A Midsummer Night’s Dream
By Dennis Abrams
Act Three: When Puck sees the artisans rehearsing their play, he mischievously changes Bottom’s head into that of a donkey, causing his companions to flee in terror. Sleeping nearby, Titania awakes and, as intended, immediately falls for the puzzled (but flattered and imperturbable) Bottom and leads him to her bower. Puck gleefully relates all this to Oberon, but when Lysander and Demetrius appear, it quickly becomes apparent that something has gone appallingly wrong. Attempting to resolve the situation, Puck applies the juice to Demetrius’ eyes, but when he falls in love with Helena too, she merely concludes that it is all a cruel joke being played on her. Matters get even worse when the women turn on each other, just as the two men decide to duel. Everyone eventually falls asleep, exhausted, and Pucks sets out fixing affairs.
How wonderful was that? I can’t think of anything I don’t love about Act 3 – Titania and Bottom, the lost confused lovers, and Puck, linking everything together. Perfection.
In today’s post, I’ll look at the Titania/Bottom side of things, the lost Athenians in my next.
“[Earlier scenes] prepare the way for the play’s great turning point in Act III, Scene I, where Puck transforms Bottom, and Titania wakens with the great outcry, ‘What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?’ The angel is the imperturbable Bottom, who is sublimely undismayed that his amiable countenance has metamorphosed into an ass head.
This wonderfully comic scene deserves pondering. Who among us could sustain so weird a calamity with so equable a spirit? One feels that bottom could have undergone the fate of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa with only moderate chagrin. He enters almost on cue, chanting, ‘If I were fair, Thisbe, I were only thine,’ scattering his fellows. Presumably discouraged at his inability to frighten Bottom, the frustrated Puck chases after the Mechanicals, taking on many fearsome guises. Our bully Bottom responds to Peter Quince’s ‘Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee! Thou art translated,’ by cheerfully singing a ditty hinting at cuckoldry, thus preparing us for a comic dialogue that even Shakespeare was never to surpass.
I pray thee, gentle mortal, sing again:
Mine ear is much enabour’d of thy note;
So is mine eye enthralled to thy shape;
And thy fair virtue’s force perforce doth move me
On the first view to say, to swear, I love thee.
Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason for that. And yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays. The more the pity that some honest neighbours will not make them friends. Nay, I can gleek upon occasion.
Thou art as wise as thou art beautiful.
Not so neither; but if I had wit enough to get out of this wood, I have enough to serve my own turn.
Out of this wood do not desire to go:
Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no.
[My note: Perfection. And honestly seriously funny.]
Even C.L. Barber somewhat underestimates Bottom, when he says that Titania and Bottom are ‘fancy against fact,’ since ‘enchantment against Truth’ is more accurate. Bottom is unfailingly courteous, courageous, kind, and sweet-tempered, and he humors the beautiful queen whom he clearly knows to be quite mad. The ironies here are fully in Bottom’s control, and are kept gentle by his tact. Nothing else in the Dream is as pithy an account of its erotic confusions: ‘reason and love keep little company together nowadays.’ Bottom too can ‘gleek’ (jest) upon occasion, which is the only other possibility, should poor Titania prove to be sane. Neither wise nor beautiful, Bottom sensibly wishes to get out of the wood, but he does not seem particularly alarmed when Titania tells him he is a prisoner. Her proud assertion of rank and self is hilarious in its absurd confidence that she can purge Bottom’s ‘mortal grossness’ and transform him into another ‘airy spirit,’ as though he could be another changeling like the Indian boy.
I am a spirit of no common rate;
The summer still doth tend upon my state;
And I do love thee: therefore go with me.
I’ll give thee fairies to attend on thee,
And they shall fetch thee pearls from the deep,
And sing, while thou on pressed flowers doest sleep:
And I will purge thy mortal grossness so,
That thou shalt like an airy spirit go.
Peaseblossom! Cobweb! Moth! And Mustardseed!
[MY NOTE: Again, perfection. And how beautiful is “I’ll give thee fairies to attend on thee,/And they shall fetch thee pearls from the deep,/And sing, while thou on pressed flowers doest sleep/”
Bottom, amiable enough to the infatuated Titania, is truly charmed by the four elves, and they by Bottom, who would be one of them even without benefit of Puckish translation:
Where shall we go?
Be kind and courteous to this gentleman,
Hop in his walks, and gambol in his eyes,
Feed him with apricocks and dewberries,
With purple grapes, green figs, and mulberries,
The honey-bags steal from the humble-bees,
And for night-tapers crop their waxen thighs,
And light them at the fiery glow-worm’s eyes,
To have my love to bed, and to arise;
And pluck the wings from his sleeping eyes.
Nod to him, elves, and do him courtesies.
I cry your worships mercy, heartily. I beseech your worship’s name?
I shall desire you of more acquaintance, good Master Cobweb: if I cut my finger, I shall make bold with you. Your name, honest gentleman?
I pray you, commend me to Mistress Squash, your mother, and to Master Peacod, your father. Good Master Peaseblossom, I shall desire you of more acquaintance too. Your name, I beseech you sir?
Good Master Mustardseed, I know your patience well. That same cowardly giant-like ox-beef hath devoured many a gentleman of your house: I promise you, your kindred hath made my eyes water ere now. I desire you of more acquaintance, good Master Mustardseed.
Though Titania will follow this colloquy of innocents by ordering the elves to lead Bottom to her bower, it remains ambiguous exactly what transpired there amidst the nodding violet, luscious woodbine, and sweet musk roses. If you are not Jan Kott or Peter Brook, does it matter? Does one remember the play for ‘orgiastic bestiality’ or for Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed? Undoubtedly played by children then, as they are now, these elves are adept at stealing from honeybees and butterflies, a precarious art emblematic of the entire Dream. Bottom’s grave courtesy to them [MY NOTE: I think ‘grave courtesy’ describes it perfectly.] and their cheerful attentiveness to him help establish an affinity that suggests what is profoundly childlike (not childish, not bestial) about Bottom. The problem with reacting to resenters is that I sometimes here the voice of my late mentor, Frederick A. Pottle, of Yale, admonishing me: ‘Mr. Bloom, stop beating dead woodchucks!’ I will do so, and am content to cite Empson on Kott:
‘I take my stand beside the other old buffers here. Kott is ridiculously indifferent to the Letter of the play and labors to befoul its spirit.’
Fairies in general (Puck in particular) are likely to miss one target and hit another. Instructed by Oberon to divert Demetrius’ passion from Hermia to Helena, Puck errs and transforms Lysander into Helena’s pursuer. When Puck gets it right at second try, the foursome become more absurd than ever, with Helena, believing herself mocked, fleeing both suitors, while Hermia languishes in a state of amazement. Act III concludes with all four exhausted lovers being put to sleep by Puck, who carefully rearranges Lysander’s affections to their original object, Hermia, while keeping Demetrius enthralled by Helena. This raises the happy irony that the play will never resolve: Does it make any difference at all who marries whom? Shakespeare’s pragmatic answer is: Not much, whether in this comedy or another, since all marriages seem in Shakespeare to be headed for unhappiness. Shakespeare seems always to hold what I call the ‘black box’ theory of object choice. The airliner goes down, and we seek out the black box to learn the cause of the catastrophe, but our black boxes are unfindable, and our marital disasters are as arbitrary as our successes. [MY NOTE: I’m on Bloom’s side on this one.] Perhaps this should be called ‘Puck’s Law’: who can say whether Demetrius-Helena or Lysander-Hermia will prove the better match? Act III of the Dream brushes aside any such question, ending as it does with Puck singing:
Jack shall have Jill,
Nought shall go ill.
“Bottom is the only person in Shakespeare to undergo a ‘literal’ metamorphosis; not that he seems to notice any difference, apart from feeling ‘marvellous hairy about the face.’ He is also the only human in the play who ‘literally’ sees the fairies; though he talks to Peaseblossom, Cobweb, and Mustard seed as they ‘do him courtesies,’ as easily as he does to Quince, Snug, and Francis Flute – even if he does find himself asking for ‘a bottle of hay.’ And, when it comes to acting, Bottom reveals himself to be an extreme ‘literalist’, albeit willing and eager to play every part. When the distractedly doting Titania swears how much she loves him, he seems not to be greatly surprised, though it can hardly be said to go to his head – human or asinine.
Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason for that. And yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays. The more the pity that some honest neighbours will not make them friends.
You will hardly find more wisdom in the wood than that.
His encounter with the inexplicably doting Titania must, perforce, be an amazing one, for all his imperturbability. Though, of course, we can hardly follow them when Titania gives the order to her fairies – ‘Tie up my lover’s tongue, bring him silently’ – and disappears with Bottom into the impenetrable silence of the darkened forest. In this connection, it is both instructive and amusing to see how critics have responded to the temptation to speculate on what happened next. Representing the ‘no sex please’ British school, Brooks, with honourable pudeur, was sure that nothing happened at all – dammit, a fellow wouldn’t deliberately plan for his wife to go off and have sexual intercourse with someone else. Speaking from the ‘a man’s a man’ American point of view, Carroll has no doubts: ‘Titania is tired of Bottom’s voice and wants him to perform.’ In, boy. Looking with his darkened East European eye, Jan Kott can only imagine bestiality and nightmare – ‘the monstrous ass is being raped by the poetic Titania, while she still keeps chattering about flowers…’ I suppose it depends where you are born. But this, more and less, prurient speculation seems to me most extraordinarily to miss the point. What ‘happened’ belongs, crucially and precisely, in the realm of what Henry James called ‘the unspecified’ (by implication, the unspecifiable). It is a gap, a silence, an unrecuperable missingness – a mystery. It is a vital blank which we can never fill in – and nor should we try. If anything, the preliminary intimations are more Platonic than sexual:
And I will purge thy mortal grossness so,
That thou shalt like an airy spirit go.
But, as to what happened – why, even Bottom cannot tell us that…
And from Goddard:
“To the average reader, Puck and Bottom are probably the most memorable characters in the play, Bottom especially. This instinct is right. Bottom is as much the master-character here as Launce is in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Bottom symbolizes the earthy, the ponderous, the slow, in contrast with Puck, who is all that is quick, light, and aerial. Bottom is substance, the real in the common acceptance of that term. If Puck is the apex, Bottom is the base without whose four-square foundation the pyramid of life would topple over. He is the antithesis of the thesis of the play, the ballast that keeps the elfin bark of it from capsizing. He is literally what goes to the bottom. Like all heavy things he is content with his place in life, but his egotism is the unconscious selfishness of a child, both a sense and a consequence of his own individuality, not greed but pride in the good significance of that word. His realistic conception of stagecraft is in character. To Puck, Bottom is an ass. Yet Titania falls in love with him, ass’s head and all.
And I will purge thy mortal grossness so
That thou shalt like an airy spirit go,
she promises. And she keeps her promise by sending him Bottom’s dream.”
And finally, this from Garber which puts a slightly different, definitely anti-Bloomian spin on the proceedings:
“Contrast this romantic attitude of worship [the Athenians] with the pragmatic, down-to0-earth, but equally deluded passion of Titania for bottom. Again, modern productions have tended to go for warm comedy here, giving bottom an ass-head that could belong on a stuffed animal or be found in a holiday window display. But falling in love with an animal, and in particular with an ass, has a long history of literary and sexual associations. The Roman writer Apuleius’s novel The Golden Ass, translated into English in the sixteenth century, tells the story of a man who is mistakenly turned into an ass (he anoints himself with the wrong ointment, having sought to become an owl, the emblem of wisdom) and then is coaxed into a sexual relationship with a highborn lady. At one point his noble lover kisses him tenderly on the nose, rather like Titania. Since the time of the Greeks the ass has been a figure of ignorance and stupidity in fables and proverbs. But Titania’s infatuation is also clearly one of the body. It is not bottom’s conversation that attracts the Fairy Queen. Both on the level of carnality and of social inappropriateness this ‘high’/’low’ pairing, queen and donkey, ought to send out danger signals in addition to producing smiles of amusement. And Bottom’s hybrid status – he is not an ass but an ass-headed man – links him with the kind of monstrous creature that fascinated and horrified Elizabethans, a sign, as indeed he is, of the human capacity to degenerate into an animal state.”
So what’s your take? Innocent? Bestial? Somewhere in between?
My next post: Thursday evening/Friday morning.