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Lectures et écritures du mythe

Pascale Renaud-Grosbras
Sophie Marret

Usages littéraires du mythe

Myth, intertext and transgression in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Delphine Lemonnier-Texier

Texte intégral

1Among Shakespeare’s plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream occupies a special place as it is so heavily imbued with references to Ovid’s Metamorphoses and as its comic plot is four-fold : the Athenian lovers’plot which is doubled up with Helena and Demetrius on the one hand, and Hermia and Lysander on the other hand, the Athenian rulers’plot with Theseus’plans for his wedding with Hippolyta, the Fairies’plot with Oberon and his revenge upon Titania, and the mechanicals’plot with their staging of Pyramus and Thisbe. The deliberate fragmentation of the plot and the ensuing intertwining of its various skeins, both on a thematic and on a structural level go together with an obtrusive self-reflexive quality as the four levels of the plot either interact with each other or echo and mirror each other. This self-reflexive insistence is manifest in the character of Bottom the weaver, whose name and social position illustrate perfectly well his function in the play as he is the only human character (the other being Puck / Robin Goodfellow, a spirit) who plays a central part in two different levels of the plot : he is both the lead actor in the mechanicals’staging of Pyramus and Thisbe and the tool of Oberon’s revenge against Titania via Puck’s initiative. He is literally the bottom that goes between the human and the fairy worlds and that brings together a mechanical and a queen.

  • 1 Georges Bataille, Erotism : Death and Sensuality, San Francisco City Light Books, 1957.

2Just as the plot displays a multiplicity of levels, the sources of the play feature traditional folk tales (Robin Goodfellow), medieval romance, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the English translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses by Arthur Golding in 1567 and Lucius Apuleius’The Golden Ass. As far as genre is concerned, although the tone is essentially that of comedy, the plot contains a number of potentially tragic elements that threaten the balance of the world of comedy all along the plot until the young people’s awakening in Act 4, scene 1 so that the play can be defined as essentially hybrid as regards genre and structure. Yet this hybrid nature is not static : it develops along the plot and its intricacies and the reflexive quality of the play help to put this in relief. At night and in the woods, both heavily liminal elements, danger is at hand, and as usual in a play dealing with the relations between men and women, the danger that threatens the balance of the play is desire, desire without the bounds of law, society, conventions or morals. The time spent in the woods by the characters is freed of taboos and therefore makes room for potential transgressions, such as defined by Georges Bataille in Erotism : Death and Sensuality1. The balance that ensures that the ending is going to be a happy one and that the play will definitely side with comedy is very precarious for the first four acts and despite the happy ending, the theatrical performance, which has the function of an epithalamion, is the mechanicals’strangely hybrid play, which seems to point at unrestrained desire rather than the lawful bonds of marriage. It so happens that this play is also the problematic stage-adaptation of a well-known Ovidian tale that functions fully as an intertextual reference in Shakespeare’s comic use of it.

  • 2 Yves Peyré, « La mythologie dans la tragédie élisabéthaine », doctoral thesis, Université de Paris (...)
  • 3 Léon, S. Roudiez,’Introduction’, in Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language : A Semiotic Approach to Li (...)

3English culture in the late 16th century was pervaded with classic culture especially as all major authors were being translated into English under Elizabeth’s reign. Drama was no exception and offered a privileged medium for the development of English adaptations of classical myths, notably in Marlowe’s and Shakespeare’s plays as numerous scholarly studies have shown2. In MND the mythical background is intricate and rich. The Athenian ruler that opens the play is no less than Theseus and he is about to marry Hippolyta. The frame of reference to Greek mythology is set from the very first lines of the exposition scene. Within this frame Shakespeare develops around the character of Bottom a number of scenes which function as intertextual references to Ovidian tales of metamorphosis taken from the Metamorphoses, that is “the transposition of one or more systems of signs into another, accompanied by a new articulation of the enunciative and denotative position”3. Metamorphosis is both a major theme in the play through the “translation” of Bottom and a structural feature of the plot as its complexities and intricacies reveal its protean quality. It is also a reference to the problems raised by the stage-adaptation of a narrative poem, a motif which is the chore of the mechanicals’attempt at staging Pyramus and Thisbe, whose storyline strangely echoes the love-plot between Hermia and Demetrius.

4The reason why the narrative tool of intertextuality can be useful in a study of drama is the fact that the dramatic function of those scenes relies entirely on the audience’s knowledge of the narrative source and their awareness of its degree of alteration in MND. The first major dramatic element that uses narrative references in this way is the “translation” of Bottom, and the second and more pervasive one as it lasts for the whole of the play is the problematic staging of the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe by the mechanicals.

Myth as metamorphosis : the fascination for human-animal hybrids and Shakespeare’s use of metamorphosis in MND

  • 4 See Yves Peyré,1992, vol. I, p. 181.
  • 5 Ovid’s Metamorphoses, illustrated by Virgil Solis, Frankfurt, 1569. An estimated one hundred illus (...)
  • 6 Geffrey Whitney, A Choice of Emblemes and Other Devices, (1586), Aldershot, Scolar Press, 1989. Th (...)
  • 7 Actaeon’s metamorphosis was a recurrent theme in both Marlowe and Shakespeare. See François Laroqu (...)
  • 8 The full text is available at : (December 2004).
  • 9 Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book XI.

5The mythical background of MND lies in what constitutes the major source of inspiration for artists and poets in the Renaissance, i.e. Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Of all the classics, Ovid’s book was one of the most frequently published and illustrated as the vogue of picture books developed in the 16th century. The engravings illustrating key episodes from the Metamorphoses were taken up and used as illustrations in many emblem books at the time and both Ovid’s work and emblem books were widely used in 16th century England as textbooks in schools4. The key feature that characterises these illustrations is the fact that they strive to represent the process of metamorphosis at a stage in which the human being is still recognizable. This device seems to have been taken up by Shakespeare in Bottom’s “translation” as he appears as a man with an ass-head, just as the illustrations of the myth of Actaeon in Ovid depict a human body with the head of a hart. This is the case for instance in Virgil Solis’edition of the Metamorphoses’5 and in Geoffrey Whitney’s emblem Voluptas Arumnosa (Passion is full of misery)6. It seems that the prevailing element in the perception of Ovid’s tales in the 16th century was a fascination for the process of hybridisation that the tales depicted7. Such was this fascination for the very process of changing shape that another major source for Renaissance and Elizabethan poets and playwrights was Lucius Apuleius’tale of the metamorphosis of a man into an ass through the effects of magic, entitled The Golden Asse translated into English by Adlington in 1566 : “The xi Bookes of the Golden Asse, conteininge the Metamorphosie of Lucius Apuleius.” First Edition “Imprinted at London in Fleetstreate at the signe of the Oliphante, by Henry Wykes, Anno. 1566.” (Q’to). Reprinted 1571 (Q’to), 1582 (Octavo), 1596 (Q’to), 1600 (Q’to), 1639 (Q’to)8. Shakespeare’s Bottom as he undergoes Robin’s unexpected magical metamorphosis is a blend of both sources. His man to animal change is directly inspired by the conventional illustrations of Ovid, the animal part he is given is taken from Apuleius, as well as the sexual overtones, but Shakespeare also plays with his spectators in later identifying Bottom with Ovid’s King Midas whose ass-ears were meant by Apollo as a form of punishment for his bad taste in music9. Indeed, when Bottom claims “Methinks I have a reasonable good ear in music. Let’s have the tongs and the bones” (4,1, 27-28), the rough music that ensues makes him for the audience an obvious allusion to Midas together with the device of dramatic irony contained in his self-appreciation of his musical tastes.

  • 10 Natasha Eckhert, “The Correlation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Greek Perspectives”, available at : (...)

6In Ovid’s work, the change of shape has four possible functions : consolation, commemoration, protection, and punishment10. In Apuleius, the change is the result of the protagonist’s desire for magical powers, which leads him to try out a magic ointment on himself and he is unwillingly turned into an animal that reveals his true nature, namely an ass. These two sources are clearly alluded to in the case of Bottom’s transformation, yet Shakespeare uses the process to a specific dramatic end, which does not conform to the conventional functions of metamorphosis.

7The process of metamorphosis used for Bottom is directly inspired by Ovid and Apuleius. To begin with, it is shown as a partial metamorphosis through the indirect stage-directions given in the characters’cues. Bottom has been changed into a man with the head of an ass by Robin’s intervention in the mechanicals’rehearsal of Pyramus and Thisbe in Act 3, scene 1, lines 95-96 :

O Bottom, thou art changed. What do I see on thee ?

What do you see ? You see an ass-head of your own, do you ?

  • 11 William Shakspeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ed. Peter Holland, Oxford University Press, 1994, m (...)

Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee. Thou art translated. (110-113)11

  • 12 Lucius Apuleius, The Golden Asse, translated into English by Adlington, 1566. In his preface, Adli (...)

8Both verbally and visually for the audience, Bottom’s change mirrors the conventional representations of Ovidian metamorphoses widely spread in the illustrated editions of the Metamorphoses or in emblem-books that took up some of those engravings. The pictorial reference to the man with the head of an animal functions here as an allusion that is meant to be identified by the audience as the indicator of an Ovidian-like metamorphosis, and whose level of alteration of the original points at its other intertextual reference, that is The Golden Ass12. The use of a visual icon connoted as an indicator of metamorphosis is coupled with Snout’s cues which make the reference to Ovid explicit (“thou art changed”, 109, “Thou art translated” 113). The reason why this episode is so crucial as far as the process of allusion to the Ovidian myth is concerned is the fact that this is the only peripetia resulting from magic which comes as a complete surprise for the audience, which confers it an extremely powerful status in the dramatic pattern. It is the only time in the whole play when a magical intervention takes place unannounced.

9Indeed Oberon’s decision to interfere in the love-plot between Demetrius and Helena in Act 2, scene 1 is stated when he orders Robin to pour the juice of love-in-idleness into the eyes of Demetrius :

A sweet Athenian lady is in love
With a disdainful youth. Anoint his eyes ;
But do it when the next thing he espies
My be the lady. Thou shalt know the man
By the Athenian garments he hath on. (260-264)

  • 13 It is quite clear at the end of Act 1, scene 1 : Hermia and Lysander have eloped into the wood. He (...)

10An effect of dramatic irony is induced in Oberon’s generic description of Demetrius (Athenian garments) as the spectators do know that another Athenian youth, Lysander, is in the wood with an Athenian lady, Hermia, and they can anticipate upon the possibility of confusion between the two couples13. And this is indeed what takes place in Act 2, scene 2 when Robin identifies the Athenian youth by his garments and thus anoints Lysander’s eyes instead of Demetrius’. (ROBIN : Weeds of Athens doth he wear. / This is he my master said 77-78). And because Shakespeare wishes to turn the love-plot into a series of absurd mistaken identities, the mistake is further complicated by the sudden arrival of Helena and Demetrius, so that the person Lysander sees when he awakes is Helena and she is to be the object of his passion under the magic effects of the juice.

11On the other hand, Oberon announces his desire for revenge against his unruly wife Titania, on whose eyes he means to use the same juice. This is announced in Act 2, scene 1 (OBERON : And with the juice of this I’ll streak her eyes, /And make her full of hateful fantasies. 257-258) and almost immediately effected in the next scene :

What thou seest when thou dost wake
Do it for thy true love take ;
Love and languish for his sake.
Be it ounce, or cat, or bear,
Pard, or board, with bristled hair,
In thy eye that shall appear
When thou wak’st, it is thy dear.
Wake when some vile thing is near. (33-40)

12In both cases, the spectators know exactly what to expect. They are in the same position as the fairy king, the almighty ruler who decides whose destinies he will play with next and which young people should be paired up with which. In this well-ordered arrangement with a fairy king who rules over everyone’s fate, it seems accidental that the mechanicals’choice of place for their rehearsal happens to be close to the fairy queen. Robin becomes a hidden observer by accident, thus adding a thread to the already rich metadramatic fabric of the scene :

ROBIN (aside) :
What hempen homespuns have we swagg’ring here
So near the cradle of the Fairy Queen ?
What, a play, toward ? I’ll be an auditor –
An actor, too, perhaps, if I see cause. (72-75)

13As it is the mechanicals’second scene, the spectators of MND expect to see yet a lot more comic mistakes and a rehearsal of poor dramatic quality, and it comes as a complete surprise for both the other mechanicals and the members of the audience of MND that Bottom has been changed into a man with the head of an ass. This magical metamorphosis has not been foreshadowed in any way and is only accounted for as Robin’s initiative in the next scene, after we have witnessed the encounter between Titania and Bottom transformed. This confers to the metamorphosis of Bottom a unique status in the plot : it is unannounced and unexplained until Act 3, scene 2, which leaves a lot to the imagination of the spectators as to why and how Bottom has undergone this metamorphosis.

  • 14 Ellen D. Finkelpearl, Metamorphosis of Language in Apuleius : A Study of Allusion in the Novel. An (...)

14The visual reference to Ovidian human to animal metamorphoses is obvious as we have seen, and the scene moves on to reveal Bottom as the medium for yet another major intertextual reference to the process of metamorphosis with the echoes of Apuleius’text. Apuleius’narrative was itself partly inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses14.

15Indeed, in The Golden Asse, the protagonist, Lucius, is changed into an ass after using a magic ointment upon himself :

  • 15 The Golden Asse, The third Booke, Chapter Seventeenth : How Apuleius thinking to be turned into a b (...)

After that I had well rubbed every part and member of my body, I hovered with myne armes, and moved my selfe, looking still when I should bee changed into a Bird as Pamphiles was, and behold neither feathers nor appearance of feathers did burgen out, but verily my haire did turne in ruggednesse, and my tender skin waxed tough and hard, my fingers and toes losing the number of five, changed into hoofes, and out of myne arse grew a great taile, now my face became monstrous, my nosthrils wide, my lips hanging downe, and myne eares rugged with haire : neither could I see any comfort of my transformation, for my members encreased likewise, and so without all helpe (viewing every part of my poore body) I perceived that I was no bird, but a plaine Asse.
Then I though to blame Fotis, but being deprived as wel of language as of humane shape, I looked upon her with my hanging lips and watery eyes.15

16Bottom’s monstrosity is underlined several times, but first in Quince’s cue as he enters with his ass-head for the first time (QUINCE : O monstrous ! 3, 1, 99). Then Robin mentions it to Oberon when he accounts for his transformation of the mechanical : “My mistress with a monster is in love” (3, 2, 6), and finally when Titania cherishes Bottom she mentions his ears : “And kiss thy fair large ears, my gentle joy” (4, 1, 4).

17Besides, the relationship between Titania and Bottom hints several times at their sexual promiscuity. She orders her servants to show him the way to her bed and the ambivalence of “arise” makes the line a sexual innuendo : “To have my love to bed, and to arise ;” (3, 1, 162). She asks her fairy servants to take him to her bower (“Come, wait upon him, lead him to my bower”, 3, 1, 187) just before she mentions “some enforced chastity” (190). In Robin’s account, too, the situation is quite clear and very reminiscent of Apuleius : “Titania waked and straightway loved an ass.” (3, 2, 34). In Apuleius, a rich matron falls in love with Lucius the ass and takes him to her bed with four eunuchs :

How a certaine Matron fell in love with Apuleius, how hee had his pleasure with her, and what other things happened. There fortuned to be amongst the Assembly a noble and rich Matron that conceived much delight to behold me, and could find no remedy to her passions and disordinate appetite, but continually desired to have her pleasure with me, as Pasiphae had with a Bull. In the end she promised a great reward to my keeper for the custody of me one night, who for gaine of a little money accorded to her desire, and when I had supped in a Parler with my Master, we departed away and went into our Chamber, where we found the faire Matron, who had tarried a great space for our comming : I am not able to recite unto you how all things were prepared : there were foure Eunuches that lay on a bed of downe on the ground with Boulsters accordingly for us to lye on, the Coverlet was of cloth of Gold, and the pillowes soft and tender, whereon the delicate Matron had accustomed to lay her head. Then the Eunuches not minding to delay any longer the pleasure of their Mistresse closed the doores of the Chamber and departed away : within the Chamber were Lamps that gave a cleare light all the place over : Then she put off all her Garments to her naked skinne, and taking the Lampe that stood next to her, began to annoint all her body with balme, and mine likewise, but especially my nose, which done, she kissed me, not as they accustome to doe at the stews, or in brothel houses, or in the Curtain Schools for gaine of money, but purely, sincerely, and with great affection, casting out these and like loving words : Thou art he whom I love, thou art he whom I onely desire, without thee I cannot live, and other like preamble of talke as women can use well enough, when as they mind to shew or declare their burning passions and great affection of love : Then she tooke me by the halter and cast me downe upon the bed, which was nothing strange unto me, considering that she was so beautifull a Matron and I so wel bolded out with wine, and perfumed with balme, whereby I was readily prepared for the purpose : But nothing grieved me so much as to think, how I should with my huge and great legs imbrace so faire a Matron, or how I should touch her fine, dainty, and silken skinne, with my hard hoofes, or how it was possible to kisse her soft, pretty and ruddy lips, with my monstrous mouth and stony teeth, or how she, who was young and tender, could be able to receive me.
And I verily thought, if I should hurt the woman by any kind of meane, I should be throwne to the wild Beasts : But in the meane season she kissed me, and looked in my mouth with burning eyes, saying : I hold thee my canny, I hold thee my noose, my sparrow, and therewithal ! she eftsoones imbraced my body round about, and had her pleasure with me, whereby I thought the mother of Miniatures did not ceaseless quench her inordinate desire with a Bull. When night was passed, with much joy and small sleepe, the Matron went before day to my keeper to bargain with him another night, which he willingly granted, partly for gaine of money, and partly to finde new pastime for my master.16

18It so happens that Titania also has four fairy servants accompanying her and Bottom : Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Mote and Mustardseed, and from Bottom’s way of addressing them we know that they are male fairies :

I shall desire you of better acquaintance, good Master Cobweb. (...)
Your name, honest gentleman ?

Peaseblossom. (...)

Your name, I beseech you, sir ?

Mustardseed. (3,2, 173, 175, 180).

  • 17 Peter Demetz, “The Elm and the Vine : Notes Towards the History of a Marriage Topos”, PMLA 73, Dec (...)

19The Matron falls for Lucius as soon as she sees him, just as Titania’s passion for Bottom develops at first sight (“Mine ear is much enamoured of thy note ; / So is mine eye enthralled to thy shape ;” 3, 1, 131-132). The Matron kisses Lucius’nose, while Titania kisses Bottom’s ears after stroking his cheeks (4,1, 1-4), Titania calls Bottom “my sweet love”, “sweet love” (4,1, 27, 30), she speaks her love for him in an exclamation : “O how I love thee, how I dote on thee !” (4, 1, 44) after a cue which is an indirect stage direction showing that she embraces him in her arms through the reference to the emblematic image of the ivy and the elm, a conventional reference to the topos of marriage17 which is Shakespeare’s way of hinting at the physical union between the Fairy Queen and Bottom, and which also recalls the more explicit description given by Apuleius :

Sleep thou, and I will wind thee in my arms.
Fairies, be gone, and be always away.
So doth the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle
Gently entwist ; the female ivy so
Enrings the barky fingers of the elm. (4, 1, 39-43).

  • 18 The corresponding passages are underlined in the extract from The Golden Asse.

20In Apuleius, the eunuchs also departed, leaving their mistress alone with the ass, and she declared her passion too before having sex with him18. In MND however, the allusion is toned down by the recourse to the convention of sleep, which is Shakespeare’s way of escaping accusations of obscenity and transgression as all the events that take place in the wood happen during the night and can be interpreted as resulting from the effects of magic and solely as dreams or hallucinations. Both characters fall asleep immediately after Titania’s declaration and remain asleep until Oberon intervenes to undo the charm on Titania.

21While the comic nature of the plot of MND and the recourse to magic and dream as rational explanations for the events in the wood seem to point to the restoration of law and order, whether sexual or social, once all the affected characters awaken, the intertextual reference insists on the transgressive nature of the relationship between Titania and Bottom, which ranges from social transgression (he is a mechanical and she is the queen who turns him into her favourite, giving him servants) to the more serious field of sexual transgression in the form of zoophilia. Whereas Titania once awake will be remarkably silent upon the subject, merely remembering vaguely she was “enamoured of an ass” (4, 1, 75), Bottom on the contrary elaborates upon his “dream” and he is endowed for once in the play with unusual rhetoric skills. His interrupted clauses (“methought I was– methought I had–”) seem to hint at the unspeakable in both senses of the word as he cannot utter it because it was so overwhelming, and also because it cannot be uttered on stage as it would be describing graphically an act of zoophilia. The series of synaesthesiae that follows can be interpreted as a poetic way of rendering his sensual upheaval without risking an accusation of indecency :

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 whall be called’Bottom’s Dream’because it hath no bottom, and I will sing it in the latter end of a play, peradventure. (4, 1, 201-213)

  • 19 See Natasha Eckhert, op. cit.

22Bottom has a privileged status again here : unlike any of the other characters at one point or another affected by magic while in the wood at night, he can remember what happened to him. His is the only dream that persists after magic has stopped. Such an emphasis indicates the importance attributed by the dramatist to the notion of transgression, through the elaborate use of intertextual references and the unusual positive association of the process of metamorphosis. Indeed, in Ovid the transformation of a human being into an animal was a form of punishment which is obvious if again we refer to the story of Actaeon. In Apuleius, it was also a form of punishment for Lucius’curiosity and desire for magical powers, although it resulted in his night with the Matron. In staging a metamorphosis which was a hybrid between Ovidian patterns and Apuleius’tale, Shakespeare used his intertexts most effectively. The limited transformation which Bottom undergoes allows for the maintaining of his faculty of speech, unlike Apuleius’protagonist, a characteristic that is crucial on stage where the device of the first-person narrative used by Apuleius is of no use, and the intertextual references underline the strong transgressive nature of the plot between Titania and Bottom and the importance of the theme of desire. Myth in this case is the staging of the process of human to animal metamorphosis, or the performative use of a narrative convention and motif to stress the power of sexual desire beyond the boundaries of morals and conventions in the blending of the sacred world of the fairy queen and the profane world of the awkward mechanical. In this respect, Shakespeare’s use of the mythic motif of metamorphosis is doubly subversive. It goes against the moralisation that can be identified in Ovid when animal transformations are effected by the gods as a form of punishment19, and it contradicts the very moral happy ending of the play when, after a lot of peripetiae, order is finally restored in the couples and desire kept within the bounds of law.

The staging of myth : discrepancy and transgression

23Just as myth as the process of metamorphosis constitutes the chore of Bottom’s transformation, the same Bottom is also at the centre of the other crucial reference to myth as metamorphosis in the play, but this time metamorphosis understood as a poetic narrative which has to be adapted into a stage performance. In this case, metamorphosis is both explicitly an intertext and the very medium for Shakespeare’s metadramatic development. The comic effects in the mechanicals’scenes rely entirely on the intertextual references and the staging problems they encounter in trying to stage a narrative mirror Shakespeare’s own experience in re-using narrative material on stage.

24As soon as the mechanicals are introduced in Act 1, scene 2, the central element of this part of the plot becomes the play they are to perform, which is also a direct intertextual reference to Ovid, and it is obvious from the start that the scene requires its audience to know the Ovidian source quite well, otherwise most of the comic effect would be lost. The comedy in the scenes with the mechanicals relies entirely on the audience’s awareness of the intertextual system of allusions. The key issues that guide the construction of these scenes are the problems encountered when adapting a narrative for a stage-performance, in other words the problems and paradoxes of trying to turn a mythical narrative into drama.

  • 20 See appendix, document 2.

25There is no understanding of Quince’s comical mixing of genres when he introduces the play by announcing its paradoxical title if one does not know the storyline of Ovid’s “Pyramus and Thisbe”. Quince calls the play : “The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe” (1, 2, 11-12). The pun on “lamentable” points of course both to the oxymoron if you choose to understand it as “mournful comedy” and to the bad quality of the acting if you interpret it as “deplorable”, but to be aware of the double-meaning you have to know of the tragic fate of Pyramus and Thisbe20. The next comic element is the mechanicals’complete ignorance of the original text, apart from Quince :

You, Nick Bottom, are set down for Pyramus.

What is Pyramus ? A lover or a tyrant ?

A lover, that kills himself, most gallant, for love. (1, 2, 18-20)

26The device is taken up with Flute and Thisbe :

QUINCE : Flute, you must take Thisbe on you.
FLUTE : What is Thibe ? A wandering knight ?
QUINCE : It is the lady that Pyramus must love. (1, 2, 38-40)

27In both instances, the comic effect comes from the discrepancy between the characters’knowledge of the intertext and the audience’s, which leads the characters to imagine a world of possibilities, Pyramus being a tyrant, and Thisbe a wandering knight... The spectators’knowledge of the mythical intertext is the basic requirement for the comic fabric of the scene. The casting of roles seems to follow quite closely the Ovidian tale with the parents’roles attributed to Snout as Pyramus’father and Quince as Thisbe’s father, and finally Snug is to play the part of the lion. This is when the intertextual alteration begins. In Golding’s translation, the animal is not a lion, but a lioness :

  • 21 Ovid, Metamorphoses, translated into English by Arthur Golding, London, William Seres, 1567, Booke (...)

But see the chaunce, there comes besmerde with blood
About the chappes a Lionesse all foming from the wood
From slaughter lately made of kine to staunch hir bloudie thurst
With water of the foresaid spring.21

  • 22 Ibidem, l. 72.

28This element will take on a critical dimension when the playlet is finally performed in Act 5. Quince sticks quite closely to the Ovidian text, notably as he describes Pyramus : “Pyramus is a sweet-faced man ; a proper man as one shall see in a summer’s day ; a most lovely, gentlemanlike man” (1, 2, 76-78). This cue is both an echo of Ovid (“So faire a man in all the East was none alive as he”)22 and a metadramatic reference within MND with the mention of a summer’s day, which shows that the intertextual and metadramatic dimensions are inseparable.

29The next encounter of the mechanicals is their rehearsal and again their main concern is the degree of adaptability of Ovid’s tale to the stage, which they seem to have doubts about :

BOTTOM : There are things in this comedy of Pyramus and Thisbe which will never please. First, Pyramus must draw a sword to kill himself, which the ladies cannot abide. (3, 1, 8-10)

30Just as in their first scene, the generic mistake about the play is repeated, by Bottom this time, but contrary to Act 1, scene 2, Bottom here does have some knowledge of Ovid’s tale for he echoes the poet’s lines :

His sworde, the which among his guttes he thrust, and by and by Did draw it from the bleeding wound beginning for to die. (Met., Book IV, l.145-146)

31The mechanicals’obsession with abiding by the conventions of staging makes them literally deconstruct dramatic conventions and write an imaginary prologue that denies the existence of theatrical illusion :

BOTTOM : and for the more better assurance, tell them that I, Pyramus, am not Pyramus, but Bottom the weaver. This will put them out of fear. (...) Nay, you must name his name, and half his face must be seen through the lion’s neck, and he himself must speak through, saying thus, or to the same defect : (...)’No, I am no such thing. I am a man, as other men are.’(3, 1, 18-20, 33-35, 39-40).

32The last step is their desire to represent every element of the tale, namely the moonlight and the wall. The moonlight is mentioned in Ovid (Whome Thisbe spying furst, Afarre by moonelight, l. 122) and the mechanicals strive to invent a way of staging it and opt finally for casting it as a role, and just as Bottom’s mala-propism when he used “defect” (35) instead of “effect”, Quince says that someone must “disfigure” the person of Moonshine :

QUINCE : Ay, or else one must come in with a bush of thorns and a lantern and say he comes to disfigure, or to present, the person of Moonshine. (55-57).

33The comic effect intended in this scene by Shakespeare comes from the poor artisans’desperate attempt at translating every single element of the narrative into their performance, and their mistake is precisely to cast every element as a role, including the setting and the time of day. The absurdity of this attempt is underlined when Quince insists on sticking to the original story, which is Shakespeare’s way of pointing at his intertextual use of Ovid : “For Pyramus and Thisbe, says the story, did talk through the chink of a wall”.(59-60, my emphasis). As in previous examples, Shakespeare does rely on his audience’s knowledge of the Ovidian tale :

The wall that parted house from house had riven therein a crany
Which shronke at making of the wall. This fault not markt of any
Of many hundred yeares before (what doth not love espie)
These lovers first of all found out, and made a way whereby
To talke togither secretly, and through the same did goe
Their loving whisprings verie light and safely to and fro. (Met. Book IV, l. 82-87)

34After the interruption of the mechanicals’rehearsal by Robin’s intervention, they meet again once Bottom has been restored to his human shape, and are chosen by Theseus to perform their play. Before the performance takes place, however, the title and quality of the play are discussed by Theseus and Egeus. The same generic paradox as that present in Quince’s title in Act 1, scene 2 is present : “A tedious brief scene of Young Pyramus / And his love Thisbe : very tragical mirth” (5, 1, 56-57). It seems that this title was chosen not by Quince but by Egeus, who has already seen the play. The tragic dimension according to him is solely related to the death of Pyramus (“And’tragical’, my noble lord, it is, / For Pyramus therein doth kill himself ;” 5, 1, 66-67). Then the performance itself takes place and all its comic effects, which are numerous, rely on both the transgression of the conventions of drama, and the comic alterations of the Ovidian text. After mangling the lines of his prologue that apologise for the performers’lack of skill, Quince proceeds to sum up the storyline and echoes Ovid (Quince 5, 1, 136-148 / Ovid l.108-150) with none of the former’s poetic skill but rather mars the tragic tone of the tale with his exaggerated alliterations (“boiling bloody breast”, l. 146, “dagger drew and died”, l.148).

35The performance itself reveals again the transgression of staging conventions as Snout not only embodies Wall but speaks, too : “In this same interlude, it doth befall/ That I, one Snout by name, present a wall” (5,1, 154-155). This is coupled with sexual and scatological innuendos contained not only in the name of Snout, but also in the way he shows his cranny, and is made plain in the onstage spectators’reaction (Theseus : Would you expect lime and hair to speak better ?”, l.164). But the climax of transgression regarding Wall takes place as Bottom asks him to show him his hole, thereby making the anal reference explicit and transgressing a stage taboo and breaking whatever remnants there might have been of dramatic illusion in the play performed by the mechanicals :

BOTTOM (as Pyramus) :
Thou Wall, O Wall, O sweet and lovely Wall,
Show me thy chink, to blink through with mine eye.
Wall shows his chink
Thanks, courteous wall. Jove shield thee well for this. (174-176)

36Just as in the case of Bottom’s metamorphosis, these scenes come as a complete surprise for the audience since the play that is finally performed in Act 5 has very little in common with the play that was rehearsed in the previous acts. Whereas the previous scenes with the mechanicals foreshadowed bad acting and the breaking of theatrical illusion, the actual performance points to sexual transgression.

37The breaking of dramatic conventions in having an actor play the part of Wall turns into an obscene moment in which, once the absurdity of a speaking wall is overlooked, comedy or rather farce works very efficiently and theatrical illusion is restored as Wall moves and Bottom thanks it. All that is required for this scene to function from a dramatic point of view is the forsaking of any realistic pretence in the staging conventions, and it is the case from the very first lines of the mechanicals’performance. With this excuse of bad acting, the scene then unfolds and reveals the extent of its transgressive message.

38The departure from the source is extreme in this case : the original story has been turned into extremely effective performance, except that the effect achieved has nothing to do with the original. The discrepancy insists both on the difficulty of defining which elements from the original narrative should be staged, and Shakespeare’s insistence on references to the lower parts of the body and the physical positions of the characters. Two views of the staging of myth are opposed in this scene. Quince’s well-meaning attempt at translating almost systematically the elements of the original Ovidian narrative onstage, which results in the shattering of dramatic illusion, and on the other hand, the performance itself which is a very effective rendering of sexual transgression through the use of comically distorted elements taken from a subversive reading of Ovid. While the mythical narrative has all the elements required to create a tragedy, the play performed by the mechanicals is not a failed tragedy resulting from poor acting as one might have expected from the rehearsal scenes. It is at this point a very successful passage of farce which stages sexual taboos as the key comic tool in the scene. Two forces work contrariwise in this passage : the stage adaptation of Ovid’s tale is a dismal failure in terms of faithfulness to the source, but it is a tremendously successful farce in which the burlesque distortion of the original myth enables the spectators to appreciate the subversive nature of this adaptation. The farcical process goes on in Thisbe’s cue :

FLUTE (as Thisbe) :
O wall, full often hast thou heard my moans
For with my fair Pyramus and me.
My cherry lips have often kissed thy stones,
Thy stones with lime and hair knit up in thee. (187-190)

39Indeed, if one understands the reference to Wall’s stones as sexual, Thisbe’s lines become graphic and very comical, and this is reinforced by the occurrence of “moans”. The same comic effect is used again when the two lovers kiss through the wall’s hole :

BOTTOM (as Pyramus) :
Okiss me through the hole of this vile wall.

FLUTE (as Thisbe) :
I kiss the wall’s hole, not your lips at all. (199-200)

40The dialogue through the wall and the insistence on the hole are, of course, Shakespeare’s inventions with the excuse that they are Quince’s, or Bottom’s. The level of discrepancy between Ovid and the playlet reveals the subversive use that is made of Ovid’s text in the inserted play and points at the emphasis on sexual transgression and graphic references. Myth here is sued as counterpoint to the mechanicals’performance, indicating the importance of the differences between the source and the performance, and thereby reinforcing the strong dramatic power of these farcical moments. Announced as a paradoxical tragedy, the mechanicals’play is in fact an extremely successful farce and if interpreted as such it is a very effective medium for the staging of transgression. The generic transgression that the story of Pyramus and Thisbe undergoes underlines the overwhelming power of sexual transgression at a point in MND when the order of marriage and the value of conventions are supposed to be celebrated. The very same characters who embody this return to order are the onstage viewers of the mechanicals’play, which means they are passive, and all the onstage action and comedy provided for the spectators of MND at this point comes from the mechanicals. The convention of the play within the play here reveals the dramatic status of the mechanicals’performance and therefore of transgression. The staging of myth here is used as a series of “intertextual” differences made obvious for the spectators and aiming at counteracting the apparent return to order that prevails in the world of the Athenian noblemen. It becomes an extremely effective medium for the staging of transgression.

41Ultimately, this is what the inserted play aims at underlining with the striking use of Shakespeare’s major alteration of Ovid, which may pass as insignificant to start with when it is first mentioned in Act 1, scene 2 but which reveals its essential function in Act 5, scene 1. In Ovid the wild beast that scared Thisbe and made blood stains on her mantle was a lioness, and not a lion. But until the actual performance of the mechanicals’play, this element seems minor. Yet on discovering the blood-stained mantle, Bottom as Pyramus exclaims :

BOTTOM (as Pyramus) :
O wherefore, nature, didst thou lions frame,
Since lion vile hath here deflowered my dear ?
Which is–no, no, which was–the fairest dame
That lived, that liked, that loved, that looked with cheer. (285-288).

42“Deflowered” is generally interpreted as one more of Bottom’s malapropisms and does have this dimension, but one cannot overlook the very meaningful departure from the Ovidian source that enables this apparent mistake to make sense. The lioness having been replaced by a lion, the transgression of zoophilia has been made possible and is one of the meanings contained in these lines. The bloodstained mantle in this case indicates the consuming of the relationship between Thisbe and the Lion and explains why Pyramus insists on the past tense in “was-the fairest”. In the light of the other metamorphosis staged in MND, that of Bottom, and of its ensuing implications as far as Titania is concerned, the recurrence of a pattern of transgression that underlines the importance of sexual transgression and in particular of zoophilia reveals its thematic importance. Desire still prevails when it should have been restrained, and the performance that should celebrate the three weddings insists upon desire as transgression. The playlet performed by the artisans reveals the persistence, even without the liminal space of the wood, of the power of desire and transgression, whereas it is supposed to be a form of epithalamion for Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding. No magical juice is involved here, no intervention from the spirits, only the performing of a play which proves to be the most potent force of all. Myth as metamorphosis in the play functions as a number of intertextual references whose degree of alteration points to a kind of underlying message or power, which goes against the obvious generic constraints of the comedy, highlighting a conception of desire that insists on its transgressive nature, both from a social point of view and from a dramatic point of view, as this constitutes Shakespeare’s deliberate undermining of the restoration of order that is inherent to the genre of comedy.

43It is the ultimate aim of the references to metamorphosis in MND, showing the force and the persistence of the notion of transgression even after order has theoretically been restored in the world of the play and in the various levels of the plot which combine at the end. Though the comic ending of the play and the celebration of the convention of marriage seem to indicate that the rules of society are stronger than the temptation of transgression induced by desire, through the special dramatic, intertextual and metadramatic status given to the two major references to myth and metamorphosis, Shakespeare indicates the persistence of desire as a force of misrule or transgression, and it is only through a true intertextual play with his spectators that this message can come through. The mythical references staged in MND function as a common background which introduces an element of discord in the very-well ordered world of social conventions in the Elizabethan age. While the overall comic structure of MND celebrates this order, the references to myth denounce its artificiality and threaten its balance.


Document 1 :

44Actaeon transformed into a stage, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, illustrated by Virgil Solis, Frankfurt, 1569.

45Available at :​exhibns/​month/​sep1999.html

Actaeon in cervum : p. 40
Actaeon transformed by Diana into a stag

Actaeon in cervum : p. 40Actaeon transformed by Diana into a stag

Document 2 :

46Pyramus and Thisbe, from Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1567)23

Within the towne (of whose huge walles so monstrous high and thicke
The fame is given Semyramis for making them of bricke)
Dwelt hard together two yong folke in houses joynde so nere
That under all one roofe well nie both twaine conveyed were... . [IV.70]
The name of him was Pyramus, and Thisbe calde was she.
So faire a man in all the East was none alive as he,
Nor nere a woman, maide nor wife in beautie like to hir.
This neighbrod bred acquaintance first, this neyghbrod first did stirre
The secret sparkes, this neighbrod first an entrance in did showe,
For love to come to that to which it afterward did growe.
And if that right had taken place they had bene man and wife,
But still their Parents went about to let which (for their life)
They could not let. For both their heartes with equall flame did burne.
No man was privie to their thoughts. And for to serve their turne.. . [IV.80]
In steade of talke they used signes. The closelier they supprest
The fire of love, the fiercer still it raged in their brest.
The wall that parted house from house had riven therein a crany
Which shronke at making of the wall. This fault not markt of any
Of many hundred yeares before (what doth not love espie)
These lovers first of all found out, and made a way whereby
To talke togither secretly, and through the same did goe
Their loving whisprings verie light and safely to and fro.
Now as at one side Pyramus and Thisbe on the tother
Stoode often drawing one of them the pleasant breath from other :.. . [IV.90]
O thou envious wall (they sayd) why letst thou lovers thus ?
What matter were it if that thou permitted both of us
In armes eche other to embrace ? Or if thou thinke that this
Were overmuch, yet mightest thou at least make roume to kisse.
And yet thou shalt not finde us churles : we thinke our selves in det
For this same piece of courtesie, in vouching safe to let
Our sayings to our friendly eares thus freely come and goe.
Thus having where they stoode in vaine complayned of their woe,
When night drew nere, they bade adew and eche gave kisses sweete
Unto the parget on their side, the which did never meete... . [IV.100]
Next morning with hir cherefull light had driven the starres aside
And Phebus with his burning beames the dewie grasse had dride.
These lovers at their wonted place by foreappointment met.
Where after much complaint and mone they covenanted to get
Away from such as watched them and in the Evening late
To steale out of their fathers house and eke the Citie gate.
And to th’intent that in the fields they strayde not up and downe
They did agree at Ninus Tumb to meete without the towne,
And tarie underneath a tree that by the same did grow
Which was a faire high Mulberie with fruite as white as snow... . [IV.110]
Hard by a coole and trickling spring. This bargaine pleasde them both
And so daylight (which to their thought away but slowly goth)
Did in the Ocean fall to rest, and night from thence doth rise.
As soone as darkenesse once was come, straight Thisbe did devise
A shift to wind hir out of doores, that none that were within
Perceyved hir : and muffling hir with clothes about hir chin,
That no man might discerne hir face, to Ninus Tumb she came
Unto the tree, and sat hir downe there underneath the same.
Love made hir bold. But see the chaunce, there comes besmerde with blood
Above the chappes a Lionesse all foming from the wood.. . [IV.120]
From slaughter lately made of kine to staunch hir bloudie thurst
With water of the foresaid spring. Whome Thisbe spying furst,
Afarre by moonelight, thereupon with fearfull steppes gan flie,
And in a darke and yrkesome cave did hide hirselfe thereby.
And as she fled away for hast she let hir mantle fall
The whych for feare she left behind not looking backe at all.
Now when the cruell Lionesse hir thurst had stanched well,
In going to the Wood she found the slender weede that fell
From Thisbe, which with bloudie teeth in pieces she did teare.
The night was somewhat further spent ere Pyramus came there.. . [IV.130]
Who seeing in the suttle sande the pring of Lions paw,
Waxt pale for feare. But when also the bloudie cloke he saw
All rent and torne : One night (he sayd) shall lovers two confounde.
Of which long life deserved she of all that live on ground.
My soule deserves of this mischaunce the perill for to beare.
I, wretch, have bene the death of thee, which to this place of feare
Did cause thee in the night to come, and came not here before.
My wicked limmes and wretched guttes with cruell teeth therfore
Devour ye, O ye Lions all that in this rocke doe dwell.
But Cowardes use to wish for death. The slender weede that fell.. . [IV.140]
From Thisbe up he takes, and streight doth beare it to the tree,
Which was appointed erst the place of meeting for to bee.
And when he had bewept and kist the garment which he knew,
Receyve thou my bloud too (quoth he) and therewithall he drew
His sworde, the which among his guttes he thrust, and by and by
Did draw it from the bleeding wound beginning for to die,
And cast himselfe upon his backe, the bloud did spin on hie
As when a Conduite pipe is crackt, the water bursting out
Doth shote it selfe a great way off and pierce the Ayre about.
The leaves that were upon the tree besprincled with his blood.. . [IV.150]
Were died blacke. The roote also bestained as it stoode,
A deepe darke purple colour straight upon the Berries cast.
Anon scarce ridded of hir feare with which she was agast,
For doubt of disapointing him commes Thisbe forth in hast,
And for hir lover lookes about, rejoycing for to tell
How hardly she had scapt that night the daunger that befell.
And as she knew right well the place and facion of the tree
(As which she saw so late before) : even so when she did see
The colour of the Berries turnde, she was uncertaine whither
It were the tree at which they both agreed to meete togither... . [IV.160]
While in this doubtfull stounde she stoode, she cast hir eye aside
And there beweltred in his bloud hir lover she espide
Lie sprawling with his dying limmes : at which she started backe,
And looked pale as any Box, a shuddring through hir stracke,
Even like the Sea which sodenly with whissing noyse doth move,
When with a little blast of winde it is but toucht above.
But when approching nearer him she knew it was hir love,
She beate hir brest, she shrieked out, she tare hir golden heares,
And taking him betweene hir armes did wash his wounds with teares,
She meynt hir weeping with his bloud, and kissing all his face.. . [IV.170]
(Which now became as colde as yse) she cride in wofull case :
Alas what chaunce, my Pyramus, hath parted thee and mee ?
Make aunswere O my Pyramus : it is thy Thisb’, even shee
Whome thou doste love most heartely, that speaketh unto thee.
Give eare and rayse thy heavie heade. He hearing Thisbes name,
Lift up his dying eyes and having seene hir closde the same.
But when she knew hir mantle there and saw his scabberd lie
Without the swoorde : Unhappy man thy love hath made thee die :
Thy love (she said) hath made thee sley thy selfe. This hand of mine
Is strong inough to doe the like. My love no lesse than thine.. . [IV.180]

Shall give me force to worke my wound. I will pursue the dead.
And wretched woman as I am, it shall of me be sed
That like as of thy death I was the only cause and blame,
So am I thy companion eke and partner in the same,
For death which only coulde alas asunder part us twaine,
Shall never so dissever us but we will meete againe.
And you the Parentes of us both, most wretched folke alyve,
Let this request that I shall make in both our names bylive
Entreate you to permit that we whome chaste and stedfast love
And whome even death hath joynde in one, may as it doth behove.. . [IV.190]
In one grave be together layd. And thou unhappie tree
Which shroudest now the corse of one, and shalt anon through mee
Shroude two, of this same slaughter holde the sicker signes for ay,
Blacke be the colour of thy fruite and mourning like alway.
Such as the murder of us twaine may evermore bewray.
This said, she tooke the sword yet warme with slaughter of hir love
And setting it beneath hir brest, did to hir heart it shove.
Hir prayer with the Gods and with their Parentes tooke effect.
For when the frute is throughly ripe, the Berrie is bespect
With colour tending to a blacke. And that which after fire.. . [IV.200]
Remained, rested in one Tumbe as Thisbe did desire.


1 Georges Bataille, Erotism : Death and Sensuality, San Francisco City Light Books, 1957.

2 Yves Peyré, « La mythologie dans la tragédie élisabéthaine », doctoral thesis, Université de Paris IV-Sorbonne, 1992. Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare and Ovid, Oxford University Press, 1993.

3 Léon, S. Roudiez,’Introduction’, in Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language : A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, Oxford : Basil Blackwell, 1984, p. 15.

4 See Yves Peyré,1992, vol. I, p. 181.

5 Ovid’s Metamorphoses, illustrated by Virgil Solis, Frankfurt, 1569. An estimated one hundred illustrated versions of the work were published from 1500 to 1599. Virgil Solis was a renowned Nuremberg engraver who belonged to the group of the German mannerists. (December 2004). See appendix, document 1.

6 Geffrey Whitney, A Choice of Emblemes and Other Devices, (1586), Aldershot, Scolar Press, 1989. The very first English emblem book was Thomas Palmer’s Two Hundred Poosies, dating from 1565 or 1566 but it was never published. Whitney’s book was the first English emblem book to be published and it had a lasting impact on the visual arts and poetry as well as on other English emblem books. The emblem depicting Actaeon as a man with a hart’s head lying on the ground is available at : (December 2004), or p. 15 of the edition mentioned above.

7 Actaeon’s metamorphosis was a recurrent theme in both Marlowe and Shakespeare. See François Laroque : “Ovidian V(o)ices in Marlowe and Shakespeare : the Actaeon Variations”, in A.B. Taylor (ed.), Shakespeare’s Ovid. The Metamorphoses in the Plays and Poems, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 165-177.

8 The full text is available at : (December 2004).

9 Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book XI.

10 Natasha Eckhert, “The Correlation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Greek Perspectives”, available at : (December 2004).

11 William Shakspeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ed. Peter Holland, Oxford University Press, 1994, my emphasis.

12 Lucius Apuleius, The Golden Asse, translated into English by Adlington, 1566. In his preface, Adlington underlines the parentage with Ovid : There be many who would rather intitule it’Metamorphosis’, that is to say, a transfiguration or transformation, by reason of the argument and matter within. (my emphasis). Full online edition available at : (December 2004). Also at : (December 2004).

13 It is quite clear at the end of Act 1, scene 1 : Hermia and Lysander have eloped into the wood. Hence when we see Helena and Demetrius in 2,1 we know that another couple of Athenians is in the wood at the same time.

14 Ellen D. Finkelpearl, Metamorphosis of Language in Apuleius : A Study of Allusion in the Novel. Ann Arbor : The University of Michigan Press, 1998.

15 The Golden Asse, The third Booke, Chapter Seventeenth : How Apuleius thinking to be turned into a bird, was turned into an Asse, and how hee was led away by Theves. Available at : (my emphasis).

16 The Golden Asse, The Tenth Booke, the Forty-Sixth Chapter, available at :, (my emphasis).

17 Peter Demetz, “The Elm and the Vine : Notes Towards the History of a Marriage Topos”, PMLA 73, Dec. 1958, p. 521-532.

18 The corresponding passages are underlined in the extract from The Golden Asse.

19 See Natasha Eckhert, op. cit.

20 See appendix, document 2.

21 Ovid, Metamorphoses, translated into English by Arthur Golding, London, William Seres, 1567, Booke IV, l. 67-201, available at : (December 2004). See also appendix to this article.

22 Ibidem, l. 72.

23 Source : My emphasis.

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