Oberon watched his queen enjoying her new-found love – enjoying him almost as much as the monster was enjoying his new love. She was leading him by the hand towards a sweet-smelling flower bed, and he followed her with his monstrous head held high in an attitude of great arrogance and a sense of his worth having been recognised at last.
‘Come,’ she was saying, ‘sit down on this flowery bed, while I stroke your beautiful cheeks and put musk-roses in your sleek, smooth head, and kiss your lovely big ears, my gorgeous joy.’
Bottom frowned, drawing his lips back to present a grotesque expression. ‘Where’s Peaseblossom?’ he said.
‘Ready,’ said the tiny elf, who was right behind him. Bottom sat down among the flowers and bowed his head towards the elf. ‘Scratch my head, Peaseblossom. Where’s Monsieur Cobweb?’
Ready,’ said Cobweb, stepping forward smartly.
‘Monsieur Cobweb, good sir, take hold of your weapons and kill a red-legged bumble-bee on top of a thistle for me. And, good monsieur, bring me the honey-bag. Be careful in the action, monsieur, and, good sir, watch out that you don’t damage the honey-bag. I wouldn’t like you to be flooded by a honey-bag, signior.’ His huge head swayed slowly. ‘Where’s Monsieur Mustardseed?’
‘Ready!’ Mustardseed snapped to attention.
Bottom thrust his hand towards the fairy. ‘Give me your mit, Monsieur Mustardseed. No, no….’ Bottom laughed his raucous, braying laugh as his delighted mistress watched her servant bowing to her lover. ‘No need to curtsey, good monsieur.’
‘What do you want me to do?’ said Mustardseed.
‘Nothing, dear sir,’ said Bottom, ‘except to help Captain Cobweb to scratch my face. I need to go to the barber’s, good monsieur, because I think my face is very hairy. And I’m such a sensitive ass that, if my hair tickles me, I can’t help scratching.’
Titania stroked his face tenderly. ‘Would you like to listen to some music, my sweet love?’ she said.
‘I’ve got quite a good ear for music,’ said Bottom. ‘Lets have the triangles and the clappers!’
‘Or tell me, sweet love, what you’d like to eat.’
‘To tell you the truth, a large helping of animal fodder.’ The monster smacked its lips, dribbling profusely. ‘I could munch some good dry oats. I think I’ve got a huge craving for a bundle of hay. Good, sweet hay! There’s nothing like it!’
‘I have a fairy scout who’ll find a squirrel’s hoard and bring you some of its freshest nuts.’
‘I’d rather have a handful or two of dried peas. But I’d appreciate it if none of your people disturbed me. I’ve become very sleepy.’
‘Sleep then, and I’ll hold you in my arms,’ she said.
He settled down beside her and she put her arms around him. ‘Off you go, fairies,’ she said. ‘Go your various ways.’ She held the loudly snoring Bottom close, pulled him to her and entwined her limbs around his. It was like the way the woodbine twists around the honeysuckle and the ivy round the barky branches of the elm. Oh, how she loved him! How in love she was!
She fell asleep.
Oberon rubbed his hands gleefully and looked up as his servant arrived.
‘Welcome, good Robin,’ he said. ‘Do you see this sweet sight? I’m beginning to pity her in her infatuation, because, a short while ago, I found her behind this copse, looking for garlands for this loathsome creature. I reprimanded her and we quarrelled, because she had placed a crown of fresh, sweet-smelling flowers round his hairy temples. The dewdrops that once formed like eastern pearls on the buds, now swelled like tears inside the petals, as though crying with shame. When I got tired of taunting her, during which she had asked me politely to stop, I asked her for the changeling child. She immediately agreed and sent a fairy to take him to my fairyland headquarters. Now that I have the boy I’ll remove the spell that distorted her vision so badly. And, gentle Puck, take this ass’s head off this Athenian peasant so that when he wakes up beside the others they can all go back to Athens thinking no more about the strange events of this night than that they were only the fantasies of a dream. But I’ll release the fairy queen first.’
He touched Titania’s eyelids with the flower.
‘Be as you have always been:
See as you have always seen.
Dian’s bud over Cupid’s flower
Has such force and magic power.
Now, Titania, awake, my sweet queen.’
Titania stirred and opened her eyes. She smiled and took her husband’s hand. He helped her up and she rubbed her eyes. ‘My Oberon! What a dream I had. I dreamt I was in love with an ass!’
Oberon pointed to Bottom, still snoring, wheezing, his donkey’s ears twitching. ‘There lies your love.’
Titania shuddered and crept into Oberon’s arms. ‘How did this happen? Oh how loathsome he looks now!’
‘Shhhhh! Quiet now. Robin, take off the ass’s head. Titania, call for some music. Robin, put these five into a deep sleep, deeper than normal.’
Titania summoned her fairy musicians, who began playing softly on their recorders. Bottom’s snores stopped as he fell deeper and deeper into unconsciousness. Puck waved his hand over the sleeping form and the ass’s head was transformed into the shape and features of Bottom’s familiar head. ‘Now when you wake up, see with your own foolish eyes!’ he said.
‘Louder!’ Oberon told the musicians. ‘Come, my queen, hold hands, and let’s rock the ground that these sleepers are lying on.’ They began dancing. Oberon was smiling happily. ‘Now we’re friends again. And tomorrow at midnight we’ll dance formally at Duke Theseus’ house, and bless it with enduring prosperity. This pair of lovers will be married there, with Theseus, amidst great merrymaking.’
Puck looked at him suddenly. ‘Fairy king, take note and hark: I can hear the morning lark.’
‘Then my queen, let’s disappear in silence,’ said Oberon. ‘Let’s escape the day. We can fly round the world more swiftly than the moon.’
‘Come my lord, and as we fly, tell me how I came to be found sleeping with these mortals on the ground tonight.’
The five mortals slept on as the sun began to peep through the eastern clouds. They slept through the piercing trumpets of Theseus’ hunting party, which came to a stop near them. None of the duke’s party saw them at first. Hippolyta and Hermia’s father, Egeus, were among them.
Theseus’ horse was rearing to go but he kept it reined in. He turned to his followers. ‘One of you go and find the park-keeper. We’ve finished hunting for the time being, and since it’s still early, my love will hear the barking of my hounds. Let them loose in the western valley. Let them go!’ He instructed another attendant: ‘Hurry, I say. Find the park-keeper.’
The attendant hurried off and Theseus smiled at his bride-to-be. ‘Lovely queen, we’ll go to the top of the mountain and listen to the sound of the baying as it re-echoes down below.’
‘I was once in a wood in Crete with Hercules and Cadmus, where they were bear-hunting with Spartan hounds,’ she said. ‘I’ve never heard such wonderful barking: not only the groves but the skies, the fountains and everywhere around all seemed to echo in harmony. I hadn’t ever heard such musical discord, so full of thunder, yet so sweet.’
‘My hounds are related to the Spartan breed, jowelled and coloured the same, with ears that trail the ground, sweeping the morning dew. They’re bow-legged and dew-lapped like the bulls of Thessaly: slow runners but with barks like church bells, each harmonising with the others. No more musical a cry ever supported the hunters’ calls, or was cheered on by the hunters’ horns in Crete, Sparta or Thessaly. Judge for yourself when you hear them.’
Theseus turned his horse. It took only a few steps before Theseus spied the two young women sleeping on the ground. ‘Wait,’ he said. ‘Who are these young ladies?’
Egeus dismounted, took a close look at them and turned with a puzzled expression. ‘My lord, this is my daughter asleep here.’ He pointed to where the young men lay, a little apart. ‘And this is Lysander. This Demetrius, and this Helena, old Nedar’s Helena. I can’t understand why they’re all here together.’
‘No doubt they got up early to celebrate May Day,’ said Theseus, ‘and hearing that we were coming here, wanted to join us. But tell me, Egeus – isn’t this the day that Hermia has to tell us her decision?’
‘It is, my lord.’
Theseus signalled to his followers. ‘Wake them with your horns.’
The noise was so loud and close that the four lovers started up as one. They were astonished to find all those people and the duke leaning down from his horse and smiling.
‘Good morning, friends,’ he said. ‘St Valentine’s day has passed. Are these love birds only just beginning to couple?’
The four sprang up then went down on their knees.
‘Pardon us, my lord,’ said Lysander.
‘Please get up,’ said Theseus. He looked from Demetrius to Lysander. ‘I know you two are rivals. How did this peaceful harmony between you come about, that your mutual hatred doesn’t make you distrust each other? That you can sleep side by side without fear?’
‘My lord, I will reply with bewilderment, half asleep and half awake. Right now, I can’t really tell you how I got here. I think… and I’d like to speak with honesty… Um, oh yes, now I remember: this is what happened: I came here with Hermia. We intended to leave Athens for somewhere where we might, out of reach of the Athenian law…’
‘That’s enough!’ interrupted Egeus. ‘It’s enough, my lord: you’ve heard enough! I beg the law. The law! On his head! They would have run away. They would, Demetrius! They would have defeated both of us: cheated you of your wife, and me of my consent – of my permission that she should be your wife.’
Egeus’ face was red. Demetrius avoided looking at him. His face was troubled and he darted glances at Helena. ‘My lord,’ he said at last, ‘the beautiful Helena told me about their secret plan, and their reasons for coming to this wood. I followed them here in my fury and the beautiful Helena followed me out of her love for me. But my good lord, I don’t know by what power – but there was some power – my love for Hermia melted like the snow. Now it seems like the memory of a futile toy that I was obsessed with in my childhood. Helena is everything – my whole life, my heartbeat, the object and the pleasure of my eyes. My lord, I was engaged to her before I saw Hermia. In the way that one goes off one’s favourite food when one’s sick, I went off Helena, but now I’m restored to health. Now I’m loving, wishing and longing for my favourite food and will be faithful to it forever.’
Theseus sought Egeus eyes. Egeus shrugged impatiently and turned away, saying nothing. Theseus smiled. ‘Dear lovers,’ he said, ‘this is a fortunate meeting. We’ll hear more of this story later. Egeus, I’ll retract my judgment These couples will be married alongside us in the temple. And because the day is getting on we’ll set today’s hunt aside. Back to Athens, then, all three couples. We’ll hold a great feast. Come Hippolyta.’
The hunt rode off, leaving the two couples.
‘It’s all so strange,’ said Demetrius. ‘Vague and unclear, like mountains that are so far away that they could be mistaken for clouds.’
‘I think I’m seeing double,’ said Hermia.
‘Me too,’ said Helena. ‘Demetrius is like a jewel I’ve found. Mine and yet not mine.’
‘Are you sure we’re awake?’ said Demetrius. ‘It seems to me that we’re still asleep – dreaming. Didn’t you think that the duke was just here, and that he told us to follow him?’
‘And Hippolyta,’ said Helena.
‘And he told us to follow him to the temple,’ said Lysander.
‘Well then, we are awake!’ exclaimed Demetrius. ‘Let’s follow him. And let’s recount our dreams on the way.’
Bottom opened his eyes. ‘When my cue comes, call me and I’ll answer,’ he murmured. ‘My next one is “most fair Pyramus”. He got up unsteadily, yawning. He stretched. He looked to left and right, and all around. ‘Hey! Ho! Peter Quince!’ he called. ‘Flute the bellows-mender! Snout the tinker! Starveling! Bless me!’
They had all sneaked off and left him asleep. He’d had a dream and it was impossible to describe it: any man trying to would make an ass of himself. He had thought he was… He couldn’t say the word. He thought he was, and he thought he had… but a man would be a fool to try and put it into words. Man’s eye had never heard, man’s ear had never seen, man’s hand had never tasted, his tongue never conceived, or his heart spoken what his dream had been. He would get Peter Quince to write a ballad about that dream. It would be called ‘Bottom’s Dream’ because it had no bottom. He would sing it at the end of the play in front of the duke. Perhaps, to make it more gracious, he would sing it when Thisbe died.