What Fools They Be—An Analysis of Puck and Bottom

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1507

Puck and Bottom are the two fools of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Puck is a fool in the traditional sense of the word—it is his job to entertain Oberon, the fairy king, with his tricks and jokes. Bottom, however, is a fool in the contemporary sense of the word, as his stupidity often gets in the way of what he is trying to accomplish. However, both characters, despite their "foolishness," serve practical functions in the play and also make several intelligent observations about life and love.

Illustration of PDF document

Download A Midsummer Night's Dream Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Bottom is the first of the fools to appear in the play. We first meet Bottom in Act I, scene ii, when the "mechanicals" (the tradesmen who plan to put on a play for the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta) are first beginning to plan their performance. Although Peter Quince is the stage manager of the play, Bottom quickly takes over and offers more than his share of advice. Bottom begins by telling Quince how to call the roll and how to organize the actors. He then proclaims the play, Pyramus and Thisby, to be "a very good piece of work ... and a/merry," although he is not even familiar enough with the play to recognize Pyramus' role (ll.13-14). All of this demonstrates an important aspect of Bottom's character: he is often full of good advice, but he has no idea how to use it. Bottom is also convinced that he is a superb actor and can act any part. In fact, he becomes so excited about his acting prowess that he volunteers to take on every part in the play. By the end of the scene, it is clear that the mechanicals are hopelessly incapable of putting on a good play, and Bottom only complicates the situation further.

Puck makes his entrance into the play in the next scene, Act II, scene i. It is Puck who explains the fight between Titania and Oberon, and his speech helps the fairy he is talking to recognize him. The fairy, who knows Puck's reputation, goes on to list just a few of Puck's pranks:

... [Y]ou are that shrewd and knavish sprite
Called Robin Goodfellow. Are not you he
That frights the maidens of the villagery,
Skim milk, and sometimes labor in the quern,
And bootless make the breathless housewife churn,
And sometime make the drink to bear no barm,
Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm? (ll. 33-39).

Puck cheerfully admits to all of these tricks and more. He also states that he plays these tricks, in part, to entertain Oberon and "make him smile" (l. 44). It is this obedience to Oberon and his desire to play tricks on humans that lead Puck to gather the "love-in-idleness" flower whose juice creates the love spell that complicates the play.

Puck's desire to entertain both himself and his king as well as follow Oberon's orders is what causes the main complications of the play, and it is also what leads him to his encounter with his human fool counterpart, Bottom. It is Oberon's command that makes Puck use the love juice on Lysander, who Puck mistakenly believes is the "Athenian" to whom Oberon is referring to in Act II, scene i. While doing so, Puck demonstrates his sympathy for Hermia, who, unbeknownst to Puck, does not need it:

This is he (my master said)
Despised the Athenian maid;
And here the maiden, sleeping sound
On the dank and dirty ground.
Pretty soul, she durst not lie
Near this lack-love, this kill-courtesy,
Churl, upon thy eyes I throw<
All the power this charm doth owe... (ll. 72-70).

Although he is following his master's orders, Puck does indeed feel pity for Hermia, even though she is only a mortal. Puck, then, is more than just a "knavish sprite"—he is loyal and does have pity on occasion.

Puck has no sympathy, however, for foolish mortals. When Puck and Bottom encounter each other in Act III, scene i, the "smart" fool, Puck, wins. Bottom begins this scene in much the same manner as Act I, scene ii: he is bossy and pretends to know more about acting and staging than he can actually demonstrate. Because of Bottom's foolishness in this scene, Puck cannot resist playing a trick on him—Puck gives Bottom the head of an ass. Shakespeare drives the irony of this trick home with Bottom's reactions to his friends' exclamations:

Snout: O bottom, thou art changed. What do I see on thee?
Bottom: What do you see? You see an ass-head of your own, do you? [Exit Snout]
Quince: Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee! Thou art translated. [Exit]
Bottom: I see their knavery. This is to make an ass of me... (ll.104-108).

Bottom makes several more references to being an ass, even going so far as to note that his face has become very hairy, but because he is a fool, he never realizes that he is, indeed, an ass. Puck's trick has an additional benefit when Titania awakes to Bottom's terrible singing and falls instantly in love with him because of the potion. Puck's delight in trickery and Bottom's stupidity combine in this scene, then, to further the action of the play as well as to provide some extra comedy.

Puck's tricks do not always turn out so well, however. In Act III, scene ii, Oberon discovers that Puck has used the love juice on the wrong Athenian. As Puck points out to his master throughout the scene, Lysander should have seen Hermia first, which would not have altered his feelings at all. Puck does not know that Lysander first sees Helena while under the influence of the spell. Puck also reminds Oberon that the only description given to Puck was that the man wears "Athenian garments," which Lysander, as a native of Athens, wears. Oberon complicates the situation further by ordering Puck to find Helena and then using the love juice on Demetrius. Puck's desire to trick humans creeps back out at this point, and he is determined to enjoy the problems that the love triangle between Demetrius, Lysander, and Helena will cause. Oberon, however, realizes that the situation will become violent, and orders Puck to prevent any battle between Demetrius and Lysander. Oberon also orders Puck to apply the remedy to the love juice to Lysander so that the couples can go back to Athens and live "happily ever after." Puck, who is not foolish enough to anger his king, reminds Oberon that day is quickly approaching, and then goes off to follow his master's instructions. Although he plays foolish tricks to entertain Oberon, Puck is no fool—he knows what must be done, and he does so.

Bottom, on the other hand, is still a fool by the time his experience in the woods has ended. He does manage to make an intelligent comment about Titania's love for him in Act III, scene i. When Titania swears her love for the transformed Bottom, he replies:

Methinks, mistress, you should have little
reason for that. And yet, to say the truth, reason and
love keep little company together nowadays. The more
the pity that some honest neighbors will not make them
friends (ll. 129-133).

After this insightful statement, Bottom gloats in his own ability to make clever remarks. Despite this "cleverness," Bottom never figures out what has happened to him. When he awakens in Act IV, scene i, he thinks he must have had a vision, as there is no possible way that he could have become an ass. His friends, who are no smarter than Bottom, then spend half of the next scene lamenting their friend, who, in their opinion, most certainly would have performed brilliantly for Theseus' nuptial celebration. The comic idiocy of Bottom and his friends is epitomized in the Pyramus and Thisbe performance, but Theseus has mercy on the mechanicals.

Once the play is "notably discharged," Puck comes to "clean up" after the play. The fairies have come to Theseus' palace to bless the married couples, which will make amends for the problems they have caused. Puck is featured one last time in the epilogue to the scene, where he tells the audience that if they do not enjoy the play, they should think of it as nothing more than a dream. If the audience does enjoy the play, they should give Puck "their hands," or applaud. Thus Puck is cleaning up for more than just the fairies in this last speech—he cleans up for the entire play as well. Both of the fools are necessary to this play. Puck's tricks and his obedience to Oberon make Oberon's goals and the happiness of the lovers possible. Bottom's silliness provides for comedy for both the characters in the play and the audience, and it is his transformation that enables Oberon to obtain the Indian boy from Titania. Puck, Oberon's fool, and Bottom, the fool of the play, both provide comedy and intelligent observations, which make them an integral part of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Love's Course in A Midsummer Night's Dream

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1569

Romantic love appears in several different ways in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Hermia and Lysander demonstrate young love, while Helena's love is that of desperation. Demetrius' love is fickle. Theseus gains his "love," Hippolyta, as a trophy of war. Titania and Oberon, married for ages, inflict pain and trickery on each other regularly. While there is no one common definition of love that suits all of the characters, the romantic relationships in this play all comply to one simple rule laid out by Lysander in Act I—the course of true love does not run smooth.

The first romantic couple in the play is Theseus and Hippolyta. Theseus' opening lines in the play demonstrate his impatience for his wedding day to come. However, Theseus and Hippolyta do not have a "normal" courtship. When Theseus defeated the Amazons, he took Hippolyta, the Amazon queen, as one of the spoils of the war. Taking a member of a conquered royalty as a wife was a common practice in European wars, and it is not, therefore, unusual that Theseus decides to take Hippolyta for his wife. This, however, creates two problems for Hippolyta. Not only does she have to marry the man who is responsible for the defeat of her people, but also, as an Amazon, Hippolyta is devoted to the goddess Diana and had intended to lead a chaste life. Because of the loss to Theseus, Hippolyta must sacrifice her lifestyle and her throne. Although he has no regard for Hippolyta's sacrifices, he does not seem to hold any ill will towards his fiancée:

Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword,
And won thy love doing thee injuries;
But I will wed thee in another key,
With pomp, with triumph, and with reveling (ll. 16-19).

Although Theseus does not intend to treat Hippolyta badly, he does not seem to hold a great deal of respect for her opinion, either. When Hippolyta and Theseus discuss the lovers' story in Act V, scene i, Hippolyta notes that even though the story is too fantastic to believe, all four lovers give the same information. Theseus, however, is still convinced that the events in the woods are nothing more than an "antique fable" (l. 3). Theseus shows his disregard for Hippolyta's opinion once again in Act V, scene i. Theseus, determined to hear the mechanicals' play, ignores the Philostrate's warning that no one will like it. Hippolyta tells Theseus that she cannot stand to watch the play if it is going to be wretched, and reminds Theseus that the Philostrate has already warned him that it would be. Theseus overrules her by declaring that the sincerity of the mechanicals and the duties of kindness and respect dictate that they watch the play. Of course, both Hippolyta and the Philostrate are correct—the play comes off terribly, and the lovers and Hippolyta ridicule the mechanicals throughout the performance. Even Theseus stops the mechanicals before the epilogue. While the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta will succeed in the sense that they will most likely not divorce each other, the lack of love and respect between them will not lead to a happy relationship.

The next romantic situation that appears in the play begins badly as well. Hermia and Lysander, who are in love with each other, cannot be together because of the wishes of Hermia's father, Egeus, who wants his daughter to marry Demetrius. Athenian law gives Egeus the right to "dispose of her" as he pleases, and if Hermia does not marry Demetrius, she can be put to death. Egeus believes that the love Hermia bears for Lysander is nothing more than the product of witchcraft because Lysander has written Hermia love poems, serenaded her, and sent her many romantic presents. Egeus cannot conceive of the idea that his daughter has her own feelings that will not be dictated by his direction. Thus, to Egeus, love is simply the product of flattery and attention, and he has no regard for it. Theseus does offer Hermia another option—the life of a priestess of Diana, goddess of chastity, which is ironic considering that he took this option away from Hippolyta. Because Hermia is "made bold" by her love for Lysander, she states that she would rather be a nun than let her father dictate who she will love. Once Theseus, Egeus, and Demetrius leave, Lysander calms Hermia by reminding her that true love is destined to encounter obstacles. Hermia then realizes that these problems must then be borne with patience. For Hermia and Lysander, love means overcoming problems, but they both know that love can do so. After this realization, Lysander creates the plan that will allow the two of them to marry and be happy (without sacrificing any money, either).

Egeus and Demetrius are not the only obstacles, however, to the happiness of Hermia and Lysander. In Act II, scene ii, Puck mistakenly uses the love juice on Lysander, and the love Lysander has sworn to Hermia suddenly dissipates in favor of the spell. It is important to note that although Hermia and Lysander have a strong, passionate, and physical love (as is evident when Hermia tells Lysander to sleep farther away from her so that she can keep her modesty before their wedding), their love is by no means invincible because the love potion overpowers it. The fact that true love cannot conquer all is an important theme in the play. Other factors always mitigate love, whether it is the desires of others (Egeus), the laws of the land, or magical powers. In order for true love to succeed, these problems must be acknowledged and overcome.

In no other relationship is the need to deal with outside problems and people more evident than in that of Helena and Demetrius. Although Helena and Demetrius had once been betrothed, Demetrius breaks his oath to Helena and pursues Hermia. The first obstacle that this couple must overcome, then, is attraction to others. Demetrius, however, succumbs to this first problem and spurns Helena. At this point, Helena's love becomes obsession. She needs to be near Demetrius, even though he says mean and spiteful things to her at every turn. She even betrays the trust of her best friend, Hermia, in order to gain his attention, despite the fact that if Hermia and Lysander are successful in their elopement, Demetrius will not be able to wed Hermia. Because of love, Helena has no pride, no loyalty, and no reason. When Helena regains these feelings due to Lysander's declarations of love and Demetrius' change of heart (both due to the potion), she is free of her obsession and can have a healthy romantic relationship again.

The last pair of lovers who appear in the play are the king and queen of the fairies, Oberon and Titania. They differ from the other couples in the play not only in that they are immortal, but that they have been married for some time. Oberon and Titania have been married so long, in fact, that they have had several affairs and care more for their individual comfort and feelings than they do for their spouse. Their relationship has recently become a power struggle over an Indian boy who is the child of Titania's deceased priestess. Although Titania tries to make Oberon understand why she is keeping the child, Oberon is so determined to obtain the boy that he is willing to use the love potion to humiliate his wife into giving him the child. In this relationship, power, lust, and greed are the outside forces that have affected the love of Titania and Oberon, and they have chosen to follow their own desires instead of attempting to overcome the problems.

Due to a well-timed trick from Puck, Oberon gets his wish. Titania, under the influence of the love potion, falls in love with Bottom, who has the head of an ass because of Puck's spell. Like Helena, Titania spoils her love, no matter what idiotic statement Bottom may have to offer. However, Titania is under a spell, while Helena dotes by choice. Eventually Oberon does take pity on his queen (after she gives him the boy), and releases her from the spell. Not quite content with his revenge, Oberon makes certain that Titania knows she has not been dreaming by showing her that she was, indeed, in love with an ass. However, in an effort to create peace and harmony, Oberon suggests that they reconcile and bless the human lovers.

A Midsummer Night's Dream centers on love and loving, but it offers very few answers as to how to have a successful romantic relationship. Power, selfishness, and obsession clearly cause problems, but healthy love has problems, too. Helena notes the problems with love in Act I, scene i:

Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity.
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
Nor hath Love's mind of any judgment taste;
Wings, and no eyes, figure unheedy haste.
And therefore is Love said to be a child,
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled (ll. 232-239).

Because most of the characters in this play are so consumed by their love, they do not see the reality around them. It is only when the problems of the real world are successfully dealt with that true love can triumph.

The World of Fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Elizabethan England

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1453

One of the most noticeable and entertaining elements of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is the presence of the fairies. Titania, Oberon, Puck, and the attendant fairies all affect the human beings in the woods, and provide glimpses into the fairy realm. Although Shakespeare applies several important aspects of the Elizabethan belief in fairies to A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare alters the conception of fairies not only within the context of the play, but for all time.

Fairies in Elizabethan England were of the same basic size and shape as humans. People were often mistaken for fairies because the size of a fairy was thought to be that of a short human, so there would be no noticeable difference in physical size. Since Elizabethan fairies looked like humans, they, of course, did not have wings. Elizabethan folk also thought that fairies were beautiful and of dark complexion, which reflected their association with wickedness. They often dressed in green due to their association with nature. Shakespeare, who was of course familiar with these ideas of fairies, presents the fairies of A Midsummer Night's Dream as beautiful and associated with nature, but this is where the physical similarities to Elizabethan folk beliefs ends. In the play, Shakespeare describes his fairies as tiny creatures with wings, and this is the first time in literature that fairies are described in this manner. It is not the last, as the poets and playwrights of his time adopted Shakespeare's diminutive description of fairies.

Shakespeare also alters the Elizabethan conception of the identity and behavior of fairies. One of the most striking aspects of Elizabethan fairy behavior was that fairies were linked closely with the home and the farm. Elizabethan fairies loved cleanliness enough to reward humans for keeping their homes clear of dirt and clutter, and they often punished messy people. They also needed humans for beef, bread, drink, and bath water, which people, fearful of fairy wrath, willingly supplied. What fairies wanted most, however, was milk and cream. Because of this, fairies were often associated with the dairy industry, and were frequently possessed herds of cattle because of their fondness for dairy.

Fairy reward and retribution was often swift and significant because of their wickedness. The Elizabethans thought that fairies either were fallen angels, the souls of dead humans, or beings without souls that existed between Heaven and Hell. Because of this supernatural status, fairies had magical powers that they put to use for their own benefit. When humans followed fairy dictates, fairies were known to cure diseases, bring an abundance of food (including fairy bread, which was considered to be nearly divine), clean houses, protect, bring fortune, and tell the future. However, the foolish mortals who did not appease the fairies could suffer a variety of punishments. The most popular fairy punishment was pinching, which often left victims with blue bruises all over their bodies. Fairies were also known to create changelings (babies who were born one gender and changed to the other), to abduct both children and adults, blight crops, destroy livestock, and bring disease. The "commoners" of the Elizabethan period were afraid of fairies and tried to appease them. This representation of fairies as malicious beings is quite different from A Midsummer Night's Dream, where fairies are harmless sprites who may play tricks on humans, but eventually help them without being bribed to do so. Titania cares for the Indian boy out of love for her priestess, and Oberon orders Puck to resolve the Athenians' love situation without any kind of reward. Both rulers even bless the bridal beds at the end of the play. This beneficence is a far cry from the fear-inspiring fairies to which Shakespeare's Elizabethan audiences were accustomed.

One aspect of fairies that Shakespeare left intact was their enjoyments. Shakespeare's fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream enjoy dancing and music, which was the favorite pastime of the fairies of Elizabethan folklore. Fairies were thought to dance in fairy circles, which humans were forbidden to see. Any person spying on fairy circles would be punished by pinching. Shakespeare's correlation of fairies to night is also consistent with the folklore of his time. Although the fairy "hours" were midnight and noon and fairies were occasionally known to work magic in the day, the main time for fairies was night. Fairies were also active in the summer, and not known to appear after All Hallows' Eve (Halloween). Shakespeare is consistent with this idea of "fairy time" in the play.

Shakespeare departs again from the Elizabethan conception of fairies, however, when it comes to the characterizations of his fairies. While the idea of Oberon as the fairy king was familiar to the Elizabethans, the name of Titania for the fairy queen was not. Titania's name was probably taken from Ovid's Metamorphosis, which describes the fairy queen in a similar vein to the moon goddess Diana. Despite this difference, Titania's train is consistent with the folklore—her time is from midnight to sunrise, she and her fairies sing and dance, she has jewels, and she has possession of a changeling. Shakespeare does add flowers to Titania's image, which had not been previously associated with fairies. It should be noted that although Oberon was a familiar name to the Elizabethans, the fairy queen was considered to be the reigning monarch of the fairies. Oberon's character in the play appears to be consistent with the folklore in the beginning, but changes significantly by the end of the play. When Oberon and Titania meet, Oberon's anger over Titania's refusal to give him the Indian boy has caused Oberon to take his frustrations out on the weather and on the humans around him. He also wants to use the love juice in order to make Helena run away from Demetrius. This lack of regard for mortals is exactly what the Elizabethans would have expected from the fairy king. By the end of the play, however, Oberon orders Puck to cure Lysander while leaving Demetrius under the love spell. Oberon has changed from the stereotypical fairy into a benevolent one for no reason other than to avoid any further conflict.

Another difference in the depiction of fairy characters is Robin Goodfellow, or Puck. Robin Goodfellow was a familiar figure to the Elizabethans. His laugh, sense of humor, and reputation as a prankster made him a popular folk character. He was not, however, a fairy, because his tricks were never fatal. Only practical jokes and humorous accidents were attributed to him. Robin Goodfellow was also a spirit of the home, and was often depicted with a candle and a broom because he loved to clean houses as a reward for bread and cream. (This is the reason why he is shown with a broom at the end of the play). While Shakespeare maintains Robin Goodfellow's mischievous personality, he completely changes some significant facets of his character. As mentioned previously, Robin Goodfellow was not a fairy. Shakespeare not only makes him a fairy in A Midsummer Night's Dream, but he also makes him Oberon's jester and servant. The change of Robin Goodfellow's name to Puck is also significant. A "puck" is a devil, not a joker, which directly contrasts Robin Goodfellow's character not only in Elizabethan folklore but in the play as well. Robin has no interest in the humans in the play other than for sport, and he has no association with the home save for carrying the broom. Although A Midsummer Night's Dream marks Robin Goodfellow's first appearance on the English stage, only his sense of humor and prankish nature remain from the famous figure of Elizabethan folklore.

Shakespeare, then, transforms the whole conception of "fairy" from wicked tricksters to harmless "shadows." Robin highlights this transformation in the epilogue to the play:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended.
That you have but slumb'red here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream (V, i, ll. 412-417).

For the first time, fairies are no longer to be feared but dismissed as nothing more than a dream. Because of the beauty of the fairy imagery and the immense popularity of both Shakespeare and the play, Shakespeare's literary contemporaries perpetuated his descriptions of fairies given in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The fact that we now see fairies as tiny, harmless creatures with wings and magical powers that live in the woods is due to this play. Although Shakespeare gives prominence to the Elizabethan folk belief of fairies by highlighting them in the play, he changes the popular idea of fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream from wicked spirits to shadows and dreams, a transformation which lasts to this day.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial
Previous

A Midsummer Night's Dream (Vol. 82)

Next

Critical Commentary

Explore Study Guides