Tuesday, June 08, 2010

A Midsummer Night's Dream, part 3 - The Rude Mechanicals

Shakespeare takes four plot lines and mixes them around delightfully in A Midsummer Night's Dream. They are:

1. The marriage of Theseus to Hippolyta, and the ensuing feast with entertainment

2. The four young lovers, who begin unbalanced: Helena loves Demetrius, Hermia loves Lysander, and both men begin in love with Hermia, whose father treats her like chattel (which she would have been) and wants her to marry Demetrius or be put to death. More on that in the next post.

3. The "rude mechanicals": a small company of artisans with theatrical aspirations, and the topic of this post.

4. The fight between fairylord Oberon and his queen, Titania, over a small changeling boy. The fairy monarchs each have histories with the opposite-sexed human monarch.

Much of the magic in this play comes from the way the plot lines intersect and, specifically, from how the magic of the fairies affects various individuals. But some of the magic of this play comes from its wit and humor, and that is seen clearly in the case of the "rude mechanicals", who create magic all their own in the form of their production of Pyramus and Thisbe.

An introduction to the players:
The group wants to produce a play, in hopes that they will be asked to perform for Theseus and Hippolyta after their wedding banquet. They want more than the pleasure of performing - they are hopeful that they will get paid. If they succeed, they will gain respect and acclaim and hard, cold cash. If they fail, they may make laughingstocks of themselves. (As it turns out, they probably manage to do both.)

1. Quince, the carpenter: Peter Quince, carpenter by trade, is the playwright for and director of this amateur theatre troupe. He also recites the prologue, which reveals that the players are hoping the nobles will learn a little something from them. (Their later interruptions tends to indicate that rather than learning from the mechanicals' example, they are instead rude - similar to the scene that plays out in Love's Labour's Lost, when the nobility is guilty of offense and misconduct in the portion of the play pertaining to The Pageant of the Nine Worthies.

2. Snug, the joiner: Snug is never given a first name. His name is chosen for comic effect, and would have made "the groundlings" roar with laughter (snug joints - get it?). The groundlings were the people in the cheap seats - so cheap, in fact, that there were no seats at all, and they actually stood on the ground in front of the stage throughout the entire production.

3. Flute, the bellows mender: Ah, Flute. One blows on a flute to play it, and a bellows blows on the coals to fan the fire, whence comes the humor in his name. Poor Flute is a young man, and is just starting to be able to grow a beard - hence his horror at having to shave it off in order to play the part of the lady. Being the youngest, he is probably also considered by the company to be one of the least, and yet it is his performance as Thisbe that secures the approbation of Theseus and his company. Don't believe me? Check out Sam Rockwell's amazing performance here - it's all fun & games until he drops his falsetto and then pulls off his wig - this performance makes me cry every. single. time.:

4. Snout, the tinker: Tom Snout plays the part of the Wall in the play, and I find his lines explaining his role as the wall to be hilarious. I'm not certain whether any particular occupational link existed between Snout and Tinker - perhaps tinkers had a reputation for poking their nose into other people's business? - but Snout is funny on its own.

5. Starveling, the tailor: Robin Starveling ends up with one of the funniest roles in the play, as he is supposed to represent moonlight. He is heckled by the "noble" audience, resulting in a particularly funny exchange. His name probably was meant to reflect the poverty (and therefore thinness) of tailors; it is possible that he was played by someone extremely thin (so the name fit) or by someone extremely fat (so that it was made funny by being so very opposite).

6. Bottom, the weaver: Nick Bottom's name is hilarious due to its double meaning. A "bottom" at the time was not only another name for the buttocks, but was also the name for a bobbin or spool, around which thread was wound. So just as Snug the joiner's name is related to his profession, so is Bottom's name. It just happens that Bottom's name means two separate things, both of which make his name funny. When Puck transforms Bottom's head into that of an ass, Quince says "Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee! Thou art translated!" - a direct play on words to show the connection between bottom and ass, and a repetition of the joke that Shakespeare piles on in this scene, with Bottom referring to Snout being "an ass-head" and him speaking of how the troupe wishes to make an ass of him.

That Bottom is a bit of an ass in general is established early on, since he's full of braggadocio. He is also, however, intelligent and earnest and hardworking and a leader among men, and he is not afraid to address people of a different class than he - whether it be Titania or Theseus and the rest of the nobles. In some ways, Bottom is the heart of this play - the one being that moves in all circles, and who has one of the most interesting journeys, including finding success on the stage (albeit because of Flute's performance as Thisbe). It doesn't mean he's not also an ass, however - but perhaps that was necessary in order to "excuse" what would otherwise be impertinence to those in power.

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