Ah, Pyramus. The likes of Romeo, Hamlet and Coriolanus have nothing on you when it comes to the deepest of tragedies which you suffer at the hands of fate. Cruelty was a dish which was served to you cold – as cold as ice. At least, that’s what Bottom the weaver from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream thinks.
Today we’ll be looking at one of the most joyous scenes to behold in Shakespeare’s canon: Pyramus and Thisbe, the play within the play at the end of this Athenian tale. More specifically, we will be looking at Bottom’s monologue as Pyramus – the tragic hero who takes his own life after losing the woman he loves. (Sounds familiar?)
Well, where do we begin? A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a story made up of three subplots. First, we have Athens, and a wedding between the duke Thesis and his soon to be wife, Hippolyta. This narrative is soon pushed aside by the forbidden love conundrum of a group of Athenian youths (Demetrius, Lysander, Helena and Hermia). Next, the world and wars of the fairy kingdom, featuring Oberon, Titania and Puck. Then finally, we have The Mechanicals: a group of tradesmen who are putting on a play, in the hopes it will be performed at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. It’s this last sub plot where our focus will lie.
The ‘Mechanicals’ – called so for their common employment in various trades and occupations, are not the brightest bunch. That might be unfair of me to say, but it is pretty clear in the text that they aren’t Shakespeare’s most intelligent characters. Philostrate describes them as,
“Hard-handed men that work in Athens here,
Which never labour’d in their minds till now”
Frequently the mechanicals say the wrong lines, mispronounce words and even mix up which sense is which. They are a wonderful bunch to behold for the audience, but they must cause a LOT of stress for Peter Quince, the director of their production.
At the centre of this troupe is Nicholas Bottom, a Weaver by trade. Bottom considers himself to be quite a good actor, and his casting as the lead character, Pyramus, has only served to confirm this for him. But playing the lead role is not enough for bottom, he wishes to play Pyramus’ lover, Thisbe, too – AND the lion who causes the tragic ending of the play.
Bottom’s journey is wonderful to behold for an audience. He is transformed by the mischievous Puck into a donkey-headed man whilst mid-rehearsal in the forest. From there he is taken by titania, Queen of the fairies, who has fallen madly in love with him whilst under the influence of Cupid’s love-potion. In Titania’s bower, the donkey-headed Bottom is pampered and cared for and fed hay and oats, and the queen of the fairies is very affectionate towards him. This magical reverie is short lived, however, for as soon as Bottom falls into a deep sleep, Puck and Oberon come to undo their magic, removing the love-potion from the eyes of Titania and the head of the donkey from Bottom.
Bottom awakes alone, as if nothing strange had ever happened, except for having had a really odd and vivid dream. He decides to race home and recount this dream to Peter Quince and the rest of the mechanicals, and hopefully he can make it back in time for the performance of the play.
For more information of Bottom and his journey, have a read of this article: Bottom Monologue (Act 4, Scene 1-2)
Now, let’s look at Bottom’s speech as Pyramus.
Sweet Moon, I thank thee for thy sunny beams;
I thank thee, Moon, for shining now so bright;
For by thy gracious, golden, glittering gleams ,
I trust to take of truest Thisbe sight.
But stay! O spite! spite!
But mark, poor knight,
What dreadful dole is here?
Eyes, do you see?
How can it be?
O dainty duck! O dear!
Thy mantle good,
What! Stain’d with blood?
Approach, ye Furies fell!
O Fates, come, come!
Cut thread and thrum:
Quail, crush, conclude, and quell.
THESEUS This passion, and the death of a dear friend, would
go near to make a man look sad. HIPPOLYTA Beshrew my heart, but I pity the man.
O wherefore, Nature, didst thou lions frame,
Since lion vile hath here deflower’d my dear?
Which is—no, no— which was the fairest dame
That liv’d, that lov’d, that lik’d, that look’d with cheer.
Come tears, confound!
Out sword, and wound
The pap of Pyramus;
Ay, that left pap,
Where heart doth hop:[ Stabs himself.] Thus die I, thus, thus, thus!
Now am I dead,
Now am I fled;
My soul is in the sky.
Tongue, lose thy light;
Moon, take thy flight![ Exit Moonshine.] Now die, die, die, die, die.[ Dies.]
Gleams: Beams of light from the moon
Thisbe: Pyramus’ forbidden love, the Juliet to his Romeo
Furies: Deities of vengeance from Greek Mythology
Fates: The Fates, personified in Greek Myth, were three weavers who spun the destiny of each human.
Thrum: The end of a thread which is frayed and cut away (a weaving metaphor)
Sweet moon, thank you for your sun-like beams;
I thank you, Moon, for shining now so bright;
Because, its it is by your gracious, golden, glittering beams
That I am able to see Thisbe.
Hold on, O spite!
Look, poor Knight,
What dreadful thing is here!
Eyes, are you seeing this?
How can it be?
Oh no, oh dear!
Thy beautiful shawl; what, stained with blood?
Approach, you fell Furies,
Come here, Fates,
Look on in shock and destroy me.
Why, nature, did you create lions?
For it was a lion which has here destroyed my dear!
Which is – no, which was the most beautiful woman
That lived, that loved, that liked, that smiled.
Come tears, prepare yourselves.
Come out, sword, and wound
The breast of Pyramus,
Yes: that left breast where my heart beats.
Pyramus stabs himself
Now I die, now, now, now
Now I am dead.
Now I am gone away,
My soul is in the sky
Tongue, lose thy life,
Moon, go away
Now die, die, die, die, die.
Well, where do we begin? To be an actor playing an actor who feels they are the greatest actor in the world, when they are in fact absolutely atrocious? It’s no simple task, and without the right balance of clarity and indulgence we can switch the audience right off. So, what must we do?
Firstly, it’s essential we understand what Bottom doesn’t. There is a lot which happens in the text which is the character making mistakes, a wonderfully tricky thing to identify in Shakespeare. Shakespeare loved actors and understood acting well, but he also knew they could be foolish and indulgent. With these factors in mind, we can now see the experience Bottom is allowed through his portrayal of Pyramus. In “Die, die die…” we see the extremities of his indulgence. He is an actor not quite ready to finish his time on stage, so he wants to eke out all the juice he can from it.
There is plenty of double-edged wordplay happening, too. This would be familiar and hilarious to Shakespeare’s audience, but for us we need to be aware of what irony is happening in the text.
“Since lion vile hath here deflower’d my dear”
This line is perhaps the most obvious of Bottom’s mistakes; ‘deflowered’ and ‘devoured’ do indeed sound the same, but their meaning is quite different.
As well as the misuse of words, Shakespeare plays in this text with metre and rhyme scheme;
“Thy mantle good,
What stained with blood?”
These two lines might not rhyme to our ear, but seeing as they are a couplet which have followed several rhyming couplets, perhaps this is an opportunity for Bottom to fit a rhyme in where it shouldn’t go? This, as well as all the potential choices in this speech, is a choice for you to decide upon.
There are many versions of this speech. You may make some choices, and avoid others. There is no right and wrong. If you adhere to the text accurately, it’s hard to ruin the comedy in this speech. That being said, I would advise caution in a few areas. Firstly: pace. There is a real risk that Bottom’s indulgence as an actor transfers over to you as you are playing him. This is to be avoided by keeping the pace of this scene high and tripping over all the wonderful comedy in the text lightly. There is no need to over highlight the mistakes being made by Bottom in the text. Most of them are immediately clear to an audience, and if they aren’t they are sometimes better discovered once they have passed us than laboured in the moment.
So, the key is this: understand all the potential of this speech. Know when there is repetition of consonants, rhyming couplets, misused words and an actor’s indulgence in the text. Know and learn (through feedback from the actors around you and the audience) what moments need to be leaned on for full effect, and which moments can be skipped over lightly.
Though Nicholas Bottom may to some be a foolish unintelligent character, it actually requires real sophistication, wit and intelligence from the actor portraying him, to fully realise the marvel of his foolery for an audience.
Please, please have fun. have all the fun in the world.