A Cheshire Smile:
Humor Texture and Personality in Shakespeare's Comedies
Midsummer Night's Dream:
Comedy or Comickedy?
Of all Shakespeare’s plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is probably the most fanciful, certainly the most poetically and magically evocative, and undoubtedly a tour de force assertion not only of Shakespeare’s ability to handle both classical myth and folk mythology but also to handle both with unmatched verve and humor. Ironically, what is not so clear (which criticism seldom admits) is whether Midsummer Night’s Dream is indeed a comedy—unless, of course, by “comedy” we mean a play with extraordinary verve and wide-ranging humorous interests.
Certainly Midsummer Night’s Dream is listed as one of the comedies in the First Folio, but a good deal of criticism and a good deal of theatre practice prefer to think of it as a reverie, in fact, as a vanished dream, for which there are several proof texts provided by Shakespeare in the text, notably Puck’s statement as epilogue:
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you but slumbered here
While these visions did appear. (V.i.424-426)
Since humor is universally admitted to have a central role in Midsummer, and since a great deal can be said about what everyone knows to be humor in the play, let us reverse the procedure used earlier for As You Like It and Comedy of Errors, and treat the humor structure of Midsummer first, allowing us a more deliberate approach to the difficulties of calling Midsummer a formal comedy.
But where to start in a play that abounds in every form of mental humor and many physical humors as well? Arbitrarily, let us start with Bottom, one of the great roles in all of Shakespeare, and, of course, a blatantly physical joke in his name itself. We can see in Bottom the great humor problem of the play—not whether he is humorous, he is uproariously humorous—but whether any prioritizing of types of humor can be legitimately argued given the plethora of jokes from all four mental humors.
For our purposes, it is important that we remember how Shakespeare has introduced Bottom to us, and how he will reintroduce Bottom to us after his transformation, because the jokes centering on Bottom are precisely that, centered on Bottom and only rightly interpreted with respect to the character introduced to us. This character-centered humor is a hallmark of Shakespeare, and probably never more memorable than in Bottom of Midsummer Night’s Dream, Rosalind of As You Like It, and Falstaff of Henry IV.
We meet Bottom in Act I scene ii as one of what the stage directions in Act III, scene i will call “the Clowns.” It is clear from the beginning of this early scene that Bottom knows himself to be of special rank among the artisan-actors. And it soon becomes apparent that he has had stage experience allowing him to forcefully suggest the order in which things are to be done. Quince, his director, takes his subordinated role with good grace.
Bottom is self-aware as an actor, as evidenced by his self-evaluation as superior in the tyrant role rather than as the lover. And most important, despite his sense of his dominant talent as tyrant, he quickly evinces a self-confident willingness to play virtually every speaking part in the play.
Bottom’s reintroduction in IV.ii is also important in that it shows his indispensability in the eyes of his fellow actors and their general admiration for his abilities and confidence that those abilities would certainly earn him a royal pension for his performance (and probably for them as well.
Now it is just this sort of man who interrupts Peter Quince almost before he begins to organize his troop. Shakespeare had seen a lot more of theatre than almost any of us, but all of us who have had a modicum of theatrical or musical experience have met the prima donna who also wants to direct, the high tenor who thinks he puts everyone else in the shade, the leading man who wants to lead the company. If we don’t have any theatre experience, it is wildly funny to see what directors can be put through. And if we have a great deal of theatrical experience, it is perhaps all the funnier for all the memories it recalls.
So almost universally, Bottom ordering Quince around, wanting to play Thisbe, stopping rehearsal to argue that the romantic lover is only a secondary talent of his, and ultimately thinking he should double as the Lion, either because he can outroar the kingdom or because he can roar more gently than a mouse have delighted audiences for centuries. For our purposes, however, the question is what kinds of humor-of-the-mind are therein embodied.
As we approach this question, it is well to note that Bottom will eventually get an ass’s head which his antics in I.ii certainly merit. And in that sense, the hilarity of that scene is only setting up the greater practical joke sprung by Puck in III.i, by literally giving Bottom an ass’s head. As such, Bottom’s overweening pride in I.ii is the necessary foundation for a Gotcha joke—Bottom thinks he is more talented than he really is and then—whamo—he gets got and becomes at least largely the ass we have already seen him to be.
We’ve called this the greater practical joke perpetrated by Puck, in III.i, but, in fact, even III.i is part of still far greater jokes created by Shakespeare to last through Bottom’s speech at the end of IV.i that mangles a passage from 1 Corinthians:
The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was. (211-214)
Before we can consider these greater jokes, however, we have laughed at the jokes of Act I scene ii in and for themselves, not knowing where they will ultimately lead. (Even if, like many Shakespeare lovers, we know exactly where the humor of I.ii is leading, we can enjoy the jokes for themselves.) In the first act, which of our four humors of the mind are involved in these jokes for themselves?
Bottom is acting preposterously—and Puck says he likes best preposterous outcomes. We don’t consider preposterousness as itself among the mental humors. But exaggeration can be seen as a form of Incongruity, and Bottom’s preposterousness is an exaggeration, perhaps only slight, of commonly displayed thespian egoism.
There is considerable Incongruity in Bottom’s braggadocio, not that it is atypical of stars or self-styled stars. His notions of playing both of the two lovers is incongruous with typical theater, his directing the director is incongruous with division of labor definitions of stage personnel, and his repeated interjections creating a rehearsal that goes nowhere, again perhaps common in theater but incongruous with what we all believe a good rehearsal should be.
Word Play is also introduced in this scene. Bottom’s tyrannical bombast from line 26 to line 33 is certainly one of the high points of Shakespeare’s satires on bad writing. In Bottom’s thought that he will “aggravate” his voice to roar gently, we glimpse the first of the malapropisms that will embellish his speech.
While Gotcha is insipiently present in I.ii, both Word Play and Incongruity are strongly and immediately present. But what of Sympathetic Pain? Actors and directors who’ve had to put up with the antics of a prima donna or of a virtuoso should answer this question easily. It is hard enough not to rebel in self-respect at the outrages of such egoists. It is even harder to know that despite the outrages, such prima donnas must be coddled. And it is perhaps hardest of all if the director and fellow actors have enough critical talent to recognize just what lack of talent is here displayed.
And this says nothing about the cast member who is dealing with an inferiority complex big as an elephant, someone like Snug the Joiner, who is intensely aware of his own inadequacies and can’t get the help he needs while Bottom-Pyramus considers how Snug could be done without entirely.
It is hard not to laugh in Sympathetic Pain over what the rest of the troop is being subjected to and, by extension, what performing groups of all sorts are similarly subjected to. Throughout the play, whenever Quince’s company appears, the joke will essentially be repeated, the Sympathetic Pain joke of everyone putting up with Bottom—respecting and even loving him, but all the more putting up with him. Minor thespians, we know exactly how you feel!
Thus in this scene alone we find elements of at least three forms of Humor of the Mind: Incongruity, Word Play, and Sympathetic Pain. And given that the play and particularly Bottom’s destiny are so well known, it might be argued that educated play-goers enjoy virtual Gotcha humor, based on the knowledge that Bottom’s braggadocio is a set up for the transformation he will later be subjected to.
We have largely confined ourselves to a consideration of what is funny in Act I, scene ii. But what we have seen there is quite generally the case for all the early scenes of Midsummer Night’s Dream: the scene contains many separately funny elements. But virtually all of them are being used to build far bigger jokes that come to fruition later in the play. If instead of Bottom, we had considered the two pairs of young lovers in the play, we would find much the same to be the case.
In the play’s first scene, Lysander urges Demetrius, since he has the love of Hermia’s father Egeos, to marry him, and leave Hermia to wed Lysander. At the time the line is delivered, it is funny in part because we are not prepared for its brashness. The brashness of Lysander is proved throughout the scene—he has no qualms about stealing a daughter from an unwilling father, being incapable of thinking that his actions are in the slightest questionable given that he is in love.
And like Bottom, Lysander will be got, got numerous times over in succeeding acts, so that there are much bigger jokes being set up in Act I than we are aware of. For example, Lysander thinks himself competent to elope, but overestimates his abilities as pathfinder. He no sooner enters the woods than he gets himself and Hermia lost, allowing Puck a field day with the rest of their night.
Helena evidently thinks she is smart for betraying her friend and revealing the elopement to her jilting lover, Demetrius, who himself feels jilted by Hermia. Whatever we may say about the humorous character of Helena’s self-pity in the first act of the play, that momentary humorousness is also part of the set-up for Helena to traipse out into the forest after Demetrius and to be got by the seeming united slings and arrows of unchivalrous and satiric man-and-womankind, culminating in one of the great cat fights of theatre history.
Or again, if we had started with Puck, the suavely competent, faster-than-a-speeding bullet intriguer, his interviews with the fairy scout and with his fairy boss, Oberon, are both filled with recounted pranks and practical jokes, along with vitally humorous virtuosity. There is plenty of material then for Shakespeare to use in later scenes where Puck is discomfited and got for his various ineptitudes in his master’s service. A good many productions provide stage business—tweaked ears or noses and the like for Puck—to fully realize the later Gotcha humor built on his early confidence.
Among the fairy royalty, Titania gets the first laugh on Oberon, who thought himself lord and master whose word would automatically be honored and obeyed, but by mid-play she too has been massively got, and the first interview with Oberon then becomes the foundation against which the Gotcha of sleeping with Bottom as ass will be played.
Even Theseus, at least in many modern readings, can be seen as too confident of having won the prize of Hippolyta by force of arms and too complaisant in administering Athens’ excessively paternalistic laws. He has evidently been made to learn better by Act V, and at least those whose hearts were always with the ladies will smile at his reformed gentility and legal moderation.
Competent humorous criticism must, therefore, recognize even this early on that there is a difference between the momentary sorties of humor in Midsummer and the greater jokes which are themselves conceived in smaller momentary jokes.
Thus, throughout the many plots of Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare is imaginatively bountiful in humorous moments, humorous moments of Word Play—for example in Bottom’s and Quince’s many malapropisms—and Incongruity—such as the unceasing Incongruities of the artisan’s play and the heightened incongruous effects of the noble audience’s interjections. But these delightful humorous thrusts are all momentary. They are effervescent, often hardly realized before being topped by some additional joke.
On the other hand, the Gotcha jokes are the multiple plots of the play. As we have seen in some detail, the Gotcha joke against Bottom is built step by step from Act I, scene ii on. By Act III, it is in high gear with Puck’s prank of providing Bottom with an ass’s head. And the joke continues, intermingling with the Gotcha against Titania, and only climaxing with Bottom’s waking speech: “I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say. . . ” (IV.i.205-219).
Among other conclusions, recognizing the wide-ranging mental humor of Midsummer Night’s Dream but recognizing as well the high memorability of greater jokes that also serve as multiple plots of the play, we will not be happy with any humor personality analysis which does not recognize Gotcha as one of the lead humors of the play.
(It is worth noting that when Gotcha humor dominates in theatre and film, it often does so on the kind of large, structural scale we have just analyzed for Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Comedic Tenor, Comic Vehicle, we noted, for example, that Dirty Rotten Scoundrels can be seen as one long, intricate Gotcha, a scam-artist-scammed story; The Blues Brothers creates a large, film-long Gotcha on law enforcement, and Aladdin revels in the trickster-out-tricked theme.)
Having already accepted Gotcha as a lead humor, it will be easier to recognize that some of the humor that we have not thought about as Gotcha really was Gotcha. Consider Bottom’s constant malapropisms—often much more reasonably defined as ignorant mistakes like “aggravate” for “moderate” and “defect” for “effect.” While these are certainly examples of Shakespearean Word Play, they are simultaneously Gotcha jokes; that is, Bottom thinks he is a cut or two above people like Snug and Starveling, that he speaks with a more serious, studied rhetoric—and of course is got in our eyes for being the illiberally educated artisan that he actually is.
It is a point easily worth reemphasizing that it is the normal character of jokes to be two or more jokes told simultaneously, as here, we have both a Word Play and a Gotcha joke repeatedly combined. There may even be a third, an Incongruity joke, of Bottom not knowing his place and speaking above his peers’ and his own abilities. And if there are three, might we even mention a possible fourth, that there is a potential Sympathetic Pain joke as well. If we have come to like Bottom, if we ourselves know that we are at pains to use our educations but don’t always succeed, then perhaps we can wince as well as laugh when “moderate” comes out as “aggravate,” and we can remember our own misspeakings and malapropisms, our back-fired attempts to impress with language.
We hope these multiple interpretations of a single joke do not seem far-fetched or needlessly belaboring to our readers. In fact, humor is typically multiple. When we were designing the Humor Quotient Test, Robin looked at numerous compilations of jokes and collections of Far Side cartoons and the like for appropriate jokes for the test. We hadn’t planned this as its own significant experiment, but what we found was that Robin had to look at over 1,000 jokes to find 84 that so clearly represented one of the four types of mental humor that, given other testing parameters, we could confidently score choosing it as a preference for a single mental humor form. Assuming that the final test chose only half the singular-jokes that could be candidates for inclusion (there were many balances of the HQT that had to be taken into account for such inclusion), that still means that only about one sixth of the jokes considered from commercial sources could be considered singular as opposed to multiple in humor-of-the-mind structure.
When multiple joke structures prevail among humor-of-the-mind subtypes, the likeliest artistic outcome is perhaps murkiness. If any such joke is analyzed simply as within any one of the four sub-types, there is a reasonable uneasiness with the analysis. There is also an understandable uneasiness within a non-specialist audience that senses that the full joke is greater than whatever their own conscious perception of the joke has validated. And that uneasiness is ultimately a cognitive or intellective murkiness, a sense of unresolved multiplicity.
Perhaps another likely artistic result is a sense of ambiguous open-endedness; a third, a sense of the undefined and perhaps the indefinable; and a fourth, a sense of blurring and bringing opposites together. Anyone who has read much Midsummer criticism should sense that the terms in use here are very similar to terms used for the artistic accomplishment of Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Returning then to the main line of our argument, the presence of wildly proliferating multiple-interpretation jokes will have its own effect centering in murkiness, but we will be dissatisfied with any suggestion that Gotcha is not one of the lead humors of the mind for Midsummer Night‘s Dream both because the major jokes of the play worked out over several acts are Gotcha in form and because many of the smaller, momentary jokes, like Bottom’s garrulous malapropisms, can also be analyzed to be, ambiguously, also Gotcha in form.
Before we move on from Gotcha, we would feel remiss not to mention one of our least anticipated findings from our empirical studies of mental humor, an intriguing negative correlation between preference for Gotcha humor and self-care. Specifically, students who scored high in Gotcha scored low in safety practices (such as wearing seat belts) and self-care practices (such as flossing and self-breast/testicle examination) (Grawe, R. 2000 HQN 6-1). Gotcha humor preference seems to suggest a certain devil-may-care disregard for personal safety and care. For the bulk of Midsummer Night’s Dream, safety and personal care seem to have been thrown to the wind, leaving ample opportunity for cat fights and recriminations, thus making Gotcha an appropriate humor vehicle.
If Gotcha is one lead humor element, what then is the second lead humor element in the play as a whole?
The wording here, “the play as a whole,” is always inherent in the process of identifying dominant humor sub-forms. Let us not take these words for granted, and specifically, let us not assume that what is true of the whole is always true of all the parts. Midsummer provides an outstanding example of this distinction with respect to the humor attached to the artisans’ play in Act V. Act V does not share the humor proclivities of the play as a whole.
The mechanics play of Act V is, of course, constantly interrupted by the rather supercilious witty comments of the noble spectators starting as early as the prologue. A very large percentage of these interruptions are essentially Word Play in structure, as for example:
Theseus: I wonder if the lion be to speak.
Demetrius: No wonder, my Lord; one lion may, when
many asses do. (V.i.152-154)
Word play—ass meaning animal and ass meaning a fool—certainly, but we would argue one of the weakest jokes in Shakespeare and probably purposefully so. The interruptions are themselves antithetical to what we assume to be good manners of a theatre audience. Perhaps Shakespeare was getting even with the nobles at court entertainments who couldn’t shake themselves of the conviction that they were the real show. In which case the only thing better than a dumb aristocratic joke would be a dumber aristocratic joke. We’d argue that Shakespeare provides both the dumb and dumber in Act V. Incidentally, the greater joke here, of atrociously bad audience manners, is exquisitely Shakespearean Inconguity on top of dumb aristocratic Word Play.
While both these elements can be shown throughout hundreds of successive lines of Act V, neither of these structures is inherently similar to joke structures in earlier acts. In those acts, we have not seen supercilious noble on-lookers. They have been bedraggled, bothered, and bewildered young people “in love” and “in hate.” They have not been spectators but rather all-too-involved participants and victims. In the earlier acts, Word Play wasn’t a game, it was a deadly earnest war between peas-in-the pod Lysander and Demetrius, between tall blonde Helena and short brunette Hermia, between spurned Helena and driven Demetrius, between overconfidently faithful Lysanader and overly credulous Hermia.
And good humor criticism will note the difference in humor texture that sets Act V so far apart from the rest of the play. Also, good criticism will, having noted the difference in humor texture, at least wonder why an artist like Shakespeare would do such a thing. The sudden shift to Intellectual humor in Act V is critical to our emotional response to Midsummer Night’s Dream, and even, arguably, to an understanding of the play’s comedic import, as we shall explore later. But it does not leave Intellectual humor as the predominant humor combination of the play. The Intellectual humor of Act V is comprised of momentary jokes that no one in the audience can remember half an hour later, whereas the major jokes of the earlier acts create the overall impression of Midsummer Night’s Dream that sensitive audiences can never forget.
Recalling our discussion of Act I, scene ii, we noted that, while the scene is laying the groundwork for the great ass’s head Gotcha against Bottom, it is also inviting us to respond sympathetically toward the rest of the company, and it is thus also making us at least smile with Sympathetic Pain humor for what Bottom makes them endure. What we didn’t say in our earlier discussion is that we as audience have also come to like Bottom for all his braggadocio and for all his general rudeness. To some extent, even as early as Act , scene.ii, some of the Bottom humor is humorous because we like him, because we identify with him, and because we sympathize with the ass he is beginning to make of himself. As the play progresses, this fundamental fact of our liking and sympathizing with Bottom becomes ever more important.
By the time Bottom arrives in the woods with his fellow thespians in Act III, we cannot be surprised that he has been “meta-thinking” while practicing his part. He’s been looking at the big picture, and the big picture he sees is scary indeed. On the one hand, there is a need to faithfully perform this “comedy.” On the other hand, there are the challenges of creating moonlight, portraying a solid wall that is yet quickly moved and most of all, there is a need for the terrible acts of this drama not to frighten the ladies and thus to lose all the actors their heads.
Bottom is taking charge again, usurping the thinking rightfully devolving on Quince as director. Moreover, he is obviously a babe in the woods when it comes to theatre conventions, audience response, and audience ability to forgive actors (though Shakespeare himself must have been aware that script writing, acting, and financially backing theater were all risky businesses that could result in serious embarrassment as in the Essex Affair)[i] Thus even as we smirk at all of what is rightly censurable in Bottom, our smirking has to contend with our liking Bottom and wishing him well. To the extent that this is our situation as audience, then our laughter is a combination of Gotcha and Sympathetic Pain laughter at the same joke.
By the time Bottom is saying that he could really do with a peck of provender, that is, a quarter bushel of grain (IV.i.31), the structure of the Gotcha joke is about at its apex. But most of us do not feel its force as anything but strongly on the wane. And the reason is that the Sympathetic Pain aspect of the joke is now strongly in the ascendant. Despite Bottom’s preposterousness all the way through and his hilarious humiliation at Puck’s hand, we have come to recognize him as a fellow human, like us, made a fool of by forces beyond us. And we can understand his wanting a good scratch behind the ears and some “good dry oats.”
Bottom continues to be a sympathetic character right through to his waking speech: “I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be called ‘Bottom’s Dream,’ because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the later end of the play . . .” (IV.i. 214-216). We’re back to Star Bottom, the man above the director, the egoist for whom self, not the play itself, is the only thing.
But by now he has become “our Bottom,” “sweet Bottom,” “bully Bottom,” for us as for his fellow artisans, and we are in every way ready to laugh sympathetically and in no way ready to begin a new extended Gotcha on our dear friend, who for most of us will lurk in our memories far longer than most of our childhood mates.
And finally for the coda ending of the Great Ass Head Gotcha in the next scene, IV.ii, we have:
Bottom: . . . I will tell everything right as it fell out.
Quince Let us hear, sweet Bottom.
Bottom: Not a word of me. (IV.ii.31-33)
The last word on the subject invokes a light Sympathetic Pain smile that Bottom has learned enough to keep his mouth shut—for once—or at least to change the subject rather than blundering on.
What has been said about Bottom can be repeated and shown for each of the “gottees” of the play: for Lysander, for Demetrius, for Hermia, for Helena, for Theseus, (very lightly perghaps for Hyppolyta), for Oberon, for Titania, and even for Puck, Hobgoblin himself who has the endearing sense to be familiarly known as Robin Goodfellow and intimately known as Puck. Each of them is truly got in an objective sense (even Hyppolyta has been got in more senses than one by Theseus.) Titania has been severely trampled. Puck, who thinks himself the master prankster of the universe, has been put to pains showing that he isn’t much more than a fallible lackey to Oberon.
And yet, each of these gottees has also become sympathetic to us. (We have not included Egeus in the list of gottees, not because he hasn’t been got, but because there is very little sympathy built for him, whereas all the others do engage our sympathy.) If we were to examine each in our list as closely as we have looked at Bottom, we inevitably would find that Gotcha and Sympathetic Pain humor are intertwined. We will not all perceive this intertwining the same way, and perhaps some will deny that they ever respond to Sympathetic Pain humor. But the risible structures will remain and will always be easily arguable by humor critics and by directors. In short, the ambiguous nature of Midsummer Night’s Dream overwhelmingly insists that both the justice issues of Gotcha and the mercy issues of Sympathetic Pain be inextricably connected.
Thus we would conclude that Gotcha and Sympathetic Pain are the central and dominant humors of Midsummer Night’s Dream as a whole, making the play’s humor personality Bridgebuilder. Among a great many other things, this designation means that the humor personality of Midsummer Night’s Dream is diametrically opposite the humor personality of As You Like It, which we identified as Intellectual.
We should, however, recognize two major caveats of our conclusion. The first of these is that Act V of Midsummer Night’s Dream has a distinctly different humor texture than the extended Gotcha-Sympathetic Pain humor of the earlier acts. The nobility are no longer the vulnerable waifs of the forest. They are now the cognoscenti, the obvious social superiors. They engage in extensive repartee, replete with Word Play and with Incongruity. This is the world of As You Like It, the world of Intellectual humor texture.
The greatest and best laughs, of course, are for lowly artisans on-stage, not for complaisant nobles at their festive table. Yet even among the artisans’ play, Intellectual humor predominates. The script of the play within a play abounds in Word Play, and Incongruity humor abounds in our perception of the bathetically bad writing of their script. The Incongruities in performance of Pyramus, Thisbe, Wall, Moonshine, and Lion are among the strongest and longest enduring humorous images in Shakespeare.
But this Intellectual coda does not wash out the abiding sense of Sympathetic Pain. For mature audiences, Sympathetic Pain humor continues through the final scene. What we remember is the wonderful show put on by men whose desire was to please and who were immensely pleasing despite incredible lack of ability, men moreover for whom we wish well and toward whom we are entirely sympathetic.
And if we somehow missed that point, it is not for lack of Shakespeare’s having prompted us otherwise:
Theseus: . . . I will hear this play.
For never anything can be amiss
When simpleness and duty tender it. (V.i.81-83)
The second caveat is that, as announced from the beginning of these studies, we are primarily concerned with humor of the mind and within that only four subtypes: Incongruity, Word Play, Gotcha, and Sympathetic Pain. Yet in Midsummer Night’s Dream, the wealth of humor of the body cannot be ignored. A man playing a wall, a boy playing a boy playing a girl, a cat fight in the woods (often presented as a precursor of modern mud-wrestling), much less a man with the head of an ass and itches to go with an ass’s hairiness—these are all wonderful moments in body humor creativity that have been immensely memorable to audiences over four centuries.
Without going further afield into body humor per se, we must notice that the body humor of Midsummer works to support the Gotcha, the Sympathetic Pain, and the Incongruity humor. Bottom’s ass’s head is one of the most enduring physical and bodily representations of Gotcha mental humor. Snug’s peering out from under the Lion’s armpit certainly counts as Incongruity as well as body humor. And Starveling having no more to say than to repeat that he is the man in the moon, “this thorn-bush is my thorn-bush, and this dog my dog” (V.i.258-259) is not only physically fantastic but also strangely moving and evocative of Sympathetic Pain smiles or even laughter. Thus body humor enhances Gotcha, Incongruity, and Sympathetic Pain. Humor of the body plays a major role in Midsummer Night’s Dream and could certainly provide the theme for a full essay or more. Our interest here, however, must remain the play’s humor-of-the-mind Bridgebuilder personality and Bridgebuilder texture.
Bridgebuilder humor creates a tension between an appreciation of justice and an appreciation of mercy. We are constantly pulled between laughing at some braggart getting just deserts and laughing with the victim who is suffering undeservedly. Not only that, often we do both simultaneously, and we may even feel ambivalent about our responses. Thus Bridgebuilder humor is likely to be misty or murky, complicated, involuted, or convoluted, and intimately personal and involved. It is not at all difficult to find these latter terms or highly related terms throughout the sensitive criticism of Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Furthermore, in Shakespeare’s play, this Bridgebuilder texture is modified by the intense physicality of the middle acts of the play and the enduring body humor already noted, adding an additional layer of texture—a raucous, rough-and-tumble feel—to an already murky and involuted texture.
And to make humor texture even more convoluted, in Act V, this very physical Gotcha-Sympathetic Pain humor combination of earlier acts is suddenly restrained and tamed by its opposite humor combination, Incongruity and Word Play. Intellectual humor, as we have already seen, typically feels sharp, crisp, detached. The Intellectual humor of the noble spectators and the play-within-a-play brings a certain disengagement after such physical and relational engagement and a soothing balm after such raucous entanglement. The play which had reveled in wild, murky ambivalence retreats into Intellectual civility and clarity. The fact that Act V is dominated by Word Play and Incongruity, the opposites of the mental humors acomprising Bridgebuilder, allows Act V to operate as a very special denouement back into the world, at least the world of festive royal candlelight if not of the sun itself, and out of the murky, fairy-filled world of the middle acts.
And yet, as fairies fill the stage in the final moments of this denouement, we sense how close beneath the surface lies the murky realm of ambivalence: sophisticated aristocratic civility is limited, even illusory; we dare not count on the fairies staying nicely in their sylvan heartland, firmly excluded by the world of intellect which revels in Incongruity and Word Play.
Having examined the intricate interweaving of mental humor in Midsummer Night’s Dream, let us then turn to the formal comedy of the play—or at least the question of formal comedy for Midsummer Night’s Dream—that should be integrated with the humor texture in any basic humor-comedy approach to the play.
Perhaps the central point of any comedic criticism of Midsummer Night’s Dream was written by Shakespeare himself and given to Puck as Epilogue:
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.
If you pardon, we will mend. (V.i.424-430)
This is, of course, one of the most graceful and remembered epilogues of theatre. And perhaps, therefore, it has been too easily assumed that like most epilogues, it is basically insincere, more specifically, that it is falsely modest throughout. It has also often been assumed that its meaning is unpretentiously simple and certainly not ambiguous.
Like most epilogues of its time and for a long time thereafter, it is in rhyming couplets. Elsewhere in Shakespeare, rhyming couplets are the equivalent of highlighting; the rhymed passage is important to the true understanding of the whole. Again, it is easy to assume that rhyme is simply conventional here and that Shakespeare is essentially using rhyming couplets for an opposite, fundamentally insincere effect opposed to his standard use of rhyme.
But what if Puck’s epilogue is, far from a conventional false apology, in fact the key to seeing exactly what kind of play this is?
If you, the audience, are censorious to begin with, because you’ve expected something you feel you didn’t get for your penny’s admission, then just think that you have been sleeping here—and all is mended—sewn together for you to feel you got your entertainment penny’s worth.
I—Puck and Shakespeare—admit that what you have just witnessed has no more claim to comedic design than to say that it is a “weak and idle” one. It yields—signifies and can be rationally comprehended as—almost nothing, just as a dream remembered typically signifies little that can be rationally comprehended.
BUT I—Shakespeare and Puck—now adjure you—as gentle folk—not to be critical. And if you will follow this appeal, you will find that the play mends—improves, perhaps even unto criticism four centuries later.
It is always amazing how many words it takes, how many times Shakespeare's words, to try to say critically what he has so succinctly said poetically.
Centrally imbedded in Puck’s brief comments is the idea that this play can rightfully be described—and right description is a purpose of good criticism—as having a “weak and idle theme.” Presumably the theme of a comedy is a comedic theme, and Puck, then, is admitting that the comedic theme is both weak and idle. For convenience, we will assume that the best definition here for “idle” is “the opposite of driving or compelling.”
What can we make, then, of the comedic theme, the comedic design, the comedic import of Midsummer Night’s Dream if we accept Shakespeare’s words at face value? Where is the patterned demonstration of success or survival?
In Midsummer Night’s Dream, there are at least four prima facie couples’ successes in marriage. There is additionally a theatre troop’s success in acting before its duke, and perhaps most important of all, the success of restored harmony between Oberon and Titania, with vast—if not cosmic, then at least, terrestrial—significances.
Now by our definition of comedy as a pattern of success or survival demonstrating a faith in the survival of humanity, it would seem, at first glance, that there is abundant material to make not a weak and idle theme but a close-to-universal social comedy. Add to this material a plethora of diverse humors, and everyone is sure to applaud the work as masterful, hardly to condemn the work as too weak to be endured.
And yet, if we look at the history of neo-classical criticism from Shakespeare’s death to approximately 1790, isn’t such condemnation the rule rather than the exception, both for Midsummer Night’s Dream and for the entire Shakespeare canon, admittedly with some slight emendation from Pope and a little more from Dr. Johnson?[ii] And if more recent criticism, especially of Midsummer Night’s Dream, doesn’t bother with comedic theme, design, or import at all but skips blithely on to romantic considerations of tone or modern considerations of principles of unconscious psychology, then hasn’t romantic and modern criticism taken Puck’s opening suggestion very seriously, avoiding artistic censure in favor of considering the play only as dream?
So instead, let’s now look more carefully at the supposed corpus of comedic material in Midsummer Night’s Dream. The play displays many successes, indubitably. That is not in question any more than the rich humorous base of the play. What is in question is whether all that success is patterned into anything that could be called comedic design or more specifically comedic pattern. Puck closes Act III, saying that every man will have his mare “and all shall be well.” Let’s start from that. Is that the comedic pattern of the play? Perhaps the happy-ever-after, all’s-well-that-ends-well pattern of the play? If so, it is certainly idle and weak as a theme. A culmination in four marriages suggests strongly that “love makes the world go round” and that as long as mare and stallion get together, the race is likely to survive. All true, but quite idle and weak, not to say vacuous and trite.
But isn’t saying even that too much? Does every man have his mare? If we are talking about the four lovers in the woods, isn’t the truth that every mare gets her man? Yet, if Oberon and Titania are included, then modern criticism sensitive to women’s issues will feel that the mare in question has no duty to be enthusiastic. And if Theseus and Hippolyta are included, this even more turns out to be a man’s world of men’s success, while women bear unfaithfulness, chicanery, and violence.
Furthermore, artistically, a pattern of every man having his mare leaves no room for the theatrical troop or their success. They become simply the “clowns” of the stage directions. And in that case, the fact that one actor after another has made playing Bottom the dreamed culmination of a Shakespearean acting career is finally inexplicable, unless great actors are attracted to roles that are totally unrelated to the direction of the plays of which they are a part.
If every man having his mare doesn’t seem cogent, much less enlightening about the artistic realities of Midsummer, let us consider festive comedy, comedy that exalts social survival in festivity as the key to comedic theme and design.
If festive society is the key to social success and survival, then it is at least odd that Shakespeare chooses to culminate the nuptial festivities with a gruesome play. As Bevington has noted, “The tragic love story of Pyramus and Thisbe, although it seems absurdly ill suited to a wedding, reminds us of the discord and potentially fatal misunderstandings that threaten even the best of relationships between men and women” (149). It may remind us of discord and misunderstanding, but the story as presented by the artisan thespians doesn’t have any discord between Pyramus and Thisbe or any misunderstanding between them either. It seems equally reasonable to say that the play within a play reminds us that social success takes place in a world where lions prowl, where some walls are very human and moveable, and where the moon looks on with his lantern, thorn-bush, and dog.
These cynical asides aside, we should not totally disparage a festive comedy interpretation of the play. One of the great advantages of such an interpretation is that it brings together all the plot lines of the play, even Oberon, Titania, Puck, and the fairies having a role in guaranteeing privileged success to the noble couples.
But that is perhaps also the greatest defect with the theory. Is the success we have seen demonstrated and that we are to believe ensures the survival of the race precisely and only that the nobility of this world will be blessed by arbitrarily motivated semi-deities, that they will be assured of lives for their posterity that will not have to deal with the hazards— hairlips for example—that other classes must consider the necessary hazards of life?
If this is really the comedic import of Midsummer Night’s Dream, then our Puritanic-alderman critics will certainly have been incensed. Moreover, in an age which took its religious concerns and precepts more seriously than perhaps any other in history, it is hard to imagine as well any Catholic or Anglican or Presbyterian or Lutheran tolerance for the comedic theme of the play. In such a case, Shakespeare would do well to treat his theme lightly or to neglect it altogether and fervently pray that his audience en masse would treat it merely as a weird dream.
There are, no doubt, other nominees for comedic design in this vein. We leave it to readers to honestly confront them and to consider how well they cover the superabundance of “success material” in the play. At the level of the two supposed comedic patterns discussed above, we think most will finally be seen as either far from complete or quite weak and idle.
Given the flimsiness of all these possible comedic themes, is it possible that there isn’t any comedic design or pattern in Midsummer worth critical discussion? That’s tantamount to saying that the play has no real comedic design or pattern, in which case Midsummer Night’s Dream is not a comedy and not subject to comedic interpretation. Is that a catastrophe?
Not really. The play, of course, is listed under Comedies in the First Folio, but so is Love’s Labor’s Lost, which Berowne, its most English down-to-earth character, forthrightly states is “not a comedy,” and the division of the First Folio into Comedies, Tragedies, and Histories seems convenient at best anyway.
Using our own terminology, if Midsummer isn’t believably a comedy, it is more than believably a comickedy, a play written to be maximally humorous and to be memorable for its humor. In terms of memorability, the jokes of Midsummer Night’s Dream are some of the most remembered jokes ever perpetrated on stage. Midsummer Night’s Dream could easily claim not only to be comickedy, but to be superlatively artistic comickedy that has delighted audiences and challenged critics for centuries.
If nothing else, Midsummer as comickedy is the clearest evidence that comickedy is in no sense a derogatory or pejorative term. Tragedic bombast is far easier for actors to learn to carry off than even a half-successful comickedic production of Midsummer, dependent, as such a production must be, on actors almost instantaneously modulating their techniques and their humorous artistry in response to the laughing or non-laughing propensities of audiences that vary widely from night to night.[iii] Shakespeare the writer doesn’t have exactly the same challenges as the acting theatre company, but let us not think that writing an original, consistently hilarious comickedy is an easy thing. Writing an original, consistently hilarious, poetically evocative comickedy is exponentially more difficult.
Without ever having articulately considered any difference between comedy and comickedy, most audiences are likely, nevertheless, to appreciate a comickedic interpretation of Midsummer over any possible comedic-import interpretation. The humor of Midsummer is wonderful, effervescent, almost continual, highly varied, mood-evocative, and memorable beyond almost everything remotely of its kind in theatre.
Shakespeare invited his audience to take this easy road in his epilogue. Most audiences accept the invitation, and accepting the invitation without reprehension, reserve, criticism, or condemnation does prove to allow the play to “mend”—to improve—to become one of the greatest classics of theatre! So Shakespeare could be more than content, and we can be more than content with typical audience responses that avoid the difficulties of comedic import for Midsummer altogether.
There is, however, at a much deeper level of criticism, a surprisingly philosophic comedic pattern and comedic import consistent with everything Shakespeare wrote into Midsummer Night’s Dream, most explicitly including what he wrote as epilogue for the play. And if we accept that the play is at best weak and idle in its comedic theme, as the epilogue concedes, we just might find that weak, idle but consistent pattern and appreciate the play more for its being there.
A consistent comedic import for Midsummer depends on taking the play seriously as well as humorously. Among Shakespeare’s comedies, Midsummer has the most consistently non-Christian social context. Theseus, Hippolyta, and their court are clearly historically a millennium older than Christianity. The inclusion of Robin Goodfellow-Puck-Hobgoblin and friends from English folk mythology leaves the play thoroughly in an animistic-pagan world which 16th century Christians, whatever their disputes between themselves, knew they had decisively left.
If there is success and human survival demonstrated in Midsummer Night’s Dream, then it is a success and survival available outside Christianity, and, in fact, outside the Judeo-Christian tradition altogether. Seen this way, Midsummer is akin to the Old Testamental book of Ecclesiastes written about life and success “under the sun.” There is success and survival within the revelations of God, which is one thing, and there is life going on without any particular revelation of ultimate reality—under the son—which is another matter entirely.
What are the conditions of success in such life under the sun? In the terms of Midsummer Night’s Dream, what probably most conditions life under the sun is the presence of Puck, Robin Goodfellow, and Hobgoblin: what makes the world go round is finally unknowable and from a human rational perspective capricious.
Sometimes luck is on your side—Robin Goodfellow is in charge. Sometimes life has its frustrations and inconsistencies—Puck the Prankster is in charge. And sometimes, life gets entirely turned upside down and inside out, and you are lucky if it doesn’t end up as tragically as Pyramus and Thisbe and perhaps also as ridiculous as Pyramus and Thisbe—Hobgoblin is in charge.
Maybe you can make it through, maybe ultimately behind Puck stands an Oberon who is quixotically on your side. You end up with most of the goods the world has to provide: fortuitous marriage, political power and influence, good food, a sufficient fortune, and maybe even a providential blessing that allows your progeny to avoid a great many of the tragedies that others often call life.
In that case, what can be said about life as a whole—notice, we aren’t much concerned with those who don’t have a quixotically beneficent Oberon working for them. Well, such a life is pretty much a dream, maybe in many ways a nice dream, but also a fierce dream, and one that should be called Bottom’s dream because it hath no bottom. Trying to figure it out, to make sense of it, to find some great design in it is a futile exercise.
So if you are only going around once, probably best to hope for an Oberon on your side. That handles some of the difficulties. The difficulties of a meaningless universe, however, can become just as nasty as the world Titania describes in imitation of Oberon’s and her discord and are left for humanity, even noble privileged humanity, to get through as best they may. The same can be said for getting through Puck’s pranks and mistakes in carrying out Oberon’s wishes.
So the question of successful survival becomes the question of muddling through. It becomes the question of handling things with as much dignity and good humor as possible, of a proper carrying out of the social amenities. It is in this sense a very intellectually detached and self-controlled exercise.
The nobles of Act V work hard at particularly this clear, crisp, intelligent, detached kind of thing. Far be it for Hippolyta or Theseus to even mention the barbaric warfare that brought them together. Far be it from Demetrius and Helena to carefully investigate what brought them together, separated them, and strangely reunited them. Far be it from Lysander and Hermia to give a backward glance to the foul language and insipient violence that characterized their relationship such a short time previously. And far be it from Egeus, the general loser but also the political sophisticate, to say almost anything.
As for the supernaturals, best not to think about them very consciously. They will do what they will do, and perhaps the best that can be done is to hope for the best. Festivity is a good thing; it runs out the clock, if perhaps very expensively. And if you are the duke and the entertainment provided is, as Bevington suggests, strangely discordant, a platitudinous calm is appropriate to while away the remaining hours.
If on the other hand, you are one of the less-than-chosen few, an artisan thespian for example, the best to be hoped is to be dutiful, to watch out for the idiosyncratic crankiness which your betters sometimes display, and maybe come out with six pence a day for life.
All of this is consistently in accord with what we see throughout the play. And it accounts for the noble humor of Act V and the superficial Incongruity and Word Play momentary hilarities of Pyramus and Thisbe. In other words, it accounts for the odd humor movement in Act V to create an Intellectual, crisp detached feel at the end. The tendency of Western philosophy under the sun from the Greek Stoics on has always been so. Faced with an incomprehensible universe, humanity is left to strive for intellect and self-control.
But if we assume that Shakespeare is the master here, the master thinker as well as the master dramatist, his overall humorous design is quite a comment on the stoic intellectual tradition: It is finally very little to be intellectual and controlled. What makes life under the sun memorable and worthwhile is not its intellect but its social cohesion, the bridges that hold social reality together. Those bridges are primarily personal, not impersonal. They are weak bridges unless they are bridges built on concepts of justice (the ultimate viewpoint of Gotcha) and of mercy (the ultimate viewpoint of Sympathetic Pain).
And in this sense, the weak and idle comedic theme of Midsummer Night’s Dream is precisely the humor pattern of the play.
If between justice and mercy there is contention under the sun without reference to any divine revelation, then mercy and Sympathetic Pain humor are the final winners over justice and Gotcha humor. The Sympathetic Pain humor of Pyramus and Thisbe overrides every other consideration. And under the sun, we can only hope that the mercy underlying the prominently displayed Sympathetic Pain humor concerning us mere mortals—“what fools these mortals be” (III.ii.115)—motivates supernatural power quixotically and without reference to justice on our behalf.
Life under the sun is rough-and-tumble: it is not possible to predict the direction of events; emotional attachments are mysterious and often fickle or fleeting; self-interest predominates, whether it is Egeus looking to his own, Theseus slavishly administering the laws of Athens, Puck looking out for his own hide, or a major domo judging artistic merit. In such a world, we must expect to be got repeatedly, and we may even be forced to accept it as the best of worlds. After all, you can’t be gotten unless you over-estimate yourself, and if you over-estimate yourself, the world is being your friend to point out the error in your judgment. Much better to suffer the slings and arrows of Gotcha than the slings and arrows of pure meanness and malignity.
But if you are very fortunate and if the milk of human kindness happens to flow in the people around you, they may also laugh with you even when they started by laughing at you. They may even go so far as to finally approve your miserable attempts to please and to engage in higher things.
As social comedy, then, Midsummer Night’s Dream celebrates a faith in human survival in an opaque world where Gotcha is one of the few clarifying elements and where Sympathetic Pain allows for the possibility of camaraderie in facing a daunting existence.
It is a slender thread of comedic import, mainly expressed in the humor itself. But then, under the sun, what other hope is there?
[ii] Jack Lynch's Becoming Shakespeare traces the critical and dramatic recognition, treatment, emendation, notation, and presentation of Shakespeare over the four centuries since his death. Note here especially his discussion of Alexander Pope's (88-93) and Samuel Johnson's (97-101) comments on and alterations to Shakespeare. cf Gerald Bentley's Shakespeare: A Biographical Handbook, Chapter 8. [Return to text.]
[iii] In a recent experiment at the Commonweal Theatre (www.CommonwealTheatre.org) in Lanesboro, Minnesota, we had the opportunity to gage differences in responses to humor between audiences on successive days for Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile. Counting all audible humorous responses by two or more members of an audience of perhaps 150, the amount of recorded humor response for the same play with the same actors was almost 50% less at the Sunday matinee than at the Saturday night performance. Highly talented professional actors must not only be prepared for such enormous differences but must also have the ensemble technical capabilities to adjust to such differences ad lib during performance. [Return to text.]