William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”: A Retelling in Prose — Act 3, Scene 1

— 3.1 —

Titania, Queen of the Fairies, lay asleep near the place in the forest where the craftsmen of Athens — Bottom, Quince, Snug, Flute, Snout, and Starveling — had come to practice their play.

Bottom asked, “Are we all here?”

“Yes, we are,” Quince said, “and here is a marvelous and convenient place for our rehearsal. This green patch of grass shall be our stage, and this hawthorn thicket shall be our backstage. We will rehearse our play as we will do it before the Duke.”

“Peter Quince,” Bottom said.

“What do you want, good friend Bottom?”

“There are things in this comedy of Pyramus and Thisby that will never please the audience. First, Pyramus must draw a sword to kill himself, which the ladies will not stand. What do you say to that?”

Snout said, “Bottom is right. The ladies will be frightened.”

Starveling said, “I believe we must leave the killing out.”

“No, we can leave the killing in the play,” Bottom said. “I have a device that will make all well. Quince, write me a prologue, and let the prologue seem to say that we will do no harm with our swords, and that Pyramus is not killed indeed; and, for the better assurance, tell them that I, Pyramus, am not Pyramus, but Bottom the weaver. This will keep the ladies from being afraid.”

“That’s a good idea,” Quince said. “We will have such a prologue; and it shall be written in alternating eight- and six-syllable lines.”

“No,” Bottom objected, “make it two more; let it be written in eight and eight.”

Snout asked, “Will not the ladies be afraid of the lion?”

“I am afraid of it, I promise you,” Starveling said.

“We need to think carefully about bringing a lion onstage,” Bottom said. “To bring in — Heaven help us! — a lion among ladies is a most dreadful thing because there is not a more fearful wild-fowl than your lion living.”

“Therefore another prologue must say that he is not a lion,” Snout suggested.

Bottom considered that idea — he might be able to have more lines to recite — but he wanted his friends to get recognition, too. Therefore, he said, “No, the actor playing the lion must say his name, and half his face must be seen through the lion’s neck, and he himself must speak through, saying this, or to the same defect — ‘Ladies,’ or ‘Fair ladies’ — ‘I would wish you,’ or ‘I would request you,’ or ‘I would entreat you, not to fear, not to tremble. I pledge my life to protect yours. If you think I am come hither as a lion, it could mean the end of my life. No, I am not a lion; I am a man as other men are.’ Then let the lion tell the ladies plainly that he is Snug the joiner.”

“It shall be done,” Quince said. “But there are two hard things that remain. First, how can we bring the Moonlight into a chamber? According to the story, Pyramus and Thisby meet by Moonlight.”

“Does the Moon shine the night that we play our play?” Snout asked.

“A calendar, a calendar!” Bottom said. “Look in the almanac and see whether the Moon shines that night.”

Quince took a book out of his pocket, turned some pages, and said, “Yes, the Moon shines that night.”

“Good,” Bottom said. “We can open a window, and the Moon will shine through the window.”

“Yes, that will work,” Quince said, “or one of us actors could come in with a bushel of thorns and a lantern, and say he comes to disfigure, or to present, the person of Moonshine.”

Flute thought, That would work. The man could be the Man in the Moon. According to an old story, a man gathered thorns for firewood on Sunday and as punishment, he was placed on the Moon to live thereafter. And interestingly, Bottom — who said “defect” when he meant “effect”— is not the only one here who sometimes misuses words. Quince talked about how one of us actors could “disfigure” the Moon when he meant that one of us could be the figure — the symbol — of the Moon. Quince also said that that actor could “present” the person of Moonshine, but he should have said, “represent.” So be it. We all make mistakes.

Quince added, “There is a second problem that we must solve. We must have a wall in the great chamber because Pyramus and Thisby, according to the story, did talk through the chink of a wall.”

“We cannot bring a wall into the Duke’s great chamber,” Snout said. “Do you have any ideas about what we can do, Bottom?”

“Some man or other must present Wall,” Bottom said, “and let him have some plaster, or some clay, or some cement to signify a wall; and let him hold his fingers like this” — Bottom made an OK sign with the fingers of his right hand — “and through that O shall Pyramus and Thisby whisper.”

“If we do that, then all is well,” Quince said. “Come, sit down, every mother’s son, and we will rehearse our parts. Pyramus, you begin. When you have spoken your speech, enter into that thicket. That is where you should be unless you are onstage.”

Puck flew near and noticed the craftsmen. He made himself invisible and walked among them, saying, “Here are Athenian craftsmen who are wearing homespun cloth of hemp. What hempen homespuns are these swaggering here, so near the bed of the fairy Queen? I see! They are rehearsing a play. I will be their audience. I will also be an actor, if I see fit.”

Quince, the director as well as the author of the play, said, “Speak, Pyramus. Thisby, come forward.”

Bottom, as Pyramus, said to Flute, who was playing Thisby, “Thisby, the flowers of odious savors sweet —”

Quince corrected him, “Odors, odors.”

“Odors savors sweet,” Bottom said, “So has your breath, my dearest Thisby dear. But hark, a voice! Stay thou but here awhile, and by and by I will to thee appear.”

Bottom exited, and Puck said to himself, “He is the strangest Pyramus that I have ever seen!” Then Puck followed Bottom.

“Must I speak now?” Flute asked.

“Yes,” Quince said. “Pyramus has left to see about a voice that he heard, and he is to come back again soon.”

Flute recited, “Most radiant Pyramus, most lily-white of hue,

“Of color like the red rose on triumphant brier,

“Most lively juvenile and eke most lovely Jew,

“As true as truest horse that yet would never tire,

“I’ll meet thee, Pyramus, at Ninny’s tomb.”

“Say ‘Ninus’ tomb.’ Ninus was the founder of the ancient city Nineveh,” Quince said, “but don’t say that line yet. Pyramus will come back and speak, and then you will say that line to him.”

Quince complained, “Why, you are speaking all your lines at once, cues and all.”

Quince then called to Bottom, “Pyramus, enter. Your cue for coming onstage has been spoken — it is ‘never tire.’”

Flute said, “Oh!” and then recited, “As true as truest horse that yet would never tire.”

Bottom and Puck came out of the thicket. Puck had worked some magic, and Bottom now had the head of an ass, or donkey.

Bottom declaimed, “If I were handsome, Thisby, I would still be only yours.”

Quince saw Bottom’s ass’ head and shouted, “Oh, monstrous! Oh, strange! We are haunted! Flee from here, friends! Help!”

The craftsmen, with the exception of Bottom, ran away.

Puck was happy to add to the excitement of the fleeing craftsmen, especially since it involved shape-shifting: “I’ll follow you, I’ll lead you roundabout, through bog, through bush, through brake, through brier. Sometimes a horse I’ll be, sometimes a hound, a hog, or a headless bear, sometimes a fire; and I will neigh, and bark, and grunt, and roar, and burn, like horse, hound, hog, bear, fire, at every turn.”

Bottom asked himself, “Why do they run away? They are playing a joke on me and trying to make me afraid and trying to make an ass of me.”

Snout, trying to escape from one of Puck’s transformations, almost ran over Bottom. He stopped long enough to say, “Oh, Bottom, you have changed! What do I see on you?”

“What do you see?” Bottom said, “You see an ass’ head of your own, do you?”

Snout ran away, but Quince took his place and said, “Heaven help you, Bottom! You are translated.”

Had Flute been present and unpanicked, he would have thought, Quince meant to say “transformed.”

Bottom said to himself, “I see their knavery. They are playing a joke on me to make an ass of me. They are trying to frighten me if they can. But I will not move from this place — let them do whatever they can. I will walk up and down here, and I will sing, so that they shall hear that I am not afraid.”

He sang, “The blackbird so black of hue,

With its orange-tawny bill,

The song thrush with his note so true,

The wren with its little trill —

Hearing Bottom sing, the fairy Queen Titania woke up, looked at him, and said, “What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?”

Bottom continued to sing:

The finch, the sparrow and the lark,

The plain-song cuckoo gray,

Whose note full many a man does note,

And dares not answer nay —”

Bottom thought a moment, and then he said to himself, “Why would anyone be so foolish as to answer a foolish cuckoo? The cuckoo calls a man a cuckold. A cuckold is a man whose wife cheats on him. By answering the cuckoo, the man would show that he was paying attention to what the cuckoo called out. It is as if the cuckoo were talking to him and letting him know that he is a cuckold. It is best to ignore the cuckoo so that other people think that the cuckoo is talking to some other man.”

Titania said, “I beg you, gentle mortal, please sing again. My ears are much enamored of your notes, and my eyes are much enthralled by your shape. The power of your beauty moves me at first sight to say — no, to swear — that I love you.”

Titania tossed her hair, pulled her shoulders back, and pushed her chest forward. She twisted her torso from right to left and back to show off her breasts from different angles, and she giggled. Suddenly, the fairy Queen was acting like a fourteen-year-old — or older — mortal girl who had found “true love.”

Bottom, the most foolish of men, now said the most wise of words: “I think, lady, you have little reason to say that, and yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays.”

He thought, Occasionally, I can say exactly the right words.

Then he said, “It’s a pity that some respectable neighbors will not make them friends.”

He thought, Occasionally, I can make a good jest.

Titania said, “You are as wise as you are beautiful.”

“I deny that,” Bottom said, “but if I had wit enough to get out of this forest, I would have wit enough for me.”

“Out of this forest, do not desire to go,” Titania said. “You shall remain here, whether you want to stay or go. I am a spirit of no common rate — the summer serves me and my estate — and I do love you. Therefore, go with me. I will give you fairies to be your servants, and they shall fetch you jewels from the deep, and sing while you on pressed flowers do sleep, and I will purge your mortal body so that you shall like an airy spirit go.”

Titania called some elves: “Peaseblossom! Cobweb! Mote! Mustardseed!”

Peaseblossom said, “I am ready to do your will.”

Cobweb said, “So am I.”

Mote said, “So am I.”

Mustardseed said, “So am I.”

All asked, “What do you want us to do?”

Titania replied, “Elves, be kind and courteous to this gentleman. Go with him wherever he walks, and dance for him. Feed him with apricots and dewberries, with purple grapes, green figs, and mulberries. Steal the honey bags from the bumblebees. Steal beeswax from them and use glowworms to light the wax and make candles so that my love can see to go to bed and to arise. Pluck the wings from beautiful butterflies to fan the Moonbeams from his sleeping eyes. Bow to him, and curtsey, my elves.”

Peaseblossom said, “Welcome, mortal!”

Cobweb said, “Welcome!”

Mote said, “Welcome!”

Mustardseed said, “Welcome!”

“I beg your pardon, elves,” Bottom said. He asked one elf, “What is your name?”

“Cobweb.”

Bottom joked, “Cobwebs are used to stop the bleeding from small cuts, so if I cut my finger, I shall become better acquainted with you.”

He asked another elf, “Your name, honest gentleman?”

“Peaseblossom.”

Bottom joked, “Please give my regards to Mistress Squash, your mother, and to Master Peascod, your father. Good Master Peaseblossom, I shall also become better acquainted with you.”

He asked another elf, “What is your name, please, sir?”

“Mustardseed.”

Bottom joked, “Beef is often eaten with mustard. I promise you that your relatives have many times made my eyes water. I shall also become better acquainted with you, good Master Mustardseed.”

“Be my love’s servants,” Titania said to the fairies. “Lead him to my bed. The Moon, I think, looks sad and tearful. And when the Moon weeps, every little flower weeps. The flowers lament chastity — either the chastity of those who want to lose it but cannot or the chastity of those who want to keep it but cannot. Tie up my love’s tongue — cover his mouth — and bring him to my bed silently.”

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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