Shakespeare’s Reinvention of Changeling Lore

The folklore of Changelings is most often bleak, dark, and horrific. They are stories of  fairies kidnapping babies and young children for their own evil personal gain, replacing the children with misbehaving, ugly humanoids, and leaving their horrified parents to trick or manipulate the unwanted fairy child into leaving and returning the original child. There are hundreds of stories just like this, from fairy tales to folklore to true accounts of parents misidentifying their children as changelings.

It is striking, then, to read Shakespeare’s much gentler account of the Changeling boy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The most immediate difference we find is that the story is told from the fairies’ point of view, and it is a much different portrayal of the fairy perspective than we would have guessed based on more traditional changeling lore. The changeling has no lines in the play, nor any stage direction, so we don’t get to find out his feelings on the situation. But we are not led to believe that he is trying to escape, or is scared or unhappy, as we would expect a traditional changeling human to feel.

Furthermore, in stark opposition to the sadness and cruelty found in changeling folklore, Shakespeare’s changeling boy wasn’t taken for personal gain at all. In a wonderful discussion between Maurice Sendak, Stephen Greenblatt and Wye Allanbrook about the role of the Changeling in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, (available for download here) Greenblatt points out, “Many folk tales tell of fairies exchanging their weak and feeble fairies for strong human babies for person gain, but there is not evidence of that in Shakespeare’s play.  There is little indication that the boy has any purpose.” Greenblatt goes on to question the validity of the Changeling’s identity, given that there are varying accounts in the play of where the child came from, none of which indicate that the child was replaced with a fairy.

Shakespeare is famous for “borrowing” plot lines from his favorite authors, but A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the few exceptions (Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Tempest are also original stories). It is interesting to note that he chose this play to completely challenge the then popular understanding of the Changeling, and add layers of complexity and compassion to the already-vibrant Changeling folklore.