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In Act 5, scene 1 of William Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Bottom, one of the comical commoners the play presents, is performing the role of Pyramus in a play about a tragic love story. The play is both badly written and badly acted, which is part of the fun of it. Bottom is an especially incompetent actor, especially when he speaks the following ridiculous lines:
O grim-look'd night! O night with hue so black!
O night, which ever art when day is not!
O night, O night! alack, alack, alack,
I fear my Thisby's promise is forgot!
And thou, O wall, O sweet, O lovely wall,
That stand'st between her father's ground and mine!
Thou wall, O wall, O sweet and lovely wall,
Show me thy chink, to blink through with mine eyne!
[Wall holds up his fingers]
Thanks, courteous wall: Jove shield thee well for this!
But what see I? No Thisby do I see.
O wicked wall, through whom I see no bliss!
Cursed be thy stones for thus deceiving me!
These lines display a variety of effective (or comically ineffective) literary techniques, including the following:
- anaphora, in which lines begin with the same word or phrases, as in the heavily repeated “O” of the first three lines and the “O night” of lines 2 and 3.
- repetition, which appears especially in the first three lines. Such heavy repetition implies the writer’s lack of inventiveness and imagination (and thus implies, by contrast, the possession of these very qualities by Shakespeare).
- alternating rhyme, which is used at the ends of all the quoted lines and which in this case helps give the passage a very contrived, artificial, and even mechanical sound.
- exclamations, which are signaled by all the exclamation marks and which help give this passage a tone of over-wrought and exaggerated emotion because they are used so frequently.
- internal rhyme, which appears in the phrase “Show me thy chink, to blink,” and which implies the incompetence of the supposed author of these lines.
- oxymoron, or a contradiction in terms, as when the wall is called “courteous.” Normally a wall would never be called courteous because walls have no feelings or manners, but in this case the wall is being played by another person. Similarly oxymoronic is the later reference to the wall as “wicked.”
- punning, or playing on words, as in the closing reference to “stones,” which is often read as a reference to the testicles of the person playing the role of the wall.
- allusions to the classics, as in the reference to “Jove” (king of the Roman gods).
- alliteration, as in the reference to a “wicked wall.”
- monotonously predictable iambic pentameter meter, as in lines 2-7 here.
Almost all the techniques listed above help make this passage extraordinarily inept, contrived, and artificial. By emphasizing the crudity of the commoners’ play, Shakespeare helps point up the sophistication of his own; by highlighting the ridiculous amateurishness of the play-within-the-play, Shakespeare helps call attention to the professionalism of his own writing.
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