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A Midsummer Night's Dream

by William Shakespeare

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Why does Snug, the lion in "A Midsummer Night's Dream", insist on proclaiming his true identity?

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Snug is one of the "rude mechanicals" in the play--the players are some of the worst actors ever, and please the audience most because of how truly horrible they are. So when he says that he doesn't wish to scare any ladies, it is funny because he has no hope of anyone actually believing he is a lion, or even of actually scaring anyone. Taken within the overall context of the play, this line adds an element of humour. It also plays thematically on the lines between reality and fantasy. Snug is comfortable with fantasy as long as everyone is clear that it is not real. He wouldn't want anyone to be hurt or offended or afraid because of the role he plays.

The mechanicals also seem to be aware of how important it is for their play to please (so that they will get paid) and not offend. The rude mechanicals may contain a veiled commentary on the lives of actors in Elizabethan society as well(it is not only Snug who is concerned with how his role is received) or, they may function as a stab at Shakespeare's contemporaries, bad actors who spend more time explaining and apologizing for their performances than on acting and entertaining.

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Snug does not want to frighten the ladies (as doing so can mean death to a player) but he obviously relishes his "fierce" identity:

Here are the lines that support this claim (5.1.210-216):

(As the Lion):

You, ladies, you, whose gentle hearts do fear
The smallest monstrous mouse that creeps on floor,
May now perchance both quake and tremble here,
When lion rough in wildest rage doth roar.
Then know that I, one Snug the joiner, am
A lion-fell, nor else no lion's dam;
For, if I should as lion come in strife
Into this place, 'twere pity on my life."

(*Note: A "fell" lion is one who is dead.)

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Why does Snug, who plays the lion's part, make a fuss about proclaiming his true identity in A Midsummer Night's Dream?

In Act 1 Scene 2 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream a group of tradesmen from Athens decide to put on a play for Duke Theseus to celebrate his wedding. The play they choose is Pyramus and Thisbe, a story of a couple who is in love but whose parents don’t want them to marry. They decide to run away together but when Thisbe gets to the meeting place, a lion frightens her away. When Pyramus arrives he thinks Thisbe has been killed by the lion and kills himself. Thisbe finds Pyramus’ body and kills herself.

As they plan the play, the actor Bottom wants to play every part. When he insists that he play the lion, he promises to play a terrifying lion. The director, Quince, tells him “An you should do it too terribly, you would fright the duchess and the ladies, that they would shriek; and that were enough to hang us all.” He is worried that if the lion is too scary it will frighten the women in the audience and the duke will punish them for that.

Clearly this threat of hanging hits home with Snug, the man playing the lion. In Act 5, Scene 1 when the play takes place, Snug takes great care to explain to the ladies in the audience that he is in fact not a real lion, that he is Snug, and that if he really were a lion this would be a bad place to try to cause trouble. This way, no one is frightened by the lion and the duke is not angered and will not punish them for the play.

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