Monday, November 7, 2011

"Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee! Thou Art Translated!"

Hi everyone! I'm excited to join In Romaunce as We Rede, and I thought I would start with some musings I had thanks to teaching. As so often happens, the collective process of discovery in class has led me to see a text I've read many times in a fresh way. I've been teaching A Midsummer Night's Dream, and my students have been especially interested in the mythological background of Theseus (probably because they were excited to connect Ariadne to Inception). While we were talking about the minotaur, labyrinth, etc, it occurred to me that I could look at Bottom's transformation as a kind of perversion of the minotaur image. Instead of a frightening bull-man, Bottom becomes a silly mechanical with an ass's head. He's been attempting to play every role in one Ovid story, and has somehow found himself in a different Ovid story altogether. Translation here means transformation, certainly, but I also think that Bottom's transformation becomes synecdochic for the multiple kinds of translation that are going on here (linguistic, cultural, generic, chronological, imagistic, etc.). His hybrid body, part man and part ass (and I do think it's important that the animal aspect is his head, traditionally the seat of reason) is both man and beast, as the stories he performs mingle tragedy and comedy, literal and metaphorical, etc. In each case, the story Bottom represents becomes ridiculous with him as the protagonist, and he is the butt of our jokes throughout.

Yet if Bottom is a sort of ridiculous stand-in for the minotaur, that seems to increase both his centrality to the play and his alterity. He has certainly fascinated audiences, and most of the artistic representation of the play I've seen have been of Bottom and Titania in her bower. Such an image, indeed, often adorns the cover of editions of the play. Bottom therefore becomes an image for the play itself. He's a defining figure, at the center of the labyrinthesque dreamscape of the play. His freakish aspects and eagerness to take on every role make him an object of fun and pity. And it may be with some anxiety that we realize that he is, for Titania, a representative of mortality, of those creatures who connect with the earth itself, unlike her ethereal and supernatural immortality. A creature, therefore, very much like us. My students found the play-within-the-play, often performed to such hilarious effect, troublesome. They pointed out the class problems with the play; they lamented the fact that the mechanicals, who had worked so hard and been so excited when their play was chosen, were mercilessly and unanimously ridiculed. Perhaps they, as new college students whose work is being judged constantly, who work hard without always understanding what the end result should be, who are eager to please and to learn a variety of subjects, perhaps they saw something of themselves in Bottom and the mechanicals. Bottom attempts to be a learned man, a man of authority, and yet is unaware that everyone can see his ass's head. As a graduate student, this may encapsulate my own fears as well.

Many critics, from what I have seen thus far, find Bottom's transformation to be a literalization of what he already is -- a visual pun on the fact that he's an ass (and the play's use of dramatic irony when he claims that the others are trying to make an ass of him backs up such a reading). With some supernatural intervention, his physical form does grow to match his behavior. And in a play the ass's head must be performed literally -- an animal head is actually placed on the actor's body. It is such a literal rendering, however, that I find both fascinating and troubling. It may be a joke about Bottom playing an ass's role, but it also indicates that he is not quite human, not quite worthy of the noble class's empathy. We are meant to laugh along with the Duke and Duchess as Bottom plays the fool (and I have often done exactly that when I've seen the play performed). Like the minotaur, he's not as human as we are; he's both at the center of the puzzle and permanently marginalized. And the fact that my students stepped back and worried about what he was thinking and feeling made me proud as an instructor. Far from being only concerned with their own experiences, they were able to empathize even when to do so was to read against the text of the play.

I'd like to know what others think about this play, about Bottom's hybridity, about moments in teaching or reading that bring hope or empathy like this one did for me. So, what do you think?


  1. I've recently noticed a parallel between the arc of Bottom and that of Holofernes in Love's Labour's Lost, and I think the reduction of both characters can be traced back to differing concerns over social mobility. With Holofernes, he takes his rudimentary education and position as a schoolmaster, and presumes to use these aspects of himself as social capital, cashing them in to vault over boundaries into social realms in which he doesn't fit.

    The same is true of Bottom and (to a lesser extent) the rest of the rude mechanicals. They embody the older notions of the stage (the cycle plays and the guildsmen who performed them). Just as you might see modern film mock the naivete of 1930s cinema, it seems likely that Shakespeare's company (just the second generation of professional dramatists) would take a dig at structures of medieval drama.

    In both cases, characters use one skill (rudimentary Latin in Holofernes' case, and the trade skills of the Rudes in Midsummer) to claim authority over another, completely unrelated venue--Holofernes attempts, poorly, to direct the story of the Nine Worthies while the Rudes seek to perform Ovid. Not only do the characters seek social mobility due to their unrelated skills, but they also seek performative authority, something which would surely be ripe for mocking by a group of young dramatists.

    Bottom and Holofernes are both pitiable characters. Their ambitions have led them to attempt to travel from one social sphere to another, and the result is that, by the end of the play, they don't really belong in either sphere anymore. Both characters fascinate me, but I sense that I've rambled too long as it is!

  2. Kristi, as I have read and re-read your illuminating post several aspects resonated with me. I was, in particular, struck by your connection of Bottom and the other mechanicals to the undergrad and graduate student experience -- what an apt link it is! It sums up the imposter complex rather vividly, I think. As I got to that portion of your post, I thought immediately of my anxieties -- as a first year grad student -- over asking questions during the Q&A portion of lectures and conference sessions. I had to force myself to raise my hand eventually, but all the while I harbored these fears that if I asked what was on my mind, the question would only expose me as, well . . . an uninformed newbie (ass's ears and all). Fortunately, I soon realized that the chances of an entire audience pointing their fingers at me and shouting "SHAAAAAME!" were pretty slim, and I started raising my hand at lectures and at conferences a lot more. Unlike poor Bottom and his fellow band of actors, the more I asked questions and engaged with scholars in that public forum, the more validated I felt as a young scholar. I felt, more and more, as though I did -- in fact! -- belong, a feeling that I hope every grad and ugrad is able to experience. I remember the insecurities all too well though (they still creep up from time to time), and had to smile at your apt connection.

    As I read your reflection on Bottom, I kept thinking about Dogberry in Much Ado, particularly the scene in which Conrad calls him an Ass. Like Bottom, Dogberry is presented as an ass of sorts throughout the entire play -- he plays an important role in exposing Don Jon's plot, but largely by accident. The comedic force of the scene with Conrad and Borrachio, in particular, lies in the fact that Conrad "outs" Dogberry as an Ass and that Dogberry (either mockingly or unwittingly) owns the title by repeating it and insisting that it be remembered. The insecurities that lie beneath the surface of Bottom's boisterousness are rather visible in Midsummer's, particularly in his desperation to play every single role in the play (a fragility captured rather well by Kevin Cline's performance, I think). But while Dogberry, by contrast, remains full of blustering self-importance in virtually every scene in which he appears, I've begun to wonder whether a similar kind of fragility exists in him as well. His fury over being labeled an Ass stems, in no small part, from the fact that Conrad -- a self-important nobleman -- attempts to belittle him. What ensues is a long, malapropism-infused list of Dogberry's accomplishments intended to prove his social worth and authority (IV.ii.67–78).

    His frequent malapropisms (in this scene as in others) reveal his desire to sound and act like a nobleman, but it's still harder to see the fragility that we tend to read into Bottom. Dogberry seems to remain more safely humorous, in the end, perhaps because his social standing (as a member of the middling class) gives him a kind of stability that Bottom and his folk lack. I think you're on to something, Kristi, in your argument that Bottom's transformation heightens his alterity and the class conflicts beyond what we see in a play like Much Ado. Perhaps this is why Bottom creeps his way to the foreground of our awareness as we encounter the play (as you pointed out in your post), while a character like Dogberry -- though his rendering betrays similar reflections on class dynamics -- remains safely humorous and more firmly in the periphery?

    Like you, I love it when students read boldly and carefully, and I'm impressed that your class took so much time considering the mechanicals and audience reactions to them! It sounds like you have a truly wonderful group of students to work with this term.

  3. @smoneil: Welcome, and thanks for posting! I will confess, it's been a long time since I've read Love's Labor Lost (immersed as I am in crusades studies, Middle English Romance, and my dissertation writing!), so I don't have too much to add at this time, but I found your comparison compelling -- particularly your method of linking the two characters through their quest for social mobility! I hope you'll continue to weigh in on future posts!

  4. I'm really fascinated by the connection between Bottom and Holofernes! I like your points about how anxieties about social mobility impact each of them. As someone with great interest in early drama, your point about how the mechanicals represent older notions of stage performance opened my eyes to a new way of viewing the play-within-a-play. I even think that I could one day teach Midsummer at the end of a Medieval Drama course. It would be so interesting to look at the York Cycle, for example, where the guilds are so clearly specified, and then look at how such performances are mocked in this play. This would also bring up issues of interpretation, since the problem is that the mechanicals don't have the tools to interpret the story that they're trying to perform (and not all of them have the tools to even understand a script -- confusing stage directions, cues, lines, and all). Since cycle plays were vehicles through which laypeople could interpret and represent sacred history even when they didn't necessarily have access the the Bible itself, such issues of interpretation take on greater risk. In fact, many of the arguments against translating the Bible into the vernacular revolved around concerns that laypeople wouldn't be able to interpret the biblical stories properly on their own. Although the mechanicals are looking at a classical story rather than a biblical one, I think the same anxieties are getting representing, which takes us back to Holofernes and his Latin. Overall, you've given me a lot to think about. Like Kate, I think I may return to Love's Labor Lost, which I do think is a fascinating play (though I haven't read it for a while). It's a play so much about language itself, it seems to me, that it might be good to take another look at it from this particular perspective. In any case, thanks for your insightful comments!

  5. Kate, I agree completely about the connection to Dogberry. I always think of these two characters in terms of one another. Their malapropisms, to me, really stand out. Each character attempts to use language even when he doesn't quite understand it (they're good examples to students, therefore, of the dangers of trying to fit SAT vocabulary into term papers). It troubles me that the comic relief is at the expense of such characters, and yet they are funny. I notice that such characters are often given cockney accents in performances, which plays up the ways in which accents and dialects are still tied to class. In fact, jokes (and prejudices) about accents and dialects are still socially acceptable (in the US, at least) when similar prejudices are taboo or at least controversial. I've even heard of a performance of Much Ado where Dogberry and his crew were represented as Indian, and the malapropisms were put in terms of linguistic and cultural misunderstandings (I don't have the information for this on hand, but I can look it up). The fact that such an interpretation was possible and that, from what I heard, people found it very funny, says something about the problematic nature of such characters and how they're represented.

    Of course, there may be something to Dogberry's middling class, as you say, though I wonder whether that would even play up anxieties about his aspirations to upward mobility. You're right, though, that he is not such a central character as Bottom is. Partly he doesn't have the kind of recognizable image that Bottom does, since the Ass's head, literal as it is, makes Bottom distinct and recognizable. Partly I think that Bottom's story line is much more central to Midsummer than Dogberry's is to Much Ado. Yes, it is Dogberry who (inadvertently) figures everything out, but his side-story is really just that -- a side-story. Bottom's story is central, he actually interacts with the Fairy Queen as a main part of the plot, and the play-within-a-play is the climax of the entire performance. Ultimately, I agree with you that Dogberry remains in the periphery, whereas Bottom does not. Partly what I was thinking with my minotaur connection is that Bottom, like the minotaur, is at the center of everything while simultaneously remaining othered. He's in the middle of the action and yet he is rendered different from everyone, even from the other mechanicals. And his literal transformation makes him visibly different. Not only will his speech and clothing mark him, but his ass's head will signify his utter alterity. Perhaps the word "translation" to describe his situation is even more apt than I thought above. The ass's head may be a translation of Bottom's character and nature, making it readily available (and readable) to the other characters and to us. His somatic identity is heightened to the extreme. I think neither Dogberry's character nor his place in the plot are explored to such a level.

    On a different note, I'm glad that you liked my connection between Bottom and being a student/grad student. I suspect that many of us have felt this way, and I fear that it continues after grad school as well. I felt exactly as you describe when first attending lectures and talks, and I had to force myself to engage. However, maybe the difference with Bottom is that he doesn't recognize that he's an ass; he isn't aware of his own ignorance. Perhaps concern over being like Bottom is our saving grace. We can only hope. In any case, my students are wonderful, and they are teaching me to think about the play in new ways, as are the great responses I'm getting to this blog post, both on here and via other means (facebook and in person). So thanks to everyone for their thought-provoking remarks. What a great way to enter the blogging world!


Comments are moderated by the authors in order to keep the spam at bay.