Wednesday, 5 September 2012

The Role of The Rude Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Who are Shakespeare's Rude Mechanicals?
All three strands of A Midsummer Night's Dream's plot are humorous and, often, ridiculous. However, the foolish Rude Mechanicals with their bastardisation of Pyramus and Thisbe really do take the cake.

What's really unusual about the Mechanicals is that they're incredibly dense. Why's that unusual? Well, typically, Shakespeare's fools and/or clowns are actually very savvy, worldly-wise folk.

Moreover, Shakespeare seems to have had a penchant for creating 'working class' characters that are much more intelligent than their 'betters'. Think, for example, of the opening of Julius Caesar.

The Mechanicals, on the other hand, are clowns in our modern interpretation of the word - idiots whom we laugh at rather than with.

Who Are The Mechanicals of A Midsummer Night's Dream?

We first meet the six Mechanicals at Quince's home in Athens, as they begin preparations for their play.

Peter Quince (Carpenter) - Quince is, supposedly, the leader of their little acting troupe. He's also the director and writer of their play. However, he's writing is appalling and he doesn't really seem to know what he's doing, allowing many of his own ideas to be railroaded by those of Bottom.

Nick Bottom really is an ass
Nick Bottom (Weaver) - Although all of the Mechanicals are stupid and foolish, Bottom really is in a league of his own. Bottom by name, and an arse by nature, Nick Bottom is not just a prize pillock, but also an arrogant oaf, who seems to believe that he could put on a one-man production of Pyramus and Thisbe.

Francis Flute (Bellows-mender) - Assigned the part of Thisbe, a fair maid (similar to Shakespeare's very own Juliet), Flute conveniently has a "beard coming". As it turns out, this is of no consequence, as Quince insists he'll be wearing a mask.

Robin Starveling (Tailor) - Originally cast in the role of Thisbe's mother, Starveling actually goes on to play the part of 'Moonshine', and creates one of the most humorous moments of A Midusmmer Night's Dream, when he attempts to portray the moon with a lantern.

Tom Snout (Tinker) - Like Robin Starveling, Snout's original role was not the one he ultimately played. Earmarked to perform as Pyramus' father, this was dropped when the company realised they would need a wall through which the young lovers speak. Snout's wall and beautifully crafted chink make for a memorable role, even though Snout only has eight lines as himself and two as the wall.

Snug (Joiner) - Snug, only ever known by his surname, is cast as the lion. He is "slow of study" and concerned that he will not be able to learn his lines - his 'lines', of course, consisting of nothing more than roars. He also seems to be quite a timid character and is often played this way to enhance the comedic effect of his performance as lion.

What Purpose do The Mechanicals Serve?

Was Shakespeare spoofing Robert Dudley
when he wrote Robin Starveling?

I think we're on pretty safe ground in saying that the only purpose the Rude Mechnicals serve is a comedic one. The question is what kind of humour is being elicited, and is it possible for us to 'get' all of the comedy of the play today?

Well, some of it's plain and ageless enough: Their repeated oxymorons, "most lamentable comedy"; Bottom's diva-like behaviour, "That will ask some tears in the true performing of it"; and the complete hash that is the product of their attempts at amateur dramatics.

However, could there be more to it than that? Well, some people suggest that there is a satirical edge to Shakespeare's Mechanicals. 

The part of Robin Starveling, for example, may have references to Robert Dudley and/or Robert Devereux. Both of these men were, at one time, suitors to Queen Elizabeth and to both Elizabeth gave the pet name Robin. And yet another rival for Elizabeth's love, Francois Alencon may also be indicated by the character of Francis Flute.

Of course, whether these men were really on Shakespeare's mind as he wrote A Midsummer Night's Dream, we'll never know. However, it was certainly not beyond him to brazenly tease, and sometimes even place himself in danger, with the content of his plays.

Why Do The Rude Mechanicals Differ From Shakespeare's Other Working Class Characters?

Had Shakespeare met actors and writers like
the Rude Mechanicals?

Undoubtedly foolish, the Mechanicals can never be described as 'fools', at least not in the Shakespearean sense of the word. Shakespeare's fools are, without exception, linguistically talented and riddle-posing, often making their more educated masters appear foolish. 

And Shakespeare often makes his 'working class' characters quick-witted. So, why is it different with A Midsummer Night's Dream?

Well, it may be Shakespeare's way of ridiculing those who take an amateur stab at his profession. Is he trying to point out that writing and performing plays is not as easy as it looks? 

Or is it less to do with amateur dramatics and more to do with the theatrical profession in general? After all, Shakespeare is bound to have met his fair share of Nick Bottoms!

For more on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, read about the young lovers of the play here.