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Shakespeare & Beyond

Bottom's dream - Excerpt: 'Reading Shakespeare Reading Me' by Leonard Barkan

Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream - a man with a donkey's headLeonard Barkan’s new book, Reading Shakespeare Reading Me, is filled with interesting takes on Shakespeare’s stories and characters drawn from his experiences as an educator and actor.

Barkan is the Class of 1943 University Professor at Princeton, where he teaches comparative literature, art history, English, and classics. The excerpt below explores the character of Bottom, specifically his awakening and recollection of his enchantment as a donkey in A Midsummer Night’s Dream — Was it real? Was it a dream?

Reading Shakespeare Reading Me is published by Fordham University Press, and this excerpt is used with permission.


What, to begin with, does Bottom call his experience? He hovers between dream and vision. In fact, the play teases us with some promise of a fundamental distinction between the two terms, for example, Oberon: “When they next wake, all this derision | Shall seem a dream and fruitless vision” (3.2.370), or Puck, who urges us to think that we “have but slumbered here, while these visions did appear; | And this weak and idle theme, | No more yielding but a dream” (5.1.416). There is a ready-made distinction: Dreams are a normal part of the brain’s nighttime experience, whereas visions are sent by supernatural forces. Notably, when Oberon releases the four lovers from their spell, he declares that they will “think no more of this night’s accidents | But as the fierce vexation of a dream” (4.1.67), which may suggest that he is arranging their consciousness so as to minimize the otherworldly nature of the experience; they will be made to believe that it was all just something they dreamt, even though it wasn’t. (And, as we’ve seen, this is pretty much where they do go with it.) Moments later, though, when it’s Titania’s turn to wake up, she declares of the union with Bottom, “what visions have I seen” (4.1.175). In this case, there is no demotion to “dream”; she goes on to say, “Methought I was enamoured of an ass,” which seems to place it in a rather authentic realm of sense experience—albeit of a misguided kind.

So far as what Bottom talks about when he talks about his vision/dream, partly it is what he doesn’t talk about. Bottom may not know that he is making use of aposiopesis, the rhetorical device of breaking off a speech, or omitting a climactic term, often for special emphasis (paradoxically) on the word that is missing. But it is essential to his complex rhetoric here. In the simplest sense, we are being told that his experience was more than can be captured in language. The vision/dream distinction is just a symptom of this impossibility. Where he breaks off—“ methought I was . . .”; “methought I had . . .”—he is obviously unable or unwilling to say “jackass” and “donkey’s ears,” which, in a down-to-earth way, may signal his shame in the face of the most ridiculous or, indeed, most appropriate form of his metamorphosis. But that silence is also the injunction laid upon those who are initiated into mysteries, notably the case of his avatar Lucius Apuleius (who doesn’t, of course, keep quiet about it; he wrote the book on it).

If that once again fulfills the terms of pagan mysteries in the Renaissance, it doesn’t stay pagan very long. Bottom proceeds to deliver a garbled version of a widely quoted passage from 1 Corinthians 2:9–10, here in the Bishops’ Bible version:

But as it is written: The eye hath not seen, & the eare hath not heard, neither haue entred into the heart of man, the thynges which God hath prepared for them that loue hym.

But God hath reuealed them vnto vs by his spirite: For the spirite searcheth all thinges, yea the deepe thinges of God.

Paul’s letter is in many respects an angry piece of preaching. The community of believers in Corinth is fractious and a little prouder of its own theology than Paul (or his boss) would like. The letter is in part an expression of his frustration with the difficulties of spreading the gospel. Hence, his remarkably frank and cogent expression of the difficulties he is having in attempting to bring diverse belief systems together:

For the Jews demand signs and the Greeks demand wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. (1 Corinthians 1:22)

It’s one of my favorite passages in the whole of the New Testament because it renders the two great civilizations so succinctly in their difference and so hopelessly from the point of view of a new faith that wished to provide shelter to both. The context, then, for the line that Bottom mangles is an exhortation to look away from the intellectual particularities of theology and to something  more mystical and spiritual: revelation, in other words, rather than reasoning. Though the action of Shakespeare’s play could hardly be less theological, it certainly urges the authority of revelation over reason. And the Corinthians passage in particular maps itself onto this moment in the Dream because Paul declares that “None of the rulers of this age” has understood this truth; rather, it is revealed by God. In the Geneva Bible, in fact, the truth is characterized as “the bottom of God’s secrets.” And if Bottom performs the move of synaesthesia (“eye hath not seen,” “ear hath not heard,” etc.) in common with his theatrical colleagues in the Dream, we can take it as a sign that pagan mysteries are leaving their mark on Christian mysteries.

Finally, it seems that Bottom has his own evangelical project to send his dream out into the world, despite the fact, or on account of the fact, that “it hath no Bottom”—that is, it lacks foundation, or because it is unfathomably deep, or because it can live independently of the individual who dreamed it, this last being common to messianic religions. As further signs—and, again, ambiguous ones—of the future life of his revelation, we have the brief scene that follows. It begins with the rest of the acting troupe heartbroken that they have lost their star, whereupon to great jubilation he suddenly appears to them—as one might say, resurrected. His message is, to say the least, ambiguous:

Masters, I am to discourse wonders; but ask me not what. For if I tell you, I am no true Athenian. I will tell you everything right as it fell out. (4.2.26–27)

Which are the wonders? Will he recount them or won’t he? Is the “true Athenian” the person who is initiated into the Delphic Oracle and sworn to secrecy? These wonders are never directly picked up again; instead we follow the happy news that these players’ theatrical offering is among the finalists for the wedding entertainment.

Switching to another register, let me tell you something I learned as an actor from the experience of performing Bottom’s big speech. At this moment, more than Hamlet about to say “to be or not to be,” more than Lear about to outface the storm, Bottom owns the stage. The audience is looking at someone who— if he played his cards right—made them laugh every time he opened his mouth. We have just seen him in an interlude as bizarre as it is sexy, as mysterious as it is farcical. Now he is about to go one on one with the audience, and they’re not going to miss a syllable; they are going to listen. We can tell Shakespeare was aware of that because he has written into the speech a series of open spaces. Bottom’s silences, in short, are as important as his speech. No need to rush through the waking up. He can take his time, between sleep and waking, as he looks for his companions one by one. Naturally, he starts with Peter Quince. No answer. What does that mean? Where am I? OK, maybe Flute will respond: That’s his Thisbe; she should be close at hand because— again— his experience at this moment is that zero time has elapsed since he was plucked from his rehearsal. He can go faster looking for the rest of them, since he’s starting to realize that they have all abandoned him.

It’s no easy transition, though, from my-mates-have-abandoned-me to I’ve had a vision, I’ve had a dream. Then we get to the heart of the speech. Bottom has to use his words to capture something that words cannot capture. Until he gets to Peter Quince and the idea of the “ballad,” Bottom is holding in his head something so all-encompassing and so ineffable that the actor has to be sending out visions that are completely independent of the words he uses. Where would I get them from? Of course, I could picture in my head the actual scene I had played with Titania, but, as I’ve already said, that meeting doesn’t really rise to the level of the play’s idea about it. Which may be exactly Shakespeare’s plan: It’s not going to be Bottom’s onstage meeting with the Queen of the Fairies that we take away as divine; it’s going to be this moment, the recollection that Bottom delivers, which in turn has to outstrip the actual words he uses.

Excerpted from Reading Shakespeare Reading Me by Leonard Barkan. Copyright 2022 by Fordham University Press. Used with permission. All rights reserved.