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Oberon is best-known as a character in Shakespeare's comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream. In it he is the king of the fairies, and the husband of Titania.

The origins of Oberon, though, lie not in folklore, but in John Bourchier, Lord Berners' translation of the 13th century French romance, Huon of Bordeaux, into English in 1534.

In it Oberon is a fairy king who lives in a wood that is full of strange and magical things. He is only three feet tall, and is deformed, with a crooked shoulder, yet with a face so handsome that no mortal man can remain unmoved by his beauty. Oberon wears a gown studded with precious stones, so bright that it shines like the sun. He carries a magic bow that can kill any animal he aims his arrows at, and a magic horn that can cure sickness and hunger when it is blown.

Oberon speaks to all who enter his wood, and anyone to whom he speaks is lost for ever. Those who remain silent and do not speak to Oberon are beset by terrible storms.

Oberon turns out to be the son of Julius Caesar and a lady of the Secret Isle. All the fairies were invited to celebrate his birth, except one. The excluded fairy was so angry, that she cursed the baby; her curse made him stop growing when he was three years old. Later, relenting, she gave him great beauty. In a manner similar to the story of Sleeping Beauty, the other fairy guests gave him many magical gifts: clairvoyance, the ability to go wherever he wants to by wishing, the power to tame any creature, the power to make a castle grow at his command, to never age or look old, and when he leaves this world, to go straight to Paradise.

From Huon of Bordeaux, Robert Greene introduced Oberon into his play, James IV (1594). In this Oberon is again the fairy king, and very small, as are all the fairies.

It is possible that Berners' translation, and Greene's play influenced Shakespeare in his creation of Oberon the fairy king in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Oberon was used in several later works as well, including a masque by Ben Johnson for Prince Henry, James I's heir, and in Michael Drayton's poem Nymphidia (1627). He also appears in Carl Maria von Weber's opera Oberon, or the Elf King's Oath, an adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The opera was first performed in 1826, at Covent Garden, London.

See also:   Titania     A Midsummer Night's Dream

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Last updated: April 2010. Copyright © Rohini Chowdhury 2002. All rights reserved.

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