The Character of Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Shakespeare’s comedy Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of his most interesting works in terms of structure and meaning, as it has several subplots. Apart from the romantic love triangle of protagonists it has a truly comic story of the Mechanicals, an amateur theatrical company of workers. Even though this plot looks secondary, it nevertheless adds to the comedian effect and is also full of allusions. Nick Bottom, a weaver, is a symbolic character who embodies naïve silliness and self-importance.
The very name of the character suggests that there is a comic aura about him, as it was the purpose of Shakespeare to entertain the readers. There are two planes in the text: the main plot is related to characters of higher hierarchy, while the subplot presents a story of common people, workers who decided to stage a play as part of wedding surprise for Duke Theseus and Queen Hippolyta. It is natural that in times of Shakespeare there was a sharp class division, so these two stories of the noble and the common people are contrasted to evoke a comic relief. Nick Bottom is probably the main instrument of the author for this purpose, as it is his behavior that causes laughter. He is actually not very convenient for anyone of the characters because he has inadequate opinion of himself and his skills. Though his occupation is a weaver, he is absolutely sure that he has genius as an actor. His efforts are aimed at convincing everyone of his skills, but he does it so clumsily that everyone is exhausted. Peter Quince, a carpenter, is a director of the show, and he is the one who has to tolerate Bottom’s attempts to interfere in his plan. Bottom wants to play every role because he is sure that he knows how to do it better than other troupe members. Everyone ridicules him, but he does not even notice the irony because he is pompous and assertive in his ideas.
Bottom first appears on stage in Act I, scene 2, when all would-be actors gather to discuss future performance and decide on what part to play. It is natural that he is excited when he is given the main role of Pyramus in the play Death of Pyramus and Thisbe. The part is intended to be utterly tragic, as well as the whole play, which eventually is turned into the farce. From the very beginning he gives instructions to the director how to plan the performance:
First, good Peter Quince, say what the play treats
on, then read the names of the actors,
and so grow
to a point.
When given the part of Pyramus, Bottom enquires about the essence of the character and is quite happy to discover that he is a tragic lover. He imagines how he is going to collect the laurels of fame from the audience by his stunning performance:
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, I will condole in some
Bottom does not recognize that he is ridiculous; on the contrary he imagines that he is able to shake every one by showing his passion. He is so greedy about fame that he cannot bear the thought of giving other significant roles to other actors. So, he attempts to get the part of Thisbe, Pyramus’ lover, even though it is physically impossible to play these two roles simultaneously: the two characters should be present on stage at the same time. A little disappointed, he is nevertheless consoled by the idea that he might also take the role of a lion:
Let me play the lion too: I will roar, that I will
do any man's heart good to hear me; I will roar,
that I will make the duke say 'Let him roar again,
let him roar again.'
This speech sounds really comical because mentioning the duke demonstrates a special vanity that Bottom has about recognition by important people. He wants to sound significant and devoted, yet he chooses wrong words to express his thoughts because he is probably unaware of their meaning:
We will meet; and there we may rehearse most
obscenely and courageously.
So, we see the stupidity of Bottom combined with his self-importance: he chooses to use “clever” words to impress others, even though he is not quite sure of these words’ meaning.
Further on, when giving some thought to the play, Bottom realizes that the text should be rewritten not to upset the ladies who would be horrified when the main heroine kills herself. Seeing the lion also seems a bad idea for female audience. In fact, Bottom’s self-importance is also reflected in his idea that he is the focus of everyone’s attention. This is why he cares so much about his image and reputation among the viewers. He truly wants to influence them, he wants to be admired, to be accepted as one of them. It is Bottom’s clumsy attempt to act and speak like a gentleman that causes his strange behavior. He is sure that his word choice and manners makes him closer to nobility. Instead, he is a parody of a craftsman who wants to seem more important than he is. There is class gap indeed in Shakespeare’s play that reflects the true situation of the author’s epoch. This gap can be hardly ever bridged, and the example of Bottom and other craftsmen demonstrate this. They are accepted as actors to high society, but their noble audience is ironic about them and takes them only as comedians. Of course, their own ignorance and brutality adds to this comic effect. Yet, Shakespeare might also want to show that actors’ profession was not considered that noble at the time, at least not proper enough for gentlemen.
For the sake of making the play more pleasant, Bottom wants to create a prologue and warn everyone that the staged events are not real, so they should take them easy.And he also gives instructions to direct the play in his way, caring much about the image:
And, most dear actors, eat no onions
nor garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath; and I
do not doubt but to hear them say, it is a sweet 1825
In Act 3, the plot develops when Puck wants to play a joke on Bottom and transforms his head into that of an ass. At the same time, he sprinkles love juice into Titania’s eyes and she falls in love in a donkey-headed silly man. The comic effect is supported by the fact that Bottom has no idea about his transformation, and is surprised about his friends’ reaction. He takes it personally and believes that they treat him unfairly:
I see their knavery. This is to make an ass of
me, to fright me, if they could.
Bottom’s reaction is funny because he is not aware that his metaphor is so true to reality, and that his image suffers such a painful blow. Yet, he is so self-important that he would not guess that anything goes wrong because he believes everyone envies him and his talents. It is also true that the joke of Puck on Titania, the queen of fairies, is quite cruel. However, this joke makes Bottom even more sure of his being irresistible because he is not aware that her love and affection is the result of magic. He is confident that he deserves this gift and enjoys his popularity.
Why does Shakespeare turn Bottom’s head into that of an ass? Obviously, not only for the sake of showing the man’s stupidity. There are deeper cultural connections about the plot. It is a well known fact that Shakespeare was interested in mythology, so he used some allusions to ancient Greek and Roman plots. In case with this plot, at least two sources are mentions: Golden Ass by Apuleius and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Golden Ass is an ancient Roman novel that tells about a young man who accidentally was turned into an ass instead of a bird and describes his adventures. Ovid’s Metamorphoses includes a number of myths and explores the idea of transformation. In a way, anthropomorphism, a combination of human and animal features, is a way to explore the nature of people who combine spirituality and instincts.
The comic contrast between down-to-earth clumsy Bottom and the gentle queen of fairies is a pattern of inconsistency that human nature has. Despite being a brute, he is accepted into fairy world, and there must be some important sense about it. He is silly, and at the same time he is naïve and natural, because of his true efforts to do his best in the play. Maybe because of this he is accepted by the audience positively, with all his flaws and drawbacks. Despite of the fact he is not aware of having a donkey head, he still feels some transformation after the adventure is over. He becomes more sensitive and realizes that he has had an important experience. It is also interesting that despite the fact that Bottom is so self-confident, he is not totally far from reality, and deep inside he recognizes that he is not ideal. Titania’s affection is flattering, and he takes it for granted being sure of his own uniqueness. Yet, he still notes that there is some exaggeration in Titania’s words. So, he raises the theme of love and reason, and admits that these two elements are not always in concordance. The love affair between them is the demonstration of the idea that love is actually blind, that it is rather like a kind of spell that prevents a person from seeing true face of their lover.
When Bottom’s dream is over, he realizes that he has encountered something special in his life. He would like to share his visions but understands that he is not able to tell about them with all his eloquence. Yet, he believes that an artist can depict his experience for the audience to see the magic of the fairy world. Bottom is a true believer in art: he believes that it is omnipotent and is able to express everything that speech fails to express. Maybe it is just art that he believes to be more important to him, and maybe it is because of this belief he is the only character that was allowed to see fairy world unlike more intelligent characters. He wants Peter Quince to write a ballad about his travels, because he feels that he cannot cope on his own.There is some irony about the idea that silliness can be a ticket to magic, while wit and rationality make a person less open to a miracle. Nevertheless, none of this denies Bottom’s own limitations, and he has not transformed completely.
Having an ass head looks as a kind of punishment but the paradox is that his life changes for the better. He is loved and admired ( even though under the spell), he receives care and tender affection, almost a motherly one, from Titania. This discrepancy between the reality and illusion, and the fact that it is not the one who is worthy gets the better lot, suggests an idea that there is no true justice in life, and especially in love. In case with Bottom, as well as with other characters under the spell, it is not their will to fall in love or attract love. So, it looks like people are not responsible about this sphere of life, and love life is totally unpredictable. This idea deals with the concepts of fortune and play. On the one hand, one who is lucky can get everything, not the one who worked hard. On the other hand, like in other works, Shakespeare means that life is just a play, so one should not take it seriously or have any expectations. The idea of a dream is another version of this play, when people are not sure where reality ends and illusion starts. Bottom in this sense is a mediator of this idea, even though he is not clever enough to get the meaning of it. Yet, even he after the experience in the world of fairies grasps something important about what he saw.
All in all, even though Bottom is considered a secondary character and does not belong to the main plot, his comic mission is important. He is the one whose actions make the play a true comedy because of his silliness, errors and clumsiness. He gets a head of an ass to reflect his nature, yet not much is changed and he does not suffer at all. On the contrary, he gets all luck and enjoys Titania’s affection. The flawed character as he is, he is nevertheless the only one who gets access to the world of fairies, and works as a mediator between the worlds. In fact, this shows the absurdity and unpredictability of life, which is in hands of fortune. This is why as the author suggests, one should not take it too seriously, only as a dream.