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A Midsummer Night's Dream

by William Shakespeare

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What are two examples of puns in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream?

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Puns in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream include a play on Bottom's name, the manipulation of the meanings of the word “ass,” and wordplay with the words “die” and “ace.”

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Before beginning a search for puns in William Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, consider providing a definition of pun, so that one knows what one is looking for. A pun occurs when someone uses one word to playfully express an alternate meaning.

One example of a pun arrives early on in Shakespeare’s play. In act 1, scene 1, Helena reflects on how, once upon a time, Demetrius expressed love for her. According to Helena,

For ere Demetrius look'd on Hermia's eyne,

He hail'd down oaths that he was only mine;

And when this hail some heat from Hermia felt,

So he dissolved, and showers of oaths did melt.

The “hail” could be considered a pun because it plays on the meaning of hail. Demetrius did not literally subject Helena to a storm of freezing rain. Their prior relationship was not really the result of inclement weather. Yet, via a pun, Helena is making it seem like Demetrius's avowals of love were tantamount to a shower of frozen rain that, like his love, eventually dissolved, melted, and moved on.

For a second example of a pun in Shakespeare’s play, think about how some of the character names are possibly puns in themselves. Puck could be a play on the word pluck, which might be why he has the courage and agility to carry out his various tricks. More so, Bottom seems to suggest butt or behind, which might be why his character is rather vulnerable to being tricked.

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Shakespeare is a master of wordplay, and one of his specialties is puns, which apply multiple meanings of a word in creative and humorous ways. He incorporates several puns into A Midsummer Night's Dream, and one of the most obvious is Bottom's name. Bottom is a weaver, and his name is associated with his profession, but it can also refer to a person's rear end. Since another slang term for that part of one's anatomy is “ass,” we can easily see where Shakespeare is going with this. Bottom literally turns into an ass (a donkey) during the play—or at least, his head becomes a donkey's head. What's more, Bottom is more than a little bit foolish, so the term “ass” applies well to him in that sense, too.

Bottom himself plays on the word “ass” in act 3, scene 1, when he says, “I see their knavery: this is to make an ass of me; / to fright me, if they could.” Well, someone is certainly going to make an “ass” out of Bottom (or at least out of his head) before the play is over, and he is also made to look extremely ridiculous more than once. The word works on two levels, and the prediction comes true in two very different, and very comical, ways.

Later in the play, other characters also have some fun with a variation on this pun. Bottom is playing the role of Pyramus in the mechanicals' play within a play, and he recites the line “Now die, die, die, die, die” as he pretends to stab himself. Demetrius, apparently feeling somewhat snide, remarks, “No die, but an ace, for him; for he is but one.” How right he is! Demetrius is playing off the word “die,” which can refer to a single dice, but he is also making another pun with the word “ass,” for “ace” was pronounced like “ass” in Shakespeare's day. Bottom, Demetrius implies, is both an original (there is only one of him!) and a fool, but little did he know that the weaver was even a donkey at one point.

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In Act Five, Scene One of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Theseus asserts, "No die, but an ace for him," while watching the Pyramus and Thisbe play. This is a pun (although not necessarily one that translates well into modern English!) because "ace" used to be pronounced like "ass"; thus, Theseus is unknowingly playing off the fact that Nick Bottom--who is now playing Pyramus--had been turned into a donkey earlier in the text.

In Act Two, Scene Two, Lysander responds to Hermia's request to "Lie further off yet, do not lie so near," by riffing off of "lie": "For lying so, Hermia, I do not lie." This is a pun in that Hermia meant one definition of "lie" (to physically lay down somewhere), whereas Lysander is using the word to testify to his own faithfulness. 

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We see a couple of different puns spoken by the mechanicals. One pun is seen in Act 3, Scene 1 after Puck has changed Bottom's head into the head of a donkey. Bottom speaks one pun in the phrase "you see an ass-head" (III.i.109). This phrase has a double meaning. Figuratively, seeing an "ass-head" means seeing a "figment of your own imagination." However, it refers to a double meaning in that Snout is indeed looking at Bottom and indeed seeing an ass's head instead of Bottom's own head.

A second pun can be found in Quince's line, "Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee! Though art translated" (111). The word "translated" means to "change in form [or] nature," showing us that Quince is recognizing that Bottom has indeed been changed ( However, "translated" also has a linguistic meaning to refer to one language being changed into another. Bottom is a weaver, and the name can refer to the bottom, or skein, that yarn is wound around. However, "bottom" can also refer to backside, and the slang term ass can also refer to backside. Hence, when Quince is referring to Bottom as being "translated" he is also pointing out that the meaning of Bottom's name has now clearly been changed to refer to backside, or the slang term ass.

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What are examples of wordplay in A Midsummer Night's Dream?

The literary devices used by Shakespeare throughout A Midsummer Night's Dream includes notable examples of witty, clever wordplay in the form of puns, malapropisms, and oxymorons.

The "rude mechanicals"—local craftspersons including Peter Quince, the carpenter; Snug, the joiner; Nick Bottom, the weaver; Francis Flute, the bellows-mender; Tom Snout, the tinker; and Robin Starveling, the tailor—are the source of many puns, malapropisms, and oxymorons in the play.

A pun is used to suggest two or more possible meanings of the same or similar-sounding words.

One of the most famous puns in the play occurs in act 3, scene 1. Puck has magically changed Bottom's head into the head of an ass (a donkey). When Bottom's friends first see him after his transformation, they run away from him in fright.

BOTTOM. I see their knavery: this is to make an ass of me;
to fright me, if they could. (3.1.112-113)

Bottom thinks that they're trying to make a fool (an ass) of him, when, in fact, he really looks like an ass (a donkey).

In act 5, scene 1, Shakespeare beats this same pun nearly to death. The mechanicals are performing a play for Duke Theseus entitled Pyramus and Thisbe. Near the end of the play, Pyramus believes that his lover, Thisbe, has been killed by a lion, and Pyramus decides to kill himself,

PYRAMUS. (stabbing himself repeatedly) Now die, die, die, die, die.

DEMETRIUS. No die, but an ace, for him; for he is but one.

LYSANDER. Less than an ace, man; for he is dead; he is

THESEUS. With the help of a surgeon he might yet recover
and yet prove an ass. (5.1.304-309)

During Shakespeare's time "ace" was pronounced to sound like "ass." The pun is doubly comic because Bottom—whose head was turned into an ass's head by Puck—is playing the role of Pyramus.

There is also a pun on die, meaning that the die (one of a pair of dice), has no dots on it, and is basically worthless.

A malapropism in the substitution of a word by a similar sounding word that has a different and often unrelated meaning. Bottom is the master of malapropisms, which he uses throughout the play.

BOTTOM. I will aggravate my voice so... (1.2.74)

He means that he will "modulate" or "moderate" his voice.

BOTTOM. We will meet; and there we may rehearse most
obscenely and courageously. (1.2.97-98)

Bottom means that they will rehearse "obscurely," in secret.

BOTTOM. (as Pyramus) Thisbe, the flowers of odious savours sweet... (3.1.75)

He means to say that the flowers give off an "odorous," pleasant smell, not an "odious" or extremely unpleasant smell.

BOTTOM. (as Pyramus) Since lion vile hath here deflower'd my dear... (5.1.290)

Bottom means to say "devoured," not that the lion has taken Thisbe's virginity.

Quince utters a phrase in which a word serves as a malapropism and a pun.

QUINCE. Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee! Thou art translated. (3.1.111)

Quince means to say that Bottom is "transformed," but "translated" can also mean that Bottom's name can be taken in another sense—that of a person's backside—the slang term of which is "ass."

An oxymoron is the use of contradictory words in the same phrase or sentence, which, nevertheless, makes an odd sort of sense.

QUINCE. Marry, our play is, The Most Lamentable Comedy
and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe. (1.2.11-12)

BOTTOM. An I may hide my face, let me play Thisbe too. I'll
speak in a monstrous little voice... (1.2.46-47)

HIPPOLYTA. ...I never heard
So musical a discord, such sweet thunder... (4.1.117-118)

Shakespeare uses a pun previously mentioned—"I will aggravate my voice so" (1.2.74)—and expands on that pun with malapropisms.

BOTTOM. but I will aggravate my voice so, that I
will roar you as gently as any sucking dove; I will roar
you an't were any nightingale. (1.2.74-76)

In act 5, Theseus is given written descriptions of performances from which Theseus can choose to be presented at his wedding, including a brief description of Pyramus and Thisbe.

THESEUS. ... ‘A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus
And his love Thisbe; very tragical mirth.’
Merry and tragical! tedious and brief!
That is hot ice and wondrous strange snow.
How shall we find the concord of this discord? (5.1.60-64)

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