Summary and Analysis
Act III: Scene 1
Comedy returns to the play in the opening of this scene. Peter Quince and his company are rehearsing their rendition of Pyramus and Thisbe. Bottom has serious reservations about the play: Pyramus kills himself with a sword, and the lion is frightening, both factors that are sure to terrify the women in the audience. The other players agree, wondering if the play should be abandoned, but Bottom has a solution. A prologue needs to be written to explain that Pyramus is only an actor, and the actor playing the lion must show half of his face during his performance and tell the audience his true identity. With these problems successfully solved, Quince mentions two other difficulties with the upcoming performance: It requires moonshine and a wall. After consulting a calendar, they discover that the moon will be shining on the night of the performance, so they can simply leave a window open. The wall is a greater dilemma for these silly men. Finally, Bottom discovers a solution: An actor covered in plaster will play the role of the wall. Everyone agrees, and the rehearsal begins.
Puck eavesdrops on the performance, amused by the way these actors butcher their lines. The egotistical Bottom sits in the bushes, waiting his cue, and Puck can't resist playing a joke on him: He gives Bottom an ass' head. When Bottom enters, declaring his love for Thisbe, the other terrified actors dash into the woods. Unaware of his transformation, Bottom has no idea what has frightened them. As he walks singing through the woods, Titania, with the love juice on her eyes, awakens and falls immediately in love with the beastly Bottom. She appoints four fairies — Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Mote, and Mustardseed — to serve the needs of her new lover.
The play's humor continues in this scene through the vehicle of the players. As in Act I, Scene 1, their belief in the audience's gullibility is highlighted. Bottom has found a new objection to the play: Pyramus must kill himself, which will offend the women in the audience. Again, his comments show his belief that the audience will be unable to differentiate reality from fantasy. To combat this problem, Bottom proposes an elaborate Prologue that will explain Pyramus' identity. Similarly, the lion must show half of his face so the audience will know he is a man rather than a beast. Quince brings two other difficulties to the players' attention: how the moonlight and the wall will be presented.
Again the question hinges on the problem of representation: In the players' opinion, the audience possesses a strong imagination, so with the correct costuming, a man can impersonate any object. For example, with some plaster on his clothing, Snout can become a wall; with a lantern, he can "disfigure," according to Quince, moonshine. Quince's malapropism here is comical, yet correct: These players do, indeed, "disfigure," rather than "figure" (the word Quince meant to use) the characters they play. Similarly, Bottom's misuse of words continues to be funny in this scene, partially because, at bottom, they are correct, given the context of these actors' inept performance; for example, he says "defect" rather than "effect" in line 38 or "odious" rather than "odorous" in lines 78-79. In all of these circumstances, Shakespeare assumes an audience intelligent enough to recognize Bottom's misuses but equally capable of seeing the comic correctness in Bottom's mistakes.
The wall between reality and fantasy breaks down as the scene continues. While Bottom presented an ineffective impersonation of Pyramus, he offers a stunning performance of an ass. The players are clearly taken in by Bottom's new guise, sprinting out of the woods to escape what they see as a haunting. Puck's magic is similar to the actors'. In fact, when he first sees them rehearsing, Puck claims that he'll become an actor, if necessary, and says that he can effectively translate himself into numerous other characters: a horse, a hound, a hog, a headless bear, a fire. Puck is the ideal actor, able to personify any role with haunting veracity. Indeed, his art seems to be Shakespeare's ideal for actors — like Puck, they should prey on their audience's imaginations, breaking the walls between imagination and reason, leading us to new worlds, haunting us with visions our rational minds cannot comprehend. Puck is also the ideal director, casting Bottom in the role for which he is most suited: ass. Following his transformation, the asinine Bottom literally portrays what he has always been metaphorically.
Bottom's lack of surprise at his new role adds comic flavor to his interactions with Titania. When she professes her love for him, erroneously calling him an "angel," he is not astonished. Her misrecognition of this ass as an angel, caused by Oberon's powerful love potion, provides a powerful example of the inadequacy of using vision as the basis of love: She claims Bottom's shape has "enthralled" her so much that she fell in love with him on "first view" (134, 136). Although usually foolish, Bottom's response to her hyperbolic protestations of love shows his down-to-earth nature. For example, when Titania declares him both wise and beautiful, Bottom recognizes the error of her statements, affirming that he is neither. But this does not mean he is intimidated by her.
Rather than being surprised or flattered that the Queen of the Fairies has fallen in love with him, Bottom, instead, remarks that she has little reason for loving him, yet adds that "reason and love keep little company together nowadays" (138-139), so her admiration is understandable, if not necessarily natural. In Bottom's opinion, love and reason should become friends. His speech echoes Lysander's in the previous scene. Remember that Lysander believed his newfound love for Helena was based on reason. The characters in this drama are attempting to find a way to understand the workings of love in a rational way, yet their failures emphasize the difficulty of this endeavor. Shakespeare seems to be suggesting that a love potion, even though seemingly crazy, is a better way to explain the mysterious workings of sexual attraction than is common sense: Love and reason will never be friends.
Bottom's interactions with the fairies at the end of the scene are significant because they reemphasize the comical differences between Titania and the ass-headed Bottom. While she speaks in lyrical prose, a beautiful language filled with natural and delicate imagery — dewberries, painted butterflies, and moonbeams bedeck her speech — Bottom's language lacks this lyrical grace. Rather than yearning for the jewels she promises or the bed made of pressed flowers, Bottom straightforwardly identifies the fairies with the tasks their names suggest; he has no interest in the magical, more figurative functions they could perform for him. For example, Mustardseed is simply a spice made to flavor his beef. Bottom's prosaic approach to language appears to annoy the poetic Titania who asks her fairies to tie up Bottom's tongue before bringing him to her bower. Shakespeare has not forgotten the moon in this scene. A "watery" moon shines in Titania's final speech, weeping along with the flowers at any violated chastity.
tiring-house (4) attiring house.
Byrlakin (11) by your ladykin (i.e., the Virgin Mary).
disfigure (47) Quince's blunder for "figure."
Ninny/Ninus (80) mythical founder of Ninevah.
ouzel cock (102) male blackbird.
throstle (104) a songbird.
quill (105) the bird's piping song.
gleek (121) jest.
Mote (135) a speck of dust.
gambol (139) frolic.
Peascod (160) the pod of the pea plant.
enforced (171) violated by force.