Statue of Bottom and Titania (STRST : SBT t29) – Shakespeare’s Top Ten Characters Exhibition, Nash’s House
This statue is made from Royal Copenhagen white-glazed porcelain and dates to 1964. It was presented to the Trust by the Government of Denmark, commemorating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. It shows the fun-loving character Bottom and the faerie queen Titania (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream) in an affectionate lover’s embrace. In the play, Bottom is a craftsman who is rehearsing a play with his friends in a forest near Athens. The mischievous Puck (or Robin Goodfellow) uses faerie magic to change Bottom’s head into that of a donkey. Left alone in the forest after his friends abandon him, Bottom sings loudly to show that he is not afraid. Meanwhile, Titania has been given a potion by her husband Oberon, king of the faeries; the two are locked in a bitter argument as Titania refuses to hand a young changeling over to Oberon for him to use as a henchman. Oberon administers the potion whilst Titania sleeps, and its effects cause her to fall hopelessly in love with the first person she sees when she awakes, which turns out to be Bottom. Titania lavishly indulges him and has her faeries wait upon him. Upon seeing their hopeless displays of love, Oberon takes pity and lifts the spell on Titania, who - upon sees Bottom for what he really is - reunites with the king of the faeries are reunited. Puck reverses his transformation on Bottom and the fairies leave him sleeping in the forest. He awakes later to wonder whether his love affair with the beautiful faerie queen was all a dream.
O Bottom, thou art changed! what do I see on thee?
What do you see? you see an asshead of your own, do
Bless thee, Bottom! bless thee! thou art
I see their knavery: this is to make an ass of me;
to fright me, if they could. But I will not stir
from this place, do what they can: I will walk up
and down here, and I will sing, that they shall hear
I am not afraid.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act III, Scene 1
The theme of transformation is prominent in Shakespeare’s plays and is particularly showcased by Bottom’s comic transformation in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There are however, less obvious examples of transformation in this play; characters fall in and out of love with each other (Titania’s new love is just one example of this) and the setting of the forest itself transforms from night to day. The choice of transformation themes by the playwright is unsurprising as it is thought that he was heavily influenced by Ovid’s Metamorphoses (a copy of this is also displayed in the ‘Top Ten’ case alongside the statue, as well as a donkey mask on loan from the RSC). First published in 8 AD, the Metamorphoses describe various tales from Greek and Roman mythology pertaining to transformation, including Daphne’s conversion into a tree after spurning the advances of the god Apollo.
Perhaps the most interesting link between Ovid’s work and A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the transformation story of Pyramus and Thisbe. In the Metamorphoses, these two lovers live in a connecting house and, forbidden by their parents to be wed, whisper their love for each other through a crack in the wall. They arrange to meet secretly under a mulberry tree. However, when she arrives, Thisbe is terrified to see a lioness with a mouth bloody from a recent kill, so she flees, leaving her veils behind. When Pyramus arrives later, he is horrified at the sight of Thisbe's veil, assuming that an animal has killed her. Racked with grief, Pyramus falls on his sword, causing blood to splash on the white mulberry leaves and turning the fruits of the tree dark. Thisbe returns but finds Pyramus' dead body; her own grief causes her to stab herself with the same sword. The gods listen to Thisbe’s peri-mortem lament and transform the colour of the mulberry fruits into the stained colour of the couple’s blood to honour their forbidden love. The latter is a transformation brought about by divine or supernatural intervention, a common feature of many of the transformations that occur in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Titania falling in love with Bottom, the latter’s physical transformation, and the switching of affection between Helena, Hermia, Lysander, and Demetrius.
Thisbe: “And you, the tree, that now covers the one poor body with your branches, and soon will cover two, retain the emblems of our death, and always carry your fruit darkened in mourning, a remembrance of the blood of us both” . . . Then her prayer moved the gods, and stirred her parents’ feelings, for the colour of the berry is blackish-red, when fully ripened. . . ’
Ovid's Metamorphoses IV: 128-166
The story of Pyramus and Thisbe is rehearsed in the form of a play by the small company of friends in the forest before Puck performs his spell on the unsuspecting Bottom. This feature highlights the Metamorphoses influence on Shakespeare and preempts the plot which is about to unfold; two lovers who should not be together but are nonetheless and a transformation occurring in the most unlikely circumstances.
On another, more tenuous note, the links between the story of Pyramus and Thisbe and the mulberry tree will be particularly interesting for those who are aware of the much talked about topic of Shakespeare and his very own mulberry tree in Stratford-upon-Avon (see the previous ‘Shakespeare on Show’ blog posts relating to the mulberry snuff box and the bottle of mulberry juice). Could it be that Shakespeare did not only introduce the story of Pyramus and Thisbe into his play because of its transformation theme?