A Midsummer Night's Dream | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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A Midsummer Night's Dream | Act 3, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

In the woods near the place where Titania is sleeping, the six Athenian tradesmen gather to rehearse the play-within-a-play. They are a little concerned that having a lion or a sword fight in the play will frighten the ladies, leading to disaster for the actors. Bottom suggests that they simply explain in the play that they are actors playing roles so no one will be afraid. Realizing that the night will have no moon (a new moon is dark), they decide an actor will play Moonshine in the play. They also add the role Wall to the play.

As they rehearse, Puck enters and soon decides to play a practical joke, changing Bottom's head to that of a donkey just before Bottom enters for a scene. When Bottom makes his entrance, the other tradesmen run away, terrified at his sudden transformation. Bottom is confused and thinks they are all trying to scare him. He begins to sing loudly, waking Titania, who instantly falls in love with him. She forbids him to leave the woods and tells her fairy servants to wait on him hand and foot. She takes Bottom back to her bower to dote on him.

Analysis

This scene presents a contrast. The tradesmen argue about the content of the play, worrying that the audience will not understand that they are simply actors playing roles. Their lack of trust in the audience to separate fact from fiction is funny in itself, but it takes on additional layers as a commentary on theater in general. Everyone watching A Midsummer Night's Dream knows that actors are playing the roles of Bottom and the other tradesmen, who are then, in Shakespeare's play, playing actors putting on a play.

In contrast to this meta-theatrical subtext, Puck says he will become an actor in their play if he has cause, but then instead of playacting, he changes reality. This choice emphasizes the difference between the "magic" of theater, which requires the audience to willingly participate in the fiction, and true magic, which takes its victims unawares.

Wordplay continues to be Shakespeare's approach to the humor of this scene. Bottom continues with malapropisms (using wrong words), substituting odious for odors, and when he is transformed becomes a walking pun: he is an ass-headed man named Bottom, who is something of an ass in personality. Moreover, Bottom's jokes are so bad even Titania, who is in love with him, wants him to stop talking. She ends the scene by instructing her fairy servants: "Tie up my lover's tongue. Bring him silently." Yet Shakespeare allows the foolish Bottom to make a remark that is nothing if not true in context: "And yet, to say the truth, reason / and love keep little company together nowadays." As fools often do, Bottom gets to the heart of the matter and states a major theme of the play: love is not rational; it is magical.

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