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Shakespeare's Plays Within Plays and Characters Within Characters

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare creates in Bottom, Oberon, and Puck
distinctive characters who represent different aspects of himself. Like Bottom,
Shakespeare aspires to rise socially; he has ambitions, and interacts with the queen,
however marginally. Through Bottom, Shakespeare mocks these pretensions within
himself. Then again, Shakespeare also resembles Oberon, controlling the magic we
see on the stage; unseen, he and Oberon pull the strings that make the characters act as
they do and say what they say. And finally, Shakespeare is like Puck, standing back
from the other characters, able to see their weaknesses and laugh at them, and
enjoying some mischief at their expense. Through these three characters and some
play-within-a-play mysticism, Shakespeare mocks himself and his plays as much as
he does the young lovers and the Rude Mechanicals onstage. The playwright who is
capable of writing Hamlet and King Lear is still able to laugh at himself just as he
does at his characters. Through Bottom, Oberon, and Puck, Shakespeare shows us
that theatre, and even life itself, are illusions, and that one should remember to laugh.
In Bottom, Shakespeare pokes fun at the pretensions in himself and by extension in all
plays and actors. In doing so he makes light of the affectations in us all, for as he tells
us elsewhere, we are all actors on a stage. To begin with, the name "Bottom" has
unfavorable connotations, like "bottom of the heap," "bottom of the totem pole," and
of course, one's behind, or one's ass: Bottom is a metaphorical ass who becomes a
literal ass. Bottom's name tells us not to take him too seriously. Moreover, neither
William Shakespeare nor Nick Bottom were born to be aristocrats, both having
ambitions beyond their given station in life. It is Bottom's fate to be a weaver, yet he
wants to be an actor, even a director. Shakespeare pokes fun at Bottom's ambition.
When the Rude Mechanicals rehearsePyramus and Thisbe, Bottom regularly
interrupts the director, freely giving advice to the other actors: "Take pains; be

including royal audiences. and though his powers are greater than Bottom's. he wants to play not only Pyramus but also Thisbe (1.1). Through Bottom. Perhaps Shakespeare worries about putting on airs. Bottom is overconfident of his own talents.20).2. Shakespeare makes fun of his own ambitions and his goals of pleasing audiences.2. Bottom assumes that his lion's roar will please the Duke. He recites abysmal poetry and calls it "lofty" (1. Shakespeare proves that he is not like Bottom because he sees his own pretensions and turns them into jokes. and that makes him seem a fool. of making them laugh and cry as he chooses. pronouncing it "a very good piece of work" (1. By encouraging the audience to laugh at Bottom. he still declines to take himself too seriously.11).32). Perhaps he fears becoming too full of himself.21-23).1. that he is successful and others look up to him. Shakespeare surely recognizes the selfimportance of his aims. Bottom easily believes that the fairy queen falls in love with him. coming from humble beginnings. Unknowingly wearing a donkey's head. Shakespeare also seems to explore his own anxieties. With comical lack of humility. To neutralize his worries. he makes clueless comments that invite scorn: "I must go to the barber's monsieur.2. Through Bottom. perhaps he is uneasy that the Queen and her Court are among his audience.88). for methinks I am marvelous hairy about the face" (4. As unlikely as it would seem to most people.43) and the Lion too (1.2. so he ridicules Bottom as a literary lightweight. Bottom can't tell how ridiculous Quince's synopsis is.55). He can't see when he's being made fun of. The problem is.2. he doesn't know he . Shakespeare makes fun of those who can't see their own shortcomings. and he is sure that as Pyramus he will bring the audience to tears: "Let the audience look to their eyes" (1. Bottom lacks self-awareness.2. Perhaps. and enjoys that the fairies wait on him hand and foot (3.perfect" (1. he is never confident of his social standing.

that he is in on the joke. Like a playwright. but he knows that the show must go on. in many ways Shakespeare is not like Oberon either. Bottom may be foolish. but they only laugh when Shakespeare tells them to. After everyone else has left the stage. When the audience jeers at Bottom. knowing his lines. and he also controls Titania. he is above mere mortals. indirectly they laugh at Shakespeare. Through his magical powers. his authority is . Oberon embodies Shakespeare's magical powers over the characters and the unfolding of the play. after the ass's head is removed and Bottom awakens from a deep sleep. and his actions affect the world of the play: his quarrel with Titania causes storms. Like Bottom. The other actors respect Bottom. call me.5). thus he is still in control. Shakespeare makes fun of Bottom to show that he is not a fool himself. they are afraid that the play will be ruined if he does not return (4. Oberon is incensed because Titania won't relinquish the changeling boy. Oberon also shares some of Shakespeare's qualities. Oberon has power over the other characters. He also answers to life's cues. Shakespeare is still there when the actors have left the stage. and I will answer" (4. just as Shakespeare is not a fool like Bottom. as a byproduct of his uncontrolled passions. floods. Similarly. just as Shakespeare decides what the larger audience sees and feels.2. as a playwright he controls aristocrats and does with them as he will. The lovers see and feel what he wants them to. Through Oberon. indirectly having the upper hand in the eternal battle of the sexes. Bottom is a trooper. Oberon controls the actions of the young an ass. Shakespeare makes fun of the fickle lovers. Ultimately. Although Shakespeare was not born a noble. Shakespeare affects the world of the play deliberately. and he will always arrive. whereas Oberon does so unconsciously. his first words are: "When my cue comes.196). and disease. However.1.

taking himself and his grudges seriously. He seeks personal vengeance when he puts the magical juice in Titania's eyes. on the other hand. while Shakespeare is not. Oberon is invested in the characters differently than Shakespeare is. and as playwright he has no apparent preference for one outcome over the other. or so he thinks: "There shall the pairs of faithful lovers be / Wedded. A playwright must be able to laugh at all the characters.88-89). This Shakespeare can do but Oberon cannot.33). and successfully humiliates her. causing her to fall in love with the next beast she sees (2. so that everyone can marry and live happily ever after. Shakespeare's characters may be happy or unhappy as the play demands. Everything turns out the way Oberon wants it to: he retrieves the changeling boy from Titania. He instructs Puck to keep Lysander and Demetrius running in circles all night to wear them out. in order to render them convincingly. But although Oberon is godlike and enjoys magical control over others. all in jollity" (4. has distance between himself and other people. so everything can be fixed and the right man will love the right woman. and continually manipulates events to bring them together. . In a comedy such as A Midsummer Night's Dream the lovers indeed marry in the end. He or she sees humans with all their weaknesses. A playwright has to step back and see the whole picture. Oberon is controlled by his petty jealousies. Oberon is emotionally invested in the happy outcome. as well as their heroism. Oberon cares about the lovers' happiness. He has orchestrated everything. but in a tragedy they can just as easily die.challenged and his pride is hurt.1. and not be personally involved with any of them. in order to expose their hypocrisies and make the audience laugh. Shakespeare.2. Shakespeare the playwright uses Oberon to ensure the play's resolution. A playwright is able to work with many characters. with Theseus.

If Oberon is King.1. because he does not care what happens. Puck collapses the boundaries between play and reality. a play toward? I'll be an auditor. By his ability to be both audience and player. able to step outside it. for he serves both the audience and the Court when he puts on his plays. making them what he wants them to be.35-38). He sees himself as both the audience and the actor: "What. both Puck and Shakespeare are free beings. Like Puck. even . It is Puck who names the actors.2. ridiculing them at will. and Shakespeare is the servant of the people. He likes to make people laugh. and sometimes he is even cruel.1. he slips away and makes her fall. and through Puck. a popular creature in English folklore. He calls Bottom "the shallowest thick-skin of that barren sort" (3. Puck is a practical joker. then Shakespeare is God. Puck is the servant of Oberon.33) and has a reputation for frightening the maids and skimming the milk (2. Although Puck is ostensibly Oberon's servant.1.53). / An actor too. calling them Rude Mechanicals (3.68-69). Shakespeare enjoys practical jokes at the expense of his characters. perhaps Shakespeare is most like Puck. Puck is behind and outside the play as well as inside it. Puck is also Robin Goodfellow.13) when he applies the ass's head. Yet as servants go.1. if I see cause" (3. naming them. thus Puck is not solely Shakespeare's creation. He is called a "shrewd and knavish sprite" (2. Of all the characters in A Midsummer Night's Dream. He pretends to be a "three-foot stool" and when the maid sits down. Shakespeare as both playwright and actor does the same.9). so that everyone laughs at her (2. even if it is as someone else's expense. he is possibly more in control than Oberon is. Like Shakespeare. perhaps. he laughs at everyone. doing what he will with the characters.2. Puck is Shakespeare.Oberon is ultimately Shakespeare's creation. Puck is one layer removed from the play. as is Bottom.

He enjoys watching Lysander chase Helena.1. Or perhaps he makes fun of actors and playwrights who are not as good as he is. Shakespeare is surely a "knavish lad" when he writes plays like A Midsummer Night's Dream and encourages the audience to laugh at his characters' foolishness.45-46). and through Oberon he magically manipulates the characters. what fools these mortals be!" (3. Shakespeare makes fun of plays and actors in the play-within-a-play Pyramus and Thisbe. When Quince facetiously introduces the play as "The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe" (1. seemingly wary of taking himself too seriously.3. When Puck playfully puts all four lovers asleep. Fittingly. Perhaps Shakespeare is so secure in his powers of creation that he can afford to mock his own profession. the trickster. Through Bottom Shakespeare makes light of his own ambitions.3. reciting nursery rhymes as he does so Ð "Jack shall have Jill. Puck enjoys teasing them: "Cupid is a knavish lad.115). Above all.348). whom he calls "King of shadows" (3. Shakespeare doesn't seem to feel sorry for his characters when he manipulates them to serve the needs of the play.28-29).2.170). "O night. He doesn't feel sorry for the young lovers as Oberon does. while in his ability to distance himself from his characters Shakespeare is like Puck. / Thus to make poor females mad" (3. Puck laughs at the lovers: "Lord. / Nought shall go ill" Ð one can almost hear Shakespeare humming under his breath as he manipulates the characters (3.114). alack. Puck has the final word in A Midsummer Night's Dream: "If we shadows have offended" begins his famous lines .2. Shakespeare makes fun of himself. alack.2.Oberon. Shakespeare is mischievous like Puck when he makes Bottom recite the lines. O night. Likewise. alack" (5.11). Shakespeare pokes fun at plays in general and at himself in particular. calling it a "fond pageant" (3.2. In the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

suggesting that it has all been a dream. Behind him.(Epilogue). . he hopes that he has offended. Shakespeare winks at the audience and. at least a little. one suspects.