Summary and Analysis
Act I: Scene 2
In this scene, the action shifts to the cottage of Peter Quince, the director of a band of amateur actors who are planning a play to perform for Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding. The play enacts the tragic story of Pyramus and Thisbe, two young lovers who die during a clandestine meeting. Quince is in the process of assigning roles to the various players but meets with many objections to his casting efforts.
Nick Bottom, the weaver who is an entertaining but foolish man, usurps Quince's authority as director and claims he would like to play all of the roles in the drama. He is cast as lover Pyramus. Flute, the bellows mender, is assigned the role of the heroine, Thisbe. Not happy to play a female role because he wants to let his beard grow, Flute is pleased to learn that he can wear a mask for the performance so he won't need to shave. Snug, the joiner, is cast in the role of the lion.
Bottom wants to appropriate this role (as he wanted to appropriate the others), claiming his roar could make the ladies shriek. His statement makes the players nervous. They worry that if the lion is too authentic, the women in the audience will be frightened, literally, to death: They fear that Theseus might have them hanged for scaring the ladies. Bottom agrees to temper his roar, making it gentle as a "sucking dove," but Quince flatters him by insisting that Snug must keep the part of the lion because only Bottom can play the leading role of Pyramus. When the casting is finally finished, Quince sends the players off to learn their lines and tells them to meet for a rehearsal the following evening at the Duke's oak.
The tone and atmosphere of the play change in this scene along with the setting. From the palace of the Duke, we move to the home of Quince, a working-class man. With the entry of the players into the action, Shakespeare introduces the notion of class difference and provides a reflection on the position and character of actors within society. While this scene seems to provide a complete contrast with the previous scene, there is also some continuity in the action. For example, the play-within-the-play, "Pyramus and Thisbe," presents a story of misguided lovers, continuing the overall drama's obsession with love and, in particular, with the often crooked course of love, which, as Lysander proclaimed in the previous scene, never runs true.
"Pyramus and Thisbe" also provides thematic continuity with other plays within Shakespeare's ouevre, in particular with Romeo and Juliet, which most critics believe was written shortly before Dream. Both recount the tragic fate of true lovers who kill themselves finding their mistresses seemingly dead. Pyramus kills himself when he thinks that Thisbe has been devoured by a lion, just as Romeo stabs himself after finding Juliet seemingly dead in the tomb of the Capulets. This tragic theme does not necessarily seem appropriate in a play that was supposedly written to be performed at a wedding celebration, but the tragedy here is tempered with mirth. The inept attempts of the players transform Pyramus and Thisbe's sad story into a burlesque.
Although Dream obviously makes reference to Pyramus and Thisbe and to numerous mythological stories, its plot is not based, like most of Shakespeare's other plays, on one particular primary source. The play makes many general allusions to Chaucer's Knight's Tale and to Spencer's The Faerie Queen, and Oberon's name and the stories of Theseus and Hippolyta are adapted from Greek mythology. Because the play was most likely written for a wedding celebration, that occasion provided all the authority the play required.
Bottom is often considered to be one of the most exuberant characters in Shakespeare's work. Although his egotism and lack of self-reflection have been criticized, Bottom's vitality makes him a favorite with theater-goers. In this scene, for example, his willingness to play any and all roles in the play shows his fearlessness, his eagerness to become a leader. Bottom's attractiveness lies not only in his often asinine personality, but in his clumsy command of language.
Bottom's language is often paradoxical, as when he claims he would speak in a "monstrous little voice" if he had the role of Thisbe: Can a voice be simultaneously monstrous and little? Somehow the audience believes that Bottom could achieve such a feat. In addition to paradox, Bottom's speech is also full of malapropisms (incorrect usages of words): For example, he claims that he will "aggravate" his voice when he plays the role of the gentle lion when he really means "mitigate" (or lower) it. Similarly, he encourages the other players to rehearse "most obscenely," when he probably wants their practice to be "seemly." Yet critics have noted that his incorrect usage is, at bottom, correct. To some, the misguided attempts of these lower-class actors could be viewed as "obscene" rather than seemly, and in his role as lion, Bottom would most likely be aggravating!
The title of the play-within-the-play contains a similar comic element. Quince has titled his drama "The most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe," quite accurately representing the paradoxical nature of their unique performance of this drama. Just as love is often a blend of tears, sighs, and joy, Quince's brand of comedy (and Shakespeare's as well) complexly blends the violent with the playful, almost absurd.
Shakespeare's goal in creating this play-within-the-play was to add a comic element to the action. But why does he present these actors as fools? Perhaps to highlight the ineptitude of many of the other acting companies of his day, while emphasizing the superiority of his own company; presumably, they were not as ridiculous as Quince and his merry band of actors. Perhaps Shakespeare used this technique to accentuate the theatrical elements of his own drama, forcing the audience to think more carefully about the relationship between drama and reality. The players are humorous partly because of their belief in the audience's gullibility: Because they worry that their acting will be too close to reality, they must temper their lion's roar or they will be hanged for frightening their audience, making them think that a death has actually occurred on the stage. By playing their parts too well, the actors fear they will break the walls separating reality from fantasy, which could result in their very real deaths. Of course, to the savvy audience, this seems like a joke — we can all distinguish dream from waking life, theater from reality, can't we?
Yet these amateur actors also make us reflect upon this very question. Dreams work on many levels within Shakespeare's works. This play is itself a dream, a magical journey in which the characters become involved in a fairy world that impacts their real lives — Oberon's potion makes Demetrius fall in love with Helena, and this change in his personality is never altered. Shakespeare's drama is meant to enact a similar magic on its seemingly savvy audience; perhaps we, like Bottom's ideal audience, will be transported into the dream despite ourselves? Perhaps we have also been captivated by the dream of Shakespeare as literary and cultural icon? These questions emphasize the importance of reflecting on the boundary between drama and fantasy as something that is never stable, but always shifting. If Shakespeare's plays have a real impact on our lives, are they real or fantasy? How does our story of Shakespeare, or of literature in general, alter our understanding of the nature of dreams? It does not seem insignificant that Bottom is a weaver by trade — weaving has traditionally been a metaphor for casting a spell, and dreams are often viewed as webs that entrap the unwary dreamer.
A final, less philosophical function of the play-within-the-play is that it verifies many of our cultural stereotypes of actors. For example, Bottom is the star who always wants to steal the show. He is also an actor who seems more interested in his costume than his role; notice how much more time he spends worrying about the minor details of the performance — which color beard he should wear, for example — than he spends worrying about his lines. Quince, on the other hand, is the diplomatic director who carefully manipulates/orchestrates his cast to make them conform to his vision of the play. He assures Flute that he can play the role of Thisbe in a mask, so that his, most-likely imaginary, beard can grow, and he convinces Bottom that he's the only actor with sufficient skill to play the role of Pyramus.
scrip (3) script.
Marry (9) [Archaic] interjection used to express surprise, anger, etc., or, sometimes, merely to provide emphasis; here, a mild oath, referring to the Virgin Mary.
humours (21) inclinations.
Ercles (22) Hercules.
Phibbus' car (27) the chariot of Phoebus (Apollo as god of the sun).
That's all one (39) It makes no difference.