How did they (cast the fairies) in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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Many young roles imagined here

Many young actors today have cut their teeth on the role of one of the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream whilst at school. A popular play for schools to produce perhaps because the fairy roles lend themselves so well to child actors. But what about in the first performances? Did Shakespeare cast adults or children as the fairies?

In short no one knows but here are some ideas put forward over the years.

It is commonly thought that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written for and performed at an aristocratic wedding. Though no single wedding has ever been found which fits the bill perfectly no less than 11 have been suggested as possible. If this were the case then some people suggest that Shakespeare may have used the young children of the families to play the roles of the minor fairies. Whilst this is not impossible it feels to me rather modern in its assumptions – that  the aristocrats would be happy to loan their children to the actors even for an afternoon seems a little unlikely…

Even if this was done during the first performance how did it then transfer to the public theatrical performances? Certainly no aristocrat would have encouraged their young child to spend a term with the theatre on work experience! The public play houses were not considered suitable places for unaccompanied well bred children nor were plays considered educational as they might be today.

So another possibility which has been suggested is that Shakespeare borrowed some young male actors from a children’s company. Dramatic performances entirely given by children were popular during Shakespeare’s career and some folks think that Shakespeare saw these child companies as a threat to his own play house. If he did feel this way it seems unlikely he would have wanted to work with them though conversely of course he might have wanted to cash in on their popularity!

So in fact we really don’t know how those fairy roles were portrayed but there is plenty of speculation and some interesting possibilities  to consider…


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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT

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