One of Shakespeare’s most poetic speeches is spoken by a character who spends half the play turned halfway into a donkey. The play is A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the character is the very foolish Nick Bottom. Always pay attention to Shakespeare’s fools. Often, they possess wisdom which escapes the wits of more refined men.
The main plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream involves four young people having troubles with love. In defiance of the authority figures, they run off to the forest and, unknowingly, into the realm of the fairy king and queen. The fairies try playing matchmakers and merry madness ensues. Meanwhile, in the ordered world of the city, the duke’s wedding night approaches. And as a comic sort of sideshow, Shakespeare adds a band of rustics to the mix who are preparing a play in honor of the duke’s marriage.
The men have chosen to act out the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe. This is an absurd choice for the duke’s wedding party: Pyramus and Thisbe are star-crossed lovers who both end up committing suicide. Shakespeare pokes fun at himself and his playwriting profession in his portrayal of these lovable fools. I highly recommend that you watch the scene below in which Shakespeare introduces us to the troupe. Plays are meant to be performed and watched, and it’s hard to pick up on the humor if you only read the text.
If Peter Quince is the bumbling ringleader, then Nick Bottom is the main attraction in the whole silly circus.
The actors go off to practice in the woods where they, too, get caught in the fairies’ mischief-making. In the middle of rehearsal, a fairy named Puck enters and decides to turn Bottom’s head into the head of a donkey. Bottom’s friends flee from him in fright, but poor Bottom has no idea why. He cannot see his donkey’s head, nor can any of us (except rarely) see our own absurdities. Bottom concludes that his friends must be playing a trick on him. “I see their knavery: this is to make an ass of me,” he says, unaware of how truly he speaks.
Abandoned in the woods, Bottom sings a song to himself and happens to wake the fairy queen. Earlier, the fairy king cast a spell to make the queen “madly dote upon the next live creature” she sees. Consequently, Bottom—donkey’s head and all—finds himself swept through the midsummer night with the queen of the fairies doting on his every utterance. She tells Bottom:
I am a spirit of no common rate;
The summer still doth tend upon my state;
And I do love thee: therefore, go with me;
I’ll give thee fairies to attend on thee,
And they shall fetch thee jewels from the deep,
And sing while thou on pressed flowers dost sleep;
And I will purge thy mortal grossness so
That thou shalt like an airy spirit go.
Bottom’s comical sort of union with the fairy queen is more than mere farce. Shakespeare describes the scene with beautiful language that suggests something almost magical in the meeting of the low, earthly nature and the high, spiritual nature. It recalls an historical account of when the low earthly nature and high spiritual nature met in a town called Bethlehem, and that, too, was attended by rough beasts and uneducated men.
As with most comedies, the dreams and revels of the night give way to dawn and the daylight of reason. The four young people resolve their troubles and return to the ordered society of the city, the fairy king frees his queen from the love spell, and Puck restores Bottom to his natural state.
But before everything returns quite to normal, as Shakespeare shifts us from the wild wood to the structured city, in the misty morning twilight hours where distinctions remain a bit hazy, Bottom awakes. He is back to his old self, and yet he is not quite his old self. He says:
[Awakening] When my cue comes, call me, and I will
answer: my next is, ‘Most fair Pyramus.’ Heigh-ho!
Peter Quince! Flute, the bellows-mender! Snout,
the tinker! Starveling! God’s my life, stolen
hence, and left me asleep! I have had a most rare
vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to
say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go
about to expound this dream. Methought I was–there
is no man can tell what. Methought I was,–and
methought I had,–but man is but a patched fool, if
he will offer to say what methought I had. 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. 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
latter end of a play, before the duke:
peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall
sing it at her death.
In the beginning of the play, we hear Bottom brag about his abilities. But now, after he has been treated like royalty by the queen of the fairies herself, Bottom curiously refrains from boasting. Or if he boasts, he boasts about the “most rare vision” and not about himself. Bottom concludes that it is past the wit of man [including himself] “to say what dream it was,” and that man [including himself] “is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream.”
Bottom treats his “vision” as something which has come from completely outside himself. He suggests that the dream is too real—so deep that it has “no bottom”—for his physical senses to make sense of. He expresses a reverence for the vision: he desires to commemorate it in a ballad and feels it appropriate for the solemn event of Thisbe’s death (which we may laugh at, but Bottom takes very seriously).
Bottom feels the urge to explain his experience, yet cannot find the right words. His speech captures the dilemma between experience and expression which is the dilemma of the human condition. As C.S. Lewis put it: “as thinkers we are cut off from what we think about; as tasting, touching, willing, loving, hating, we do not clearly understand. The more lucidly we think, the more we are cut off: the more deeply we enter into reality, the less we can think.” Bottom demonstrates the humor in this, and we chuckle when he interrupts himself and confuses the sense organs, but this humor is tinged with tragedy. A sense of loss attends every attempt to speak about experience. How often do you begin to tell your friends some story and end by throwing up your hands and saying “you just had to be there?”
Bottom realizes he cannot fully relate his experiences; he also cannot help but try. And so it is with us: we know we’ll never be able to explain everything. We know we’ll never be able to speak the whole truth about, say, God. But we try to say something true about the truth anyways. After struggling to say what he means, Bottom says that perhaps Peter Quince can capture the vision in a ballad. I love that! Bottom concludes that art can help connect us to the mysteries of experience. We turn our wonder and our confusion into songs and stories and poetry and paintings. We carve huge chunks of marble out of the mountains to try to communicate some human emotion. We compose symphonies to try to capture a sense of the seasons passing. We build big churches to try to say something about the infinite nature of God. Perhaps this makes us, as Bottom says, patched fools. But true wisdom begins with humility and accepting the position of the fool.
Shakespeare gives other characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream sharp wits and keen eyes. But he gives the most profound vision to one of the dullest characters (Bottom is the only human character who sees the spirit world of the fairies), and he speaks the most profound truths through one of the simplest voices. This suggests that the conclusions Bottom reaches are not reserved for intellectuals in ivory towers. They are fundamental truths of human experience. And it also reminds us that truth can come to us in the humblest of guises, for “power is made perfect in weakness.”