The Significant Role of an Ass
A Midnight Summer’s Dream is exceptional in that it features more than just one story unfolding at once. Although the quartet of lovers and the fairy world is often the focus of the play, the rude mechanicals and their attempts to produce a play of their own takes place in a world quite separate from the major plot. In other words, although the rude mechanicals are in the same story as the other characters, the rude mechanicals (excluding Bottom) do not have direct exposure to the other “main” characters until the very end. Among the rude mechanicals, the character Nick Bottom—through his overconfidence, comical incompetence, and lack of self-awareness—is the most pronounced. Moreover, Bottom, unlike the other rude mechanicals, is the only human in the story to have direct contact with both the world of Athens (reality) and the world of fairies (dream). The odd juxtaposition of these two factors, Bottom’s ridiculousness and his integral role in bringing the theme of dream versus reality to life, brings the reader to the question of purpose. Why would Shakespeare make such an imbecile of a character to be the crux of one of the major themes in the story? The key to the meaning of Bottom’s role is seen in the fact that he, although he is viewed by all as an imbecile, is able to actively experience the two worlds presented by Shakespeare: dream and reality. As a result, Shakespeare—through the character of Bottom—hints at the idea that it is the people often viewed of as the “idiots” of society that are truly able to experience the magic in the world.
From the moment Bottom is introduced in the play, it is clear that he is a comedic fool. When Peter Quince, the “director” of the play, is assigning roles, Bottom shows his overconfidence by attempting to volunteer for almost every role in the play. Bottom shows himself to be a character who cannot confine himself to his own part, or indeed his own job. He jumps from his desire to direct the show, to write it, and to design it. He is torn between which part to act, all equally irresistible. To make matters even worse, and more humorous, the part that Bottom truly wants to play—Hercules—isn’t even in the play at all. “My chief humour is for a tyrant,” he confesses to his fellow rude mechanicals, “I could play Ercles (Hercules) rarely, or a part to tear a cat in, to make all split” (1.2.28–30).
To emphasize Bottom’s foolishness even further, however, Shakespeare makes it clear that Bottom, although confident in his abilities, is also incompetent. For instance, when picking roles for their play, Bottom claims that if he performed the role of Thisbe, he would speak her lines in a “monstrous little voice (1.2.50),” an obviously contradictory statement. Furthermore, in describing how he would also play the lion’s part so as not to scare any of the ladies in the audience, Bottom ironically says, “But I will aggravate my voice so that I will roar you as gently as any sucking dove (1.2.78-80),” another seemingly contradictory statement. These silly choice of words by Bottom only adds to his incompetent portrayal in the play.
Perhaps most pronounced of Bottom’s character, however, is his lack of self-awareness. This is shown in the fact that the readers find his comedic value by laughing at him rather than with him. This attitude is perhaps most clear in the Act 3 of the play where Snout exclaims, “O Bottom, thou art changed! What do I see on thee (3.1.116-117)?” when Bottom’s head is turned into that of an ass. However, rather than realize that his head was turned into an ass’ head, Bottom simply replies by saying, “ I see their knavery: this is to make an ass of me; to fright me, if they could. But I will not stir,” unaware that his head is transformed. As a result, the term ass in relation to Bottom is given a triple meaning—the relation to the character’s name being “Bottom,” his head now being that of an actual donkey’s face, and the fact that his intellect is on par with that of an ass. In addition, Bottom’s name in an of itself shows the idea that Bottom is not only at the “bottom” of the social ladder, but also the bottom of the “competence ladder” in the play.
Bottom, however, plays a much more integral role in the play than simply adding a comedic factor—he unifies dream with reality. Bottom does this by being the only human character who interacts with both the world of dreams (fairies) and reality (Athens). Even though the fairies also act between the world of human and fairies, like when Puck and Oberon meddle with the quartets love, the fairies are ultimately separate from the human world. This is seen in the fact that when the lovers wake up, they believe that what they experienced in the woods was a dream. For example, when Demetrius awakes he exclaims, “The events of last night seem small and hard to see clearly, like far-off mountains that look like clouds in the distance (4.1.194-195),” a testament to the distant nature of the fairies’ relationship with the human world. On the other hand, Bottom is the only character who has direct interactions with the fairy world. This is seen in his becoming Titania’s beloved in Act 3 where Titania wakes up to Bottom and says, “Please sing again, sweet human. I love to listen to your voice, and I love to look at your body. I know this is the first time I’ve ever seen you, but you’re so wonderful that I can’t help swearing to you that I love you (3.1.139-143).” Furthermore, Bottom interacts with other fairies by being served by Titania’s fellow fairies Mustardseed and Peaslebossom. Through Bottom’s direct interactions with the fairies, he brings together the world of humans and the world of fairies.
Although Bottom does indeed have direct contact with both humans and fairies, this is not the only way Bottom brings together these two words. The other way in which Bottom brings together the two worlds is in the nature of his role in society. It is clear that Bottom and the rude mechanicals are at the literal “bottom” of the social ladder in play. For instance, Puck, who writes them off as “rude mechanicals” and “patches” or fools, also notes that they “work for bread upon Athenian stalls” (3.2.9–10), a clearly condescending view of the rude mechanicals. In other words, the rude mechanicals, as hinted at by the word “rude,” are portrayed as a group of incompetent craftsmen who are inferior in almost every aspect (both social status and competency) to everyone else in the play. However, the word “mechanicals” points to the fact that it is these very men—by working in the background and doing the manual labor of the play—that allow the magic of a play to come to life. Thus, we see another juxtaposition within the very title of the “rude mechanicals.” This is yet another example of Shakespeare using Bottom, as a rude mechanical, to put together side-by-side a man that is seen as a fool and a man who portrays the most prominent theme in the entire play.
To most readers, the fact that Shakespeare uses a comedic fool, Bottom, to practically embody the play’s most notable theme (dream versus reality) may mean no more than coincidence. After all, Bottom is clearly a tertiary character, a fool that has very little participation in the “main” events in the story such as the drama between the quartet of lovers. Thus, many would contend that Bottom’s only purpose in the play is to add comedy to what would have otherwise been a serious love story. However, if Bottom was not a rude mechanical, and all that his epithet embodies, could he have brought the two worlds of dream and reality together? No. Although it is true that Bottom is a minor character, it is clear that Shakespeare’s use of Bottom is by no means for comedic purposes only. Indeed, for although many might belittle Bottom’s importance because of his foolishness or “rude” status, it is necessary for him to take on those traits in order to embody the theme of dream versus reality. This is seen in the fact that in plays there must be minor characters in the background, facilitating the mechanical workings of the “main” events, in order for there to be the main characters in the foreground. Thus, despite Bottom and the rude mechanicals being of tertiary status, they both are crucial to the play. In a way, this is the paradoxical message that Shakespeare is trying to convey. Everything about Bottom, from his incompetency to his low social standing, contributes to Shakespeare’s message that it is these very types of people, that truly bring magic and reality together.
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