A Midsummer Night's Dream Questions and Answers
by William Shakespeare

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Explain the humor in these phrases from A Midsummer Night's Dream: "Marry, our play is the most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe." "An I may hide my face, let me play Thisbe too. I'll speak in a monstrous little voice." "We will meet, and there we may rehearse most obscenely and courageously."  

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The three phrases here all involve malapropisms, or similar mistakes about the meanings of words, leading to pronouncements which are nonsensical or unintentionally near the mark. A pure malapropism involves the substitution of a similar-sounding word for the correct one (e.g. "The Florida Everglades are full of allegories"). These three phrases may all contain malapropisms, but it is not always clear what the correct word would be.

In the first phrase, Quince refers to the play as a "lamentable comedy." The irony here is that he is right without knowing it. He presumably means that the play is a lamentable tragedy. In this case, the play would be lamentable because of the tragic events in it. However, the story of Pyramus and Thisbe in the version we see here is thoroughly comic, and lamentable only in the sense of being lamentably bad and poorly acted.

Bottom's plea to play Thisbe is in itself absurd, as he wants to act every part, making the play a one-man show. The way he expresses himself here is typical of his bizarre way of speaking, with completely inappropriate modifiers negating the primary meaning of what he says. The word "monstrous" is obviously opposed to his promise to speak in a little voice. Like Quince, however, he is more accurate than he intends to be, since his attempts to portray Thisbe really are monstrous.

The word "obscenely" is clearly not what Bottom intends in the third phrase. Perhaps he intends to say "obscurely," in the sense that their rehearsal will be unobserved. Once again, the description is comically accurate for their travesty of a tragedy.

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