Titania slept on. Having missed the drama that had been played out right beside her, she was now also oblivious to the arrival of Peter Quince and Nick Bottom, who were followed within a few minutes by Snug and Flute, and then Snout and Starveling.
Bottom rubbed his hands. ‘Are we all here?’ he said.
Quince looked up at the moon. ‘Right on time,’ he said. ‘And it’s a wonderfully convenient place for our rehearsal.’ He stood on the grassy bed Hermia had been asleep on just a few minutes previously. ‘This green plot will be our stage, this hawthorn thicket our dressing room, and we’ll run through the action just as we’re going to do it before the Duke.’ He pulled a sheaf of papers out of his pocket and adjusted his spectacles.
‘Peter Quince!’ said Bottom.
Quince peered at him over the rims of his glasses. ‘Yes, bully Bottom?’
‘There are things in this comedy of Pyramus and Thisby that will never please. First, Pyramus must draw a sword to kill himself: which will upset the ladies. How do you answer that?’
‘My goodness, that’s a real danger!’ exclaimed Snout.
Starveling agreed. ‘I think we should leave the killing out when’s all’s said and done.’
Bottom gave them a huge wink. ‘Not a jot,’ he said. ‘I have a plan for getting round it. Write a prologue for me and let the prologue suggest that we won’t do any harm with our swords, and that Pyramus isn’t really killed. And to make doubly sure, tell them that I, Pyramus, am not really Pyramus but Bottom the weaver. That will reassure them.’
‘Well, we’ll have such a prologue,’ said Quince. ‘In verse: eight and six feet alternately.’
Bottom pondered, while they all waited for his decision. He rubbed his chin, shaking his head slowly. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Make it two more. Write it eight and eight.’
Snout raised his hand and Bottom nodded to him. ‘Won’t the ladies be scared of the lion?’ he said.
Starveling shuddered. ‘I would be scared, I promise you,’ he said.
‘Gentlemen.’ Bottom looked round at them triumphantly. ‘You need to think about this. To bring a lion in – God help us! – among ladies, is a terrible thing, because there’s not a more terrifying wild bird than your lion in the whole of creation. We ought to look into it most carefully.’
They were all silent for a moment, thinking about it. Snout raised his hand again and Quince looked at him. ‘So there must be another prologue telling them he’s not really a lion,’ said Snout.
‘Yes,’ said Bottom. ‘And you must name him by his name, and half his face must be seen through the lion’s neck, and he must speak through it as himself, saying this, or something to the same defect: ‘Ladies’, or ‘beautiful ladies’, ‘I would like you’ or ‘I would ask you’ or ‘I would beg you not to be afraid, not to tremble. If you think I came here as a lion I would be mortified. No, I’m no such thing. I’m an ordinary man, like other men.’ And then let him say his name and tell them plainly that he’s Snug the joiner.’
‘Well we’ll do that,’ said Quince. ‘But there are two difficult things: that is, how to bring the moonlight into the room because, you know, Pyramus and Thisbe meet by moonlight.’
‘Will the moon be shining on the night we perform our play?’ said Snout.
‘A calendar, a calendar!’ exclaimed Bottom. ‘Look in the almanac: find out moonshine, find out moonshine!’
Quince shuffled through his papers while they all waited tensely. He found it, perused it, and nodded. ‘Yes, it shines on that night,’ he said.
‘Well then, you can open the shutters of the great hall where we’ll be performing and the moon can shine in through the window,’ said Bottom.
‘Yes,’ said Quince. Then a better idea came to him. ‘Or,’ he said, ‘someone must come in with a thornbush and lantern and say he comes to disfigure or present the character, Moonshine. Then there is another thing: we must have a wall in the great hall because in the story, Pyramus and Thisbe talk through a chink in the wall.’
Snout’s face showed his scepticism. ‘You’ll never be able to bring a wall in,’ he said. ‘What do you think, Bottom?’
‘Some man or other must represent Wall,’ said Bottom in a definitive tone. ‘And he must have some plaster, or some loam, or some pebble-dash about him, to show that he’s a wall: or he should hold his fingers like this.’ He made his fingers into a V and forced his lips through it. ‘And through that cranny Pyramus and Thisby will whisper.’
‘If we do that it will all be alright,’ said Quince. He cleared his throat. ‘Come, sit down, every mother’s son, and rehearse your parts. Pyramus, you begin. When you’ve spoken your lines go into the thicket: and the same with everyone else, according to his cue.’
Puck landed on a high branch of a tall tree. Who were those rough-clad peasants swaggering about so close to the sleeping fairy queen? What? A play rehearsal? He sprang to a lower branch and sat down to watch. He would be a member of the audience, and maybe an actor too if he got the chance!
Quince pointed sharply at Bottom. ‘Speak, Pyramus,’ he said. He swung his arm dramatically and pointed at Flute. ‘Thisby, come forward.’
Bottom placed himself in the centre of the ‘stage’. He put one leg forward, leant back and placed a hand over his chest. Then stretching his other arm towards Flute, he spoke in a tone deeper than his normal voice. ‘Thisbe, the flowers have odious sweet smells…’
‘Odorous, odorous,’ said Quince.
‘Odorous sweet smells,’ said Bottom. ‘So has your breath, my dearest Thisbe dear.’ He put a hand dramatically behind his ear and bent over sideways at an extreme angle to listen to some imaginary sound:
‘But hark, a voice! Stay here a little while,
And by and by I will to you appear.’
He went off, as someone trying not to be discovered. The result was a ludicrous halting, looking-over-the-shoulder, gesticulating spectacle.
Puck had difficulty suppressing his laughter. This was the most weird Pyramus ever!
‘Do I speak now?’ said Flute.
‘Yes, indeed, you must,’ said Quince. ‘You have to understand, he’s only gone to see a noise that he heard, and is coming back.’
Flute spoke haltingly and in a monotonous tone, failing to make the most of Quince’s splendid script:
‘Most radiant Pyramus, most lily-white of hue,
Of colour like the red rose on triumphant briar,
Most lively youth and also most lovely Jew:
You trusty horse that’s never known to tire.
I’ll meet you, Pyramus, at Ninny’s tomb.’
‘Ninus’ tomb, man!’ exclaimed Quince. ‘But you don’t say that yet. That’s your answer to Pyramus. You’re speaking all your lines at once, cues and all.’ He shook his head in despair and turned to the thicket. ‘Pyramus!’ he called. ‘Enter! You’ve missed your cue. It’s ‘never known to tire.’ ’
‘Oh,’ said Flute. ‘You trusty horse that’s never known to tire.’
What emerged from the thicket wasn’t what they had expected. It was a man dressed like Bottom, but he had a donkey’s head! ‘If I were beautiful, Thisbe…’ he began, but his voice was high-pitched and quavering. He cleared his throat with an awful braying noise and tried again: ‘If I were beautiful, Thisbe, I’d be yours alone.’
They all stared at him in terror for a moment then Quince backed away. ‘Oh monstrous!’ he said. ‘Oh strange! We’re being haunted! For heaven’s sake, run! Gentlemen! Help!’ He turned and ran, and the others followed him.
Puck was delighted at the effect of the prank he had played on them. Giving Bottom an ass’s head had made them think he was a monster or a ghost. He would go after them and have some fun. He would lead them all about: through bogs and bushes, shrubs and thorns. He would take on the form of a horse and then a hound, and a headless bear, and a fire. He would neigh and bark and grunt and roar and burn, and terrify the life out of them.
Bottom was left alone, bewildered – unaware of what Puck had done to him. He didn’t understand this. Why had they run away? It was unkind of them to scare him like that.
Snout was back. He stood nervously at the edge of the wood, ready to take off again. ‘Oh Bottom!’ he exclaimed. ‘You’ve changed! What’s that I see on you?’
‘What do you see?’ said Bottom. ‘You see an ass’s head like yours, do you?’ He took a step towards Snug and Snug fled.
Quince peered round a tree trunk. ‘Bless you, Bottom, bless you!’ he said. ‘You’re translated!’ And he fled too.
Bottom knew what they were up to. They were playing a trick on him, making an ass of him, to frighten him if they could. They could do what they liked: He wouldn’t move from this place. He would walk up and down and he would sing, so that they’d see he wasn’t afraid.
‘The blackbird cock, so black of hue,
With orange-tawny bill,
The thrush with all his notes so true,
The wren with little quill…’
Titania was woken by the raucous, braying singing. She opened her eyes and saw Bottom, complete with his ass’s head. ‘What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?’ she said, falling instantly in love with this wonderful creature.
Bottom didn’t see her. He continued with his song, pacing up and down.
‘The finch, the sparrow, and the lark,
The plain-song cuckoo grey:
Whose song so many men do mark
And dare not answer nay. Because, indeed, who would match his wits against such a stupid bird? Who would call it a liar, no matter how many times it cried ‘cuckoo’?’
Titania watched him enraptured. Then she addressed him: ‘Please, gentle mortal,’ she said, ‘sing again. I love hearing you sing. Your looks attract me enormously, and your personality moves me to say that I’ve fallen in love with you at first sight.’
He didn’t take that seriously and it didn’t occur to him to wonder about her presence either. He pulled his donkey lips back to reveal his huge teeth and laughed a braying, wheezing laugh. ‘I don’t think, madam, you have any reason for that. And, to be honest, reason and love don’t go together much nowadays. Some good people won’t match the two, more’s the pity. Yes, I can say something worthwhile at times.’
She gazed at him adoringly. ‘You’re as wise as you’re beautiful.’
‘Not at all,’ he said. ‘If I had enough brains to get out of this wood that would be enough for me!’
She got up slowly and went up to him. She stroked his ears and kissed him.
‘Out of this wood do not desire to go:
You will remain here whether you will or no.
I am a spirit of no common rate:
The summer season still does tend upon my state,
And I do love you: therefore, come along:
My fairies will attend you all day long:
And they will fetch you jewels from the deep,
And sing, while you on beds of flowers sleep:
And I will take away your mortal features so
That you will like an airy spirit go.’
She called to her fairies who were waiting, hidden, among the trees and bushes. ‘Peaseblossom, cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed!’
Four tiny, glowing, fairies emerged from their hiding places and stood before her. They waited for her instructions.
‘Be kind and courteous to this gentleman:
Go at his side and dance before his eyes:
Feed him with apricots and blackberries,
With purple grapes, green figs and mulberries:
Steal honeycombs from the bumblebees,
Make candles from the wax that’s on their thighs,
And light them from the fiery glow-worm’s eyes,
To guide my love to bed, and to arise:
And pluck the wings from painted butterflies
And fan the moonbeams from his sleeping eyes:
Nod to him, elves, and do him courtesies.’
The fairies bowed and each one greeted him respectfully with ‘Hail!’
‘I greet your worships heartily,’ said Bottom. He bowed to one of them. ‘May I know your worship’s name?’ he said.
‘Cobweb,’ said the elf.
‘I’d like to get to know you better, good Mister Cobweb,’ said Bottom. ‘If I cut my finger I’ll use you to heal the wound.’ He bowed to the second elf. ‘Your name, honest sir?’
‘Peaseblossom,’ replied the fairy.
‘Please give my regards to your mother, Mrs Squash, and your father, Mr Peascod,’ said Bottom. ‘Good Mister Peaseblossom, I’d like to get to know you better too.’ He bowed to the third. ‘Your name, please, sir?’
‘Good Mister Mustardseed. I know very well how patient you are. Those cowardly huge oxen have devoured many of your family. And your family have made my eyes water, alright. I’d like to be better acquainted with you, good Mister Mustardseed.’
Titania gazed at him smiling. Then she made a move to go.
‘Come, wait upon him, lead him to my bower.
The moon is watching with a watery eye
And when she weeps, weeps every little flower,
Lamenting violated chastity…’
Bottom started braying.
‘Tie up my love’s tongue: bring him silently,’ said Titania.