Robin Goodfellow- Shakespeare: Myth

Robin Goodfellow:  Shakespeare Myth

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errol1In my last post, I read the poem Lob by Edward Thomas.  “Thou lob of spirits” is how the sprite addresses Robin Goodfellow in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Edward Thomas suggests to us that Shakespeare tapped into English tradition when he created Robin Goodfellow.  Think of that other famous Robin, Robin Hood.  He also dwells in the woods with his band of Merry Men and is a famous trickster.  Modern film versions like to make him dirty and “realistic” with the peasants he protects living lives of unmitigated misery in filthy hovels whilst the evil Sheriff of Nottingham hides in a draughty castle sending his bullies out to collect the taxes.  Kevin Costner is the all-American Robin hero, righting wrongs and standing up for the little guy against the English sheriff.  Errol Flynn was a different Robin, wasn’t he?  He dressed in bright colours and slapped his thigh a lot in good humour.  Think of these two ways of seeing: the dirty realistic, and the colourful fantastic.  Which of the two is more real?

costnerTurning to Shakespeare we have a similar doubt over how we should play Robin Goodfellow.  The aim of Shakespeare in the Mountains is to get closer to the text by reading it out loud.  There may not be one right answer to the questions we ask but the reading will allow us at least to find the bases for our judgments.  In this post, I want to read Puck’s first appearance in the play and see what we can make of it.  Should we read Robin as Kevin Costner or as Errol Flynn?  Is he dark or light?

First let’s hear the sprite:

Act 2, Scene 1

Either I mistake your shape and making quite

Or you are that shrewd and knavish sprite

Call’d Robin Goodfellow.  Are not you he

That frights the maidens of the villagery,

Skim milk, and sometimes labour in the quern,

And bootless make the breathless housewife churn,

And sometime make the drink to bear no barm,

Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm?

Those that Hobgoblin call you, and sweet Puck,

You do their work, and they shall have good luck.

Are not you he?


So, Robin is “shrewd and knavish” and laughs at the “night-wanderers” he misleads.  He frightens the village girls and gets up to tricks, such as preventing the butter from curdling, or taking the yeast out of the beer.  These are small inconveniences.  The sprite does not seem to be threatened by Robin either: he rapidly turns from the third person of “are you not he”, to the second person of you “skim milk…” you “labour…”  There is nothing like the menace we feel from the witches in Macbeth.  Just because a woman will not share her chestnuts one of the witches declares she will follow her sailor husband and toss his ship around in tempests so that he cannot sleep for “se’nights, nine times nine.”

The witches also speak with a different rhythm:

I will drain him dry as hay:

Sleep shall neither night or day

Hang upon his penthouse lid;

He shall live a man forbid.

The short seven-syllable lines are like incantations, whereas the longer lines in the sprite’s speech give much more room for decoration.  Look at the first two lines again:

Either…. I mistake…………// your …… ..shape       and       making quite

……………Or you are ………//that    ……. shrewd     and       knavish sprite

The “Either” is redundant.  “Or you are” precisely echoes “I mistake”: DAH-di-DAH.  Both phrases are followed by a caesura and the last part of each line is also precisely mirrored, assonance of the “sh” sounds in “shape” and “shrewd”, repetition of “and”, assonance of “ing” and “ish” and a strong rhyme in “quite” and “sprite”.

Now, there is enjambment here, a lead on to the next line, and you could choose to rush through to get it in, but it doesn’t seem to me that this is what the lines are calling for.  The natural reading of the lines would emphasize the rhyming.

Where you can speed up is in reading the alliterated lines; “bootless make the breathless housewife churn”.  It should sound a little like what she is doing as she is trying to get the butter to set.

Now let’s turn to Robin himself and see how he replies.  I am going to read it in a straight-forward manner without playing my Errol Flynn or Kevin Costner cards right now.

Thou speak’st aright;

I am that merry wanderer of the night.

I jest to Oberon, and make him smile

When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,

Neighing in likeness of a filly foal:

And sometime lurk I in a gossip’s bowl

In very likeness of a roasted crab;

And when she drinks, against her lips I bob,

And on her wither’d dewlap pour the ale.

The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,

Sometime for three-foot stool mistaketh me;

Then slip I from her bum, down topples she,

And ‘tailor’ cries, and falls into a cough;

And then the whole quire hold their hips and laugh,

And waxen in their mirth, and neeze, and swear

A merrier hour was never wasted there.-

But room, fairy: here comes Oberon.


I have seen this performed in different ways.  In one performance the actor went overboard to bring out the maliciousness of Puck and hissed as he was speaking.  You can hear how this might work in the first five lines with the repeated “s” sounds.  This would be taking the cue from the Puck/hobgoblin reference in the sprite’s speech.  You might say that the tricks he is playing are nasty tricks, picking on defenseless old women and making them look ridiculous.  The fact that everyone else around laughs at the “wisest aunt” does not take away from the malice of the act.  Perhaps if you are a primary school teacher and have repeatedly told your class not to play the “removing-the-seat” game, you will take this line.  You might tend towards Kevin Costner then, and expect your actor to bring out the serious intent in the reading.

On the other hand, you could say that this is harmless fun.  It is neither the evil of Macbeth’s witches nor the chastisement that Prospero has Ariel eke out on Caliban.  Puck has no ulterior motive beyond his naughty jest.  Following on from the primary school example, you might say that there is something strangely innocent about what he does, like children ringing on doorbells and running away or putting firecrackers down to startle passersby.  If you make this reading you are heading more towards Errol Flynn.  You will see Robin Goodfellow as a distant ancestor of Peter Pan, forever young, dressed in green, a wood spirit who is out of place outside of the woodlands.

It is partly the connection with the woodlands that makes Robin Goodfellow seem so quintessentially English.  “Stop!” you might say.  “The play is set in Athens, not England.”  Yet I cannot get away from the feeling that the Forest of Arden- the magical mythical setting- has nothing to do with Greece and all but the names of the characters in this play declares them to be English through-and-through.  What do you think?

For me, adding menace to Puck is a modern distortion.  There are no right or wrong answers, but I think too much is sacrificed by taking this route.  Let’s read a passage of the speech again.  I want to draw your attention to onomatopoeia- words that sound like what they signify.  Take “bob” as an example.  Bob-bob-bob-bob-bob is what apples do in cider, and I take the crab here to be a crab apple.  Or again, see what happens after the word “bum”, which since I have a childish sense of humour, seems funny in itself.  We are invited to run together “down topples she” making the sound of the words echo the sense.  “Cough” is also onomatopoeic.  This sound-sense correlation makes the passage humorous- not because Robin tells us it is funny, but because it sounds funny if we read it that way.

And when she drinks, against her lips I bob,

And on her wither’d dewlap pour the ale.

The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,

Sometime for three-foot stool mistaketh me;

Then slip I from her bum, down topples she,

And ‘tailor’ cries, and falls into a cough;


I guess you could say that I am with Errol Flynn, if we could only find a twelve-year old version of him!




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