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In Act 4, scene 1 of William Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bottom, a commoner who has been turned into an ass, awakens from sleep and believes he has dreamed that he became an ass. As he awakens, he comments,
. . . man is but an ass, if he go
about to expound this dream. 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
This passage employs a number of literary devices, including the following:
- a pun on the word “ass,” which here means “fool” but which can also refer to a donkey. Since Bottom has just recently been turned into a donkey, his claim that “man is but an ass” is comically truer than he realizes.
- an allusion, in the word “dream,” to the title of the entire play, thus showing that Bottom can sometimes express wit without realizing that he is doing so.
- anaphora, or repetition of words at the beginnings of lines or sentences, as in the “Methought I was” phrases here. These phrases, and the hesitation they involve, imply Bottom’s astonishment and confusion at his supposed dream. He tries to explain his thoughts, but he cannot find the words to express himself clearly.
- bawdy implication, as when Bottom refers to what he thought he “had” when he was a donkey – a statement that is often played for its comically erotic possibilities.
- Biblical allusion, as in the phrasing “The eye of man hath not heard,” etc., which is often heard as an allusion to 1 Corinthians 2:9: “But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” Critics have interpreted this allusion in various ways, but the fact that there is an allusion to the Bible here seems indisputable.
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