Word for Wednesday: Puck

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April 23 marks Shakespeare Day in the UK and to celebrate we’ve picked characters from Shakespeare’s plays for this month's Word for Wednesday theme.

William Shakespeare was born in 1564 and died in 1616. Scholars believe his birthday and death day were both April 23. His work—which is still wildly popular today—includes 38 plays and over a hundred poems. Learn more about how Shakespeare influenced the English language here.

Last week, we looked at at Romeo from Romeo and Juliet.Today’s character is Puck—a fairy who appears in Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The play—most likely written in 1595 or 1596—involves a huge cast of characters in various interconnecting plots that take place in the moonlit woodlands. Puck, through a combination of pranks and mishaps, sets much of the play’s action into motion. He turns a character called Bottom’s head into that of a donkey, and incorrectly spikes another character’s eyes with a love potion—a mistake that results in much chaos and fun. 

When Puck is first introduced in the play, he is described by another fairy: 

“Either I mistake your shape and making quite,
Or else 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?”
[Act 2, Scene 1]

In Old English folklore, a ‘puca’ is a woodland spirit known for mischievous acts such as using lights and echoes to lead people astray in the night or sneaking into farms and souring the milk. Other cultures have similar stories of nature spirits and hobgoblins; for example: the Cornish ‘Bucca’, the Frisian ‘Puk’, the Icelandic ‘puki’, and the Old Swedish ‘puke’.

Today the adjective puckish is used to describe someone who is mischievous and playful. 


14 Apr 2021
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