THESEUS Go, Philostrate, Stir up the Athenian youth to merriments. Awake the pert and nimble spirit of mirth. Turn melancholy forth to funerals; The pale companion is not for our pomp. (1.1.12-16)
Here, Theseus orders his Master of the Revels to drum up some entertainment and a general party atmosphere. In Shakespeare's day, the Master of the Revels was the title of the royal court's official party planner. He was in charge of hiring entertainers and deciding which plays could be performed on public stages in and around London. He also had the authority to censor plays that were offensive or potentially rebellious in theme or content.
Act 1, Scene 2
QUINCE Here is the scroll of every man's name which is thought fit, through all Athens, to play in our interlude before the Duke and the Duchess on his wedding-day at night. (1.2.4-7)
Here, we learn that the Mechanicals (craftsmen) want to perform a play to help celebrate Duke Theseus's marriage to Hippolyta. When Shakespeare wrote <em>A Midsummer Night's Dream</em>, craftsmen didn't usually run around putting on plays like this. Back in early medieval England, though, guilds of craftsmen got together each year and put on plays for the Corpus Christi festival. Shakespeare's "Mechanicals" are a shout-out to the medieval craftsmen who moonlighted as amateur actors each year.
QUINCE Marry, our play is, "The most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe."
BOTTOM A very good piece of work, I assure you, and a merry. Now, good Peter Quince, call forth your actors by the scroll. Masters, spread yourselves. (1.2.11-16)
Quince announces that the Mechanicals want to perform Pyramus and Thisbe, the classic story of two young lovers who meet a tragic end after trying to elope. It's obvious that Quince and Bottom don't know anything about the difference between the genres of comedy and tragedy. They imagine performing Pyramus and Thisbe as a "lamentable comedy" and Bottom even suggests the play will be "merry." As it turns out, their performance in Act 5, Scene 1 is pretty hilarious, but only because the Mechanicals are terrible actors and know nothing about staging plays.
We also want to point out that the basic story line of Pyramus and Thisbe echoes what happens to Hermia and Lysander in Act 1, Scene 1 when they're forbidden to marry. (Yes, Shakespeare also had Pyramus and Thisbe in mind when he wrote Romeo and Juliet.) Shakespeare likely read the story of Pyramus and Thisbe in Book 4 of Ovid's Metamorphoses, which was translated from Latin into to English in 1565 by a guy named Arthur Golding. You can check out our summary of Book 4 of the Metamorphoseshere.
BOTTOM An I may hide my face, let me play Thisbe too, I'll speak in a monstrous little voice. 'Thisne, Thisne!' 'Ah, Pyramus, lover dear! thy Thisbe dear, and lady dear!' (1.2.49-52)
When Bottom volunteers to play the role of Thisbe and make his voice high-pitched, Shakespeare alludes to the fact that all female roles were played by male actors on Shakespeare's stage. Usually, these parts were given to boys with high-pitched or "monstrous little" voices.
Act 4, Scene 2
SNUG Masters, the Duke is coming from the temple, and there is two or three lords and ladies more married. If our sport had gone forward, we had all been made men. FLUTE O, sweet bully Bottom! Thus hath he lost sixpence a day during his life; he could not have sixpence a day: an the duke had not given him'scaped six pence a day for playing Pyramus, I'll be hanged. He would have deserved it. Six pence a day in Pyramus, or nothing. (4.2.15-24)
Snug is excited at the prospect of getting to perform before the Duke because he thinks it's an opportunity for social advancement. He imagines his crew becoming "made men" and earning "sixpence" for their efforts.
Brain Snack: Technically, Shakespeare the actor/playwright was a commoner, but he was so successful that he was able to buy property and even applied for a coat of arms. However, it doesn't seem like the Mechanicals are headed in the same direction, does it?
Act 5, Scene 1
QUINCE [PROLOGUE] If we offend, it is with our goodwill. That you should think, we come not to offend, But with goodwill. To show our simple skill, That is the true beginning of our end. Consider then, we come but in despite. We do not come, as minding to content you, Our true intent is. All for your delight We are not here. That you should here repent you, The actors are at hand, and, by their show, You shall know all that you are like to know, (5.1.108-117)
Quince butchers the prologue with bad punctuation, lousy rhymes, obvious statements, and by telling the entire story before it happens. Typically, this kind of information was reserved for the epilogue at the end of the play. In fact, the Epilogue (speech at the end) of A Midsummer Night's Dream has a lot in common with the Mechanicals' prologue. What's up with that?
PYRAMUS 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! [Moonshine exits.] Now die, die, die, die, die. [Pyramus falls.] (5.1.316-322)
This death scene is pretty ridiculous, but it is a play on what we have seen before in Shakespeare. The Pyramus and Thisbe story is a parallel to Romeo and Juliet, playing on the double-suicide of lovers who go to their deaths because of a misunderstanding. Shakespeare is proving here that all that stands between a comedic ending and a tragic one is good poetry and better acting.
THESEUS The kinder we, to give them thanks for nothing. Our sport shall be to take what they mistake; And what poor duty cannot do, noble respect Takes it in might, not merit. (5.1.95-98)
Here, we're reminded that, even though the amateur actors are pretty lousy, they certainly mean well. We can also see that, if you want to be an actor (like Bottom and Peter Quince do), then you've got to put yourself out there and be willing to humiliate yourself in the process.
THESEUS What are they that do play it?
PHILOSTRATE Hard-handed men that work in Athens here, Which never laboured in their minds till now, And now have toiled their unbreathed memories With this same play, against your nuptial.
THESEUS And we will hear it.
PHILOSTRATE No, my noble lord, It is not for you: I have heard it over, And it is nothing, nothing in the world, Unless you can find sport in their intents, Extremely stretch'd and conn'd with cruel pain To do you service. (5.1.75-86)
When Philostrate refers to the Mechanicals as men who have "never labour'd in their minds till now," he suggests the craftsmen are incompetent actors because they're uneducated. Is this the play's overall attitude toward acting and the theater? It certainly seems that way, because the Mechanicals are clueless about common theatrical conventions (basic staging, use of props, and so on) and butcher the names of classical places and figures during the performance. Is Shakespeare being a snob or, is he depicting his profession as a craft that requires skill and intelligence?
THESEUA Come now; what masques, what dances shall we have To wear away this long age of three hours Between our after-supper and bed-time? Where is our usual manager of mirth? What revels are in hand? Is there no play To ease the anguish of a torturing hour? Call Philostrate. (5.1.34-41)
A lot of literary critics have pointed out that, in terms of plot, the craftsmen's actual performance of Pyramus and Thisbe (Act 5, Scene 1) isn't even necessary because, by the time the Mechanicals perform their play, Shakespeare has already wrapped things up by marrying off all of his couples and assuring us of a happy ending. So, why does Shakespeare bother with the Mechanicals' performance? Is it just to torture his newly married couples by delaying their wedding night? Something else?
THESEUS Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, [...] The lunatic, the lover, and the poet Are of imagination all compact: (5.1.4; 7-8)
After hearing the young Athenians' stories, Theseus says that madmen, lovers, and poets have a lot in common—they're all highly imaginative and also a little nuts.
HIPPOLYTA This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard.
THESEUS The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them. (5.1.223-226)
Hippolyta thinks this play is really bad, but Theseus counters that all plays are probably bad, because they are by nature so far removed from reality. In other words, Theseus suggests that theater is far removed from real life and therefore cannot teach us anything about it. Still, is this really true?
Puck (a.k.a. Robin Goodfellow)
PUCK If we shadows have offended, Think but this, and all is mended: That you have but slumbered here While these visions did appear. And this weak and idle theme, No more yielding but a dream, (5.1.440-445)
In the Epilogue to A Midsummer Night's Dream, Puck encourages the audience to think of Shakespeare's play as nothing "but a dream." Why make such a comparison? Like dreams, plays aren't real— they're the product of imagination and fantasy and involve the momentary suspension of reality.