A very good piece of work, I assure you, and a merry. (I.ii.)
Bottom announces his lack of self-awareness in this line from Act I. He is responding to Peter Quince, who has just told his actors the title of their play, The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe. Though partly framed as a comedy, it’s difficult to imagine how something so “lamentable” and “cruel” could also be “merry.” Like the rest of the craftsmen, Bottom clearly knows little about what separates comedy from tragedy.
Yet my chief humor is for a tyrant. I could play
Ercles rarely, or a part to tear a cat in, to make all split. (I.ii.)
In Act I Bottom declares his desire to play a tyrant, or perhaps hero like “Ercles,” which is his humorous mispronunciation of Hercules. With these words, Bottom shows his lack of subtlety as a performer, as well as his penchant for the melodramatic. Bottom’s words also reference a medieval tradition in which artisans used to perform bombastic plays on Christian feast days.
I have a device to make all well. Write me a
prologue and let the prologue seem to say we will do
no harm with our swords, and that Pyramus is not
killed indeed. And for the more better assurance, tell
them that I, Pyramus, am not Pyramus, but Bottom the
weaver. This will put them out of fear. (III.i.)
Here Bottom responds to fears that the play’s tragic ending will be too intense for the audience of Athenian nobles. He worries that there could be dire consequences if the audience has too strong an emotional response to the performance. He suggests that Quince should write a prologue to clarify that the performance is just a performance, and that the actors are merely playing roles. Bottom clearly holds excessively high expectations about how convincing the performance will be.
Some man or other must present Wall, and let him
have some plaster, or some loam, or some roughcast
about him to signify wall. (III.i.)
Bottom proposes a solution to the problem of how to have a wall without actually building one. The suggestion that someone should play the part of Wall may be amusing and completely absurd, but it also demonstrates a certain degree of ingenuity on Bottom’s part. He may not be a genius of stagecraft, but in this and other examples he does work actively to resolve any issues that arise.
What do you see? You see an ass head of your own, do
Bottom’s companions react in fear after Puck has exchanged his human head for that of a donkey. In response to Snout’s fearful exclamation, “thou art changed,” Bottom retorts that Snout must actually be referring to his own sudden shift from calmness to agitation. When Bottom refers to Snout’s sudden emotional change as “an ass head of your own,” he means that Snout’s behavior is idiotic. Yet the phrasing is unintentionally humorous, since in fact Bottom literally has the head of an ass.
Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason for
that, and yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep
little company together nowadays. (III.i.)
Bottom says these lines in response to Titania, who has fallen in love with him due to Oberon’s charm and has just expressed her affection. Even without knowing that he has the head of a donkey, Bottom has enough self-awareness to recognize the absurdity of the situation. Hence his gentle dismissal of Titania’s words, and his surprisingly spot-on reflection that there is “little reason” for her oath of love.
I have had a most rare vision. I have had a
dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was.
Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream. (IV.i.)
With these lines from Act IV, Bottom demonstrates his capacity to be both funny and serious at the same time. He’s funny, because when talking about the folly of trying to explain a dream’s significance to others, he once again unknowingly refers to his earlier condition, when he possessed the head of an ass. Yet Bottom’s words are also serious, indicating that his “rare vision” has had a profound effect on him.
The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man
hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his
tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my
dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of
this dream. It shall be called “Bottom’s Dream” because it
hath no bottom. (IV.i.)
Continuing the monologue he delivers upon waking from his enchantment in Act IV, Bottom uses serious language that both echoes and jumbles a passage from Paul’s First Epistle in Corinthians. Once again, Bottom demonstrates a penchant for the dramatic that ends up being humorous. As a case in point, the pun he makes on the word “bottom” combines a sense of profundity and pointlessness. The phrase “no bottom” can mean either that the dream has inexhaustible significance, or that it’s completely pointless since it has no foundation in reality.
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