Humor in Midsummer Night’s Dream
Humor in Midsummer Night’s Dream
Historical records from the late sixteenth century are marked by the severe outcomes of the plague, which spread throughout most of Europe. The increased death rate and famine suppressed cultural development and thus very few works of art or literature were produced. During these devastating years, the young poet William Shakespeare refused to travel to the provinces, away from London, where the plague had reached enormous extents. On the contrary, in 1593 and 1594 he composed the poems Venus and Adonis and Lucrece which were both met by great interest and excitement.
These positive responses encouraged Shakespeare and with even stronger efforts he wrote the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the beginning of 1595, when the plague was brought under control. This work not only marks the end of famine and suffering in London during the late sixteenth century, but also signifies that the Master is now “confident in his art, at ease with it, as a man in his dressing-gown”. Categorized as a festive comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a considerable advance in Shakespeare’s work. The most remarkable evidence for this advance is the skilful usage of different variations of humor in one play.
Another distinctive aspect of the work is the incorporation of another play within the borders of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Analysis of different characteristics of the work should inevitably focus on the story of the craftsmen performing “Pyramus and Thisbe”, since this part is a representative of Shakespearean comedy and all of its patterns. Therefore, it also portrays the impressionable usage of humor, or more specifically, of literary devices and social characteristics, not only in A Midsummer Night’s Dream but also throughout all Shakespearean comedies.
The poet’s works can be roughly categorized in four categories: tragedies, comedies, histories, and romance. All of them are having separate characteristics, tone and style, involving different literary devices and mechanisms. Comedies are usually stories with happy ending, lighthearted patterns and often involving a marriage. They all have a distinct usage of humor, which can be defined as innovative and typically Shakespearean.
The plays usually present the struggle of young lovers who have to get over many obstacles in pursue of their feelings and often involve mistaken identities, separation and unification, heightened tensions within a family, and multiple plots. One very significant trait of the poet’s comedies is that they do not involve any satire, which makes them more lighthearted and easy to process. The common setting of the plots tends to be nature, more specifically the “green world”. This is one of Shakespeare’s preferred cites since it creates a more casual atmosphere, where jokes and puns easily find their way to the public, unbound by the social norms present the city.
Another significance of the setting is the current time period, which constitutes the pattern of the society, its expectations and rules, and its literacy. The poet carefully takes advantage of the prejudices and the ideologies of the public and hence makes his comedies very contemporary, discussing topics that are relevant to the time period. Shakespearean comedies imply the participation of the audience and therefore they are dependent on people’s way of viewing life and way of expression.
A play performed during the period of its setting would be far more funny and entertaining than the same play performed nowadays because of the evolved human way of thinking. Nonetheless, Shakespearean comedies contain certain literal devices creating humor, which function in the same way now, as four centuries ago. The story of the amateur and awkward actors in A Midsummer Night’s Dream contains a great deal of those devices, which make it independent upon the public, still involving it in its plot.
One of those devices is the use of prose throughout the play within Shakespeare’s work. The poet removes the whole rhyme pattern in order to emphasize the puns and jokes in the course of the plot. When the actors are talking in a plain manner the humor is more easily transferred to the public, since they do not have to perceive the rhyming. Furthermore, the prose contributes to the image of the craftsmen. Their illiteracy and simple-mindedness can be identified easily through their way of expression. The artisans speak in a simple manner, corresponding to their social class standing.
Although they are striving to use a more sophisticated language, they mix up grammar and spelling in a very comic way: “Have you the lion’s part written? Pray you, if it be, give it me; for I am slow of study”. The usage of prose in the play also creates plain humor, which does not need to be interpreted in any way. This is simple poetic device that creates comedy, which is equally funny now and four centuries ago. Sentences as “I will undertake it” bring about the same reaction of the public regardless of the time period.
This mechanism may be the most frequently used one in the part with the artisans, but probably the most efficient device is the word play, created through the misspellings and wrong pronunciations of the craftsmen. Shakespeare takes advantage of the sound similarities between words with completely different meanings and adds the alternatives to the mechanicals’ speech. In their efforts to sound more sophisticated, the artisans mix up words as “obscenely”(Shakespeare, 68), “parlous” (Shakespeare 87), “disfigure” (Shakespeare 88), “savours, odours” (Shakespeare 89), “translated” (Shakespeare 91), “presently” and so forth.
Those confusions create different connotations and meanings, thus entertaining the audience. For example, Bottom misuses obscenely, meaning seemly, or more precisely, “fitly”; instead of “parlous” Snout should have said “perilous”, and Bottom completely mixes “odours, savours, odorous”. All these mistakes build a very efficient humor mechanism that Shakespeare uses in most of his comedies. Another effective literary device that Shakespeare had mastered is the mix of short and long sentences, presenting the interrupted lines of thought of the artisans, their inability to express themselves and their lack of education.
It also contributes to the authentic tone of their natural conversation: “A calendar, a calendar! Look in the almanac – find out moonshine, find out moonshine” (Shakespeare 69). Bottom’s excitement disables him to form complete and meaningful sentences; he wants to express himself as fast as he can, regardless of the way of expression. The frequent usage of “and”, instead of “if”, in the beginning of the sentences, shows that the artisans’ thoughts and ideas are flowing during the course of their speech: “Thus hath he lost sixpence a day during his life: he could not have ‘scaped sixpence a day.
And the Duke had not given him sixpence a day for playing Pyramus, I’ll be hanged” (Shakespeare 122). The obvious repetition here also signifies the awkwardness and narrow-mindedness of the mechanicals. Their personalities are also involved in the creation of the remarkable comedy. Except for their illiteracy, simple and narrow mindedness and their awkwardness, the artisans have more traits that build their image of comic characters. Nick Bottom, for example, is a overconfident weaver, who is the central figure in the plot of the story.
He has an incredible belief in his abilities and skills and pretends to dominate over the other mechanicals. Bottom does not accept the fact that he is illiterate and therefore his confused words make him sound ridiculous. He loves to exaggerate and over-dramatize, praising his own self-esteem. The weaver does not realize that the others are not taking him seriously and is not aware of his foolishness. His image may seem absurd and worthy of pity, but it also gains the public’s attention and sympathy. In this way the audience is in the same time laughing at his words and perceiving them as something honest and simple.
Bottom is always ready to undertake anything that would make him important. From the play it can be derived that he developed a complex of inferiority, which, nonetheless, does not seem dispiriting but comic. When Peter Quince is giving out the roles for “Pyramus and Thisbe” Bottom is repeatedly showing his will to act for everyone. After every single role is announced, he is awkwardly trying to portray himself as the most appropriate actor for it: “That will ask some tears in the true performing of it. If I do it, let the audience look to their eyes: I will move storms, I will condole, in some measure.
”( Shakespeare 65). There is an interesting comic reference here to one of the main themes of the play, the use of one’s eyes in love. This is evidence that the story of the amateur actors is representative of the whole play and the humor used is relevant to the main course of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Finally, Bottom is assigned the role of Pyramus, who is “a lover that kills himself, most gallant, for love”. There is an obvious contradiction between the images of the mechanical and Pyramus, which adds funny absurdity to the comedy.
“Gallant” is probably the least appropriate description of the tall and clumsy craftsman. Bottom’s confidence often diminishes the role of Peter Quince, another character that entertains the public through his speech and attitude toward the future performance. He is an ordinary carpenter who is not experienced in anything else than his craft. He tries to be the leader of the group that is attempting to put together the play “Pyramus and Thisbe”. Even though his directions are respected, they usually meet the disapproval of the other artisans.
Peter Quince takes advantage of the short-mindedness of his fellows and comes up with irrational justifications of his decisions, which, nonetheless, seem true to the craftsmen: “That’s all one: you shall play it in a mask, and you may speak as small as you will. ” (66 Shakespeare); “You can play no part but Pyramus; for Pyramus is a sweet-faced man, a proper man as one shall se in a summer’s day, a most lovely, gentlemanlike man” (68 Shakespeare). This is how Peter Quince succeeds in convincing Bottom that he is perfect for the role of Pyramus – using his high self- esteem and need to be granted recognition.
Peter Quince further contributes to the comedy by selecting Francis Flute, a bellows-mender, for the role of Thisbe. Even before the actual performance, the audience imagines how the ordinary craftsman is speaking in a “small” voice, wearing a mask which is supposed to hide his beard. Flute’s determination to overcome his sense of masculinity, which is ridiculed in the play, is a remarkable sacrifice for the success of the performance. His extreme readiness fascinates the public and presents the seriousness of the artisans. Also from this scene it can be derived that the craftsmen are putting all their efforts into the performance.
Robin Starveling, first chosen to play Thisbe’s mother, readily accepts his role, which would make him more than an ordinary tailor. Later on in the play, he is assigned the role of the moonshine, which does not discourage him. The same comic enthusiasm is also shared by Tom Snout, the thinker who is chosen to play Pyramus’s father but later on receives the role of the wall separating Pyramus and Thisbe. Together with Snug, the joiner chosen to play a lion, they both feel they have significant parts in the performance, and every one of them is concerned about his role.
For instance, Snug is worried that his roaring may frighten the ladies in the audience. He is determined that his acting will convince the public that he is a real lion and the other craftsmen agree with him. Their funny concerns are followed by even more comic solutions – there will be a Prologue who will reveal the true personalities of the craftsmen before the performance, and Snug will show a part of his face to comfort the ladies in the audience. In this way the suspense of the whole performance will be ruined, but the artisans are afraid that their acting skills may be too sophisticated.
The craftsmen’s low level of education, short and narrow mindedness and awkward speech play a great role in the development of the comedy. They are all ordinary characters, from the low working class who have one and the same goal – to achieve something remarkable and worthy of respect. Despite their comic lack of sophistication, they succeed in entertaining the audience in another, more original and funny way. The play of “Pyramus and Thisbe” is a tragedy but their performance can be more precisely defined as a tragic comedy.
The actual performance is played during the celebrations of Theseus’s marriage and even though it is inappropriate for such occasion, it turns out to be successful. In the beginning the audience is confused by the strange and amateur acting, but finally the craftsmen appear to be the culmination of the whole festival. The performance is welcomed by a “flourish of trumpets”, which are very inappropriate for the following fiasco. There is a distinct comic contrast between the flourish of the trumpets, usually meant to signify a glamorous work, and the impressions following the play.
Peter Quince, taken the role of the Prologue, confidently steps onto the scene and starts reading from the scroll, unintentionally changing its meaning by mistaking its punctuation: “That you should think, we come not to offend, but with good will. To show our simple skill, that is the true beginning of our end. ” Although this seems funny to the reader, the audience in the play is first confused by the illiteracy of the Prologue: This fellow doth not stand upon points” (Shakespeare 129), meaning that he is not “punctilious”.
At first, Theseus is embarrassed by the awkward performance of Quince and wonders if there is a reason for his mistakes. Without being worried about his weak performance, the determined craftsman continues his important speech, full of comic sentences, as “he bravely breached his boiling bloody breast”. The true meaning of “breached” is actually stabbed but Shakespeare uses this word to create a comic alliteration. After the Prologue has reassured the audience, the reader encounters another comic effect of the play – the characteristics of the Wall, played by Snout.
It is intentionally described as alive and moving: “Wall parts its fingers” (Shakespeare 130). The Wall is personified which makes the whole performance even more ridiculous and funny. As the other craftsmen, Snug also wants to be noticed in the performance and thus overacts, making his role more than absurd. Robin Starveling and Snug, acting as the moonshine and the lion, also take their parts more seriously than they should have and contribute to the comic tragedy that the play “Pyramus and Thisbe” eventually becomes. The audience, although confused by the whole performance, is entertained and the efforts of the craftsmen are justified.
They reached their goal of producing something for which they will be acknowledge and respected, even though their intentions were not fulfilled. The story of the artisans performing the play “Pyramus and Thisbe” contains plenty of humor devices and comic scenes, which make it representative of Shakespearean comedies in many ways. First of all the small play represents the struggle of young lovers to overcome the difficulties set by the circumstances in pursue of their feelings, which is a typical theme for a tragedy, but after the performance it is also associated with humor and comedy.
Furthermore, the amateur actors represent the illiteracy of the low class. Shakespeare recognizes the importance of this widespread for the particular time period problem, but in the same time he portrays the comic part of it and praises the artisans’ strive to achieve something meaningful. By his usage of humor he is not criticizing the artisans; he rather justifies their difficulties with grammar and expression in general. The play “Pyramus and Thisbe” is not a lyrical digression from the main topic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
It presents another outcome of the situation with the lovers, more undesirable and lacking a happy end. Shakespeare produces a play within the play to further entertain the audience and show the comedic character of his work. Another interpretation of the story of “Pyramus and Thisbe” may be the initial intention of Shakespeare to write a tragedy, not a comedy. By the time he writes A Midsummer Nights Dream, he has mastered to an extent the tragic genre, and feels more comfortable producing such pieces of literature. The occasion though, a marriage celebration, requires from him to create a rather entertaining work.
Maybe through the incorporation of the small play, Shakespeare implies that his original idea was to create another tragedy. He does not allow the audience to feel the tragic nature of “Pyramus and Thisbe” by using a great deal of humor in it. Even though Shakespeare produces A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a period of time when people are not concerned about art and literature, but about their survival, the play has great success ever since then. The conventional humor used to portray the lovers’ struggles seems untouched by time and the evolving human way of thinking.
Four centuries after it was written, the work still fascinates with its characteristics and mechanisms. Comedies are generally a very hard genre because what is funny today may not be funny at all tomorrow. Despite that fact, Shakespeare’s genius manages to create a universal humor, using comical devices that are still interesting and entertaining. By those devices he creates a parallel world where time is a relative term and where humor and laughter are the driving forces – world where people are entertained in spite of the social norms and rules. Bibliography Biscay, Matt. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Comedy. ” Skyminds.
net. 2006. Skyminds. net. 08 Nov 2006 . Mahony, Simon. “Simon Mahony Academic Stuff. ” Pyramus and Thisbe in Shakespeare and Ovid. 2002. King’s College London. 5 Nov 2006 . McFarland, Thomas. Shakespeare’s Pastoral Comedy. North Carolina, USA: The University of North Carolina Press, 1972. Parrot, Thomas. Shakespearean Comedy. New York, USA: Russel & Russel, 1962. Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 2003. Editor: Brian Gibbons. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Teague, Francis. Acting Funny: Comic Thoery and Practice in Shakespeare’s Plays. London: Associated University Presses, 1994.
University/College: University of California
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 20 September 2016
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