Taking a closer look at Shakespeare’s Bottom

by Ben Vardy | 1 September 2016

One of William Shakespeare’s best loved plays is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Written towards the beginning of his career as a playwright, its tangle of befuddled lovers, set against the mysterious majesty of the forest spirits, creates a rich world that is both familiar in its humanity as well as mesmerising in its sense of magic. However, aside from the lovers and the various members of the fairy kingdom, there is another set of characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream whose sub-plot runs parallel to the other two main storylines: that of the Mechanicals. The Mechanicals are a group of skilled tradesmen who throughout the action of the play rehearse and perform a piece of theatre of their own called The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe. They are rehearsing this play in order to perform it as part of the celebrations for the wedding of Duke Theseus of Athens and Hippolyta, the Amazonian Queen. The production of Pyramus and Thisbe is an example of a device often referred to as a “play within a play” and this convention can be found in several of Shakespeare’s other works, such as the performances acted out by the players in Hamlet and the rustics in Love’s Labours Lost.

These Mechanicals (so called because when they are not acting, they work as skilled labourers: carpenters, weavers and tailors etc) are very earnest in their attempt to put on a tragic play for the royal wedding. However, in their rehearsals and final performance, they are often laughably and loveably amateurish, their lines filled with mistakes and mix-ups, and their rehearsals laden with obscure and absurd worries.

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