In the play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare draws the reader’s attention to the roles of Nick Bottom, and Puck. Nick Bottom and Puck are both considered to be the fools in this play, although both characters fulfill this role in different ways. Bottom is a contemporary fool, who is overconfident and lacks common sense. While Bottom is very confident in himself, especially his acting ability, he is not a very intelligent character. Puck’s role in the play is more of a traditional fool. Puck plays practical jokes and enjoys entertaining though mischief.
Puck’s service to the fairy king, Oberon, is similar to a jester’s role in a medieval society. Though the two fools of the play are very different, they offer several helpful observations about life and love. Bottom and Puck teach the audience valuable lessons about taking love too seriously, instead of enjoying it as it comes. The fools also offer insight on the consequences of being overly confident in oneself.
The first lesson that the fools offer is that love should not be taken too seriously, but enjoyed just as it comes. Puck offers this insight in his quote, “Lord, what fools these mortals be” (Act 3, Scene 2, Line 116). After attempting to make Demetrius fall in love with Helena, Puck’s plan self-destructs when he realizes that he has put the love potion on the wrong man. When Puck watches the reaction of the young lovers, he realizes how silly it is for them to all be chasing after love so desperately, rather than taking it as it comes and enjoying it. Nick Bottom offers this same lesson through his short relationship with Titania, the fairy queen.
Though Bottom is obviously not a perfect match for the beautiful Titania, he enjoys her affections while they last, never second-guessing that she could be in love with him. Though Titania’s affections for Bottom are induced by a potion, Bottom throws himself into his newfound relationship with her, unaware that Puck has transformed Bottom’s head into that of a donkey. When Bottom awakes and Titania’s affections for him have ended, Bottom enjoys the memories as though a dream.
The second lesson that Shakespeare impresses upon his audience is the effect of over-confidence on others. Early in the play, Bottom gathers with the other actors to start planning their play. Rather than listen to Peter Quince, the stage manager, and take direction from him, Bottom wants to tell everyone what to do. He tells Quince how to announce the parts and how to organize the actors. Then, Bottom wants to play every single part in the play, and brags about how wonderful his portrayal of each character would be.
Shortly after this scene, Puck changes Bottoms head into that of a donkey, which is symbolic of Bottom’s conceited behavior. Upon his entrance in the play, all of the other actors run away from Bottom and his grotesque appearance. Upon seeing Bottom, Quince yells, “O’ monstrous! O, strange! We are haunted. Pray, masters! Fly, masters! Help” (Act 3, Scene 1, Line 99-100). Puck changed Bottom’s appearance to match his personality by placing the head of the donkey on his shoulders.
Puck, although obviously less power hungry than Bottom, also shows that he has plenty of confidence in himself. Puck exhibits his over-confidence at several points in the play, bragging about the tricks that he has played on others and enjoying laughing at their misfortune. The audience sees that Puck is also confident in his ability to serve Oberon, as well. When Oberon send Puck out to find Helena in the woods, Puck replies, “I go, I go, look how I go, swifter than arrow from the Tartar’s bow” (Act 3, Scene 2, Lines 100-101).
By comparing his speed and accuracy to that of the Tartars, who were famous for their skill with a bow and arrow, Puck shows that he believes himself to be equally as accurate. This shows the audience a very confident Puck, but the audience cannot help but realize that Puck’s comparison of himself to the Tartars is an overexaggeration. Ironically, Puck is the reason that the mix-up with the love potion happened, so in effect, he is obviously not as accurate as he might like to think.
The third lesson that is conveyed in the play is the basic concept that ignorance can be bliss. Nick Bottom is portrayed as an overly self-assured and ignorant fellow. He is absorbed in all things of himself and does not take much interest in anything that does not directly affect him. After Puck turns his head into that of a donkey, his fellow actors run away from him in fear. Instead of wondering what happened to scare them off, Bottom brushes it off and doesn’t think about it further.
And again, when Bottom is awakening from his slumber in the forest after his short-lived romance with Titania, Bottom again shows his ignorance. Bottom remembers all of the things that had happened to him through the night, but he refuses to accept them as anything more than a dream. By brushing off these events as a mere fantasy, Bottom rejects reality and chooses to be ignorant of the events and remember them as nothing more than a dream. Puck is also ignorant of other people in the play. Puck’s only concern is entertaining himself and Oberon, and he does not consider anyone else in his actions.
Early in the play, Puck talks about the pranks that he has been known to play, telling the audience that, “… sometimes lurk I in a gossip’s bowl, in very likeness of a roasted crab, and when she drinks, against her lips I bob and on her withered dewlap pour the ale. The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale, sometimes for three-foot stool mistaketh me; then slip I from her bum, down topples she, and “tailor” cries, and falls into a cough” (Act 2, Scene 1, Lines 47-54). By turning himself into a crab and lurking in a bowl of ale to scare a woman, and making himself appear to be a stool so that when a woman sits on him, he can make her fall, Puck makes it obvious that he cares about nothing but entertaining himself and his king.
Again, in Act Three, Puck shows his selfishness when he realizes that he has made a mistake with the young lovers in the woods and the love potion meant for Demetrius and Helena. When Puck tries to fix it, he realizes that now both men will fall in love with Helena. Rather than try to remedy the problem, Puck thinks it will be fun to watch. Puck shows his complete lack of interest in the young couples when he says, “Then will two at once woo one; that must needs be sport alone. And those things do best please me that befall preposterously” (Act 3, Scene 2, Lines 118-121). Puck shows a disregard for the true feelings of the young lovers so long as it is entertaining to him.
In conclusion, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, contains two fools who are able to share insight into life and love throughout the play. Shakespeare strategically places Nick Bottom and Puck in the play as fools, but these fools have a purpose. Shakespeare uses Bottom and Puck to teach his audience valuable lessons about the importance of living in the moment of love, instead of taking love too seriously. Puck and Bottom also show the audience is that over-confidence is not an attractive quality in anyone.
The fools also give new meaning to the old adage, “Ignorance is bliss”, through their actions in this play. Shakespeare illustrates this through the self-serving actions of both Bottom and Puck throughout the play. By using Bottom and Puck to illustrate these lessons, Shakespeare allows the audience to see how ridiculous these two characters are, thus enabling the audience to laugh at them while still receiving his message.
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1980.
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