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Humour in a Midsummer Night's Dream

by Bryony Harrison (follow)
I'm a freelance writer & poet; if you would like to read my poetry, please check out my book, 'Poems on the Page' from tinyurl.com/pgyyx76
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A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of Shakespeare's finest comedic plays. Love goes awry for two couples when the mischevious fairy, Oberon gets involved. It abounds with humour from the get go.



a midsummer night's dream, william shakespeare
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In Act four, scene one, Nick Bottom is shown to be an ass for an umpteenth time. He is a funny character for several reasons, but mainly because he is so full of himself. There are other attributes that make him funny, but it is all based around his egoistic sense of self.

I will show this in the extract of Act four, scene one. When Bottom wakes up from his dream, (or what he thinks to be a dream), he calls out ‘When my cue comes, call me, and I will answer.’ By this he means that when it is his time to go on stage, he will come. This has a slight humour to it because Bottom is acting as if he is still doing his rehearsal with the other mechanicals, as if nothing had ever happened. He calls out for them, but realises they are not there – although it would seem fairly obvious just by looking around. ‘Heigh ho! Peter Quince? Flute the bellows meander? Snout the tinker? Starveling? God’s my life! Stolen hence (gone away) and left me asleep!’ This confusion would be hilarious to an audience of Shakespeare’s time because he doesn’t understand what is going on.

Confusion is the main part of this play and is seen almost in every scene. Puck, King Oberon’s working fairy is the source of this confusion. He is shown as a cheeky, mischievous, but loveable character. Example of this is when he is told to put the love potion in Demetrius’s eyes and he accidentally puts it in Lyasander’s eyes. Oberon tells Puck to do this in Act two, scene one. From line two-six-four Oberon says ‘Thou shalt know the man by the Athenian garments he hath on.’




a midsummer night's dream, william shakespeare
Image from Wikipedia


When Puck gets the wrong person, it causes mass confusion with the four lovers, who don’t understand why people are falling in and out of love with each other. Bottom then says after he (thinks he) realises that he had fallen asleep that he’s had a dream and that ‘Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream.’ Bottom’ words are ironic, because he had in fact just been an ass and Shakespeare is making a mockery of the character. This was done before, in Act three, scene one, just after he is turned into a donkey. ‘I see their knavery. This is to make an ass of me’. I think Shakespeare did this so he could bring Bottom down to size without him even realising it, thus making him look even more of a fool; this also shows a common repetition or recurrence of the word ‘ass’, as I have already shown. I believe this is done not only to make it a recurring word, but to emphasise the fact that Bottom is an ass.

The next line that Bottom has to say isn’t funny in itself, but it is likely that there would be amusing acting from the person playing his character. ‘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 most likely actions that would be made here would be Bottom feeling for ears on his head or a tail, or even another, larger feature that male donkeys would exhibit; this would allow the actor to have some fun with Bottom’s character.

Bottom then went onto quote a bible reference from Cor. 2.9-10 and completely messing it up by mixing the words up the wrong way. ‘The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was!’ Not only is this funny because he quoted it incorrectly, but it is funny because it made no sense whatsoever and his words were utterly absurd.

In the play, you will often find the speech of the mechanicals rather absurd and different from the other characters; for example the lovers use blank verse and iambic pentameter. This is very rhythmical and is done to show that they are fairly high class, where as the mechanicals don’t have any rhythm or poetic words, but is actually just normal speech – or prose.

He then goes on to say ‘I will get Peter Quince to write ballad for this dream;’ this contradicts his earlier statement that says ‘man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream.’ This means, he is once again inadvertently calling himself and ‘ass’ because he just you are an ass to tell anyone and then he plans to tell Peter Quince.



a midsummer night's dream, william shakespeare
Image from Wikipedia



The next part of his statement is an amusing play on words, ‘It shall be called ‘Bottom’s dream’ because it hath no bottom.’ First of all this makes no sense, because there is no point naming it something when it doesn’t have it and secondly it is humorous to think that someone has no bottom even though he actually means it has no foundation and is just a fantasy. This humour is more likely to be enjoyed by today’s audience and not Shakespeare’s.

Bottom finally finishes his speech by saying ‘I will sing it at the latter end of the play, before the Duke. Peradventure, to make more gracious, I shall sing it at her death.’ There are three things about this statement that are funny: one is that if Pyramus was to say this after Thisbe’s death, he would have to be alive himself, but Pyramus actually dies before Thisbe in the play they are going to perform. The second thing is that singing about his erotic memory of turning into a donkey and falling in love with the Fairy Queen is not really appropriate after his lover dies.

Lastly, in Act five, scene one, when the play is being performed, he doesn’t sing it. This would be because it has not been written yet, so it is rather ridiculous to sing something that has not yet been made. In my opinion, this is not the funniest scene in the play. I think the performance in Act five is the best, but this scene still has great merit. I loved the way Shakespeare put in so many different types of humour in this small extract. For example: puns, double meanings, teasing the character, bringing Bottom down to size and the absurdity of it all.

The reason why it is not my favourite scene is because unlike the performance at the end, it does not have any slapstick comedy, for example, in Act five, there is the comedy of the human wall ‘That I, one Snout by name, present a wall;’ another example is when starveling comes on stage with a lantern saying ‘This lanthorn doth the hornčd moon present;’. This is a recurring image in the play as it is mentioned a lot, like at the beginning where Theseus says ‘Four happy days bring in another moon’.



a midsummer night's dream, william shakespeare
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In the play put on by the mechanicals there was also drag humour when Francis Flute is acting as Thisbe, ‘Asleep my love? What, dead my dove?’ This was the last act, and it was told that it was going to happen from the beginning of the play for Theseus and Hippolita’s wedding. After their wedding this play was shown for enjoyment. Theseus and Hippolita both knew it was going to be a rubbish play, but that’s why they chose it, because they knew it would be entertaining.

For an audience in Shakespeare’s time, the scene where Bottom wakes up would have been funny to them as well. The sixteenth century was a hard time to live in and people would have taken any opportunity for a laugh, although I believe they would have liked the mechanicals performance better as well, because they absolutely loved slapstick, although not as much drag because they would be used to men playing women’s part – but they would have found Francis Flute as Thisbe hilarious because he was so bad at it.

Shakespeare did this play because of people’s beliefs in magic and fairies. They thought magic was evil and blamed it for things that went wrong in their lives. Shakespeare would make an audience wonder and believe in fairies even more in this play as there are mischievous fairies like Puck in it. In Act two, scene one, Puck says ‘And sometimes lurk I in a gossips bowl, in very likeness crab, and when she drinks, against her lips I bob,’ This is referring to when people drink soup that is hot, and it burns your lip, as if being bitten by a crab. Puck says he is the one who does this, making an audience think that this is really what happens.

This is what society was like in this time; another part of their society that was addressed in this play was the way women were regarded. They were meant to obey their father or Husband in the sixteenth century. In A Midsummer night’s Dream, it shows how women were not allowed to choose their husbands, but their father was to do so. Here is an example from Act one, scene one; ‘With cunning, hast thou filched my daughter’s heart, turned her obedience, which is due to me, to stubborn harshness. And my gracious Duke, be it so she shall no here, before your grace, consent to marry with Demetrius, I beg the ancient privilege of Athens; as she is mine, may I dispose of her; which will be either to this gentleman, or to her death, according to our law immediately provided in that case.’

From this, you can see that Egeus talking about Hermia as if she was an object, not a person. He had the choice, to force her to marry Demetrius, or to send her to death, both of which in those times were perfectly legitimate and legal.

As well as using society in his plays Shakespeare also used a lot of stagecraft, where he arranges ‘coincidences’ to occur on stage that increase the humour in the play. For example, in Act three, scene one, the mechanicals just happen to be rehearsing near to Titania, so she can just happen to see Bottom and fall in love with him. Also in Act three, scene two, Shakespeare makes the four lovers fall asleep in the same clearing together.



a midsummer night's dream, william shakespeare
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Around the time of Shakespeare and his writing (1580-1610), the theatre was very different from today. Prostitutes would often be just outside of a theatre, making it more popular with males and not everyone would be able to sit down. If you wanted to sit down, it was fairly expensive, and if you were Royal like Queen Elizabeth the first and James the sixth (or first in England) you would be allowed to sit on stage.

The poorer people would pay a penny and would either stand up or sit on hay. If they sat on hay and is they needed to go to the bathroom, they would just go as hay is absorbent and it was easy as they did not wear underwear.

Most of the plays in that time were comedies because people liked to have laugh, as it was such a depressing time. That was why Shakespeare was an unusual playwright and would have had trouble getting people to come to tragedies because people’s lives were already pretty tragic.

Theatre was not that popular until 1660 when King Charles the second, who loved theatre, ordered the restoration of them, so people could watch plays and enjoy them. He only allowed comedies to take place though, as he didn’t want a lot of conflict between people.

Although people loved going to the theatre, they actually disliked actors, since they believed that they were all criminals who pick pocketed and then left the town to do another play, so wouldn’t get caught.

Some examples of other playwrights in Shakespeare’s time are George Chapman and John Fletcher, who collaborated together and shared their work. Chapman was born in 1559 and died in 1634. He was an English dramatist, a translator and a poet; he is famous for plays such as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.

It is said that Chapman was the ‘rival poet’ of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. It is believed that this is shown in Chapman’s poems, explaining his scorn towards Shakespeare thinking his own work was inferior. Chapman also wrote comedies, and example being The World Runs on Wheels, which displays a satirical humour.


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