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A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Footnotes

Jul 5, 2023 | Footnotes | 1 comment

The Footnotes to our episode on William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream include observations on the forest as a setting for love and dreams, on the play as democratic drama, and on the not-so-hidden meanings in the names of the rude mechanicals.

Not listened to the episode yet? You’ll find it here.

Love and Dreams in the forest
We talked in the podcast about many of the thematic associations that the setting of the forest offers, including where certain types of love may be unfettered. The ethereal realm of the fairies where aphrodisiac dusts can prompt and direct love’s desires, evokes both the mystery and capriciousness of love. It is also of course a world where natural impulses are not constrained, so sexual desires are unleashed, most strikingly in Titania’s passion for Bottom. Midsummer was also associated with festivals, which in pagan terms may have included fertility rites, including the summoning of supernatural figures from folklore.

The forest becomes a place where the sub-conscious may be manifest, as it is in dreams. And as in dreams, things prove to be illusory, and are certainly ephemeral. All of which applies to the events in the forest. The idea that what the lovers experience in the forest takes place within their dreams is perhaps literally suggested by the fact that “an unusual number of people spend an unusual amount of time sleeping” in the play, to quote the introduction to the Arden edition of the play.

We made the point in our conversation that there is a further association between the act of dreaming and the playwright’s creative imagination, as Theseus expressly suggests in his description of the poet’s art, who “bodies forth/The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen/Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing/A local habitation and a name” (5.1.1). Shakespeare has of course given his imaginative vision of the forest and its denizens a “local habitation.” And Puck finally suggests that everything that we have witnessed was but a dream while we “slumbered”. After all, the images that we take away with us as we leave the theatre are as ephemeral as a dream.

Detail from the cover of the Arden Shakespeare
3rd Series, 2017

Titania and Bottom
Royal Shakespeare Company, 2011
Photo by Donald Cooper

A democratic drama?
In the podcast we touched on the fact that this is Shakespeare’s first play to have ordinary working people as major characters. The play features characters from three different societies so to speak: the courtiers, the fairies, and the artisans. So is it saying something about social class?

Certainly the diverse Elizabethan audience would have seen themselves reflected on the stage, with the fairies bridging the social classes of the mortals. There are perhaps other ways that the audience would have recognised this as a democratic drama. For example, Midsummer  festivals are traditionally places where at least for a day all social classes come together, and social order is voluntarily briefly destabilized, as the commentary in the Arden edition suggests. It brings to mind the image of a local dignitary being knocked off his perch into the water pool!

Certainly the social hierarchy is upset in Titania’s infatuation with the lowly Bottom. Bottom himself is not just the butt of Shakepeare’s pen, however, but becomes a kind of everyman with his irrepressible confidence. He is in fact the only character who actually encounters the fairies, and he is completely unfazed by them. We all vicariously enjoy the way he relishes his good fortune when promoted to Titania’s favourite,  ordering the fairies to attend on him. He wakes from his wonderful dream – literally a dream full of unfathomable wonders – a dream too incredible to describe or share. We can’t but warm to him as he carries the personal secret of his dream. He, a humble artisan, has had an uplifting moment in his life; a moment that offers the promise of change, both personal and social.

Emma suggested in our conversation that change may be possible in another way. The craftsmen who perform the play-within-the-play are introduced as “hard-handed men that work in Athens here, / Which never laboured in their minds til now”. With the labour of acting their parts, they achieve another form of transformation. Is that not literally democratic drama?


What’s in a name?
The names that Shakespeare assigns the “rude mechanical” characters are a joy in themselves, suggesting as they do their individual professions.

For modern audiences, ‘Bottom’ has an obvious comic resonance, which is further amplified by its association with the alternative connotations of ‘ass’. It is not clear however that in Elizabethan times ‘bottom’ was synonymous with the buttocks; nor was ‘ass’. In fact his name likely derives from a more innocent source: in the 1590s ‘bottom’ referred to the core around which a weaver’s yarn was wound – Nick Bottom being a weaver of course.  As we have just discussed, it may also generally reflect his lowly social status.

Peter Quince is a carpenter, whose name could be a twist on ‘quoins’, which are wooden wedges employed in carpentry.

Francis Flute is a bellows-mender, the shrill sound of the flute being a possible sound emitted by a bellows.

Tom Snout is a tinker. The Arden note suggests that the name alludes to the spout of a kettle, which a tinker may repair. Or it may just refer to the size of his nose.

Snug the joiner is no doubt reknowned for the close-fitting joints in his craft.

Finally, the tailor’s name, Robin Starveling, plays on the traditional idea that tailors were thin.

It’s all obvious when you think about it.


The Texts
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1 Comment

  1. Keith Barnes

    I played Lysander at 51 in the round on the black marble dancefloor of the Moli Blanc disco with a wonderful five foot Hermia (she’s teased unmercifully about it) Fairies courtesy of the local English girls’school, Mendelssohn’s incidental music. Magical.


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