Shakespeare's Plays Within Plays and Characters Within Characters
In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare creates in Bottom, Oberon, and Puck distinctive characters who represent different aspects of himself. Like Bottom, Shakespeare aspires to rise socially; he has ambitions, and interacts with the queen, however marginally. Through Bottom, Shakespeare mocks these pretensions within himself. Then again, Shakespeare also resembles Oberon, controlling the magic we see on the stage; unseen, he and Oberon pull the strings that make the characters act as they do and say what they say. And finally, Shakespeare is like Puck, standing back from the other characters, able to see their weaknesses and laugh at them, and enjoying some mischief at their expense. Through these three characters and some play-within-a-play mysticism, Shakespeare mocks himself and his plays as much as he does the young lovers and the Rude Mechanicals onstage. The playwright who is capable of writing Hamlet and King Lear is still able to laugh at himself just as he does at his characters. Through Bottom, Oberon, and Puck, Shakespeare shows us that theatre, and even life itself, are illusions, and that one should remember to laugh.
In Bottom, Shakespeare pokes fun at the pretensions in himself and by extension in all plays and actors. In doing so he makes light of the affectations in us all, for as he tells us elsewhere, we are all actors on a stage. To begin with, the name "Bottom" has unfavorable connotations, like "bottom of the heap," "bottom of the totem pole," and of course, one's behind, or one's ass: Bottom is a metaphorical ass who becomes a literal ass. Bottom's name tells us not to take him too seriously. Moreover, neither William Shakespeare nor Nick Bottom were born to be aristocrats, both having ambitions beyond their given station in life. It is Bottom's fate to be a weaver, yet he wants to be an actor, even a director. Shakespeare pokes fun at Bottom's ambition. When the Rude Mechanicals rehearse Pyramus and Thisbe, Bottom regularly interrupts the director, freely giving advice to the other actors: "Take pains; be perfect" (1.2.88). Bottom is overconfident of his own talents; he wants to play not only Pyramus but also Thisbe (1.2.43) and the Lion too (1.2.55). With comical lack of humility, Bottom assumes that his lion's roar will please the Duke, and he is sure that as Pyramus he will bring the audience to tears: "Let the audience look to their eyes" (1.2.20). By encouraging the audience to laugh at Bottom, Shakespeare makes fun of his own ambitions and his goals of pleasing audiences, including royal audiences, of making them laugh and cry as he chooses. Shakespeare surely recognizes the self-importance of his aims, and though his powers are greater than Bottom's, he still declines to take himself too seriously.
Through Bottom, Shakespeare also seems to explore his own anxieties. Perhaps he fears becoming too full of himself, so he ridicules Bottom as a literary lightweight. Bottom can't tell how ridiculous Quince's synopsis is, pronouncing it "a very good piece of work" (1.2.11). He recites abysmal poetry and calls it "lofty" (1.2.32). As unlikely as it would seem to most people, Bottom easily believes that the fairy queen falls in love with him, and enjoys that the fairies wait on him hand and foot (3.1). Perhaps Shakespeare worries about putting on airs, perhaps he is uneasy that the Queen and her Court are among his audience, that he is successful and others look up to him. Perhaps, coming from humble beginnings, he is never confident of his social standing. To neutralize his worries, Shakespeare proves that he is not like Bottom because he sees his own pretensions and turns them into jokes.
Through Bottom, Shakespeare makes fun of those who can't see their own shortcomings. Bottom lacks self-awareness. He can't see when he's being made fun of, and that makes him seem a fool. Unknowingly wearing a donkey's head, he makes clueless comments that invite scorn: "I must go to the barber's monsieur, for methinks I am marvelous hairy about the face" (4.1.21-23). The problem is, he doesn't know he is an ass. Shakespeare makes fun of Bottom to show that he is not a fool himself, that he is in on the joke. When the audience jeers at Bottom, indirectly they laugh at Shakespeare, but they only laugh when Shakespeare tells them to, thus he is still in control.
Ultimately, Bottom is a trooper. After everyone else has left the stage, after the ass's head is removed and Bottom awakens from a deep sleep, his first words are: "When my cue comes, call me, and I will answer" (4.1.196). Bottom may be foolish, but he knows that the show must go on, and he will always arrive, knowing his lines. The other actors respect Bottom; they are afraid that the play will be ruined if he does not return (4.2.5). Similarly, Shakespeare is still there when the actors have left the stage. He also answers to life's cues.
Like Bottom, Oberon also shares some of Shakespeare's qualities. Oberon has power over the other characters, and his actions affect the world of the play: his quarrel with Titania causes storms, floods, and disease. Like a playwright, Oberon controls the actions of the young lovers. The lovers see and feel what he wants them to, just as Shakespeare decides what the larger audience sees and feels. Oberon embodies Shakespeare's magical powers over the characters and the unfolding of the play. Through Oberon, Shakespeare makes fun of the fickle lovers, and he also controls Titania, indirectly having the upper hand in the eternal battle of the sexes. Although Shakespeare was not born a noble, as a playwright he controls aristocrats and does with them as he will. Through his magical powers, he is above mere mortals.
However, just as Shakespeare is not a fool like Bottom, in many ways Shakespeare is not like Oberon either. Shakespeare affects the world of the play deliberately, whereas Oberon does so unconsciously, as a byproduct of his uncontrolled passions. Oberon is incensed because Titania won't relinquish the changeling boy; his authority is challenged and his pride is hurt. He seeks personal vengeance when he puts the magical juice in Titania's eyes, causing her to fall in love with the next beast she sees (2.2.33). Oberon is controlled by his petty jealousies, taking himself and his grudges seriously. Shakespeare, on the other hand, has distance between himself and other people. A playwright has to step back and see the whole picture. A playwright is able to work with many characters, and not be personally involved with any of them. He or she sees humans with all their weaknesses, as well as their heroism, in order to render them convincingly. A playwright must be able to laugh at all the characters, in order to expose their hypocrisies and make the audience laugh. This Shakespeare can do but Oberon cannot.
Oberon is invested in the characters differently than Shakespeare is. Oberon cares about the lovers' happiness, and continually manipulates events to bring them together. He instructs Puck to keep Lysander and Demetrius running in circles all night to wear them out, so everything can be fixed and the right man will love the right woman, so that everyone can marry and live happily ever after. Oberon is emotionally invested in the happy outcome, while Shakespeare is not. Shakespeare's characters may be happy or unhappy as the play demands, and as playwright he has no apparent preference for one outcome over the other. In a comedy such as A Midsummer Night's Dream the lovers indeed marry in the end, but in a tragedy they can just as easily die.
Everything turns out the way Oberon wants it to: he retrieves the changeling boy from Titania, and successfully humiliates her. He has orchestrated everything, or so he thinks: "There shall the pairs of faithful lovers be / Wedded, with Theseus, all in jollity" (4.1.88-89). But although Oberon is godlike and enjoys magical control over others, Shakespeare the playwright uses Oberon to ensure the play's resolution. Oberon is ultimately Shakespeare's creation, as is Bottom. If Oberon is King, then Shakespeare is God.
Of all the characters in A Midsummer Night's Dream, perhaps Shakespeare is most like Puck. Puck is the servant of Oberon, and Shakespeare is the servant of the people, for he serves both the audience and the Court when he puts on his plays. Yet as servants go, both Puck and Shakespeare are free beings. Puck is also Robin Goodfellow, a popular creature in English folklore, thus Puck is not solely Shakespeare's creation. He is called a "shrewd and knavish sprite" (2.1.33) and has a reputation for frightening the maids and skimming the milk (2.1.35-38). Puck is a practical joker, and sometimes he is even cruel. He pretends to be a "three-foot stool" and when the maid sits down, he slips away and makes her fall, so that everyone laughs at her (2.1.53). He likes to make people laugh, even if it is as someone else's expense. Like Puck, and through Puck, Shakespeare enjoys practical jokes at the expense of his characters.
It is Puck who names the actors, calling them Rude Mechanicals (3.2.9). He calls Bottom "the shallowest thick-skin of that barren sort" (3.2.13) when he applies the ass's head. Puck is Shakespeare, doing what he will with the characters, naming them, making them what he wants them to be, ridiculing them at will. Puck is one layer removed from the play, able to step outside it. He sees himself as both the audience and the actor: "What, a play toward? I'll be an auditor; / An actor too, perhaps, if I see cause" (3.1.68-69). Like Shakespeare, Puck is behind and outside the play as well as inside it. By his ability to be both audience and player, Puck collapses the boundaries between play and reality. Shakespeare as both playwright and actor does the same.
Although Puck is ostensibly Oberon's servant, he is possibly more in control than Oberon is, because he does not care what happens; he laughs at everyone, even Oberon, whom he calls "King of shadows" (3.2.348). Puck laughs at the lovers: "Lord, what fools these mortals be!" (3.2.115). He enjoys watching Lysander chase Helena, calling it a "fond pageant" (3.2.114). He doesn't feel sorry for the young lovers as Oberon does. Puck enjoys teasing them: "Cupid is a knavish lad, / Thus to make poor females mad" (3.3.28-29). Likewise, Shakespeare doesn't seem to feel sorry for his characters when he manipulates them to serve the needs of the play. Shakespeare is surely a "knavish lad" when he writes plays like A Midsummer Night's Dream and encourages the audience to laugh at his characters' foolishness. When Puck playfully puts all four lovers asleep, reciting nursery rhymes as he does so Ð "Jack shall have Jill, / Nought shall go ill" Ð one can almost hear Shakespeare humming under his breath as he manipulates the characters (3.3.45-46). Shakespeare is mischievous like Puck when he makes Bottom recite the lines, "O night, O night; alack, alack, alack" (5.1.170).
In the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare makes fun of plays and actors in the play-within-a-play Pyramus and Thisbe. When Quince facetiously introduces the play as "The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe" (1.2.11), Shakespeare pokes fun at plays in general and at himself in particular. Perhaps Shakespeare is so secure in his powers of creation that he can afford to mock his own profession. Or perhaps he makes fun of actors and playwrights who are not as good as he is. Above all, Shakespeare makes fun of himself, seemingly wary of taking himself too seriously. Through Bottom Shakespeare makes light of his own ambitions, and through Oberon he magically manipulates the characters, while in his ability to distance himself from his characters Shakespeare is like Puck, the trickster. Fittingly, Puck has the final word in A Midsummer Night's Dream: "If we shadows have offended" begins his famous lines (Epilogue), suggesting that it has all been a dream. Behind him, Shakespeare winks at the audience and, one suspects, he hopes that he has offended, at least a little.
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night's Dream. The Norton Shakespeare: Greenblatt, Stephen, editor. New York: W W Norton & Company, 1997.
A Midsummer Night's Dream is a play containing other plays. The most obvious example is the laborers' performance of Pyramus and Thisbe, and their inept production serves three important functions in the larger structure of the larger play. First, the laborer's mistakes and misunderstandings introduce a strand of farce to the comedy of the larger play. Second, it allows Shakespeare to comment on the nature of art and theater, primarily through the laborer's own confused belief that the audience won't be able to distinguish between fiction and reality. Third, the laborers' play parodies much of the rest of A Midsummer Night's Dream: Pyramus and Thisbe are lovers who, facing opposition from their parents, elope, just as Hermia and Lysander do. So even as the lovers and Theseus make fun of the laborers' ridiculous performance, the audience, which is watching the lovers watch the laborers' play, is aware that the lovers had been just as absurd.
A Midsummer Night's Dream also contains a second, subtler, play within a play. In this play within a play, Oberon is playwright, and he seeks to "write" a comedy in which Helena gets her love, Lysander and Hermia stay together, Titania learns a lesson in wifely obedience, and all conflicts are resolved through marriage and reconciliation. And just as the laborers' play turns a tragic drama into a comic farce, so does Oberon's when Puck accidentally puts the love-potion on the eyes of the wrong Athenian man. And yet Oberon's play also serves a counter purpose to the laborers' play. While the laborers' awful performance seems to suggest the limit of the theater, Oberon's play, which rewrote the lives of the same mortals who mock the laborers' play, suggests that theater really does have a magic that defies reality.