Introduction of the Mechanicals and the Perception of an Audience
Almost completely opposite the beautiful, grave, and love-struck young Athenian nobles are the awkward, ridiculous, and deeply confused Mechanicals, around whom a great deal of A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s most comical scenes are centred. They are first introduced to the audience in Act 1 Scene 2, which is immediately after the introduction of the Athenian nobles. Where the young lovers are elegant and well spoken—rather appropriate given their roles as melodramatically passionate youths—the Mechanicals often fumble their words and could not be less well suited for acting. Shakespeare uses this disparity between their roles and their abilities to make the most of their comic value in the following scene.
At the beginning of the scene, the difference that would be immediately noticed by the audience would be the use of prose language by the Mechanicals. It is obviously in contrast with the usage of verse in the Athenian court, thus making it an instant shift from the previous scene. The stark contrast is further sustained by the fact that the characters introduced are clearly of Shakespeare’s time and place, and it could be Shakespeare’s way of representing the bulk of his audience (the common folk) on stage. The practical language allows these audience members to not only relate and identify with the characters but to also emotionally invest in them. Hence, the playwright can ensure that their interest in the play is maintained. The director might choose to make the Mechanicals’ identities even clearer by setting the scene in a shed, with props (serving as tools) that represent their various occupations. The director can also choose to establish the social status of these characters by having the Mechanicals wear dishevelled, baggy clothes.
Nevertheless, it is necessary to note that although physicality plays an important role, most of the characterisation of the Mechanicals relies heavily on the language used by Shakespeare. For instance, Bottom’s ignorance is showcased even in his first line in the play when he contradicts himself by saying that Peter Quince ought to introduce the players ‘generally, man by man’. The word Bottom should have used instead was ‘severally’, and at this point in the play, the audience would have gotten a hint of bottom’s burgeoning overconfidence. Bottom’s tendency to utilise incorrect words is again demonstrated through his usage of the word ‘scrip’ instead of ‘script’. This malapropism ensures the audience that the misuse of the word ‘generally’ was not a slip of the tongue, and that Bottom is actually daft. It is worth noting that although this joke would have amused Elizabethan audiences, it might be missed by a modern audience due to the reduced usage of the word in recent times. However, Bottom is not the only character amongst the Mechanicals whose wit can be deemed questionable. When Peter Quince claims that these players are the people ‘which is thought fit’ to portray the characters in their upcoming play, it sets up the audience’s expectations. Audience members who were naive to the plot might have genuinely expected a well-fitted play, which is why when the cast is announced, the audience would find the situational irony hilarious.
This particular scene in the play sees not only the introduction of the Mechanicals, but the introduction of a metatheatrical element as well. This element is cemented when Peter Quince’s reveals that the title of their play is ‘The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe’. A modern audience would find the oxymoronic title laughable, however an audience of Shakespeare’s time might have found the line to be humourous for more reasons than that. This is because it is highly likely that Shakespeare was parodying the elaborate titles of plays of the past such as A new Tragicall Comedie of Apius and Virginia. The fact that the Mechanicals have chosen to perform the story of Pyramus and Thisbe only heightens the comedy as the story itself is highly dramatic, involving suicides and tragically wasted love. Hence, the members of the audience who happen to be familiar with the plot of Pyramus and Thisbe would have recognised that the Mechanicals have created a recipe for disaster. On top of having a company of horribly unskilled and inexperienced actors (although endlessly well meaning), the Mechanicals have chosen a play that could not possibly be less well suited for them and for a wedding. Bottom even goes as far as to pronounce the play as a ‘merry’ piece of work, which provides additional evidence of his ignorance. This would have naturally evoked both sympathy and laughter from the audience.
Shakespeare then takes the roll call as an opportunity to formally introduce the Mechanicals individually to the audience. The characters were mentioned by their name, followed by their trade, and were eventually told the part that they have been assigned. Interestingly, their names either relate to their trades, their appearances or to their personalities. For instance, Bottom could suggest a bottom of thread, which correlates to his job as a weaver. After Bottom was told that he was cast as the lead, he declares that he will ‘move storms’ with his performance. His hyperbolic tone is effective in creating dramatic irony, for the audience is painfully aware of Bottom’s inadequacy as an actor, yet Bottom seems oblivious to that fact. The situation is made worse with Bottom’s egotistical tendencies, as can be seen through his repeated usage of the pronoun ‘I’. In fact, Bottom is so carried away by himself that he starts doing a demonstration of his abilities as an actor. However, this demonstration of his only makes him look more pathetic in the eyes of the audience. The iambic dimeter lines recited by Bottom create the sense of a lack of sophistication, especially when compared to the original verse from Seneca’s Hercules Oetaeus, and the simple rhythm amplifies how simple Bottom is as a person. Once Bottom’s ‘performance’ was over he declared that the text was ‘lofty’, which once again produces dramatic irony because (if the audience knew the original text) the audience would have known that the original was even more so. Hence, the audience might experience vicarious embarrassment from Bottom’s humiliating behaviour.
The audience finally gets some temporary relief from Bottom through the introduction of another Mechanical by the name of Francis Flute. ‘Flute’ could refer to the character’s piping voice, which makes him a suitable fit for the role of Thisbe. Should the director choose to have an actor with a high pitched voice play Flute, it would make Flute’s guess of his role as ‘a wandering knight’ all the more comical as the term carries the connotation of masculinity and heroism, which is the exact opposite of Thisbe’s traits. By now, the audience is laughing with glee at the expense of Flute who is desperately pleading Quince to change his mind so that he would not have to ‘play a woman’. Bottom conveniently makes a reappearance, eagerly volunteering himself to play the part that Flute is unhappily stuck with. The audience might find Bottom’s overflowing enthusiasm to be slightly overwhelming, which perhaps would allow them to empathise with Quince, the Mechanical that has to deal with all of Bottom’s antics. At this point in the scene, the tailor, the joiner and the tinker are introduced. The tailor’s name can be seen as being relevant to his appearance, for the name ‘Starveling’ points to the image of a tailor being thin and weak; whereas the tinker’s name (‘Snout’) is possibly related to his trade in mending kettles. On the other hand, ‘Snug’ can mean close fitting, which is appropriate to his job as a joiner. Even though Quince’s job was not explicitly mentioned, it is possible that Quince was a carpenter, given that his name sounds like the word quoins. Once the roll call is complete, Quince optimistically hopes that ‘here is a play fitted’. This provides dramatic irony, as the audience is now well aware of how ill-suited the players are to their roles.
It is safe to say that the hilarity in this scene does not stop there. Snug assumes that the lion’s part involves talking, which in itself speaks volumes about Snug’s intelligence as a character. This can serve as a way of providing comfort for the audience, because the audience will be able to feel good about themselves when they compare themselves to the rather foolish characters on stage. After Quince reassures Snug that his part is nothing but roaring, Bottom interjects yet again in similar fashion by volunteering for the part of the lion. The audience would no longer find his overconfidence to be hilarious as they would have gotten tired of it, and it is highly possible that they now find it irritating instead. Fortunately, Quince attempts to put a stop to this idea by mentioning the detrimental effects of having a too ferocious lion on stage. This could have been a reference to an actual incident in Shakespeare’s time where a lion was excluded from celebrations in the Scottish court because it might have brought unnecessary fear. Hence, an Elizabethan audience would have found Quince’s rebuttal to be reasonable, whereas a modern audience would have found his rebuttal to be slightly ridiculous. Bottom is still unconvinced, and tries to appeal by assuring the company that he will ‘aggravate’ his voice so that he will roar ‘as gently as any sucking dove’. The audience would find not only his idea but his language to be absurd, thanks to the malapropism present and the confusion of proverbs. Quince finally persuades Bottom to play the role of Pyramus by putting the character of Pyramus on a pedestal through the usage of highly positive diction such as ‘proper’ and ‘gentlemanlike’. The fact that Quince had to convince Bottom as if he was a child further displays how troublesome Bottom can be as a character.
Bottom’s concerns now shift to that of his appearance. He offers Quince several choices for the colour of his beard, and in the process mentions the colour of French-crown as a viable option, which allows Quince to grab this opportunity to make fun of Bottom. Shakespeare uses the term French-crown as a double entendre, for it can mean either the golden French coins, or it can allude to the baldness produced by syphilis (which was known as the ‘French disease’ back in the Elizabethan era). Therefore, a modern audience might have missed this joke, but this joke surely would not have passed unnoticed by an Elizabethan audience. This, coupled with Bottom’s declaration that they will rehearse ‘most obscenely’ (a likely error for the word ‘seemly’) in the woods, would have made the audience raucous with laughter.
Overall, this scene reveals how clueless the Mechanicals are when it comes to a dramatic production: their speeches are full of impossible ideas and mistakes; their concerns about their parts are farcical; and their extended discussion about whether they will be executed if the lion’s roaring frightens the ladies further evidences the fact that their primary concern is with themselves, not their art. Hence, it can be said that by creating comedy out of the utter foolishness of the Mechanicals, Shakespeare has skilfully provided a refreshing moment of lightheartedness in a play with an otherwise serious nature.
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