Theseus, Duke of Athens, has no time for old wives’ tales: ‘I never may believe/ These antique fables, nor these fairy toys’, he insists, in response to the stories the lovers tell of their night in the forest (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 5.1.2–3). ‘Toys’ are trifles; fables are improbable stories, tales of magic and marvels. And such fables are ‘antique’ in two senses: ancient, in so far as they generally record events that took place once upon a time, in a genre belonging to the vanished world it records; and ‘antic’, absurd, laughable, unlikely. The effects of Puck’s antics in the wood have indeed been laughable, as well as incredible: lovers have switched partners more than once; the fairy queen has spent the night with a donkey. If realism is our criterion of artistic success, A Midsummer Night’s Dream scarcely passes muster. Even one of the figures in the play does not believe the lovers’ fairy tales.
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