Our second set of human characters are a group of amateuractors, preparing a performance for a wedding celebration. Theirblundering efforts parody the whole business of putting on a play. What roles does Shakespeare give the craftsmen in the dramatic comedy of a MSND?
The CraftsmenThe craftsmen are described patronisingly byothers. To Robin they are: ‘hempen hemspuns’(3:1:70), to Philostrate: ‘Hard-handedmen...Which never laboured in their minds tillnow’ (5:1:72). When they try to use a widevocabulary they mix up their words and theirattempts to write and stage a tragedy are highlycomical, all in a way calculated to amuse regulartheatregoers and urban sophisticates.Nonetheless we enjoy their struggle with thedemands of drama and we admire theirdetermination to succeed. What stock comic character do the craftsmen fit into?
The NamesThe craftsmen’s names reflect their jobs:• Quince, the carpenter – would use wooden wedges called quines or quoins.• Snug, the joiner – would make snugly tight joints.• Flute, the bellows mender – suggests a pipe on a bellows-powered church organ, and also a flute like voice which is not yet fully broken.• Snout, the tinker – mends the spouts (or snouts) of kettles.• Starveling, the tailor – tailors were proverbially undernourished.• Bottom, the weaver – unwinds the thread from a bottom or reel. His name may also carry the sense of ‘bottom’ as the sitting part of the body, which might then tie in neatly with his later transformation into an ‘ass’. While it is not certain that either of these words had their modern vulgar meaning in Shakespeare’s day, Shakespeare’s use of the word ‘ass’ (for example in Hamlet) does sometimes sound suspiciously as if it has its modern associations.
The CraftsmenMost of the craftsmen receive little individual characterdevelopment. We know that Francis Flute is the youngest, his voiceunbroken, his beard still ‘coming’ (1:2:44) and for these reasons heis assigned the role of Thisbe. Snug is ‘slow of study’ (1:2:63) so ismade the lion, a role with no (or as it turns out, just a few) lines.Tom Snout is originally cast as Thisbe’s father, then switches to thesomewhat limited role of the wall. Similarly, Robin Starveling isswitched from playing Thisbe’s mother to Moonshine, where he isput out by heckling and fails to deliver all of his speech. All fourmen look for guidance to Peter Quince, who seems to be not onlythe director, but also the author of Pyramus and Thisbe. Sincethere is no record of classical plays being acted by workers, Quinceis certainly original in his ideas and he behaves throughout as theleader of the project, assigning the parts, taking on therewriting, directing the rehersals and, not least among hisachievements, flattering Bottom into co-operation. His speech isalways decisive in tone, until he is before the audience at thepalace, where he suffers a loss of nerve and delivers his lines badlyin the role of Prologue.
The Play within a Play – tragedy as comedyAlthough not always found in other comedies, one particularlyinteresting comic sequence in a MSND is when the craftsmenperform ‘The Most Lamentable Tragedy and Most Cruel Death ofPyramus and Thisbe’. Theseus, Hippolyta and the Athenian courthave to watch the performance in which the play is performed sobadly that it comes across as a comedy.This is a very common technique in dramatic comedy, wheresomething that is meant to be serious and pretentious is broughtdown to earth and made funny by inept acting. The comedy isfuther heightened by the other noble characters commenting onthe action. The play is delivered chaotically – perhaps mirroring theearlier chaos, although the actors are well-intentioned. The play isfilled with bathos and is a travesty of what a tragedy should be. Bathos: a key concept in comedy, this means taking an elevated form (such as tragedy) and descending it into the ridiculous. Travesty: when something important or crucial is made ridiculous.
The Play within a Play – tragedy as comedyThe play-scene in which ‘hard-handed men’ with little or no formaleducation, take on the performance of a classical tragedy, aswritten (it seems likely) by Peter Quince has all the makings ofdramatic comedy. They know how tragedy is supposed to go, andso does the audience (especially the Elizabethan audience): withhigh passions expressed in elaborate metaphors, a hopelesslove, and a drawn-out death scene.Bottom, and his companions, are a little ‘afeared’ of the theatre’spotential to stir feelings, to convince the audience that what ishappening on stage is ‘real’; so various prologues, explanations, andinterruptions are scripted into the play to reassure the audience.The play scene is funny because its situation is so familiar toeveryone in the audience: the community recognises its ownpassion for drama, and laughs, not in contempt like the on stageaudience, but in delighted acknowledgement of that irrational need– and of the courage of the actors who would respond toit, whatever absurdity that may involve.
A Task of Two HalvesThe Commentary The Performance• Your jobs is to prepare an • Your job is prepare a analysis of the performance of ‘Pyramus language, style and imagery and Thisbe’ that brings out used in ‘Pyramus and the comedy (think about Thisbe’ and comment on its your timing of lines). You role in the dramatic must consider the best way comedy. to portray the characters• You must prepare notes on and their performance. your responses to share • You must perform the scene with the Performers. to the Commentators.
The Commentary - Think about...The language:• What does the full title of the craftsmen’s play tell the audience? Why is it comic in itself?• What features of language use jump out at you? What is the desired effect of these? Look particularly for the features of classic tragedy.• How is it written – the rhythm of the lines?• How is this different/similar to the previous lines of the craftsmen? Why might this be?• How is the language ornate and grand?• What is parody and how does this term apply to this scene? Who/what is being parodied and to what effect?The imagery:• Make a list of all the animals talked about in the craftsmen’s play. Next to each animal list the associations we have with these animals. Are any of the animals used to symbolise something in the play?• Which senses do the craftsmen refer to in ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’? Is this significant?• What does the moon symbolise? Read the section in the York notes on the symbol of the moon in Elizabethan times (page 51 – there is also a little bit about the imagery of the sense in this section). How does this add to or change your ideas about the symbolism of the moon in the craftsmen’s play and what Shakespeare was possibly saying with its use?The role in the dramatic comedy:• Where do you see the bathos and travesty of the original tragedy?• In performing a tragedy they are commenting on the affected habits of the nobility – look at the over the top performances by both Hermia and Helena of the lovestruck maiden (Helena’s soliloquy at the end of 1:1 for example). What similarities are there between the characters in the craftsmen’s play and the Lovers?• Critics argue that if MSND was simply a love story, the 5th act would be redundant. Why is this scene in the play, when the happy ending is achieved in the scene before? What is it’s real job in the dramatic comedy?• Critics say one reason for its existence is that the staging of the craftsmen’s excruciatingly bad tragedy offers a kind of counterpoint to the love theme. The deaths of Pyramus and Thisbe, strongly reminiscent of those of Romeo and Juliet, show how the lovers’ story might have turned out had fate gone against them, reminding us that every comedy could easily be a tragedy. How does this fit with the conventions of dramatic comedy?Don’t forget you must prepare notes on your responses to share with the Performers.
What roles does Shakespeare give the craftsmen in the dramatic comedy of a MSND?
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream isamong other things a celebration of the power of the theatre.” What roles does Shakespeare give the craftsmen in the dramatic comedy of a MSND? Look out for the blue clouds linking ideas from MSND to the conventions of dramatic comedy
Your role this lesson: Each pair will have a different question, below. Can you answer it now?• ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ offers a kind of counterpart to the love theme. Explain.• How does MSND ask the audience to willingly suspend our disbelief?• What is metathetricality and how does it apply to MSND?• What can we learn about the theatre from the Craftsmen?• What is theatre’s relation to real life? Does it try and convince us that what we see on stage is really happening, or should it always acknowledge its artificiality?• What is Shakespeare saying about his A Midsummer Night’s Dream audience?• A Midsummer’s Night Dream is among other things a celebration of the power of the theatre. Explain.
Feedback fromlast lesson: The Craftsmen and The Language of the Play Read the whole of the final act of the play. Read through these notes, matching the analysis to the lines and ensuring a thorough understanding of the scene’s role in the dramatic comedy of a MSND. The Language: As in all Shakespeare’s plays, the characters speak largely in blank verse, with rhyming couplets used to mark an exit or end of a scene. The craftsmen vary the tone and rhythm of the play by speaking in prose except in their dire efforts to perform in rhyming verse, which parody the techniques Shakespeare uses so brilliantly elsewhere. Short, rhymed lines and alliteration fail conspicuously in ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ because of the formal patterning and the meanings are at odds with each other. The craftsmen have previously spoken in the prose fitting of their uneducated characters. In their play their short, rhymed lines and alliteration fail conspicuously because the formal patterning and the meaning are so at odds with each other. The use of repetition , “...die, die, die, die, die...”, is supposed by Quince to be dramatic but loses its impact through Bottom’s delivery. “O...” is repeated throughout as a mark to the dramatic nature of a tragedy, Peter Quinces’ idea of a tragedy. Bottom’s over-dramatic verse renders Bottom’s portrayal ludicrous. Over the top acting is funny because it departs too much from realism. The play’s comedy also comes from the use of oxymoron like ‘monstrous mouse’ and ‘I see a voice’ which are ridiculous. In their use of the what they suppose to be the language of tragedy and high drama the actors act as a parody; Shakespeare parodies his own work and art form. The Imagery: Shakespeare’s many references to the moon and moonlight subtly create a night-time world where anything may prove possible. There was a long standing belief still current in Elizabethan times that, while the heavens were as God had created them, perfect and unchanging, the fall of man had made the area from the moon down to the earth – the ‘sublunary’ world – imperfect and unstable. Hence change, decay and death could not be avoided in our world, and earthly love, in contrast to divine love, would often prove unreliable and impermanent. As a symbol of inconstancy and imperfection, the moon is clearly relevant to the rapidly changing allegiances of Demetrius and Lysander. Quince arranges his rehearsals for moonlight and Pyramus cannot die until the moon has sympathetically withdrawn from the stage. The nature of the moon is inconsistent, changing, like love, with the eye of the beholder.
Role in the Dramatic Comedy: The comedy is achieved by timing, by ornate and grand language and by the observational humour of those watching. Seductive though its ideology and aesthetics are, love is essentially impractical and ridiculous, as the climatic performance of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ demonstrates. In rehearsing a ‘tragedy’ they are commenting on the affected habits of the nobility, think of the over-the- top performance by both Hermia and Helena of the lovestruck maiden. The title of the play seems to laugh at the behaviour of the noble lovers – ‘lamentable’ and ‘cruel’ are words that might feature in the self-indulgent complaints of all four lovers. We see both bathos and travesty in the death sequence. These are meant to be emotionally draining, tear-jerking and powerful. Instead they are amusing. Critics argue that if MSND was simply a love story, the 5th act would be redundant. Perhaps then the role of this scene in the dramatic comedy to remind the audience, with the tragic tale of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’, of how the lovers’ story might have turned out had fate gone against them, reminding us that every comedy could easily become a tragedy. Critics say one reason for its existence is that the staging of the craftsmen’s excruciatingly bad tragedy offers a kind of counterpoint to the love theme. These plays are quite light- Shakespeare’s comedies hearted, but do have some look at the foolishness darker and more disturbing of human beings. elements to them.
‘Pyramus and Thisbe’‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ offers a kind of counterpart tothe love theme. The deaths of Pyramus andThisbe, strongly reminiscent of those of Romeo andJuliet, shows how the lovers’ story might have turnedout had fate gone against them, reminding us thatevery comedy could easily become a tragedy. Thepedestrian devices of language and staging employedin ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ also offer a counterpart to thetheatricality of A Midsummer’s Night Dream itself, forA Midsummer’s Night Dream is among other things acelebration of the power of the theatre. These plays are quite light- hearted, but do have some darker and more disturbing elements to them.
The Willing Suspense of DisbeliefSuspension of disbelief or willing suspension ofdisbelief is a term coined in 1817 by the poet andaesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whosuggested that if a writer could infuse a "humaninterest and a semblance of truth" into a fantastictale, the reader would suspend judgmentconcerning the implausibility of the narrative. How is this relevant to the theatre and to A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Create a list of all the times we are required to suspend our disbelief as we watch A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
TheatreA Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play which flaunts its owntheatricality. We are required to ‘believe’ that any number ofthings are happening before our eyes when plainly they arenot. Not only can the stage be a palace in one scene and awood in the next, but it can become several parts of the woodat once. Assured that Oberon is invisible and Cobweb tinyenough to take on a bee in single combat, we behave ratherlike the lovers with the juice on their eyes and see what we aretold to see – and we do so despite Shakespeare’s repeatedlydrawing out attention to the trick. When, for example, Quincepoints at the stage and says, “This green plot shall be ourstage” (3:1:3), we find ourselves thinking of the stage as agreen plot, then as a stage, then as a green plot again, while allthe time our eyes literally see a stage. When Francis Fluteresists being cast as a women and later when he appears asThisbe, we are reminded that Hippolyta, Hermia, Helena andTitania were not played by woman when Shakespeares playwas first staged, but by talented young men in ‘drag’.
Metatheatricality Theatre commenting upon itself
MetatheatricalityIn A Midsummer Night’s Dream Shakespeareallows largely uneducated working men totake centre-stage and by their earnestperformance show us thecharm, delights, and dangers of the theatre.Each of the actors in Peter Quince’s play has astrong concept of what it means to act a partin the theatre. Look again at Act 1 Scene 2 when the craftsmen meet to discuss the play. What are some of their views on what it means to act a part in the theatre?
Metatheatricality There are multiply theatrical in-jokes in Act 1 Scene 2: the reluctance of boys to play the female role and the member of the company who has fallen into theatre by accident and seems not to know what he’s doing – like Snug. When the actors meet for their rehearsal in 3:1 their discussion immediately focuses on the basic philosophic problem presented by theatre: what is its relation to real life? Does it try and convince us that what we see on stage is really happening, or should it always acknowledge its artificiality?The naive performers believe that the audience will mistake their actingfor real life and will be panicked. Look at 3:1. What problems do the actors foresee with the play? How do they then seek to make their play ‘safer’ for their audience?
Problems and Solutions Metatheatricality• The audience might fear the swords could really kill – a prologue is added where they will explain that no-one is really killed (3:1:13-17). It has been suggested that this fear reflects violent unrest among artisans during the 1590’s which would have made the upper classes especially sensitive to a working man drawing a sword in their presence, but there is not evidence in the play that anyone finds this particular set of workers alarming.• They fear that the nobles will mistake Bottom and Snug for a valiant hero and a wild lion. They place such great faith in their own acting abilities and so little importance on the willing participation of the audience in the theatrical illusion – there is the addition of an explanation to the prologue to reassure them.• How to produce realistic settings and lighting – either attempt to ‘bring in a wall’ and real moonlight (remember Shakespeare’s theatre had no electrical lighting) – or ‘Some man or other must present’ them symbolically. The decision that they opt for is to have actors perform these roles: “Thus have I, Wall, my part discharged so; And being done, thus Wall away doth go.” We may note from this scene, in comparison, Shakespeare can create a palace and wood on stage simply by the suggestive power of his language, and can create patterns of opposition and marrying together throughout the play without the need of physical walls to make the points clear. Much of the comedy in the final performance of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ comes from the craftsmen’s perceived fears that the audience will think what is happening on stage is real and from the craftsmen’s desire to make the setting real. The audience is amused because they can’t imagine ever be ‘afeared’ by acting or not following the plot because there is no physical wall or moon; the craftsmen’s fears seem ridiculous.
MetatheatricalityOne effect of repeatedly drawing our attention to the artificiality ofthe play is to show that it is more than a simple imitation of reality.If it had been Shakespeare’s goal to simply imitate realism in AMidsummer Night’s Dream his play would not have containedfairies, invisibility, magic juice, a man with the head of an ass andcharacters from ancient legends such as Theseus himself.When Robin refers to ‘we shadows’ (5:1:413) in the epilogue heseems at first to refer to himself and the fairies as nocturnalcreatures, but soon comes to be understood as a reference to theacting company also. Is he conceding that he and his magicalcolleagues are crude imitators of real life like Peter Quince? Or ishe identifying the craftsmen with some of the qualities of thefairies – dream like creatures who first observe the mortal worldfrom a distance, then intervene in it? Perhaps his position issomewhere between the two – hinting that a play is both animitation of life and a creative transformation of it which drawsupon those imaginative aspects of the mind which are revealedduring dreams.
The Audience’s RoleThe epilogue doesn’t furnish an answer but invites the audience to reachtheir own verdict. Unlike the characters, we are able to see and interpretthe overall dramatic pattern. In this we are in a similar position to theAthenian aristocrats when they watch ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’. For theirpart, they complacently believe themselves to be spectators at a sillydiversion which has no relevant to their own lives. We, however, knowfrom our superior vantage point that the Athenian lovers have been in aspotentially tragic situation as ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ and that to somedegree their own behaviour has been scripted by forces they deny: thefairies.Could any of this have an application to us? Are we insulated from theworld of the play, on the other side of the stage, in the ‘real life’ in whichart is an imitation; or are we also in some sense characters following ascript? We are certainly not characters in a Shakespeare play, speaking inbeautiful verse, nor are we controlled by invisible fairies, but it can beargued that our lives too are shaped by forces beyond our control. Somepeople may, like the Elizabethans, locate such forces in the stars or divinepredestination, other refer to genetic disposition, statistical probability orsocial conditioning, but the effect is the same: “All the world’s astage, and all the men and women merely players.” (As You LikeIt, 2:7:140). Comedy highlights that human beings are in fact ridiculous and cannot change, they confirm our view of the world.
MetatheatricalityBecause a MSND does not emphasise explicit discussions about life and art, it is easy tomistake it for a lightweight entertainment. It does something much more skilful andsatisfying, however by integrating such ideas into the action, so that we see forourselves the similarities between theatre and other human experience, and ourselvesbecome part of the theatrical process.Peter Quince’s prologue is a noble statement of the enduring work of the theatre: To show our simple skill, That is the true beginning of our end. ...Our true intent is all for your delight. We are not here that you should here repent you. The actors are at hand; and, by their show You shall know all that you are like to know. (5:1:110-117)All this discussion of the theory of theatre takes place between a group of clowns, notintellectuals; this fact foregrounds the artistic authority that actors have in the‘alternative’ world of theatre. We share a sophisticated view of society though thecraftsmen’s performance that the conventional noble or romantic characters are unableto imagine.Through a kind of shared dream, mixing common experience and fantasy, Shakespearecreates worlds which parallel those normally experienced by theaudience, celebrating, challenging, mocking and enriching the lives of anyone preparedto share in what the epilogue calls ‘these visions’.
MetatheatricalityEach appearance by Peter Quince and hiscompany of amateur actors is a reminder to usthat any play is constructed with difficulty, andrequires not only skilful acting if it is tosucceed, but a sympathetic audience ready topay it the right kind of attention. In the caseof ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ an audience full of‘self-affairs’ and actors who lack skill impedethe performance. What is Shakespeare sayingabout his A Midsummer Night’s Dreamaudience?
• What roles does Shakespeare give the craftsmen in the dramatic comedy of a MSND?Your role this lesson: Can you answer it now?• ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ offers a kind of counterpart to the love theme. Explain.• How does MSND ask the audience to willingly suspend our disbelief?• What is metathetricality and how does it apply to MSND?• What can we learn about the theatre from the Craftsmen?• What is theatre’s relation to real life? Does it try and convince us that what we see on stage is really happening, or should it always acknowledge its artificiality?• What is Shakespeare saying about his A Midsummer Night’s Dream audience?• A Midsummer’s Night Dream is among other things a celebration of the power of the theatre. Explain.