The most important motif in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and one of the most important literary techniques Shakespeare uses throughout the play, is contras (Stroup pg 79-85). The order and civilization as represented by Theseus, inherent within Athens contradicts the wild abandon of the woods and the fairy realm. The three main groups of characters, the lovers, the fairies, and the craftsmen, are all vastly different from one another (Stroup pg 79-85). The styles, moods, and structures of their respective story plots also differ entwining together to express the play’s overarching metaphor of dual nature of the human subconscious, depicting the reality to be subjective as seen through the lens of “the lover, the madman, and the poet” (Shakespeare, William ;Stroup pg 79-85). “It is by incorporating these contrasting realms into a single story that Shakespeare creates the play’s dreamlike atmosphere (Stroup pg 79).” Starkly opposing the beautiful, serious, and love-struck young nobles are the clumsy, ridiculous craftsmen (Stroup pg 79-85). However, the full extent to which Shakespeare uses the element of contrast to comically define the play’s themes of art, love, and duality can be summed up in one character: Nick Bottom (Stroup pg 79-85) and his dream (IV.i.199–209).
Bottom’s primary function in the play is comic relief, allowing the audience to briefly and humorously become “disentangled from the lovers’ tension” (Taylor pg 259-273). The comedy encompassing the overconfident Bottom is hilariously overt (Taylor pg 259-273).. Bottom is the complete embodiment of a fool. Bottom is the central figure in the subplot involving the craftsmen’s production of the Pyramus and Thisbe story; he dominates his fellow actors with an extraordinary belief in his own abilities and his comical incompetence (Taylor pg 259-273). “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’(IV.i.199–209).” The humor surrounding Bottom often stems from the fact that he is totally unaware of his own ridiculousness.
His speeches are overdramatic and self-aggrandizing, and he seems to believe that everyone takes him as seriously as he does himself (Stroup pg 79-85; Taylor pg 259-273). This foolish self-importance “reaches its pinnacle after Puck transforms Bottom’s head into that of an ass” (Stroup pg 79-85; Taylor pg 259-273). When Titania, whose eyes have been anointed with a love potion, falls in love with the now ass-headed Bottom, he believes that the devotion of the beautiful, magical fairy queen is nothing out of the ordinary and that all of the trappings of her affection, including having servants attend him are his proper due (Taylor pg 259-273). His unawareness of the fact that his head has been transformed into that of an ass parallels his inability to perceive his own absurdity and that of the idea that Titania could ever fall in love with him (Taylor pg 259-273).
It is only when Bottom awakes does he realize the strange nature of his adventure with Titania. “I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream—past the wit of man to say what dream it was (IV.i.199–200).” Bottom is unable to fathom the magical happenings that have affected him as anything but the result of slumber. Bottom has clearly been affected by the events in the forest but cannot truly explain the change himself (Stroup pg 79-85; Taylor pg 259-273). His character deepens psychologically but in his bungling speech he cannot express this new sense of enlightenment and thus deduces that his dream is beyond human comprehension. “Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had—but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had (IV. i.202-203).” In the course of this small speech, Bottom’s character undergoes a serious, contemplative tone and then again reverts back to his usual idiotic self- however it is undeniable that for a least a brief moment he seemed a changed man.
Bottom though he indeed is a fool, may have discovered in his folly. The power of the fairies has endowed him a rare gift, a look behind the curtain. Bottom gained insight, however fleeting, into the ultimate subjective nature of both reality and mankind’s ability to perceive reality (Stroup pg 79-85). It is only once he wakens does he think his adventure in the forest was strange whereas when he was transformed into an ass-headed monster, he remained ignorant of his change. He realized that his life as a bumbling weaver and actor is no more real than his role in the Pyramus and Thisbe story, and less real than the vision or dream he remembers of his life amongst the fairies (Stroup pg 79). He has discovered the world to be full of mysteries that man can never fully comprehend, and that such mysteries have “no bottom.” Perhaps it is Bottom who experiences this metaphysical change, and not the lovers, because bottom is the more innocent, child-like of all the characters and thus the character to which not only the audience can identify with but also the only character who despite his many flaws would be to aid the audience in understanding the importance of the events that occurred in the forest (Stroup pg 79-85).
The importance of dreams is predominant throughout A Midsummer Night’s Dream; they are linked to the bizarre, magical mishaps in the forest. Indeed, the fairies’ magic is one of the main components crafting the play’s dreamlike atmosphere and is integral to the plot’s progression; it throws love increasingly out of balance and brings the farce into its most frenzied state (Taylor pg 259-273).” It is through the usage of dreams that Shakespeare’s many levels of contrast become evident to the audience. Psychodynamic theorists view dreams as windows into human subconscious (id); within dreams, the ego which represents the mind’s correlation with socially acceptable behavior is vulnerable to the pleasure principle that governs the id (J. S., Nevid; S.A., Rathus; B, Greene pg 105-108).
The ego’s self-governing functions are lowered during dreaming but not eliminated (J. S., Nevid; S.A., Rathus; B, Greene pg 105-108). Thus, the inner, savage impulses of human nature, those of ecstasy and passion, are revealed through dreams but take disguised or symbolized form (J. S., Nevid; S.A., Rathus; B, Greene pg 105-108). Shakespeare seems to favor his dualistic view of human nature. Therefore, the antics of the fairies’ are mere mechanisms which unleash the wanton, uncivilized urges which are inherent in humanity. Both the ridiculous actions of the characters in the woods, Bottom’s transformation into an ass demonstrate the chaotic inner nature of man. The seemingly ordered, natural world of Athens would then only constitute half of the human mind, the half which is in tune with societal expectations.
The theme of dreaming recurs principally when characters attempt to explain the bizarre events in which they are involved. Indeed, the character’s journey of entering and leaving the woods is synonymous with falling asleep and awakening from slumber. However, it is not the lovers’ waking realizations that cement the true effect of the playwrights contrasting reality as seen by the lover, madman, and poet; it is Bottom. Bottom’s awakening serves also to awaken the audience from “Shakespeare’s binding spell” (Stroup pg 79-85; Taylor pg 259-273) as the fairy charm has ended. The alienation effect which accompanies Bottom’s waking by temporarily interrupting the audience’s emotional involvement in the play, encourages “intellectual speculation about the meaning of its work (Taylor pg 268).” This is primarily done more efficiently by Bottom than the lovers by the playwright raising Bottom from a formless voice on stage to a complete man who is no longer an ass. The audience is actually wakes with Bottom and join him in attempting to makes sense of the magical mishaps in the woods. Unlike the lovers who can rely on “the corroborating delusion” (Stroup pg 79-85) of each other’s views and opinions, Bottom has the stage all to himself- a possession he has sought, although in a very different sense, throughout the entirety of the play. However, faced alone with his epiphany simply cannot understand what it is that he has experienced; “he is still both literally and figuratively in the woods” (J. D. Huston pg 212).
Finally, Bottom’s own language is another element in which Shakespeare uses to demonstrate contrast. Bottom makes this bombastic speech after he wakes up from his adventure with Titania; his human head restored, he believes that his experience as an ass-headed monster beloved by the beautiful fairy queen was merely a bizarre dream (IV.i.199–209). Bottom remarks dramatically that his dream is beyond human comprehension; then, contradicting himself, he says that he will ask Quince to write a ballad about this dream. These lines are important partially because they offer humorous commentary on the theme of dreams throughout the play but also because they crystallize much of what is so lovable and amusing about Bottom. His overabundant self-confidence burbles out in his grandiose idea that although no one could possibly understand his dream, it is worthy of being immortalized in a poem (Stroup pg 79-85).
His speech is “dramatically conspicuous” (Taylor 261) because of it very language. “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was (IV. i.205-207).” Bottom suggests that eyes can hear, ears see, hands taste, tongues think, and hearts speak. His tendency to make melodramatic rhetorical mistakes manifests itself plentifully, particularly in his comically mixed-up association of body parts and senses (Stroup pg 79-85; Taylor pg 259-273). His language suggests profound depth at experiencing the union of which combines dreams, visions, love, and art in equal parts (Taylor pg 259-273). Being Bottom, he, of course, lacks the ability to express such depth. It as though the depth of his experience is not only beyond his reach but, like most dreams, falls away the longer he is awake.
Bottom’s dream does not simply add to the comic effect of they play but also sheds light on the strange nature of dreams i.e. the strange nature of the subconscious. The events in the forest defy comprehension, not only for Bottom, but for the other characters as well. There can be no question that such inability to understand Bottom’s dream was Shakespeare’s true intention as love and insanity cannot be justifiably explained in mere words. It is Bottom’s own words which seem to mock any critic looking for “significances.” “Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream.” A dream provides the most rational and conveniently comedic explanation. This is even played upon by Puck who, in the epilogue, extends the dream-like element to the audience by telling them if the play seemed to strange to just imagine it as a dream.
Huston, J.D. Bottom Waking: Shakespeare’s “Most Rare Vision.” Studies in EnglisH Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 13, No. 2, Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama. Rice University: 1973. pp. 208-222.
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. New York: Pinnacle Books, 2003.
Stroup, Thomas. Bottom’s Name and His Epiphany. Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Winter, 1978), pp. 79-82
Taylor, Michael. The Darker Purpose of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 9, No. 2, Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama. Rice University: 1969. pp. 259-273.