Bottom and his fellow craftsmen are bubbly, animated and optimistic to a fault. With their amiable exuberance and whole-hearted cheerfulness, they are often seen as the most likeable characters in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. In terms of function, their presence serves to create humour and act as a foil to the upper echelons of Athenian society. With their play-within a play, Shakespeare also creates a parody of youthful impassioned love and a sturdy reminder of reality amidst all the magic and chaos in the forest.
Bottom and his fellow craftsmen with their good-humoured disposition create humour through their amusing malapropisms and unsophisticated poetry. For instance the craftsmen often use words out of context to hilarious results, like when Flute as Thisbe calls Pyramus ‘Jew’ when he probably meant jewel. To fully understand the humour here, one must realize that in Shakespearean times, Jews were widely loathed and thus would be the opposite of ‘jewel, thereby thoroughly tickling an Elizabethan audience. Another example of this is when Bottom as Pyramus mistakenly asks Thisbe to meet him at ‘Ninny’s’ instead of ‘Ninus’ Tomb’.
Here, a ninny refers to an imbecile, whereas Ninus’ refers to the legendary founder of Nineveh. Shakespeare’s audience would very likely have been able to pick this up and see the humour in it. On top of this, in Quince’s script, there appears to be a lot of forced rhyme, which in contrast to lilting verses of the fairies is quite brusquely funny. For example, ‘Jew’ is used in a desperate attempt to rhyme with ‘hue’, likewise with ‘brier’ and ‘tire’. Thus part of the comedy the craftsmen create lies in the very crudely constructed poetry.
Another way through which the Craftsmen create humour is through their pathetic attempts to perfect the play, which often seem to have the reverse effect. Firstly, even the title of their play is laughable: ‘The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe’. It is in itself an oxymoron and paradoxical, and reflect the craftsmen’s efforts (Quince in particular) to sound profound, which backfire because it sounds so nonsensical thereby amusing to the audience. The craftsmen’s fear that the ladies might be ‘afeared’ by the lion and would not be able to ‘abide’ seeing Pyramus ‘draw a sword to kill himself’.
Their baseless confidence that their acting would be so real that the ladies would fear conflicts with what the audience sees them as- bumbling craftsmen. This not only reveals their dimwittedness, which is undoubtedly funny, but also and honesty which endears them to the audience. The craftsmen also amplify the audience’s understanding of the different classes in Athens. In terms of language, the craftsmen adopt a more unrefined diction similar to prose, as compared to the more polished iambic pentameter that the Athenians use.
Compare for instance ‘Thrice-blessed they that master their blood’ that Theseus says, and Bottom’s more convoluted ‘And yet, to say the truth, reason and company keep little company together nowadays. ‘ Theseus’ line has a more distinct rhythm, whereas Bottom’s seem s to be just prose. Though both lines contain equally important messages, there is symbolism in Theseus’ words, for when he says ‘blood’ he actually means passions. On the other hand Bottom makes his statement plainly without embellishment.
This in turn also reflects how the Craftsmen, live plainly whereas the nobles such as Theseus live in excess, even having ‘a manager of mirth’ ‘to ease the anguish of a torturing hour’. Thus through the craftsmen, Shakespeare creates a more holistic society that not only comprises of the rich nobles, but the normal laymen which the Bottom and his comrades represent. Furthermore, Shakespeare uses the craftsmen and their play to create a parody of the romantic love seen in the earlier part of the play. The craftsmen’s play tells the story of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’, which is not so dissimilar from what the four Athenian lovers face in the woods.
Like Lysander and Hermia, Pyramus and Thisbe too face parental disapproval, and their decision to meet by ‘Ninus’ tomb’ at night, mirrors Hermia and Lysander’s decision to meet ‘ in the wood a league without the town’. Hence it is easy for the audience to make the link between ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ and Lysander and Hermia’s stories. The parody is most evident when Bottom and Thisbe begin exaggerated dramatizations of their love. For instance the incessant repetition of ‘O’, ‘O grim-looked night, O night with hue so black, O night… O night, O night’.
This is very reminiscent of Hermia and Lysander’s conversation ‘O cross!… O spite!… O hell! ‘. Because the craftsmen are such poor actors, their profession of love becomes hilarious, and through this, Shakespeare pokes fun at the young lovers for their tendency to exaggerate things and be overly dramatic. Also, Bottom and the other craftsmen also act as crucial reminder of reality in the entire play. With much of the play centred around the romantic entanglements of the young Athenians and fairy king and queen Oberon and Titania, it would be easy for the audience to get lost in the fluff of love and passion.
The craftsmen though, bring to the play more mundane issues that everyone faces in daily life such as bread and butter concerns. This is for example seen when Bottom went missing, Flute was worried he would not be able to get his ‘sixpence’ a day for playing Pyramus. When we are first introduced to the craftsmen, their name are accompanied with their job positions, like ‘Nick Bottom, the weaver’, placing emphasis again on more realistic and relevant issues like one’s occupation. Through small examples like these, Shakespeare subtly hints that love, for all its glamour and passions, in reality is not enough to sustain oneself.
Furthermore, the craftsmen see no major conflict in the play, even Bottom sees his encounter with Titania as a ‘dream’, and nothing of malicious intent. All this seems also to suggest that Shakespeare is implying that by living life simply like the mechanicals, conflict can be averted. Another way the craftsmen are a reminder of reality is seen through their play-within-a-play. As mentioned earlier, the play-within-a-play closely parallels the situations the Athenian youths faced in the woods.
However, the ending of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ was tragic, Pyramus stabbing himself with ‘bloody blameful blade’ and Thisbe committing suicide likewise. This serves to remind the audience that even though Lysander and Hermia as well as Demetrius and Helena end up ‘eternally… knit’, consummating their love, it could well have been a tragic ending for the four, with the two men intent on dueling each other in the woods. Hence Shakespeare uses the craftsmen to warn the young lovers, like the Athenians, in the audience not to take happy endings for granted, but instead to be prepared for worse by being grounded in reality like the craftsmen.
In conclusion, the craftsmen are very significant to the play as they give it a more holistic feel, encompassing not only the rich nobles but also the middle class workers whom the craftsmen represent. Furthermore, since ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is a comedy, the craftsmen’s contribution to the humour of the play is also very important. Shakespeare also uses the craftsmen and their play to poke fun at the young lovers for their ‘misprised moods’, as well as to warn the audience not to take happy endings for granted. Overall, the irrepressible craftsmen bring laughter, lessons and more laughter to ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.