Literature

A Short Analysis of Puck’s ‘If We Shadows Have Offended’ Speech

‘If We Shadows Have Offended’ is the opening line of Puck’s closing speech from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In summary, the speech sees Puck (also known as Robin Goodfellow) seeking forgiveness from the audience if the fairies (including Puck himself) have ‘offended’ any of the audience with their antics.

Before we take a closer look at the language and meaning of Puck’s speech, here’s a reminder of the words:

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 unearnèd 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.

The best way to provide an analysis of Puck’s speech is probably to go through it, a section at a time, and summarise and paraphrase its meaning. So, here goes:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended—
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.

In other words: ‘If these fairies making mischief on the stage have offended any of you, then I suggest looking at it this way: what you have just watched is nothing but a dream, which you have witnessed while you slept here.’

Note that Puck’s speech is in tetrameter (four feet per line, rather than five as in the usual pentameter lines Shakespeare more often uses) and written using trochaic metre rather than the more usual iambic (i.e. ‘TUM-ti’ rather than ‘ti-TUM’). Trochaic metre is more commonly associated with song, and tetrameter (strictly, it’s trochaic tetrameter catalectic, since the last syllable of each line is missed off: ‘catalectic’ means ‘leaving off’) gives the lines a sing-song quality.

The simplicity of the rhyming couplets reinforces this. It’s almost as if Puck is lulling us to sleep – or out of it, perhaps more accurately, since he’s claiming that we have been asleep and are now waking up at the end of the performance.

And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,

In other words, ‘This light and trivial story we have presented before you had no more power than a dream.’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play full of magic and the supernatural, as the very existence of Puck himself – a sprite or fairy – attests, as does the presence of a number of other characters, including Oberon and Titania, king and queen of the fairies.

There’s potentially something mischievous (or, if you prefer, puckish) about Puck’s claim that the play is ‘no more yielding than a dream’: dreams can be extraordinarily powerful and vivid when we experience them, and although they are not real, they can leave their mark on our minds.

Gentles, do not reprehend;
If you pardon, we will mend.

To paraphrase: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, do not blame me or get annoyed with me: if you are willing to forgive us, we will make everything all right again.’

And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearnèd luck
Now to ’scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long.

Puck now tells the audience that he means what he says, as he is honest. If the audience are more generous towards Puck and his fellows than they deserve, and agree not to kiss at the actors on the stage (like a snake), then he promises they will make up for the poor play soon.

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.

Puck concludes his speech by saying, essentially: ‘If we don’t make it up to you, you can call me a liar. So, good night everyone. Show your appreciation by clapping your hands, and I, Robin Goodfellow, will make it up to you in return for your applause.’

The diarist Samuel Pepys wasn’t a fan of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Seeing a performance of the play in 1662, he wrote in his diary that it was ‘the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life’ (though he adds that he liked the dancing, as well as the ‘handsome women’ he saw, ‘which was all my pleasure’). Despite Pepys’ lack of enthusiasm (for the play itself, anyway), A Midsummer Night’s Dream remains one of Shakespeare’s most enduringly popular comedies.

So there’s an element of false modesty to Puck’s (and Shakespeare’s) polite request for forgiveness from their audience, for having inflicted a potentially offensive spectacle upon them. Finally, also, there is probably an element of self-awareness: ‘shadows’ in ‘If we shadows have offended’ may principally refer to the fairies in the play, those airy spirits and shadowy creatures who are so central to A Midsummer Night’s Dream alongside the human participants; but ‘shadows’ was also often used for actors in the theatre too.

Indeed, in one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Sonnet 53, Shakespeare had potentially punned on this meaning of ‘shadows’:

What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
Since every one hath, every one, one shade,
And you but one, can every shadow lend …

We have analysed this sonnet in more detail here. For Oscar Wilde in ‘The Portrait of Mr W. H.’, this poem was part of the evidence that the addressee (and muse) for Shakespeare’s sonnets was a boy actor named Willie Hughes. Although that theory is not widely believed by scholars and critics, the idea of theatre as a place of ‘shadows’ – forms which are not real, yet reflect the realities of love and desire, as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – is one with which Shakespeare was clearly familiar.

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