A Midsummer Night's Dream Essays
by William Shakespeare

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What Fools They Be—An Analysis of Puck and Bottom

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.

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....

(The entire section is 4,529 words.)