Written from 1594-95, this is probably one of Shakespeare's most well-known and beloved comedies. I had the pleasure of seeing it performed at the Shakespeare festival in Stratford, Ontario back in the '70s when I was at Heidelberg College. It is very funny, and silly, too, filled with blunders and misunderstandings that all get set aright in the end. In addition to the human characters, here we have also to deal with fairies and their problems, and one very mischievous one named Puck who is responsible for a good portion of the confusion.
Here is a brief synopsis:
Theseus and Hippolyta are preparing to be married that evening. Egeus enters with his daughter Hermia, and her two suitors, both equal in rank. The problem is, her father insists she marry Demetrius, when it is Lysander she loves. Her refusal to marry Demetrius could result in her being sent to a convent or being put to death, according to Athens law. Later on, the two lovers plot to elope that evening to Lysander's widowed aunt outside the city.
Meanwhile, they share their secret with Hermia's friend Helena. Unfortunately, her loyalties are misplaced. Because she is in love with Demetrius, she thinks if she rats on Hermia's plan to elope, it will put her in good standing with Demetrius. Well, it doesn't.
And another meanwhile: the dorkiest bunch of morons you could possibly imagine are meeting to practice their performance of the fatal and tragic love affair of Pyramus and Thisby. They are all typical craftspeople of the time, perhaps excellent in their field but not exactly shining stars in the intellectual department. Bottom is the one most people would remember when thinking of this comedy for several reasons (which I will get to presently). One, he has lots of lines and is a know-it-all. Still Quince has chosen him to play the lead male role of Pyramus. After all the roles are filled, they agree to meet in secret to rehearse in the woods. The same woods Lysander and Hermia are eloping through. And being followed by Helena and Demetrius.
It is a busy woods that evening. And it is enchanted, too. The fairies, in fact, are having their own issues. Oberon, king of the fairies wants a boy whom Titania, his queen, has taken to raise when his mother dies in childbirth, an agreement they had made. Oberon prods and threatens her, then calls in Puck, who excels in mischief. He has a vial with the juice of the magical flower, love-in-idleness (a pansy!), which, when dropped upon a sleeper, will cause them to fall in love with the first being they see when they awaken. So Puck, accidentally on purposely employs his magic drops a bit more than was bargained for. Because in addition to working over Titania, Puck is supposed to set right the little problem with the Athenians: Demetrius is supposed to fall in love with Helena.
But, oops! Puck anoints Lysander and Demetrius, and now they are BOTH in love with Helena.
Oh!, I'm getting ahead of myself. Just for fun, Puck sees the craftspeople rehearsing their asinine play, and, well, they are a bunch of asses, so he turns Bottom into one. The others run away in fear, (Bottom is unaware of his, em, personality change). So as he wanders and sits down, who should awaken but Titania, who falls madly in love with an ass. ("Bottom" is actually a weaver's term, and, at least in modern British slang, is their word for, eh, the posterior part of the body.) Ah, Shakespeare, what a rascal.
So now, when Hermia awakens, she finds herself alone, and even worse, finds her lover fighting with Demetrius over—Helena. Helena, totally baffled, thinks the three of them are playing a cruel joke. No one seems to like Hermia at the moment.
But Oberon sets it all right, and all the naughty spells are undone, except the one which makes Demetrius fall in love with Helena. Meanwhile, as they all sleep, Theseus and Egeus come riding through the woods. Demetrius no longer loves Hermia, so there is no reason for Egeus to stop his daughter from marrying Lysander. They all return to the castle and get married.
Then they giggle their way through the atrocious play, and go to bed. The fairies cast a spell so that any child conceived that night will be healthy.
Here are a few of my favorite lines:
These are from Act I, Scene II, when Quince is assigning roles for the play.
Flute: Nay, faith, let not me play a woman; I have a beard coming.
Quince: That's all one: you shall play it in a mask, and you may speak as small as you will.
Snug: Have you the lion's part written? pray you, if it be, give it to me, for I am, slow of study.
Quince: You may do it extempore, for it is nothing but roaring.
Of course, Bottom wants to play all the roles himself.
In Act III, Scene II, when the two couples are fighting in the woods, they begin to mock Hermia because she is petite.
(I can totally relate to this!!)
Helena: O, when she's angry, she is keen and shrewd!
She was a vixen when she went to school;
And though she be but little, she is fierce.
Hermia: 'Little' again! nothing but 'low' and 'little'!
Why will you suffer her to flout me thus?
Let me come to her.
Lysander: Get you gone, you dwarf;
And this one from Act IV, Scene I, as Oberon awakens Titania with the spell removed.
Oberon: Now my Titania; wake you my sweet queen.
Titania: My Oberon! what visions have I seen!
Methought I was enamour'd of an ass.
Oberon: There lies your love.
Titania: . . . How came these things to pass?
Titania no doubt has a bit of a suspicion here.
Act IV, Scene II, at rehearsal, as the craftsmen learn they have been chosen to perform at the Duke's wedding.
They are discussing the little problem Bottom had in the woods, and wondering where he is.
Quince: Yea, and the best person, too; and he is a very paramour for a sweet voice.
Flute: You must say 'paragon:' a paramour is, God bless us, a thing of naught.
And they also decide to announce during the play that the lion is not real; he's just a man playing the part of a lion. lest the ladies be frightened when he roars.
Screaming with laughter, perhaps . . .
And what is probably the most well-known line of this play?
Act III, Scene II, as Puck enjoys the results of his mischief.
Puck: Captain of our fairy band,
Helena is here at hand;
And the youth, mistook by me,
Pleading for a lover's fee.
Shall we their fond pageant see?
Lord what fools these mortals be!
And one last comment: This is perhaps the most favored of Shakespeare plays for artists to illustrate. Here are two from my vast collection of artworks on CD-ROM.
Edwin Henry Landseer: Titania and Bottom, 1848-51
Joseph Noel Paton: The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania, 1847
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