The weddings were over and the newly married couples had returned to the palace for the celebrations. Theseus and Hippolyta were in the great hall with their party organiser, Philostrate, to talk over the final arrangements and greet their guests.
‘These are strange things these lovers have told us, my Theseus,’ said Hippolyta.
‘Too strange to be true,’ said Theseus. ‘I don’t believe those ancient legends, nor those stories about fairies. Lovers and madmen have such creative minds, such fertile imaginations, that they think up much more fantasy than we more rational people do. The lunatic, the lover and the poet are all very imaginative. The one sees more devils than hell can hold. That’s the madman. The lover, just as frantic, sees Helen of Troy’s beauty in the face of a gypsy. The poet’s eye, rolling with inspiration, ranges from heaven to earth and back again, his imagination creating new ideas and his pen turning them into words, pinning abstract things down in concrete terms. A powerful imagination can play such tricks that, if it thinks about something wonderful, it assumes that there must be a supernatural explanation. For example, in the night, imagining there’s something to fear, it’s easy to mistake a bush for a bear.’
Hippolyta wasn’t so sure that it was pure fantasy. ‘But their stories were the same and they were all under this spell together. That suggests that there’s more to it than mere fabrication. It adds up to something quite convincing, however strange and unnatural it may be.’
‘And here come the lovers,’ said Theseus as the four arrived. ‘All full of joy and high spirits. Happiness, dear friends: joy and many days of everlasting love be with you!’
Lysander bowed. ‘May even more of it grace your royal walks, your table and your bed.’
The newly-weds joined their friends from Athens and talked excitedly to them as the hall filled up with guests. Supper was served and the atmosphere was splendid. Eventually Theseus called for silence.
‘Well now,’ he said. ‘What entertainment – masques or dances – are we going to have to fill the three hours between the end of our supper and bed-time? Where is our party manager? What amusement has been arranged? Isn’t there a play to ease the agony of an inactive moment? Where’s Philostrate?’
‘Here, mighty Theseus.’
‘What entertainment have you got for this evening? What masque? What music? How will we pass these idle hours without some pleasure?’
‘Here’s a list of the entertainment that’s ready,’ said Philostrate. ‘Choose which your highness would like to see first.’
Theseus scanned the list. He read the first item out loud. ‘The battle with the Centaurs, to be sung by an Athenian eunuch, to the harp.’ He laughed. ‘We won’t have that! I’ve told my love all about those victories of my cousin Hercules.’ He read the next item. ‘The frenzy of the drunk women, tearing the Thracian singer apart in their rage.’ He shook his head. ‘That’s an old one: they performed it last time I returned from conquering Thebes. The nine Muses mourning for the death of Scholarship, which died in poverty. That’s a sharp, critical satire, not appropriate for a wedding celebration. A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus and his love, Thisbe: very tragical comedy. Comical and tragical? Tedius and brief? That’s like hot ice and warm snow. How will we get to the bottom of this nonsense?
‘There’s a play, my lord, that’s ten words long,’ said Philostrate. ‘It’s as short as any play I’ve seen, but it’s too long by ten words, which makes it tedious, for in the whole play there is not one apt word or one suitable actor. This one is certainly tragical because Pyramus kills himself in it. I have to admit that when I watched the rehearsal it brought tears to my eyes, but they were tears of laughter: I’ve never shed more tears of laughter than those!’
‘Who are they who are acting it?’
‘Horny-handed men, workers from Athens here who never did anything intellectual till now but who have forced themselves to the limit with this play, to celebrate your wedding.’
‘And we’ll hear it!’
Philostrate laughed and shook his head. ‘No my noble lord, it’s not for you. I’ve heard it all and it’s useless – completely without merit, unless you can find some pleasure in their good intentions and their extremely hard work, memorising their parts with great suffering, just to serve you.’
Theseus was determined. ‘I will hear that play. Nothing’s worthless that’s offered in that spirit. Show them in. Take your places ladies.’
The guests began taking their seats. Theseus invited the four lovers to sit on the cushions beside him and Hippolyta. As Hipployta took her seat she whispered to her husband: ‘I don’t like to see simple folk overtaxed, and suffer pain, to show duty.’
‘No, my sweetheart, you won’t see any of that.’
‘But he says they can’t do a play like this.’
‘All the kinder of us, then, to thank them for so little,’ he said. ‘We’ll get pleasure from tolerating their inadequacies. When those who offer something out of duty fail it’s important to value their intentions as though they had succeeded. I’ve been to places where high officials have intended to greet me with formal speeches. They’ve shivered and gone pale, paused in the middle of sentences, swallowed their rehearsed words out of nervousness and finally stopped altogether and not welcomed me at all. Trust me, my love, in that silence I nevertheless recognised a welcome, and I valued the simple respect shown by that nervous performance more than the hollow words of slick and arrogant eloquence. In my opinion, lovers and tongue-tied simple men speak most when they speak least.’
There was a hush in the general conversation as Philostrate entered. He smiled. ‘If your grace is ready, the Prologue is about to begin.’
‘Let him come in,’ said Theseus.
Philostrate signalled to the trumpeters and Quince entered to the accompaniment of a royal fanfare. All eyes were on him as he stood in front of the audience. He was dressed in his best suit and he held a scroll. He adjusted his spectacles and unrolled the script. He cleared his throat and spoke very fast:
‘If we offend it’s just what we intend.
So you should know we come not to offend,
But show our simple skill, that’s what is meant,
That is the true beginning of our end.
Consider then, we come here all in spite
We do not come here thinking to content you
Our true intent is. All for your delight,
We are not here. That you should here repent you,
The actors are at hand: and by their show,
You shall know all, that you are like to know.’
Hipplolyta looked at Theseus and frowned. He chuckled. ‘This fellow doesn’t bother with punctuation,’ he whispered.
‘He’s ridden his prologue like a wild colt,’ said Lysander. ‘He hasn’t learnt how to stop it. It’s a good moral, my lord – it’s not enough to speak, one must also speak accurately.’
‘Indeed,’ said Hippolyta, ‘he’s played on his prologue like a child on a recorder: he’s made a sound but it’s all confused.’
Theseus laughed. ‘His speech was like a tangled chain: nothing wrong with each element, but all mixed up.’
A trumpet sounded. Theseus rubbed his hands. ‘Who’s next?’
The company came in and stood, waiting for Quince to finish. Bottom was dressed in the flashy style of fashionable youth: Flute was self-conscious in a long skirt that dropped almost to his boots: Snout held a slab of plaster to represent Wall: Starveling carried a lamp in one hand and a bush in the other, and a very old, docile dog on the end of a leash that was tied to his waist. Snug was draped in the tanned skin of some animal. They stood in a line beside Quince and he introduced them.
‘Gentles, perhaps you’re wondering about this show,
But wonder on, till truth make all things plain.
This man is Pyramus, if you must know:’
Bottom bowed deeply then straightened up and winked exaggeratedly at the audience.
‘This beautiful lady’s Thisbe, that’s certain.’
Flute curtseyed, almost tripped over his skirt, and miraculously righted himself.
‘This man with lime and rough cast does present
Wall – that vile wall, which did keep this pair asunder.’
Snout held the slab of plaster up. He stuck his fingers through a hole in it and wiggled them about.
‘And through wall’s chink, poor souls, they are content
To whisper: at which, let no man wonder.’
Pyramus and Thisbe leant forward and stuck their lips on either side of the plaster slab.
This man, with lantern, dog, and bush of thorn
Presents Moonshine: for if you’d like to know,
By moonshine did these lovers think no scorn
To meet at Ninus’ tomb, there, there to woo.
This grisly beast, and Lion is his name…’
Snug pawed the air and growled softly.
‘The trusty Thisbe, coming first by night,
Did scare away, or rather did affright:’
Snug made a gesture towards Thisbe and she lifted her skirt and ran a few steps, then stopped and dropped her scarf.
‘And as she fled, her mantle she let fall,
Which Lion vile with bloody mouth did stain.’
Snug obliged with a mouth-smacking assault on the scarf, which he then dropped and went back to his place.
‘And then comes Pyramus, sweet youth and tall,
And finds his trusty Thisby’s mantle slain:’
Bottom picked up the scarf and mimed an anguished howl
‘On which with blade, with bloody blameful blade,
He bravely broached his boiling bloody breast,’
Bottom drew his dagger and ‘stabbed’ himself repeatedly, then replaced the dagger and fell, with several creative flourishes.
‘And Thisbe, tarrying in mulberry shade…’
Flute drew Pyramus’ dagger and stabbed himself too, falling on top of Bottom.
‘His dagger drew, and died. For all the rest,
Let Lion, Moonshine, Wall and Lovers twain,
Explain it all, while here they do remain.’
Theseus had been staring at Snug. ‘I wonder if the lion is going to speak,’ he said.
‘Why not, my lord?’ said Demetrius. ‘One lion should be able to if many asses can.’
Snout stepped forward and cleared his throat. Then slowly and carefully, halting in some places, he gave the explanation of his role:
‘In this same entertainment it does befall
That I, one Snout by name, present a wall:
And such a wall, as I would have you think,
That had in it a crannied hole or chink,
Through which the lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe,
Did whisper often, very secretly.
This loam, this rough-cast, and this stone do show
That I am that same wall: the truth is so.
And this the cranny is, right and sinister,
Through which the fearful lovers are to whisper.’
He raised the slab to his face and peeped at the audience through the hole he had dug in it.
‘Could one hope for a better speech from actual lime and horse hair?’ said Theseus.
‘It’s the most clever partition I’ve ever seen acting,’ said Demetrius.
Bottom was sidling towards Snout in the most suspicious way, looking surreptitiously to left and right.
‘Quiet!’ said Theseus. ‘Pyramus is approaching the wall.’
Bottom stopped. He faced the audience squarely. He raised his arm and covered his forehead with the back of his hand. ‘O grim-looked night,’ he began. He took a deep breath. ‘Oh night with hue so black! Oh night that’s always there when day is not! Oh night, oh night: alack!’ He fell to his knees and appealed to the audience: ‘Alack, alack! I fear my Thisbe’s promise is forgot!’ He turned back to the wall. ‘And thou Oh wall! Oh sweet… Oh lovely… wall, that stands between her father’s house and mine. Show me your chink, to blink through with my eye.’
Snout held his hand up smartly and made a gap with his fingers.
‘Thanks, courteous wall,’ said Bottom. ‘Jove protect you well for this!’ He grasped Snout’s hand and brought it up to his eye and strained to look through his fingers. ‘But what see I? No Thisbe do I see.’ He dropped the hand and glared aggressively at Snout. ‘Oh wicked wall, through whom I see no bliss. Cursed be your stones for thus deceiving me!’
Theseus couldn’t contain himself any longer and he laughed out loud. ‘I think, as the wall is sentient, it should retaliate with some curses of its own!’
Bottom’s body relaxed out of its declamatory pose and he took a step towards the Duke to explain that they were only acting. ‘No, really, sir,’ he said. ‘He shouldn’t. “Deceiving me” is Thisbe’s cue. She’ll enter now, and I’m going to see her through the wall. You’ll see, it will be just as I’ve told you. Here she comes.’
Flute walked awkwardly to the wall. He stopped and addressed Wall. ‘Oh Wall, you’ve often heard my moans: for parting Pyramus and me. My cherry lips have often kissed your stones: your stones, with lime and hair mixed up in you.’
Bottom had become rigid, like a hunting dog, at the sound of Thisbe’s voice. When her speech had finished he cupped a hand round his ear. ‘I see a voice! I’ll go now to the chink, to see if I can hear my Thisbe’s face. Thisbe!’ he called.
‘My love,’ said Flute without much enthusiasm. ‘You are my love, aren’t you?’
‘Think what you like,’ said Bottom, your true love I embrace! And like Limander I am faithful still.’
‘And I, like Helen, till the fates me kill,’ said Flute.
‘Not Shafalus to Procrus was so true.’
‘As Shafalus to Procrus, I to you.’
Bottom threw his head back and shut his eyes. ‘Oh kiss me through the hole in this vile wall!’ He grabbed Snout’s hand and pushed his lips up against Snout’s fingers. Flute gave Snout’s fingers a peck then stood back. ‘I kiss the wall’s hole, and not your lips at all.’
‘Will you meet me at Ninny’s tomb straight away?’
‘Come life or death, I’ll go without delay.’
They hurried off in different directions. Snout bowed. ‘So now I’m done, my part performed so: and having done, the Wall away does go.’
Theseus was enjoying the play. ‘That means the moon will have to separate the neighbours now,’ he said.
‘This is the silliest stuff I’ve ever heard,’ said Hippolyta.
‘Even the best actors are only pretending,’ said Theseus, ‘and the worst can’t be any worse – with a little imagination.’
‘It would have to be your imagination, then, not theirs!’ she retorted.
‘If we imagine that they’re no worse than they think they are then they’ll be excellent men!’ said Theseus. ‘And here come two noble beasts: a man and a lion.’
Snug and Starveling stepped forward. Snug looked around the audience and smiled:
‘You, ladies, you whose gentle hearts do fear
The smallest monstrous mouse that creeps on floor,
May now, perhaps, both quake and tremble here
When Lion rough in wildest rage does roar.
So if you know that I am not in real life a lion
But Snug the joiner, you’ll be fine
If I should enter with a fright’ning din,
It would be monstrous, I could never win.’
‘A very sensitive beast with a gentle heart,’ said Theseus.
‘A very beast of an actor, my lord,’ laughed Demetrius.
‘This lion has the heart of a fox,’ said Lysander.
‘True, and as cautious as a goose,’ said Theseus.
‘Not so, my lord,’ said Demetrius, ‘because I’m sure that his caution couldn’t overcome his courage. A goose can’t overcome a fox. So much for that. Leave it for him to decide which he is and let’s hear the Moon.’
Starveling held the lamp up. ‘This lantern represents the horned moon.’
Demetrius laughed. ‘He should have worn the horns on his head!’
Starveling repeated his line. ‘This lantern represents the horned moon, and I seem to be the Man in the Moon.’
‘This is the biggest anomaly of all,’ said Theseus. ‘The man should be put inside the lantern. How else could he be the Man in the Moon?’
‘He dare not get inside it because of the candle,’ said Demetrius. ‘It’s already smoking.’
‘I’m tired of this moon,’ said Hippolyta. ‘I wish he would change!’
‘It seems that, judging by the dim light of his intelligence he’s already on the wane,’ said Theseus. ‘But to be fair we must see this one through.’
Starveling stood looking at them. Lysander smiled at him. ‘Carry on, Moon,’ he said.
‘The only lines I have are to tell you that this lantern is the Moon. I’m the Man in the Moon. This thorn-bush is my thorn-bush. This dog is my dog.’
‘All of these should be inside the lantern, because all those are in the moon,’ said Demetrius. ‘But quiet – here comes Thisbe!’
Flute looked around. ‘This is old Ninny’s Tomb,’ he said. ‘Where is my love?’
Snug jumped out at her, looking at the audience. He placed his finger across his lips and roared in a loud whisper. Flute reacted dramatically: he threw his hands up and fled, his boots clomping noisily on the floor. He forgot to drop the scarf. He stopped, came back uncertainly, threw it on the floor and resumed his flight.
The duke and his friends clapped loudly.
‘Well roared, Lion,’ hooted Demetrius.
‘Well run, Thisbe, said Theseus.’
‘Well shone, Moon,’ said Hippolyta. ‘Quite honestly, the moon shines very gracefully.’
Snug attacked the scarf vigorously, making up for his weak roaring.
‘Excellent mouse hunting,’ said Theseus.
The Lion had to pause on his way out to make way for Pyramus, who came forward with great intensity.
‘And then came Pyramus,’ said Demetrius.
‘And so the Lion vanished,’ said Lysander.
Bottom assumed his declamatory posture and began, projecting his voice wonderfully:
‘Sweet Moon, I thank you for your sunny beams.
I thank you, Moon, for shining now so bright,
For by your gracious, golden, glittering gleams
I hope of faithful Thisbe to catch sight.’
He glanced down and started as he saw the scarf. ‘But wait!’ He picked it up and waved it about elaborately. ‘Oh spite!’ he exclaimed.
‘Take note, poor knight,
What dreadful sorrow’s here!
Eyes, do you see?
How can it be?
Oh dainty duck! Oh dear!
Your mantle good.’
He examined the scarf with exaggerated intensity.
‘What! Stained with blood?
Approach, you furies fell!
Oh Fates, come come!
Cut thread and thrum:
Quail, crush, conclude and quell.’
Theseus nodded gravely. ‘Oh yes, this anguish, and the death of a dear friend, would certainly make a man look wretched.’
Hippolyta giggled at her husband’s dry humour. ‘I can’t help feeling sorry for the man,’ she said.
Ignoring them, Bottom continued, warming to his grief:
‘Oh why, oh Nature, did you lions frame,
Since lion vile has here devoured my dear?
Who is…’ he beat his breast… ‘no, no, who was the fairest dame
That lived, that loved, that liked, that looked with cheer.
Come tears, confound!
Out sword and wound
The heart of Pyramus.’
He drew his dagger.
‘Yes, that left side
Where hearts abide
Thus die I.’
He stabbed himself. And again: and again… ‘Thus, thus, thus!’ He swayed, staggered, seemed to fall, righted himself and then fell. He kicked his legs in the air, groaned, writhed a bit more and fell back.
‘Now I am dead,
Now I am fled:
My soul is in the sky.
Tongue, lose your light,
Moon, take your flight!’
Starveling tiptoed away.
Bottom sat up and started dying all over again. ‘Now die, die, die, die, die,’ thrashing about, pulling hideous faces. Then he replaced his dagger, gave a final kick and lay still.
Demetrius pretended to wipe his eyes. ‘He doesn’t need a die to throw: he’s got the ace – death itself.’
‘And won nothing, being dead,’ said Lysander.
Theseus nodded sadly. ‘With the help of a surgeon he could still recover and become a donkey.’
‘Why has Moonshine gone before Thisbe comes back and finds her lover?’ said Hippolyta.
‘She’ll find him by starlight,’ said Theseus. ‘Here she comes, and her passionate response will end the play.’
‘I don’t think she should make a long speech for a Pyramus like this. I hope she’ll be brief!’
Flute was pacing up and down, his hand shading his forehead, searching.
‘It’s a nice distinction as to whether Pyramus or Thisbe is the better actor,’ said Demetrius. ‘He as a man, God preserve us, or she as a woman, God bless us!’
Flute started dramatically.
‘She’s noticed him already, with those sweet eyes,’ said Lysander.
‘And she laments, thus,’ said Demetrius as Flute began his speech:
‘Asleep, my love?
What, dead, my love?
Oh, Pyramus, arise!
Speak, speak! Quite dumb?
Dead, dead? A tomb
Must cover your sweet eyes.’
He knelt beside the inert Bottom.
‘These lily lips,
This cherry nose,
These yellow cowslip cheeks,
Are gone, are gone!