Asian-style donkey mask
My husband, The Gryphon, and I attended a production of the Shakespearean comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream this past weekend, performed by the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre. (I've posted a full review on the Wild Violet blog.) One of my favorite characters in the production was John Zak as Nick Bottom, who plays him as Shakespeare wrote him: an insufferable, prating fool.
For those unfamiliar with MND, Bottom is a simple weaver, who along with a company of other common craftsmen, aspires to theatrical greatness. In particular, they want to be one of the lucky acting companies selected to perform at the duke's nuptial celebration. At the beginning of the play, they rehearse their production of a "tragical comedy" about two star-crossed lovers, Pyramus and Thisby. Bottom, who is selected by their director to perform the lead male role of Pyramus, nevertheless insists he should play every other role, as well. For example, when the company become concerned that their portrayal of a lion will scare the female courtiers, he claims he can perform that role in a more mild way: "I will roar you as gently as any sucking dove; I will roar you, as 'twere any nightingale." Through a careful use of praise, the director manages to dissuade Bottom from turning the production into a one-man show.
Of course, Bottom is not so easily contained, and as the craftsmen meet in the woods the next night to rehearse (far from the spying eyes of other aspiring actors), Bottom steps in to lend suggestions and offer changes. The good-natured director cannot compete and reluctantly allows Bottom some creative control, including agreeing to his idea to write a prologue that assures the court that everything they're about to see is false; therefore they shouldn't be frightened or offended (a prologue that Shakespeare echoes in Puck's final speech, one of the most quoted of this play).
In the midst of their rehearsal, the company attracts the attention of Puck, an impish sprite who serves the king of the fairies, Oberon. Puck is on an unusual mission: to find the queen of the fairies, Titania, wherever she sleeps and bestow the juice of a particular plant on her eyes, so that she will fall in love with whatever man or beast she next sees, the upshot of a squabble between the fairy royalty. While she sleeps nearby, and as Bottom waits offstage to make his entrance, Puck casts a spell on him that turns him, literally, into an ass. Bottom emerges with a donkey's face in place of his head, scaring his comrades.
Upon seeing him, the players panic and scatter into the surrounding woods, the director, Quince, proclaiming, "Bless thee, Bottom! bless thee! thou art translated." Yet, Bottom is unaware of his condition and is confused, perhaps thinking they are frightened because he is in character as the dashing hero (such being, naturally, the power of his acting). The players, set on by Puck, run wildly through the woods, with one of his fellows pausing to punch Bottom right in the snout.
Rather than pursuing them throughout the woods, Bottom tells himself, "this is a knavery of them to make me afeard." He begins singing/braying to himself, in order to soothe his fears, thus waking the nearby Titania, who declares, "What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?" And so, as you might imagine, she spies him and falls in love. To his friends, a blowhard, transformed from buffoon to beast; to her an asinine angel. And after all, isn't that sometimes how love goes?
Love is in the eye of the (bewitched) beholder.