The principal reason the audience laughs at the “rude mechanicals” in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream instead of with them is that the mechanicals are the butt of Puck’s mischievous practical jokes. The “mechanicals,” of course, are actors set to put on a performance within Shakespeare’s play for the benefit of Theseus’s approaching nuptials with Hippolyta, queen of the Amazon. Puck, as we know, serves largely at the pleasure of Oberon, the king of the fairies, but is prone to miscalculations, the sum of which propel Shakespeare’s plot. The actors, or “mechanicals,” typify the degrading treatment to which actors the world over were routinely subjected. The profession, unlike today, was treated by much of society as beneath contempt. (Reportedly, during the early days of Hollywood, actors were held in such low esteem that hotels and inns would hang signs in their front windows discouraging such disreputable individuals from seeking shelter there, the signs stating “no dogs or actors allowed.”)
In Act III, Scene II of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon, who is conspiring against his wife, Titania, queen of the fairies, engages Puck in what could best be described as a covert action intended to wrest control of his wife’s Indian prince, whom the king of the fairies hopes to turn into a knight, away from her. Oberon’s instructions to Puck with respect to a love-making potion, the misapplication of which causes much of the play’s confusion, has created a situation in which the influence of Puck’s potion on Titania has resulted in her sudden and intense infatuation with Nick Bottom, one of the actors. Unbeknownst to Bottom, however, Puck, disdainful of the actor’s exceedingly dull personality, has changed his head to that of a donkey, which makes Titania’s passion for Bottom extremely unlikely. The relevant passage from Shakespeare’s play follows:
My mistress with a monster is in love.
Near to her close and consecrated bower,
While she was in her dull and sleeping hour,
A crew of patches, rude mechanicals,
That work for bread upon Athenian stalls,
Were met together to rehearse a play
Intended for great Theseus' nuptial-day.
The “monster” to whom Puck refers is Nick Bottom, whose head, as noted, was changed into that of a donkey by Puck. Bottom is unaware of his physical transformation, which makes his aloofness regarding Titania’s affections all the more comical. Consequently, the audience presumably laughs at the “rude mechanicals” rather than “with” them.