In this lesson, we will explore the character Nick Bottom in Shakespeare’s comedy ”A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Although the character Bottom believes he is a great actor, we see the real truth: sometimes people think more highly of themselves than they should.
Bottom the Ridiculous
From our first introduction to Nick Bottom, a character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, his very name lets us know we won’t be taking him very seriously. In fact, of all of the characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bottom is the most humorous. He is a weaver with high aspirations, believing himself to be a fine actor. However, Bottom tends to be overly confident. In fact, he tries the patience of director, Peter Quince, a carpenter.
Bottom wants to play all of the parts in the play the tradesmen are performing for the wedding of Duke Theseus and Queen Hippolyta.We first meet Bottom in Act II, scene 1, where the tradesmen are gathering after work to practice the play Death of Pyramus and Thisbe for the first time. Bottom is assigned the part of Pyramus, ‘a lover that kills himself, most gallant, for love’ (Act 2, Scene 2). Of course, Bottom is thrilled with his part and responds boisterously, ‘That will ask some tears in the true performing of it. If I do it, let the audience look to their eyes. I will move storms’ (Act 2, Scene 2).
Bottom believes that his touching performance will move his audience to tears. When Quince announces who will play the part of Pyramus’ lover, Thisbe, Bottom eagerly volunteers to play that part, as well, though it is obviously impossible for one person to play the parts of both lovers.Later, Bottom wants to play the lion, claiming that after he roars, the audience will beg to hear him roar, again. At the end of the rehearsal, the players are instructed to meet the following evening in the woods near the palace. Bottom states that they will then rehearse ‘obscenely and courageously’, (Act 1, Scene 2) obviously choosing the wrong word ‘obscenely’. Thus, from the outset, we see Bottom as a silly character.
Mischief in the Woods
And things get even sillier! We see a story within a story, as there are fairies in the woods. The King of the fairies, Oberon, is in conflict with the Queen of the fairies, Titania, over an Indian orphan boy. Titania wants to keep him for a son, while Oberon wishes to train him to be his ‘henchman’ (Act 2, Scene 1).
Their struggle is so fierce that Oberon instructs his mischievous fairy, Puck, to drip magic ointment in Titania’s eyes while she is sleeping. This ointment will cause her to fall in love with the first ridiculous creature she sees when she awakens.In the meantime, the players meet to rehearse in the woods, and Bottom attempts to take over the rehearsal. He tends to be bossy, and his ideas are odd.
For instance, Bottom wants one of the players to be a wall through which Pyramus and Thisbe whisper. Puck sees them rehearsing and realizes this is an opportunity to play a prank. He magically gives Bottom the head of a donkey – or ass. Of course, Bottom is completely oblivious, but the other players flee in terror. They think the woods are haunted. Shakespeare has great fun using the word ‘ass’ as a pun.
For example, after his friends flee, Bottom says, ‘I see their knavery: this is to make an ass of me’ (Act 3, Scene 1). And with a name like Bottom . . .
Titania Wakes Up
Predictably, Bottom-the-donkey-head is the first creature Titania sees, and she falls madly in love with him.
Titania pampers Bottom, calling him an ‘angel,’ ‘wise,’ and ‘beautiful’ (Act 3, Scene 1). We know Bottom is anything but what Titania describes! Her servants feed him grapes, and Bottom is certainly flattered and quickly adjusts to his new, lavish lifestyle. We can only imagine what Titania’s servants must have thought. Their beautiful, classy queen has seemingly lost her mind, falling for this half donkey, half man.
While Titania is thus occupied, Oberon steals her orphan son, and while she sleeps, he drops another magic potion into her eyes. When Titania awakes, she is mortified to find herself in the arms of Bottom, donkey ears and all.Puck returns Bottom to his former self. When Bottom awakens, he muses, ‘I have had a most rare vision.
I have had a dream – past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream’ (Act 4, Scene 1). Once again, Shakespeare includes a pun.
The Wedding Reception
Finally, relieved to see Bottom without donkey ears, the players rejoice, but completely botch their play for Theseus and Hippolyta, who nonetheless are amused.
In spite of Bottom’s antics, everything ends well.
For some reason, we love Bottom, a character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and actor in the play-within-the-play, Pyramus and Thisbe- for his silliness, his pride, and his misspoken words. Perhaps it is because most of us can think of one time or another when we, too, have made an ‘ass’ of ourselves, but much like Bottom, come out alright in the end.