Bottom, Character Profile
How does this entry relate to Flux's full production of A Midsummer Night's Dream?
(Christina Shipp as Bottom. Photo by Isaiah Tanenbaum)
Ah, Bottom...how I dote on thee! Misprized most of Shakespeare's creations, you are so often played as a series of bits and attitudes: they make you the pompous blow-hard tearing a cat, bumbling over malapropisms, braying like an Ass, possessed (as the critics would have it), of an 'invincible ignorance'.
Well...yes. And yet if that were all, how diminished a play Midsummer would be!
For Bottom is deeply respected by his peers as an artist: Flute says he has "simply the best wit of any handy craft man in Athens" and Quince goes further: "and the best person too". He is problem-solver, the one everyone looks to when there is something impossible that must be done. And like any artist who has not yet found his six pence a day, he is utterly committed to making it.
Through this lens, his overbearing behavior in the first scene is less comic arrogance than the behavior of a perfectionist; an artist who will play every role if that's what it takes to make the play work.
And through this lens, those first scenes stay funny, but more deeply so because I myself, and so many of us who strive in this theatre world, are not all that different; necessity has us playing many roles and we must believe we can carry them off, because if we do not, the play does not go forward. We are all trying to find a way to let the moon shine in so we can make our six pence a day. And if these first scenes are played with the urgency of a perfectionist determined at all costs to make something beautiful; there is a deeper journey that begins to take shape.
If Bottom's Ass head merely reveals what we already knew about him - he is an ass- then the joke is little more than a sight gag. But if we believe that in these first scenes, Bottom is something else, than the ass head is not an obvious reveal, but a subtler transformation.
Because sexual desire is about to become such a huge part of Bottom's life, it is worth asking what his relationship to sex and love have been before this. Judging from his behavior in the previous scenes (more interested in the tyrant than the lover), and in the moment of meeting Titania (trying to run from her at first), we can assume that desire is not a regular part of Bottom's day; except for his desire for the theatre:
When my cue comes, call me, and I will answer.
He even dreams of the theatre. This overwhelming desire for theatre has perhaps kept our Weaver from having too many significant sexual relationships; Bottom lives in a world of his imagination, playing Ercles in his mind as he works over his loom. He may not be educated, he may stumble wonderfully over words; but he is not stupid, and he is sincerely driven.
He is an artist of the mind who is about to become an animal of the body. Now, Puck's transformation takes on more significance. Bottom now becomes a creature of appetite, begging to be scratched and fed.
But this transformation is not the most significant of Bottom's journey. Titania promises:
I will purge thee of thy mortal grossness so,
That thou shalt like an airy spirit go.
There is no reason not to take her at her word. We do not see this purgation because Shakespeare doesn't stage everything that happens in their bower. But if we imagine what sex (if that's even the right word) with this Goddess might be like; if we imagine that this Titania, (whose every mood echoes out to change the weather, whose every whim changes the fabric of nature) does indeed through their intercourse purge him of his mortal grossness; if Bottom, for even a moment, does like an airy spirit go; then his final epiphany takes on a larger significance:
Methought I was, there is no man can tell what.
Methought I was, and methought I had.
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.
Normally, this is played as if Bottom is unaware that he is mixing up the eyes and ears of the bible quote. But what if it is deliberate? After all, no one is stupid enough to think that eyes hear; and while one accidental slip is possible; a string of them can only be deliberate.
So if we take Bottom at his word, then he has had an experience that can only be described if eyes could hear, if ears could see, if touch had taste, if taste could speak, and above all; only if the heart itself had language; only then could Bottom explain what happened; then this is something more than just becoming an ass, which after all, is bizarre but could be explained. This is also something more than the scenes we've seen, both pre and post coital with Titania. Bottom is talking about something we didn't see because we couldn't; Bottom is trying to explain what it feels like to have your mortal grossness purged; he is trying to say what it feels like to be an airy spirit.
Then something fantastic happens: Bottom realizes he can't tell us, but he might be able to put it into a play:
I will get Peter Quince to write a ballet of this dream, it shall be called Bottom's Dream, because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the latter end of a play, before the Duke.
(It is, in fact, ballet - which meant something like ballad to Shakespeare's audience, and so is usually changed to that - though there is something lovely in keeping it as is - as if only dance, and song, could express what happened)
Not only lovely because Bottom is expressing the transformation wrought by his new desire through the medium of his old desire, fusing his old and news selves, but even more lovely because of this haunting phrase:
it shall be called Bottom's Dream, because it hath no bottom
It hath no bottom: in this moment, Bottom is saying both that the dream was limitless and that he wasn't in it - his self was there and not there - he was purged of his mortal grossness and so became something limitless at the cost of his self.
Heady stuff, and dangerous to the playing of it; but the play's center of gravity is here, and all the choices we make in this production ripple out from it.
Then Bottom says:
Peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall sing it at her death.
What, and who, can he possibly mean? Whose death? Thisby's? Hippolyta's? Or Titania's? If Thisby's, why does he say "latter end of a play" instead of "the play"? If Hippolyta, why is he imagining the death of the new Duchess?
If it is Titania, then Bottom's "methought I had" may mean more than just a pair of ass-ears, or as many Bottom's mime it, a bigger dick. "Methought I had" could mean Titania herself, and he may imagine singing it to her in this ballad called Bottom's dream, at her 'death', which is his waking.
In the course of a night, our Weaver has gone from an artist trapped in his head to an animal in love with his body to an airy spirit purged of his mortal grossness, and he is determined to tell that story the only way he knows how, through theatre. And yes, he is ridiculous, but the laughter of wonder and empathy is richer than the easy mocking laughter that so often attends the role. And if, with wonder and empathy, we go with him all the way through these transformations, than we are brought to the heart of a mystery that hath no bottom.