Illustration of a donkey-headed musician in between two white trees

A Midsummer Night's Dream

by William Shakespeare
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What is the role of the mechanicals in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream?

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The main role of the mechanicals in A Midsummer's Night Dream is to provide comic relief, which is often the case with lower class characters in Shakespeare's plays.

The mechanicals are six working men—Puck notes with contempt in Act III that they have to "work for bread upon Athenian stalls"—who do society's rough labor for low wages. They are not terribly well-educated or knowledgable about the finer points of acting, but they hope to make names for themselves performing the play Pyramis and Thisbe at the Duke of Athen's wedding.

Picking Pyramis and Thisbe is a comic choice from the start to celebrate a marriage, as it is a tragic tale of doomed lovers (and a source for Romeo and Juliet). Events then get even more complicated when the mechanicals enter the upside-down world of the forest on Midsummer's Eve. A magic spell gives Bottom an ass's head, and a love potion means that Titiania, queen of the fairies, falls in love with him, head and all, and dotes upon him.

At the end of the play, the fumbling antics and foolishness of the mechanicals as they perform Pyramis and Thisbe adds a comic touch to the wedding.

Overall, the mechanicals take the audience's mind for a time away from the fraught love dynamics of the upper-class main characters while communicating the ways love can make no sense (as in the pairing of Bottom and Titania). Through their play, they provide as well a counter-narrative that reminds us, if light-heartedly, of the reality that love can come to a tragic end.

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The group of working men called the “rude mechanicals” have a subversive function in the play. Supposedly serving to provide farce or slapstick comedy, they serve to remind the audience that inborn status is not linked to merit or virtue. They also remind the audience not to take themselves too seriously. In contrast, they also highlight the deeper messages of love, fidelity, and trust that William Shakespeare weaves into the whole play.

One of the rustics’ functions is to comment on the role of the theater. In this respect, they help Shakespeare poke fun at himself and his vocation. This mockery fits in well with the light-hearted, comedic aspect of the play.

The mechanicals get together to rehearse what they consider a drama. Pyramus and Thisbe’s theme of true love (similar to Romeo and Juliet) is seriously considered, but their enthusiasm cannot make up for their lack of skill, so their play unwittingly turns into farce.

The theme of love is also important in the magically contrived relationship between Bottom, turned into an ass, and Titania. Although she is a noble and mighty queen, she is as fully susceptible to spells as any lower mortal. Puck’s fun at making her love a hideous-looking social inferior helps the viewer recall that royalty is not exempt from falling into emotional traps.

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A Midsummer Night's Dream's "rude mechanicals," have, first of all, a very practical purpose for Shakespeare's own audience, which was actually several audiences in one. The "groundlings," those who stood on the ground before the stage, and consisted of uneducated and "lower class" individuals, expected each play to have at least an element of what we would now call slapstick comedy, with physical antics, ribald allusions, and silly costumes. The "mechanicals," who work with their hands, "and never labored in their minds till now," represent these audience members on stage, and even if Shakespeare makes fun of them, in the person of Bottom and his crew, they triumph in the end.

"Midsummer" makes use of several "worlds" to explore the sublime ridiculousness of love, and in the mechanicals' world, we are treated to not only ass-headed Bottom's hilarious adoration by a love-potion-addled Queen of the Fairies, but the mechanicals' own absolutely incomparable depiction of "tragic" love in the play within the play, "Pyramus and Thisbe." Even after more than 400 years, "P&T" (and the on-stage audience's response to it) is one of the funniest things ever written.

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The role of the mechanicals is to support two of Shakespeare's central themes in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The two themes are the foolishness of mankind and reality vs. illusion.

We especially see the mechanicals presenting the theme of foolishness in Puck's reaction to their rehearsal. Puck rightly sees that the mechanicals are too uneducated and inexperienced to present a well-performed play, as we see in Puck's line, "What hempen home-spuns have we swagg'ring here" (III.i.70). Not only have they thought of ridiculous solutions to there problems with the play's set, such as having actors play the part of the wall and the moon, they are all bungling up their lines. One example is a line Bottom delivers just before Puck turns him into a donkey, "Thisbe, the flowers of odious savors sweet--" (75). Clearly, odious is the wrong word because it means repulsive or disgusting. Obviously it does not make sense to compare Thisbe to flowers that smell disgustingly. It is this sort of lack of education, coupled with Bottom's conceit, that inspires Puck to turn Bottom into a donkey, proving just what a fool Bottom truly is. Later, Puck expands his judgement of Bottom to include all mankind in his famous line, "Lord, what fools these mortals be!," showing us that the mechanicals help portray Shakespeare's theme that all mankind is foolish (III.ii.116).

The mechanicals also serve the role of portraying the theme illusion vs. reality. The mechanicals have an illusion of putting on a grand performance, but the reality is, as we see, that they are too uneducated and too unskilled. Not only do the mechanicals portray the theme illusion vs. reality, they are the only characters in the play who allow their own reality to be manipulated by their illusions. All other characters have their realities manipulated for them or despite them. They manipulate their own reality by allowing fantasies of their performance cloud their reality; then, when reality hits, we see that the mechanicals' performance is sadly criticized by the royal audience. Hence, we see through the mechanicals that reality is oftentimes influenced by illusion.

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