Before we explore the character of Bottom, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, let us just remind you how you can explore a Shakespearean character in any of our published plays.
If you haven’t tried out our techniques of using ‘Parts and Cues’ and ‘Highlit Text’ to explore a Shakespeare character, then you’ll find it helpful to read the detailed explanation we give for the character Hamlet (click on Let’s Explore Hamlet).
However there’s a word of warning. Character portrayal in Shakespeare’s plays varies considerably over time. In the early plays (and A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a good example), the plays make use of stock characters. Stock characters had been a part of theatre since Ancient Greek times (see Stock characters in Wikipeidia); in Roman times, Plautus (known to have influenced Shakespeare e.g. The Comedy of Errors) had his own set of stock characters; and much closer to Shakespeare, commedia dell’Arte has a set of stock characters grouped into: the vecchi (the upper-class, or master); the zanni (the working-class, often comics); the innamorati (the young lovers). A Midsummer Night’s Dream uses many of these stock characters. Without trying to allocate every character, it’s clear that there are vecchi (Theseus, Hippolyta, Egeus, Titania, Oberon, etc); zanni (the mechanicals & Puck, etc) and innamorati (Hermia, Helena, Lysander, Demetrius).
In these plays, the drama comes, not so much from development of character, but from the conflicts that arise, and are resolved, between stock characters.
In Shakespeare’s later plays, the drama often comes from how characters develop during the play: Othello changes as Iago manipulates him; King Lear changes character and learns, as his situation changes from powerful king disposing of his power to mad man lost in a storm; in The Tempest one could make a case for saying the drama is primarily about Prospero’s struggle to find the best down-sitting for his daughter; forgive his enemies; and prepare for death.
Whatever character a player is portraying, the challenge is usually to make the character (stock or developing) appear to be a ‘real person’.
With that in mind, let’s have a look at the character of Bottom.
Bottom – the leading actor
A Midsummer Night’s Dream was one of the first plays produced by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men after Shakespeare joined them as a sharer in 1594. However, he had by that time had six or so of his plays produced on stage, so no doubt the characters of the ‘Rude Mechanicals’ drew on his experience of Shakespearean players.
Certainly, for anyone who has been involved with stage productions, the character of Bottom demonstrates some of the more amusing characteristics of players of probably any century, and certainly the modern day.
- In A1S2, where we are introduced to the rude mechanicals, Bottom throws his weight around, telling the director, Quince, in no uncertain terms, how to organise things. Here’s a link to the scene with Bottom’s lines in Highlit Text mode. Read the scene and then think about the following questions:
- Does Bottom know the play that he assures the company is ‘A very good piece of work, I assure you, and a merry.’? If not, why does he say this?
- Why does Bottom give the longish quotation starting ‘The raging rocks…’?
- Bottom seems keen to take on many roles. Does this demonstrate a good understanding of how to make the play work? What does it say about Bottom?
- Now read the scene again changing your playing to reflect what you think of Bottom’s character.
- We have to wait until A3S1 to see Bottom again. In the first half of that scene the Mechanicals are rehearsing in the wood, and Bottom continues his leading actor role, coming up with creative solutions to the problems in the script. Then Puck puts an Ass’s head on him, the other actors run away. Bottom meets Titania and some of her fairies. It is really a separate scene, and shows another side to Bottom’s character. Here’s a link to his lines in A3S1 in Highlit Text format. Read the scene and then think about the following:
- Is Bottom really concerned about the affect of Pyramus’ suicide on the ladies in the audience, or is he interested in getting more lines, or is Shakespeare using this as an introduction to the actors fear of the impact of the lion on the ladies? Whatever the playwright’s plans, the actor playing Bottom has to motivate his character.
- Does Bottom have any self-interest in solving the risk of the ladies fearing the Lion, or is he trying to solve production problems, as with Moonshine, and the Wall?
- And now Puck intervenes, puts an ass’s head on Bottom, and the play moves on to the next scene, between Bottom and Titania and the fairies. It starts with Bottom keeping his courage up, alone in the forest at night, by singing a song, which wakes Titania and she falls in love with Bottom. This scene and the other scenes between Bottom and Titania are often played sexy, but is Bottom taken with Titania? He seems keener on getting out of the wood, than dallying with Titania, and seems to show more interest in the fairies than their mistress.
- Once again, read the scene changing your playing to reflect what you think of Bottom’s character.
- In Bottom’s next scene (A4S1) he is settling into his ‘new life’ with the fairies, and seems to be enjoying himself. By the end of the scene, Titania has awoken to the fact that she’s been in love with an ass, and has left Bottom all alone, to speak one of my favourite speeches in Shakespeare’s work, starting “I have seen a most rare vision.” Perhaps Bottom is a little deeper than we’ve thought up till now. Let’s start with his lines in Highlit text. Read the start of the scene until Bottom falls asleep, and the fairies exit the scene, and then skip the scene between Theseus and the four lovers, to the end of the scene, where Bottom describes his dream. When you’ve read the scene, think about the following:
- Does Titania again seem more amorous than Bottom? She seems keen to lie with him and play with his cheeks’; cover his head with roses; and kiss his ears. Bottom, on the other hand seems more interested in getting the other fairies to slake other appetites: get some honey to eat – and a peck of provender; and have his body scratched. Eventually he is overcome with sleep, and Titania and the fairies disappear. Theseus enters, bringing the world of Athens to the wood, and the 4 sleeping lovers awake. They discover that they now love the appropriate partner, and return to Athens to celebrate their marriage.
- Bottom then wakes, has his wonderful speech about the dream he has had. Bottom may have come across as a rather crass actor, but this speech may make us think he is deeper than that. How do you think you would approach this speech, and how might it modify your playing of the rest of Bottom’s part?
- Before we leave this scene, it’s worth noticing how many of the characters spend time sleeping on stage: Titania is asleep for quite a few scenes; the four lovers are also asleep on stage; and the practical Bottom is asleep on stage for much of this scene. Of course it is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, so there needs to be some sleeping. The only other play with similar amounts of sleeping is The Tempest (see our Overview of The Tempest) which also has a dream-like quality.
- One more time, read the scene again changing your playing to reflect what you think of Bottom’s character.
- In A5S1, Bottom has returned as an actor, and for virtually the whole scene, we see Bottom ‘in character’ as Pyramus, so let’s explore his lines in Highlit Text mode, to see the whole of the mechanicals’ play (and Bottom’s two lines as well).
Of course, by reading the scenes above, you may well see things differently from what I’ve outlined above, but you should come to clearer view of what you think about the character of Bottom.
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