Bottom’s Midsummer Night’s Dream

Nick Bottom the bumbling protagonist of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," here shown "transported"

“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 t’expound this dream. 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. 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. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be called ‘Bottom’s Dream’, because it hath no bottom.”

-Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Technically, I believe, Midsummer Night has already taken place. Ancients (and some present-day cultures) marked the days from sunset to sunset. Thus Midsummer’s eve was from sunset to midnight yesterday. Midsummer Night was from midnight to dawn today. So, I guess I’m late. But, today is still the summer solstice. And various cultures fixed the date of the Summer Solstice any time between June 21 and 24. So, one might celebrate Midsummer at any time this week and be more or less right. (And don’t be confused by the “mid” summer…it’s always referred to the solstice and not our modern calendar’s “middle” of summer).

Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was first printed in 1600. It was probably written around 1594, although no one is really sure of the exact date. It may have first been performed for Queen Elizabeth to celebrate St. John’s Feast (the Church’s version of the solstice honoring John the Baptist) on June 24. St. John’s day is still celebrated in many places in Europe, so I’ve read, but it never really made it’s way across the Atlantic. At least not in any widespread fashion. Another bit of squelched merriment you might blame on the Pilgrims and Puritans.

The night was, and is, traditionally celebrated with bonfires which are tended all night. And why else would you light a bonfire but to keep those mischievous creatures like Robin Goodfellow away? According to traditions with which Shakespeare was well acquainted, spirits, sprites, fairies and all sorts of supernatural things abound on Midsummer’s Night, just itching to make fools of us poor mortals.

And into this very risky situation stumble Nick Bottom and the Mechanicals (quite the opposite of things supernatural). These are craftsmen looking for a quiet glade in which to rehearse a terrible play. Bottom is a blustering, muddled, arrogant ass. But he’s so sincere and funny, it’s impossible to dislike him. He is totally unaware of his absurdity. Takes himself too seriously and makes the foolish mistake of believing that the rest of the world sees him the same way. But, he is, in truth, an ass. And Puck, for reasons involving a bunch of other characters that we really don’t need to get into, literally makes him an ass, giving him the head of a donkey. Whereupon he scares away all his pals, meets Titania, the Fairie Queen who is bewitched and falls in love with him, and has really one hell of great night. When he wakes, he presumes the whole thing is a dream and continues on being just about as foolish as before.

Bottom, who shrugs it off, might remind me, “Man is but an ass if he go about t’expound this dream.” But it seems to me Shakespeare wanted us to dwell on it a little bit. I tend to think Shakespeare liked Bottom as much as we do when we see him on stage. And he wanted to remind us that, no matter how lofty we might think we are, on a night such as Midsummer’s Night, “so quick bright things come to confusion.” Dreams and schemes can quickly fall apart and proud mortals be made asses “swift as a shadow.”

I think we’re all Nick Bottom sometimes. And I don’t think Shakespeare is telling us that’s a bad thing. Bottom’s a well-meaning guy. We’re just foolish mortals, after all, and bound to look absurd from time to time. Sometimes at the blind whim of things beyond our control. We just have to try to learn from Bottom’s dream and not take ourselves too seriously.

And, to be safe, don’t rehearse any plays in the woods this week.

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About Patrick Browne

I am the director of a museum, an author, Civil War reenactor, among other things. I specialize in early American History from colonization through the Civil War. View all posts by Patrick Browne

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