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A Midsummer Night's Dream

by William Shakespeare

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How does the comedy of Puck differ from that of Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream?

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In Act Two, when Puck takes the love potion from Titania, he mistakenly gives it to Bottom, instead of Quince. This leads to a comic scene between Puck and Bottom as they both try to correct the mistake made by Puck. Puck's humor is of a different order than Bottom's. It is based on an ability to poke fun at human foibles and take advantage of them. He has an element of malevolence that makes him more interesting than Bottom's good-natured buffoonery.

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The comedy surrounding Puck differs from the comedy around Bottom in Midsummer Night's Dream in that Puck initiates action and Bottom reacts to situations that are initiated by others.  Puck does things, and Bottom has things done to him.  Bottom's humor also comes from the things he says, especially the inadvertent way he mangles words. This is demonstrated by the way that Puck, the admitted prankster, turns Bottom into an ass, puts the juice into the eyes of the wrong Athenian, and brags about his pranks to Oberon and other fairies.  Bottom is funny because he is an ass and doesn't seem to realize it, always saying the wrong thing and never "getting" that he is making a fool of himself. Puck is always very clear that he knows what he's doing when he causes trouble. Shakespeare balances the two kinds of humor in the play to create his desired outcomes.

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One of the key differences between the comedy of Puck and Bottom, in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, has a great deal to do with the supernatural element.

Shakespeare's audiences (Elizabethans) firmly believed in the supernatural—in "hobgoblins" like Puck, as well as the existence of the devil—and that witches and ghosts served him to win souls to their eternal damnation. This is a pivotal point, for example, in the tragedies of Macbeth and Hamlet: the audience would have understood the choices each tragic hero faced, in terms of supernatural evil. At the same time, Shakespeare is credited with transforming the way his audiences perceived other supernatural creatures. Before, someone like Puck would have been vindictive and malicious. Here, Puck is playful—a trickster. 

Fairies…

...have not always had the kinder, earthier attributes that they now have. Prior to...A Midsummer’s Night Dream, fairies are originally thought to…resemble more gruesome creatures such as goblins and even elves. 

Shakespeare changed all of that, and we might assume that even "Tinkerbell" is the result of Shakespeare's introduction of a new vision of fairies. 

Elizabethans also believed that the woods were the domain of the devil—(e.g., Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown), and the forests comprised the fairy realm as well. In essence, humans did not belong in the woods. So when the goofy and silly Bottom and his similarly clueless friends find themselves in the forest with night coming on, they are fair game for Puck and the other fairies. Much of the humor exists as human and fairy worlds meet.

Puck serves Oberon, the king of the fairies—who sends his minion to find Cupid's love potion to make Demetrius fall in love with Helena. He tells Puck:

Yet mark'd I where the bolt of Cupid fell.

It fell upon a little western flower,

...now purple with love's wound...(170)

...Fetch me that flower... (II.i.168-170, 172)

Puck uses the potion on the "young Athenian" (the wrong one—though Puck insists it was accidental). Oberon paints it on Titania's eyes as she sleeps. Puck, meanwhile, has his fun with Bottom (as fairies were believed to do if one wandered into their realm) by giving him the head of a donkey ("ass")—which provides even more comedy—for the potion (as seen with Demetrius) will cause Titania to fall in love with the first thing she sees on waking:

TITANIA:

What angel wakes me from my flowery bed? (III.i.120)

...mine eye [is] enthralled to thy shape;

And thy fair virtue's force perforce doth move me,

On the first view to say, to swear, I love thee. (131-133)

Puck and Oberon find it hilarious that Titania has fallen in love with a man bearing the head of an ass!

Titania praises Bottom; first he demurs, but then immediately (and comically) he accepts her attention. He is also humorously enthusiastic—he wants to play all the parts in the play the men will present to the Duke. Impossible to do, Quince must soothe him like a temperamental artist, for fear that the disappointed Bottom will quit—but like a kid, Bottom recovers quickly. It is noted that he...

...seems to represent the common experience of humanity.

Perhaps this is partly what makes Bottom so funny; and Shakespeare makes us laugh through him—e.g., noting when a man should remain silent, using a pun:

Man is but an ass

if he go about to expound this dream (IV.i.206-207)

Bottom is comical as an "everyday" kind of guy; Puck entertains with his impish, mischievous spirit.

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In what way does Puck’s spirit dominate the mood of the play? In what ways does the comedy surrounding Puck differ from that surrounding Bottom?

Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is not only 2 plays in one, but it also contains a play within a play. The story is fanciful and romantic, and the two plotlines overlap, drawn together by the presence of the faeries and their interference in human affairs. Puck is one of the chief links between the two plotlines: one involving the runaway couples Demetrius and Helena and Lysander and Hermia, who spend the night in the enchanted forest and Bottom and the players, who come to the forest, though Bottom is the only one who spends the night there. Puck's mischief at the behest of Oberon drives the play to its conclusion. Puck's spirit premeates the play, giving it a sense of whimsy and the feeling that anything can happen.

Puck's humor differs from Bottom's in several distinct ways, one of which is the fact that, as a faerie, Puck can play tricks on humans. Bottom IS human, so he becomes the butt of a joke, but his own sense of humor makes the situation seem more lighthearted than it could be. Bottom is a self-absorbed character, but he is an innocent. He thinks he is a great actor and does not know when people are making fun of him, which is one of the things that make his scenes so funny. 

This culminates in the ridiculous play within a play in the last act. Shakespeare likes to emphasize the fact that his audiences are watching a play and how our lives resemble action on a stage. In this case, he gives us a happy ending and a reassurance from Puck that it is all a dream.

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