Ah, Nicholas Bottom. The Brad Pitt of his time. Also the Meryl Streep of his time. While he is busy being Brad and Meryl he’s also busy being the Phillip Seymour-Hoffman, the Daniel Day Lewis, The Helen Mirren, The Denzel Washington and the Keanu Reeves of his time. In short, he is God’s gift to the theatre. He’s the greatest actor this planet has ever and will ever see. Well, at least he certainly seems to think so. Let’s meet Nick Bottom from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and unpack one of his soliloquies and revel in this gloriously foppish and naive character.
Before we dive into the text, let’s get on the same page about the GC’s of this scene. Bottom’s speech has him waking from a dream in Act 4, Scene 1 of A Midsummer Night’s dream. We’re right before the end of the play here, folks. What has come before this is a mass of magic and mischief in the world of humans and fairies. If you haven’t already, make sure you read the play in preparation for this monologue.
Bottom is part of a group of actors who are putting on a production of a play called Pyramus and Thisbe. They are to perform the play at the wedding of Theseus, Duke of Athens and Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons whom Theseus has conquered and captured, (problematic Shakespeare, anyone?) For the most part, the actors in this troupe aren’t very confident or hopeful of the prospects of putting on a good play. This is very much the amateur community theatre equivalent of ancient Athens: There’s a mixture of talent and experience levels, but a whole lot of enthusiasm. The troupe is led by their director and dramaturg, Peter Quince. Quince seems to have bitten off a little more than he can chew with this project. The one outlier in this group is our man: Nicholas Bottom. Bottom wishes to play EVERY role in the play. He can’t get enough of himself and really thinks he is the greatest ever to tread the boards. This brazen confidence lands Bottom in the most unexpected of situations, midway through the play.
Whilst the troupe are attempting to rehearse in the woods outside Athens, Puck, the mischievous Fairy decides to play a trick: whilst Bottom is offstage awaiting his next cue, Puck transforms his head into the head of a Donkey. Nicholas Bottom is even more of an apt name for the character; he is now an ass.
Bottom goes through a number of trials and tribulations from this moment, first being abandoned by his friends, then encountered and wooed by the love-drunk Fairy Queen, Titania (Who has been hypnotised by Cupid’s flower). Titania leads bottom back to her bower before feeding him hay and oats and tending to his every need with her fairy servants. All this loving attention sends Bottom into a deep and peaceful sleep. Soon enough, Oberon, King of the Fairies, rights the wrong done to Titania and takes the spell of her eyes. She is immediately disgusted by the Donkey man sleeping in her bower. Puck removes Bottoms head, and the fairy band leave Nicholas asleep on the ground. Bottom wakes from his sleep and all the events which have transpired seem like a strange and distant dream…
When my cue comes, call me, and I will answer. My next is “Most fair Pyramus.” Heigh-ho! Peter Quince? Flute the bellows-mender? Snout the tinker? Starveling? God’s my life, stol’n hence, and left me asleep? 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 to 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. And I will sing it in the latter end of a play before the duke. Peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall sing it at her death.
Cue: Bottom is an actor rehearsing a play. The ‘cue’ is a line in the text telling him when it is his turn to speak.
Pyramus: The name of Bottom’s character
Flute: Another actor in the troupe – he has been cast as Thisbe, the female character.
Bellows-Mender: ‘Bellows’ are devices which pump air into a fire to make it hotter. Essentially, Flute is a tradesman like the rest of the group.
Snout: Another actor of the troupe.
Tinker: Another trade profession, such as a carpenter.
Starvelling: Another actor in the Troupe
Stol’n: Stolen, as in run away.
Wit: Conscience, ability, intelligence, capacity
Ass: Donkey. (Bottom was previously transformed into a half-donkey by Puck)
Patched fool: Jester
Peter Quince: The director of the troupe
Play before the duke: The troupe are performing ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ for the Duke Theseus’s wedding to Hippolyta
When it’s my turn to enter, call for me and I will answer. My next cue is, ‘Most fair Pyramus’. Hello? Peter Quince? Flute the chimney sweep? Snout the craftsman? Starvelling? Oh my God, they’ve run away and left me asleep! I have had a really weird vision. I have had a dream – a dream so strange it is impossible for someone to describe. Man is foolish to try and explain this dream. I thought I was – no, no, that can’t be right. I thought I was – and I thought I had… but man is an idiot and a joker if he will tell what I thought I had. Eyes have not heard, ears have not seen, man’s hand was not able to taste, his tongue to feel or his heart to tell what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write this dream into a ballad. It will be called, “Bottom’s Dream” because it is bottomless. And I will sing it towards the end of our play in front of the Duke. Actually – to make it even more emotional, I’ll sing it at Thisby’s death.
Comedy, even more than drama, is about a pursuit of and a commitment to truth. The circumstances Nicholas Bottom finds himself in are SO ridiculous, the temptation lies there for the actor to be silly within the text. This is a risk which will not serve the performance. The only way this speech can work effectively for the actor is if they take the events which have happened to Bottom as deadly serious, potentially even disturbing. Bottom’s recollection of these events may be exciting, terrifying, mind-boggling, heart wrenching or desperate, but what they must not be is trivial or too ridiculous to be considered as truth. Let the audience find the comedy in the speech, rather than commenting on the scene as being funny.
One of Bottom’s infamous traits is his misuse of language. He will frequently use incorrect words or similar sounding words to the ones he intended to use. This is true of the ‘Eyes do not hear’ section of this text. You may make the choice that Bottom is aware of the mixing of the senses, but it is also fair to argue that he isn’t aware of his choice of words. Like the point in paragraph one, though, it is important not to try and demonstrate your understanding of Bottom’s mistakes through the character, you just have to embody them.
One final point on this scene in performance: take your time. Many events have transpired in act 4 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream before this point, and ending the act with Bottoms speech is a wonderful experience for the audience. They don’t wish to have him rushed off the stage. Take your time with the speech, go through the events of your very strange dream carefully, before reaching the conclusion that this ballad must be performed before the duke. To Bottom, none of this is comedy, it’s high drama. It’s a tragedy, and should be performed as such. Bottom doesn’t know he is an ‘ass’ in any sense of that word: he thinks he is Laurence Olivier playing Hamlet, skull and all.
This speech is about JOY. It’s wonderful to watch, wonderful to hear, wonderful to perform. Enjoy the experience. Understand the intricacies of the given circumstances and how they impact Nicholas Bottom. Once you’ve done this, pursue the truth of the scene, rather than playing it ‘as a comedy’. Embrace the language ‘errors’ as elements of Bottom’s personality, rather than writers’ errors. Finally, Take your time as Bottom would! Lavish your time on stage, eat the air. Take up space. Have FUN!