What the Puck Did He Say?

At the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we get the closest thing we’ve had thus far in the Canon to an Epilogue.  After the newlyweds have gone “to bed… (and their) nightly revels” (V.i.360 and 362), and after the fairies have come to “bless” (V.i.409) the beds, Puck is left alone on stage to deliver one final speech in “fairy verse” (catalectic trochaic tetrameter):

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended--
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call.
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

— V.i.413-430

The speech amounts to an apology.  One can completely understand this if, as legend has it, the play was written and first performed for a court wedding.  A playwright so early in his career would want to cover his rear, so to speak, and make sure that none of his royal or noble audience goes away unhappy (like the slapdash wackiness of “Pyramus and Thisby” would allow for that).  Puck appears and sets forth a supposition: they, the “shadows” have offended; to which he will provide amends.  But first, what are the “shadows”?

The Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM (v. 4.0) defines shadow as what we think of it as: “comparative darkness, esp. that caused by interception of light; a tract of partial darkness produced by a body intercepting the direct rays of the sun or other luminary.”  And in this meaning, the shadows could be the fairies, “airy nothing,” as Theseus might put it.  According to the footnotes in the Pelican Shakespeare edition, “shadow” was also Elizabethan slang for “actors” (not real people, but representations).  The rest of the apology works with either meaning.

The speech is 16 lines long (eight rhyming couplets) and is split at the midpoint with the end of a sentence.  The first half of the speech focuses on the concept of “mending,” or:

  • To remove the defects of (a thing); to correct (what is faulty); to improve by correction or alteration
  • To rectify, remedy, remove (an evil); to correct, PUT RIGHT (a fault, anything amiss)
  • To restore to a complete or sound condition (something broken, decayed, worn, etc.); to repair or make good (the defective part) (all OED, emphasis mine)

Puck, in this speech, is going to set right anything (and everything) by which the listener has been offended, and here’s how: the listeners are to imagine that they’ve been asleep, and that all “these visions” were as “a dream.”

a midsummer night’s dream, perhaps?  was it first produced in midsummer? we don’t know

Puck asks only that the listeners not rebuke or censure (“reprehend” OED) the play itself (“this weak and idle theme”).  As Puck says, if the listeners “will pardon, (they) will mend.”

As if the period at the end of the “will mend” sentence is not enough, the next line, the one that begins the second half of the speech, begins with an extra stressed syllable and caesura (“And, “).  In this second half of the speech, the focus turns from mending to “amends,” or “reparation, retribution, restitution, compensation, satisfaction” (OED).  First, though, Puck reminds the listeners of his “honest(y).”

and at this point, it SEEMS that the “shadows” from the speech’s first line are the fairies and not the actors…

Puck then puts forth another supposition: they have achieved unearned “success, prosperity or advantage coming by chance rather than as the consequence of merit or effort” (“luck”: OED), and have escaped without the play being either booed or hissed (“the serpent’s tongue”).

to avoid hissing would put the shadows pretty fairly in the domain of the actors, however…

If this is the case, Puck says, then they will give the listeners satisfaction (“amends”) quickly enough (“ere long”).  Otherwise the listeners can call Puck a liar (but remember he is “an honest Puck”).  Puck then wishes the listeners good night.

And then come the last two lines:

Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

The usual interpretation of this last couplet is based on the supposition that the “shadows” are indeed actors: the gift of “hands” from listeners to the shadows is audience applause (an implicit statement of friendship).  And with applause, Puck will end the show, and grant the audience satisfaction (“amends”).

But what if there’s a different approach.  The shadows are the fairies, and Puck may be demanding applause for the actors.  Puck suddenly refers to himself as “Robin.”  Remember, Titania’s fairy says that Robin Goodfellow is the “shrewd and knavish sprite” (II.i.33), while he does the work of those that call him “sweet Puck” (II.i.40).  Is Puck’s final line a demand with an implicit threat?

It’s interesting that the meter breaks down in these last two lines… does it demonstrate the break in Puck’s previously non-threatening plea?  Or can we take it in a completely different direction: The shadows are the spirits, the spirits are imagination, and for this endeavor–this weak and idle theme–to be a success, he needs help (“hands”) in the creation of all this.  Is this Shakespeare’s statement that the audience has to meet him halfway: he can create the play, but they must bring to it a willing suspension of disbelief to make it all work.  In this case, the breakdown in meter is symbolic of the poet’s inability to do all the work alone.

Is that last couplet neither a begging of applause nor a threat, but rather an invitation to join him on an adventure of imagination?

but why an invitation at the END of a play?  could it be that this particular play was the BEGINNING of something new?  maybe… according to legend, A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the first play Shakespeare wrote to be performed by The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (at least according to Wikipedia … which makes it legendary and not necessarily fact)