The character of Bottom in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is frequently foolish, but he is not a fool. His exuberance and energy are allied to practicality and resourcefulness, with an alarming lack of self-consciousness. He, at any rate, is not at all tongue-tied before the duke, as Theseus has known others to be. We do laugh at Bottom in many situations, but should note that these are situations in which any man might seem ridiculous: amateur theatricals are almost a byword for unintended comedy, whether in planning (1.2) rehearsal (3.1) or performance (5.1); any artisan afflicted with an ass's head and appetites, and beloved of the fairy queen would have difficulty retaining his dignity.
It is true that Bottom by his ambitious speech, his ignorance of music and poetry, and his homely outlook is even more comic than most men in these situations, however. Bottom is, we presume, competent at his craft, and is respected by his fellows. In their view only Bottom can carry off the demanding r"le of Pyramus. They admire his presence, panache and vocal power. Theseus's comment on his "passion" may suggest some exaggeration in the playing, and this would be in keeping with Bottom's character, but we need not suppose the lines are badly-spoken, so much as badly-written. "He that writ it" attracts the most censure from Theseus. It is difficult to see how, given these lines, Bottom could be anything but comic in the performance of the play. And Shakespeare has already indicated that "hard-handed men" who have "never laboured in their minds till now" cannot be expected to perform competently. Theatre should be left to professionals (Bottom would not expect an actor to be ...
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...haracteristics, but in the incongruity of this "mortal grossness", the grotesque, earthy and plain-speaking Bottom, and the beautiful, airy, eloquent and possibly dangerous fairy queen. The "bank whereon the wild thyme blows" and the beautiful fairy song "Philomel with lullaby", as well as the dainty morsels offered by Titania's servants - it is difficult to imagine a more alien creature to all this, than Bottom. We laugh at his ineptitude, at the incongruity of the situation, at the blatant illustration of the gulf between "reason and love"; we are disturbed by the indignity Titania undergoes, alarmed by the danger Bottom may be in, but reassured by his taking it in his stride.
Bottom is a comic counterpart to Theseus and to Oberon: the natural leader in his own world, to whom others defer. And when he encounters their worlds he more than holds his own.
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