The Mechanicals from A Midsummer Night’s Dream have long been a favourite with audiences. Simon Callow walks us through their best moments, shining a light on their wit and appeal.
Mechanicals – craftsmen, artisans – normally come out of Shakespeare’s plays rather well. They are witty and feisty, despite having the potential of turning into a mob: ‘Hence! home, you idle creatures get you home! / Is this a holiday?’ (1.1.1), cries Flavius, hectoringly, at the beginning of Julius Caesar, reminding them that as craftsmen, their working day is not their own:
What! know you not,
Being mechanical, you ought not walk
Upon a labouring day without the sign
Of your profession? Speak, what trade art thou? (1.1.2–5)
The mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are no different – Puck, who writes them off as ‘rude mechanicals’ and ‘patches’ or fools, notes scornfully that they ‘work for bread upon Athenian stalls’ (3.2.9–10). However, in Shakespeare’s play, we only see them off duty, rehearsing a play to mark the forthcoming wedding of Theseus, Duke of Athens and Hippolyta, the Amazon Queen. They’re a select gang, chosen, says Peter Quince, the carpenter – who has been handed the poisoned chalice of directing the play – from among ‘every man’s name, which is thought fit, through all Athens, to play in our interlude before the duke and the duchess’ (1.2.4–6). Quite an honour, then. They have chosen their text: a play taken from Ovid’s celebrated story of Pyramus and Thisbe, two lovers whose families are at war, and who can only communicate through a chink in the wall. The story is the source of the Italian novella from which Shakespeare adapted Romeo and Juliet: as in that play, everyone ends up dead. Not perhaps the most tactful of entertainments for the royal nuptials (especially given the mythic Hippolyta’s subsequent fearsome actions). Nick Bottom the weaver, the company’s leading man, pronounces it ‘a very good piece of work, I assure you, and a merry’ (1.2.13), which suggests that he may not have read it very thoroughly. Even Peter Quince is a little uncertain about the nature of the play: he thinks it ‘the most lamentable comedy’ (1.2.11). Or perhaps that is exactly what he meant because that is precisely what it is. Maybe neither Bottom nor Quince nor their colleagues are altogether certain of the meaning of the words they utter: language for them, as for Dogberry and the members of the Watch in Much Ado About Nothing, has a life of its own. Unless watched carefully words can find you aggravating your voice when in fact you want to roar like a dove, and have you rehearse obscenely when, really, decorum is your aim.
Like many an amateur group, they have difficulty in finding somewhere to rehearse away from their mates, so, their normal working hours over, they take to the moonlit forest, oblivious of the fact that the place is crawling with young couples trapped in immensely complicated relationships, and positively swarming with fairies in the midst of a civil war between their king and queen. They find a ‘marvellous convenient’ (3.1.2) place for their rehearsal, and they set about it. They have a problem: their star, ‘Bully’ Bottom, as Quince mollifyingly calls him (in 1606, the word meant sweet or kind, but the modern meaning seems to fit the case equally well). Nick Bottom is one of those actors who cannot confine himself to his own part, or indeed his own job. He wants to direct the show, to design it, to write it. He is horribly torn as to which part to play, all equally irresistible, though in fact the role he really wants – Hercules – isn’t in this play at all. ‘My chief humour is for a tyrant’, he confesses to his colleagues, ‘I could play Ercles [i.e. Hercules] rarely, or a part to tear a cat in, to make all split’ (1.2.28–30). He gives his fellow players a sneak preview of the performance that might have been, with, we can only assume, appropriate gestures, summoning up storms followed by sunshine:
The raging rocks
And shivering shocks
Shall break the locks
Of prison gates;
And Phibbus’ car
Shall shine from far
And make and mar
The foolish Fates. (1.2.31–38)
‘This is Ercles’ vein, a tyrant’s vein’, he adds, in an informative aside, in case they hadn’t no-ticed, ‘a lover is more condoling’ (1.2.40–41). Peter Quince ignores this interruption, deter-mined to cast the rest of the play. Even here, nothing is simple: young Francis Flute, the bel-lows-mender, offered the second lead, the beautiful Thisbe, demurs: ‘Faith, let me not play a woman. I have a beard coming’ (1.2.47–48). Quince brutally slaps him down: ‘That’s all one: you shall play it in a mask, and you may speak as small as you will’ (1.2.49–50), which puts Francis Flute in his place. Bottom helpfully volunteers to play Thisbe as well, but he too is slapped down, and remains silent until the casting of the lion who savages Thisbe, which proves too much for his self-control. ‘Let me play the lion’, he cries, sensing glory: ‘I will roar, that I will make the duke say “Let him roar again, let him roar again”’ (1.2.70–73). But Quince has the better of Bottom: if he frightens the ladies, he warns him, they’ll all end up dead. Despite Bottom’s promises of bird-like roaring, Quince insists that he will play Pyramus. Defeated, like a true thespian he suddenly becomes very interested in discussing his make-up; somehow they all get out of the door, promising to meet in the forest.
The Merry conceited Humors of Bottom the Weaver, 1661
Bottom would no doubt have been delighted with this adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, named in his honour and making the mechanicals the main focus of the play.
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This forensically brilliant account of the dynamics of the rehearsal room is generally as-sumed to be a gentle satire of the amateur theatre, but I fear that it is as likely to be a sendup of the professional theatre. I have personally been present at many a discussion like the one that opens the mechanicals’ rehearsal in the forest in which the actors – Bottom to the fore, needless to say – propose solutions for the perceived problems of the piece: namely, that Pyramus’s suicide will distress the ladies, and that the lion will frighten them. Bottom, a Brechtian before his time, suggests a prologue in which, after various health and safety reassurances (‘we will do no harm with our swords, and … Pyramus is not killed indeed’), he will reveal that ‘I, Pyramus, am not Pyramus, but Bottom the weaver. This will put them out of fear’ (3.1.18–22). As for the terror that the lion will instil, Tom Snout, a tinker by profession but clearly a dramaturg manqué, suggests a second prologue saying that lion is not a lion. Bottom scorns this: no, what is needed is for the actor to wear a half lion-mask and address the ladies directly: ‘“If you think I come hither as a lion, it were pity of my life. No! I am no such thing; I am a man as other men are”’ (3.1.43–44). He should then tell the ladies that he is, in fact, Snug the joiner. Peter Quince accepts all this meta-Pirandellian innovation without demur. He has other fish to fry: what will they do for light in the Duke’s palace? And what will they do for the wall through which Pyramus and Thisbe conduct their romance? Quince himself has the solution to the question of the light: someone will come on with a lantern ‘and say he comes to disfigure, or to present, the person of Moonshine’ (3.1.60–61). Bottom solves the wall problem: someone will come on and say he’s Wall, ‘let him hold his fingers thus, and through that cranny shall Pyramus and Thisby whisper’ (3.1.70–71).
These challenges effortlessly met, they set about the business of rehearsal, at which point naughty Puck enters – ‘what hempen homespuns have we swaggering here?’ (3.1.77) – and decides to make mischief, with results that we all know: Bottom is translated into an ass, the company flee and he spends a delirious and bewildering time as the paramour of Titania, Queen of the fairies. The company are, of course, desperate: not only has their old chum Nick the Weaver lost his head, they have lost their leading man and the royal command performance is imminent. ‘You have not a man in all Athens able to discharge Pyramus but he’ (5.1.7–8), says Peter Quince, authoritatively. The others are turning a little maudlin: ‘No, he hath simply the best wit of any handicraft man in Athens’, says Flute. ‘Yea’, adds Quince, ‘and the best person too; and he is a very paramour for a sweet voice’ (5.1.9–11). News comes of the arrival of the Duke and his Amazonian fiancée, a golden opportunity, now lost, for the little band of players: ‘if our sport had gone forward, we had all been made men’ (5.1.17–18). At which point, Bottom, with impeccable timing and restored to his normal features, wheels round the corner as if nothing had happened: ‘Where are these lads? where are these hearts?’ (5.1.25). There is no time for explanations; they rush off to do their play.
Transformation of men into asses in The Ship of Fools, 1509
Albrecht Dürer’s depiction of the transformation of man into ass in a moral satire on folly.
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Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works
Titania and Bottom. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 4, Scene 1 by Henry Fuseli.
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The Duke is agog to see it, despite expert advice from his chamberlain:
It is not for you. I have heard it over,
And it is nothing, nothing in the world;
Unless you can find sport in their intents,
Extremely stretch’d and conn’d with cruel pain,
To do you service. (5.1.77–81)
But the Duke, all benevolence, insists:
I will hear that play;
For never any thing can be amiss,
When simpleness and duty tender it. (5.1.81–83)
Hippolyta is sceptical, but Theseus insists:
And in the modesty of fearful duty
I read as much as from the rattling tongue
Of saucy and audacious eloquence. (5.1.101–03)
Quince is clearly incoherent with anxiety: no danger of a rattling tongue here:
Consider then, we come but in despite.
We do not come, as minding to contest you,
Our true intent is. All for your delight
We are not here. That you should here repent you,
The actors are at hand; and, by their show,
You shall know all, that you are like to know. (5.1.112–17)
In due course, Bottom arrives in heroic style as Pyramus – ‘O grim look’d night! O night with hue so black!’ (5.1.169) – but he is clearly aware of his royal audience, because when Theseus murmurs a joke about Wall, Bottom steps out of character to put him right. ‘This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard’ (5.1.210), says Hippolyta, impatiently. ‘The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst’, says Theseus, ‘are no worse, if imagination amend them’ (5.1.211–12). ‘It must be your imagination then, and not theirs’, snaps back Hippolyta, but Theseus, kind to a fault, insists ‘If we imagine no worse of them than they of themselves, they may pass for excellent men’ (5.1.213–16).
Shakespeare loved to write plays within his plays: the one in Hamlet of course is not meant to entertain, but to unnerve, in which it succeeds spectacularly. There the actors were seasoned pros, of course. But in Love’s Labour’s Lost, one of his earliest plays, the Pageant of the Worthies as staged by the curate Sir Nathaniel and sundry others, is mercilessly and heartlessly mocked; here, in the healing world of midsummer’s night, the jesting is kinder – though even Theseus draws the line when Bottom leaps up, having recently been slain, to offer the Duke an epilogue or a bergomask. ‘No epilogue, I pray you’, says the Duke, hastily:
for your play needs no excuse. Never excuse; for when the players are all dead, there needs none to be blamed. Marry, if he that writ it had played Pyramus and hanged himself in Thisbe's garter, it would have been a fine tragedy: and so it is, truly; and very notably discharged. But come, your Bergomask: let your epilogue alone. (5.1.355–62)
At which the mechanicals dance themselves off, back into their workaday lives. No mention of the sixpence that Flute was sure Bottom would receive for his sterling work as Pyramus, but kindness, appreciation and some gentle laughter. What troupe of amateur players could ask for more? They do it for love.