A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM
Near to where Titania is sleeping, the mechanicals try to hash out anticipated production problems and practice their play. They are so convinced that they will be convincing that they decide to write a prologue so that the audience will not die of fright, what with all the swords and the lion and all. The lion should assure them that he’s not real, and the audience will need assuring that Pyramus and Thisby are not really dying up on the stage. They also decide they need someone to play the moon, oh, and also the wall. It’s again odd that we hear there is to be a moon on the night of the play since there should be no moon at all according to Theseus at the very beginning of the play (Asimov 36-37). Instead of “Ninus’ Tomb,” Shakespeare has these goobers keep saying “Ninny’s Tomb.”
His reference to Ninus’ tomb must have given pause to the Queen in the midst of all the drollery. She would have known that Ninus was the second husband of Semiramis, Queen of Babylon, who, although she had made that city the most magnificent metropolis in the world, had coupled cruelty with lust by habitually putting her lovers to death, lest they should reveal her licentiousness. So that “Ninny’s tomb” was the grave of one who had been foolish, fatuous enough to love the Queen! (Ogburn and Ogburn 586)
Puck eavesdrops and decides to stir things up among these yokels by transforming Bottom into a were-ass. Bottom’s new donkey-headed form scares off the others: “Thou art translated,” exclaims Quince (III.i.118-119). The players run off.
Bottom thinks they are playing a joke, as Helena does, so he sings a proto-Paul-McCartney song to show that he is not afraid: “The woosel-cock so black of hue [the blackbird], / With orange-tawny bill…” (III.i.125-126) — Oxford’s colors here. But when Titania wakes and the first thing she sees is Bottom with his ass’s head, she reels immediately with passion for him. He is disbelieving, “yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together now-a-days” (III.i.143-144). Titania swears her love and brings him among the fairies. He is much taken with them — Masters Cobweb and Peaseblossom and Mustardseed. “Bottom is amiably innocent, and not very bawdy” (Bloom 149), “amiable enough to the infatuated Titania, … truly charmed by the four elves” (Bloom 161).
Every exigency finds Bottom round and ready: his response is always admirable. The Puck-induced metamorphosis is a mere externality: the inner Bottom is unfazed and immutable. … Like Dogberry after him, Bottom is an ancestor of Sheridan’s Mrs. Malaprop, and uses certain words without knowing what they signify. Though he is thus sometimes inaccurate at the circumference, he is always sound at the core, which is what Bottom the Weaver’s name means, the center of the skein upon which the weaver’s wool is wound. (Bloom 150-151)
The fairies are usually played by children (Wells 66), rendering fairyland a hell-hole, of course. The 1999 film version offers instead a truly aesthetically attractive fairyland, notwithstanding an extraneous cameo appearance by Medusa’s head. The use of the term “Monsieur” in the scene, and the reference to “honey-bags” (III.i.168; cf. IV.i.13ff) suggest Alençon and his request of money-bags from Elizabeth (Clark 617-618; cf. Ogburn and Ogburn 589). Other references bring to mind Elizabeth’s demands on her maids and courtiers (Ogburn and Ogburn 588):
The moon methinks looks with a wat’ry eye;
And when she weeps, weeps every little flower
Lamenting some enforced chastity.
Specifically, on the night of November 21, 1581, Elizabeth’s ladies were employed to wail all night in protest over her intended marriage to the French prince Alencon.
And then the last line of the scene: “Tie up my lover’s tongue, bring him silently” (III.i.201).
Oberon is pleased with Puck’s reports — “Titania wak’d, and straightway lov’d an ass” (III.ii.34) — until it is discovered that he got the wrong Athenian youth. Hermia accuses Demetrius of murdering Lysander in his sleep: “O brave touch! / Could not a worm, an adder, do so much?” (III.ii.70-71). Puck doses Demetrius so that he’ll pursue Helena instead, and he remarks on the entertainment value of the spectacle since “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” (III.ii.115).
The falsely enchanted Lysander enters in pursuit of Helena as Demetrius awakens and begins exuding about Helena’s divine beauty: her eyes, her lips…
That pure congealed white, high Taurus’ snow,
Fann’d with the eastern wind, turns to a crow
When thou hold’st up thy hand.
With two men pursuing her when formerly there were none, Helena thinks this is an elaborate mockery. She renders the famous Shakespeare quotation: “O spite! O hell!” (III.ii.145). Lysander also exudes: “Fair Helena! who more engilds the night / Than all yon fiery oes and eyes of light” (III.ii.187-188). Hermia comes upon the trio, mentioning that she was led by the sound of their voices in the darkness, and Helena thinks she is involved also in the mockery. Hermia grows increasingly hypersensitive to allusions to her apparently diminutive stature.
And are you grown so high in his esteem,
Because I am so dwarfish and so low?
How low am I, thou painted maypole? Speak!
How low am I? I am not yet so low
But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes.
“Not only does Hermia in this way refer disparagingly to Helena as tall and skinny (and perhaps with as little figure as a maypole), but she also implies that the men, Lysander and Demetrius, are dancing about her with immoral intent” (Asimov 45). Hermia’s “shrewish strain” may have captured Anne Cecil’s (Ogburn and Ogburn 159, 583, 622). Helena decides, “My legs are longer though, to run away,” and Hermia concludes, “I am amaz’d, and know not what to say” (III.ii.343-344).
Puck is delighted with the merry mix-ups, but Oberon has had enough and instructs Puck to fix all this under cover of fog: “When they next wake, all this derision / Shall seem a dream and fruitless vision” (III.ii.370-371). Lost in the fog and with Puck imitating their voices to draw them into further confusion, the individual young lovers grow exhausted and soon sleep. Puck remarks, “Jack shall have Jill; / Nought shall go ill” (III.ii.461-462) — a statement opposite to that at the end of Love’s Labor’s Lost.