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In a Mid Summer Night's Dream, the character Nick Bottom is given a rather prominent role in the several scenes he appears in, although he is not a lead character in the play. Bottom is unique from all the other characters of the play not only because of the considerable contribution his character brings to the comedic value of the play, but because he is the only character able to enter fully in to both the human world and the world of the fairies. In this paper I will examine the character of Nick Bottom, and provide some analysis into the motives behind this humorous character's strange ways.
The initial aspect one notices about Nick Bottom's personality is his enthusiasm for acting. From the introduction of the Mechanicals (1.2) when Peter Quince is assigning the roles of the play (The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe) to each of the characters, Bottom enthusiastically volunteers to play every role as they are being assigned to the other characters. This eagerness is clearly demonstrated when the second and third characters of their play (Thisbe and the Lion) are assigned. Bottom jumps in to each conversation, saying, "An I may hide my face, let me play Thisbe too." (1.2. 45), and "Let me play the Lion too.
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The confidence Bottom has in his acting ability is clearly unquestioned to him and to the audience, which may be perceived as ridiculous or silly. Bottom seems to have the ability to envision the characters he wishes to portray as a real professional actor would. He describes his Lion, " I will discharge it in either your straw-color beard, your orange-tawny beard, your purple-in-grain beard, or you French-crown-color beard, your perfect yellow."(1.2.83-85). Bottom does display the imagination and ability to envision the role of the character as it should be played, but because he lacks the talent of a true professional, he is unable to deliver such a performance.
Bottoms misuse of words throughout the play is another example of how he adds to the comedic value of the play. The frequent reoccurrence of these mistakes gives the impression that perhaps Bottom is attempting to depict himself as a person of higher social status, or seem more intelligent than he really is. On more than one occasion he uses words that contradict what he is trying to describe, "Ah speak in a monstrous little voice" (1.2.47). This only adds to the notion that perhaps his arrogance as a serious actor is unmerited and brings to question the level of his talent.
The placement of the scenes involving Bottom seem to be an intentional move by Shakespeare to serve as a comedic device intended to alter or lighten the mood of the play in that particular scene. In the first act, the scene in which Bottom is included in follows a long woeful rant by Helena about her misfortune. In this case the mood is shifted instantaneously from sympathy for poor Helena to laughter for Bottom and the other mechanicals at their seemingly futile attempts at organizing themselves enough to begin practicing.
The next instance is at the beginning of the third act, when the mechanicals enter the forest to begin rehearsal. This is the scene in which Bottom's transformation occurs, and sets up his entrance into the fairy world. When Bottom awakens from the fairy world in the fourth act, he realizes he has had a unique experience, one that is beyond description. This is in contrast to the previous scene in which the lovers all seem to be unaware of what caused them to act as they did throughout the previous night. The lovers are unaware of the events that transpired the night before, which led to their current situation.
The most significant scene that involves Bottom is the scene in which his metamorphosis into the "ass" occurs, and the affair with Titania, which follows (3.1). The most notable point in this scene is when Bottom leaves the human world and enters in to the fairy world. He is the only character in the play that has this ability. The biggest surprise is the relative ease with which Bottom's transformation in to an ass occurs, and the fact he enters the fairy without question as to what is going on. Bottom meets the beautiful fairy queen Titania, who has apparently fallen in love with him. He receives royal treatment from Titania and her servants and, does not question how or why, simply blindly going along with it. It may be perceived as though he has had expectations of receiving this pampering (perhaps after becoming a star of the theatre) and settles in as if he had been receiving it all along.
The actual transformation from man to part ass seems to fit with Bottom's personality. It may be a coincidence that the animal Robin Goodfellow transformed Bottom into was an ass, bit it also could be said that it is meant to reflect the naïve arrogance Bottom has continually exhibited throughout the play. The fact that he has no knowledge of his transformation into an ass seems to reveal the likeness between his personality and that of an ass.
The one instance in the play where Nick Bottom reaches a level of consciousness he has never reached before is after he awakens from his exit from the fairy world (4.1). He awakens and says, " I have had a dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was.... but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was."(4.1.202-210).
Bottom realizes that something profound has taken place, and there is no easy explanation for what he remembers has happened. The only way for this to be properly described to people is in the form of a ballad. In ballad form, people will be more open to the outlandish ideas that Bottom says have occurred over the course of the evening. The title he gives it, " 'Bottom's Dream', because it hath no bottom..." seems to show that Bottom has a true appreciation for what has happened and is able to put in perspective the uniqueness of this experience. Inevitably, Nick Bottom acts as a bridge to help the audience identify with what is taking place in both the real world of Athens and the fairy world within the forest.
As desperate as Bottom tries to present and maintain his persona in a serious and professional style, he ultimately is a victim of his own character flaws. As Peter Holland comments, "Bottom is foolish, vain, and arrogant; he is also gentle, lovable and admirable. The comedy lies in the disjunction between himself and the circumstances in which he finds himself, his existence beyond the bounds of his own competence."(81) Although he is naive, dumb, and nearly ridiculous, he still is a character the audience accepts and enjoys watching, because he brings such a breath of comic relief to the play. His proud yet gentle and bumbling nature appeals to most, as it should. Bottom is a character that will go down as one of Shakespeare's most beloved.