William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”: A Retelling in Prose — Act 1, Scene 2


— 1.2 —

A number of craftsmen of Athens were meeting in the house of Peter Quince the carpenter: Nick Bottom the weaver, Francis Flute the bellows-mender, Tom Snout the tinker, Robin Starveling the tailor, and Snug the joiner, aka furniture-maker.

Quince asked, “Is all our company here?”

Bottom replied, “You were best to call them generally, man by man, according to the written list.”

Generally? Quince thought. Bottom means individually. He is a good man and a good friend, but he sometimes mixes up his words.

“Here is a list of every man’s name,” Quince said, “who is thought fit, through all of Athens, to play in our interlude, or brief play, before the Duke and the Duchess, on the night of their wedding day.”

“First, good Peter Quince,” Bottom said, “say what the play is about, and then read the names of the actors, and so come to a conclusion.”

Quince said, “That’s a good idea. Our play is titled ‘The Most Lamentable Comedy, and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisby.’”

“I am sure that it is a very good piece of work, and a merry piece of work,” Bottom said, “Now, good Peter Quince, call forth your actors by the scroll. Fellow actors, gather around him.”

“Answer as I call your name,” Quince said. “Nick Bottom, the weaver.”

“Present,” Bottom said. “Name the part that I will play, Quince, and proceed.”

“You, Nick Bottom, will play Pyramus.”

“What is the part of Pyramus, Quince? Is he a lover, or a tyrant?”

“He is a lover who kills himself most gallantly for love.”

“That will require an actor who is capable of crying and of making the audience cry tears of sorrow,” Bottom said. “If I perform the part, let the audience be careful not to injure their eyes with their crying because I will move storms — I will arouse pity in the audience.”

He paused, and then he said, “And yet I would prefer to play a tyrant. I could play the role of Ercles exceptionally well.”

Ercles? Quince thought. Oh, Bottom means Hercules.

“I could rant admirably,” Bottom continued. “I could bring the house down and make the audience applaud. I will show you — listen:

“The raging rocks

“And shivering shocks

“Shall break the locks

“Of prison gates;

“And Phibbus’ car

“Shall shine from afar

“And make and mar

“The foolish Fates.”

That was excellent, Quince thought. I wish I could write that well. I also wish that Bottom would say Phoebus’ car, so that any listeners would understand that he is talking about the Sun-chariot of Phoebus Apollo.

Bottom a man of enthusiasm, enthusiastically approved of his ham acting: “That was lofty!”

He continued, “Now name the rest of the players, but that is how I would play a role like Ercles. Of course, the role of a lover is more condoling — it requires expressions of grief.”

Quince resumed the roll call and role call of names:

“Francis Flute, the bellows-mender.”

“Here, Peter Quince,” Flute responded.

“Flute, you must play the role of Thisby.”

“Who is Thisby? A wandering knight?”

“She is the lady whom Pyramus loves.”

“Please, no,” Flute said. “Let me not play a woman: I am growing a beard.”

“That doesn’t matter,” Quince said. “You shall play it in a mask, and you will speak as softly and lady-like as you can.”

“Since Thisby’s face is hidden,” Bottom said, “let me play Thisby, too. I’ll speak in a monstrous little voice when I play her so people will know that I am not still playing Pyramus. Listen.”

In a deep voice, Bottom declaimed, “Thisne! Thisne!”

Then in a falsetto voice, he declaimed, “Ah, Pyramus, lover dear. I am your Thisby, dear. I am your dear Thisby.”

Quince said, sternly, “No, no. You must play Pyramus, and Flute must play Thisby.”

Disappointed, Bottom said, “Well, proceed.”

Quince read the next name on his list: “Robin Starveling, the tailor.”

“Here I am, Peter Quince.”

“Robin Starveling, you must play Thisby’s mother.”

Quince read the next name on his list: “Tom Snout, the tinker.”

“Here I am, Peter Quince.”

“You must play Pyramus’ father, and I will play Thisby’s father. One role is left. Snug the furniture-maker, you must take the part of the lion. Here, I hope, is a well-cast play.”

“Have you written down the lion’s part?” Snug asked. “If you have, please give it to me because I am slow of study.”

“There is no need to write down the lion’s part,” Quince said, “because it consists of nothing but roaring.”

Bottom sensed an opportunity: “Let me play the part of the lion, too. I will roar in such a way that I will do any man’s heart good to hear me; I will roar in such a way that I will make the Duke say, ‘Let him roar again! Let him roar again!’”

“But if you roar too ferociously,” Quince objected, “you would frighten the Duchess and the ladies. They would scream, and the Duke would hang us all.”

All the craftsmen agreed: “That would be enough to hang us, every mother’s son.”

“I grant you, friends,” Bottom said, “that if any of us should frighten the ladies out of their wits, we would all be hanged, but I will aggravate my voice so that I will roar as gently as any sucking dove or nightingale roars.”

There Bottom goes again, Quince thought. He is still trying to magnify his time on stage, and still mixing up his words — he said “aggravate” when he meant to say “moderate.” And “sucking” — or “suckling” — is not a word that describes a dove.

Quince said to Bottom, “You can play no part but the part of Pyramus because Pyramus is a sweet-faced man. He is a proper man, as proper and handsome a man as anyone can see on a summer’s day. He is a most lovely gentleman-like man. Therefore, you are the man who must play the role of Pyramus.”

Flattered, Bottom said, “Well, I will undertake it. What beard will be best for me to play the role in?”

“You may play the role in whichever beard you prefer,” Quince replied.

“I will wear either a straw-colored beard, an orange-tawny beard, a red beard, or a yellow beard that is the color of a French crown — a gold coin.”

Quince joked, “Some of your French crowns have no hair at all because of the French disease: syphilis. In that case, you will have to play the part bald.”

He gave each actor a sheet of paper and said, “Here are written copies of your parts for all of you to study. I entreat you, request you, and desire you to have memorized them by tomorrow night. At that time, we will meet in the forest outside of Athens. By Moonlight, we will rehearse our play. It is best to rehearse in the forest because if we rehearse in town, people will gather around and bother us, and everyone will know what we are doing. In the meantime, I will make up a list of the props that we will need for our play. Please be sure to show up tomorrow night.”

Bottom replied, “We will meet you then at wherever you want; and there we may rehearse most obscenely and courageously. Take pains and study your parts carefully, everyone. We want the play to be perfect. Adieu.”

“Then it is settled,” Quince said. “We will meet at the Duke’s oak tomorrow night.”

“Hold, or cut bow-strings,” Bottom said. “Fish, or cut bait. Poop, or get off the pot. Be there, or be square. You know what I mean. See you tomorrow night.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce

David Bruce has retold in today’s modern English all 38 of William Shakespeare’s plays.

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