The Bottom Translation Analysis

Jan Kott

The Bottom Translation

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

The Bottom Translation: Marlowe and Shakespeare and the Carnival Tradition is not so much a unified analysis of the “carnival tradition” in the work of William Shakespeare as a far-ranging continuation of Shakespeare Our Contemporary (1964). This is no cause for alarm or disappointment, though, because like that deeply influential study, The Bottom Translation is filled with illuminating, though often fleeting and loosely arranged, meditations on the art and thought of Shakespeare and several of his contemporaries. The essays collected here—on Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1604), Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1600) and The Tempest (1623), the plays of John Webster, and Ran, Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 film adaptation of King Lear (1608)—examine these works in their original setting but also collapse distinctions of time and place to view them as existing in a kind of continuing present moment. In this way, Jan Kott is able to disclose how the best dramatic art of the seventeenth century is simultaneously a commentary on earlier times, a reflection of its own, and an often harrowing premonition of centuries to come.

The use of the term “carnival tradition” in the subtitle is an acknowledgement of Kott’s large general debt to the writings of Mikhail Bakhtin, the Soviet scholar whose works are becoming more influential now that they are available in English translation. Although it is difficult to summarize Bakhtin’s subtle and often complicated theories about language, art, and society in a brief space, some knowledge of his central terms and concerns is useful as background to Kott’s approach to Renaissance drama. Kott draws especially from Rabelais and His World (begun in the 1930’s, published in 1965, and translated into English in 1968), in which Bakhtin defines “carnival” and the “carnivalesque” in opposition to official, authoritarian culture. Carnival stands for exuberance, freedom, gaiety, physical enjoyment, and the subversion or inversion of traditional laws, rituals, and habits. For Bakhtin, the riotous laughter and disorder of holidays represent not so much a social safety valve—a way for the lower classes to let off steam, preventing a possibly dangerous buildup of tensions and resentments—as an enactment of truly revolutionary impulses that at least for the moment fulfills basic, irrepressible human needs for liberty and laughter.

Bakhtin focuses primarily on the way this spirit of carnival animates François Rabelais’ novel Gargantua and Pantagruel (1567), but he makes clear that such an approach is vital to a full appreciation of many other works as well. Kott takes off from this point. Like C. L. Barber, whose Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom (1959) stands as a remarkable breakthrough in this field, he pays particular attention to the role of holiday customs and folk entertainments in various plays, but he goes beyond Barber to embrace all kinds of transgressions as part of the carnival spirit. For example, Kott spends much time discussing Doctor Faustus in Marlowe’s play as a magician and philosopher, but he notes that throughout the play, “There is seriousness in the laughter and laughter in the seriousness.” Faustus’ attempts to go beyond the allowable limits of human perfection and knowledge are earnest, and ultimately tragic, but they are viewed in part from the perspective of “carnival laughter and popular wisdom,” and Kott points out how the stage actions choreographed by the devilish Mephostophilis include processions of the Seven Deadly Sins and visions of Hell drawn almost directly from popular folk pageants. Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream provides an even better example of a play inextricably rooted in carnival, which typically turns the world upside down. The union of the bewitched Queen Titania and Bottom the Weaver, transformed into a beast, is a perfect image of the meeting of high and low, a theme that recurs throughout the play. Kott echoes this scene in the title of his book, not only to call attention to the importance of metamorphosis in Renaissance drama but also to emphasize that these plays must be read, as it were, from the bottom, from Bottom’s perspective: He represents “a language of the earth,” a language that is carefully poised against that of the court and that conveys an altogether different message and mood.

Kott’s focus on...

(The entire section is 1859 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Choice. XXV, October, 1987, p. 311.

Library Journal. CXII, February 15, 1987, p. 148.

The New York Times Book Review. XCII, June 14, 1987, p. 27.

The Village Voice. XXXII, June 23, 1987, p. 57.