.  In her human-ness, she resembles the fairies in the Welsh tradition. Mab’ is Welsh for son, so her human nature is embodied in the word.

Brooks writes:  “…Welsh fairies would have provided him with a perfect antecedent for Mercutio’s, and for the smallest elves in the Dream… all his fairies have tradition behind them – the full-size king and queen; their child-sized and diminutive followers; and Robin Goodfellow.”

The phrase “full-size king and queen” is notable not for its “full-size” in relation to humans, but ‘fully-grown/developed’ as of the fairy world, representing the apex of a cohesive social group. And “king and queen” suggests a society of persons, albeit miniature, who lived and worked together in harmony.  This is what the Welsh tradition of fairies presents us with.  The Welsh term for them is  Y Tylwyth Teg.  This translates as ‘the Fair Family’; the Welsh word for family is teulu.  ‘Fair’ is used here in the sense of attractive or good-looking. Brooks presents his translation as ‘the Fair Tribe’ but this is to slightly miss the central point – that these fairies are as a family; that they are close to one another in manners, conventions and spirit; that they have deep unity as a group.

The Welsh fairy tradition was fully catalogued and described by John Rhys in his Celtic Folklore, Welsh and Manx (1901).  In 1930, Thomas Gwynn Jones published his Welsh Lore and Folk Custom.  In 1953 D. Parry-Jones published his very accessible Welsh Legends and Fairy Lore (Batsford). These volumes speak of a tradition which goes back to the Dark Ages, even to Roman times.  Much of it has come down to us by word of mouth.  The subject-matter is remarkably consistent.  Fairies in rural Wales (and this was before urbanisation) belonged to an alternative society.  They resembled miniature humans but kept away from human contact. They made rings on the ground.  They lived in caves, woods; dark places. Farmers saw them; sometimes housewives, sometimes children exploring the countryside.  They were fond of water and often were seen on river-banks or the margins of lakes.  But they had a nasty side.  They didn’t like being crossed.  They would steal a human child, often putting a fairy child in his/her place (‘changeling child’).  When fully-grown, they were pigmy; less than half human size.  But they were not as insects (like English fairies); they did not have wings and they did not fly. And, most importantly, they lived in social groups, with their own customs and hierarchies. – which is why their name derives from the Welsh word for family.

In the second half of the Sixteenth Century, book printing and publishing was booming, mostly in London.  In the narrow streets bordering St Paul’s Cathedral, dozens of booksellers offered their volumes to the public.  One of the books which Shakespeare used as a source of many of his plays was Halle’s Chronicle of 1550. This was a purported history book with a heavy Tudor bias.  Shakespeare’s history plays show him as a Lancastrian, with Henry Tudor/Richmond as the  hero of Bosworth and unifier of the Kingdom.

Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play in celebration of love and marriage: its conclusion, after many tricks and difficulties, sees the celebrations of the marriages of three couples in Theseus’s palace.  This represents the triumph of unity and harmony over superficial differences: even Hippolyta gets married despite her ‘masculine’ tendencies.

The circumstances pertaining to the original composition have been much discussed but it does seem that one marriage stands out – that of William, 6th Earl of Derby and Elizabeth Vere at Greenwich on 26 January 1595. (Derby is West Derby, now part of Merseyside). The Stanleys were  rich, owning much of Lancashire and parts of north-east Wales, and influential through their supreme position as head of this ‘palatine’ county.

There is flattery of the Queen in the text:  “fair vestal…imperial votaress..”  This was one of the few weddings Queen Elizabeth attended; she was related to the Stanleys.  There is a possible allusion to the bride in the “little western flower” on which Cupid’s bolt fell: the imagery of this passage is reminiscent of the entertainment of Elizabeth at Elvetham in 1591, where Elizabeth Vere was almost certainly present as one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting. Shakespeare was careful to flatter his Tudor Queen, who was a patron of his acting troupe.  His pro-Welsh mode (involving the Stanleys and Elizabeth) was also pro-business.

Given that the play was first performed by the Chamberlain’s Men (with Shakespeare as writer and actor), whose members had previously enjoyed the patronage of Ferdinando, 5th Earl of Derby, William’s brother,  the performance at the Queen’s palace at Greenwich or at Burghley House in the Strand would be under the direction of their No. 1 writer.  It is very possible that William commissioned Shakespeare (whom current research suggests was working for the Stanleys in Lancashire) to write a play to be performed on the occasion of his intended marriage: the commissioning occurring in late 1593 or  early 1594.  The marriage was due to take place in mid-1594, but was delayed owing to the pregnancy of Alice, Ferdinando Stanley’s widow. Had she given birth to a boy, he would have inherited the Earldom of Derby, thus deriving William of the title; however, no child was born.  This sequence goes some way towards justifying the May-day and Midsummer imagery in the play, which have Celtic origins.

The play when originally performed would have ended with Oberon, King of the Fairies, presenting a beautiful blessing:

Now, until the break of day,

Through this house each fairy stray.

To the best bride-bed will we,

Which by us shall blessed be;

And the issue there create

Ever shall be fortunate….

And each several chamber bless

Through this palace with sweet peace;

And the owner of it blest,

Ever shall in safety rest.


So the King of the Fairies has the last word, with the supernatural powers of the sub-human fairies in life-enhancing efficacy:  they bless Theseus and Hippolyta who occupy  the “best bride bed.” The grandeur of Greenwich Palace would seem the setting for the play when written, with compliments (and consonantal echoes) to Queen Elizabeth (‘Bess’) for her support and entertaining:  “..and the owner of it blest.”

Oberon, although a fairy, is almost human:  he has the physiognomy and he speaks as a human being.  He is not a small, light, ephemeral creature with wings.  He is a fairy of the Welsh tradition.  Where did Shakespeare get this from?  How did he come upon the idea that somewhere in the nether-world there are people living a different life, who are separate from human beings and yet share many of their characteristics, sometimes to be seen by farmers and villagers who have some, but guarded, contact with them?  It is very unlikely that Shakespeare himself invented this.  It was not the English fairy tradition that he would have heard in his early Stratford-upon-Avon days.  It is far more likely that he found it in some printed source.

The clue is to be found (for the only time in the literature as far as I know) in Harold Brooks’s edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  On lxxii of his Introduction, he writes:  “Giraldus Cambrensis relates how Elidorus was taken to a fairy kingdom with inhabitants of the smallest stature, their horses being the size of hares (leporariis in quantitate conformes).” Unfortunately Brooks does not follow this with detail from the Giraldus text.  This we can do here.

Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) (c1146-c1223) was Archbishop of Brecon and spent some years at the University of Paris teaching theology.  Accompanied by Baldwin of Forde, he undertook a tour of Wales on a recruitment campaign for the Third Crusade, writing it up in Latin, publishing in 1191 under the title Itinerarium Cambriae.  This text was translated in to English by R.C.Hoare in the early twentieth century.  It was published by Everyman in 1908 with the dual title The Itinerary Through Wales / Description of Wales.

On page 67 of the Hoare volume, as part of the Itinerarium, we are told that the party is heading for the river Nedd (Neath), having spent the night in Swansea castle.  They are approached by a priest called Elidorus, who:

…most strenuously affirmed had befallen himself.  When a youth of twelve years, and learning his letters…he ran away, and concealed himself under the hollow bank of a river.  After fasting in that situation for two days, two little men of pigmy stature appeared to him, saying ‘If you will come with us, we will lead you into a country full of delights and sports.’  Assenting and rising up, he followed his guides through a path, at first subterraneous and dark, into a most beautiful country, adorned with rivers and meadows, woods and plains, but obscure, and not illuminated with the full light of the sun.  All the days were cloudy, and the nights extremely dark, on account of the absence of the moon and stars.  The boy was brought before the king, and introduced to him in the presence of the court; who, having examined him for a long time, delivered to him his son, who was then a boy. These men were of the smallest stature, but very well proportioned in their make; they were all of a fair complexion, with luxuriant hair falling over their shoulders like that of women.  They had horses and greyhounds adapted to their size.  They neither ate flesh nor fish, but lived on milk diet, made up into messes with saffron.  They never took an oath, for they detested nothing so much as lies. As often as they returned from our upper hemispheres, they reprobated our ambition, infidelities, and inconstancies; they had no form of public worship, being strict lovers and reverers, as it seemed, of truth.

The boy frequently returned to our hemisphere, sometimes by the way he had first gone, sometimes by another: at first in company with other persons, and afterwards alone, and made himself known only to his mother, declaring to her the manners, nature and state of the people.  Being desired by her to bring a present of gold, with which that region abounded, he stole, while at play with the king’s son, the golden ball with which he used to divert himself, and brought it to his mother in great haste; and when he reached the door of his father’s house, but not unpursued, and was entering it in a great hurry, his foot stumbled on the threshold, and falling down into the room where his mother was sitting, the two pigmies seized the ball which had dropped from his hand, and departed, shewing the boy every mark of contempt and derision.  On recovering from his fall, confounded with shame, and execrating the evil consel of his mother, he returned by the usual track to the subterraneous road, but found no appearance of any passage, though he searched for it on the banks of the river for nearly the space of a year…”

A search of the area around the villages of Pontfeddfechan and Ystradfellte reveals no sign of fairy-land, either in local legend or names of caves.  The rivers in question are the Mellte, Nedd Fechan and Hepste, running in to the River Neath. If Giraldus’s account is factually correct in identification of location, we can assume that the fairy tradition once associated with Neath and its river/s has faded away in time.

Giraldus’s account reveals a land very much in tune with Shakespeare’s account.  The King and Queen echo Oberon and Titania.  They are, in both accounts, creatures in charge of their societies.  The boy who is brought to befriend the human boy is echoed in Titania’s boy “…as her Attendant, hath/  A lovely Boy stolen from an Indian King/  She never had so sweet a Changeling…” with the word ‘changeling’ directly relating to Welsh fairies stealing a human child in exchange for one of theirs.  Both societies are supplied with a King and Queen who are of human form:  in Shakespeare they appear larger than the others.  In the play, the fairies in Titania’s service (cobweb, moth, and others) are small in size, resembling English fairies, representing creatures and features from nature.

Giraldus’s  underground is suffused by virtue.  No flesh is eaten and truth is central.  Goodness prevails.  But for Shakespeare, this is too simple and unified.  He introduces Puck/Robin Goodfellow to stir things up and cause trouble.  Puck’s creatures are “…Damned spirits all,/That in Cross-ways and Floods have burial,” are exiled from light and “consort with blackbrow’d night.”  Oberon replies:  “But we are spirits of another sort:  I with the Morning’s Love have oft made sport/ Opening…fair blessed Beams….”  He says – we are creatures of daylight, of light and virtue, bringing no harm or fear – thus associating themselves with Giraldus’s fairies, who live in a land of cloudy but sun-lit days and eschew the dark nights.

Finally – is there any source from which Shakespeare may have learned of the story of Elidorus?  There is.  An edition of Giraldus’s two rides through Wales, in Latin, was published in 1585 by David Powel.  Powel was a native of Bryneglwys, Denbighshire, and a graduate of Jesus College, Oxford.  He became Vicar of Ruabon, where he is buried.  His book must have been available in north-east Wales and Lancashire.  If Shakespeare spent time with the Earls of Derby at their houses Lathom and Knowsley in south Lancashire, as many scholars believe, he could well have read the Powel volume in their libraries.  And if he sojourned with the Salusburys of Denbigh at their grand house Lleweni during Christmas of 1593 he could have read the Powel volume there.

The similarity in the account of fairies in the two texts seems more than an accident.  Shakespeare’s presentation could well have its origin in Giraldus’s work.



(This essay is written in memory of Robin Reeves, editor of The New Welsh Review, who in 1993 and 1994 published a number of essays on the Shakespeare and Wales theme)