Act Three, Scene One of A Midsummer Night’s Dream takes us to … well, nowhere since we’re still in the woods. In the Quarto edition (without Act and Scene divisions), there is no break between these two scenes: Titania is still asleep nearby onstage, and the “clowns,” our working-class “actors” enter, ready to begin their rehearsal.
Should we be surprised that it is Bottom who speaks first, asking if everyone is present? No, we shouldn’t, not when he is the source of such gems as: “There are things in this comedy of Pyramus and Thisby that will never please” (III.i.8-9). Comedy? Really? He’s concerned about his character (Pyramus) drawing a sword to kill himself, fearing the reaction of the ladies. His solution:
Write me a prologue; and let the prologue seem to say, we will do no harm with our swords, and that Pyramus is not killed indeed; 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.
Not that any audience, especially an aristocratic one, would mistake their play for reality. Unmistakable, as well, is the comical butchery of the English language done by these “hempen homespuns” (III.i.72):
- “wildfowl” for lion (III.i.30)
- “defect” for “effect” (III.i.36)
- “disfigure” for “figure” (III.i.56)
- “see a noise” (III.i.86)
When the actors actually settle into rehearsal, Puck arrives and decides to become “an auditor; // An actor too perhaps, if (he) see(s) cause” (III.i.74-75). He obviously sees cause because he follows Bottom offstage (after “Pyramus” exits the rehearsal space); when Bottom returns, he has the head of an ass. His acting partners are shocked and shaken by his appearance and they flee, with Puck chasing them “through bog, through bush, through brake, through briar” (III.i.102). Alone, Bottom tries to reason why they have left him; he thinks it’s a trick to scare and “to make an ass of” (III.i.115) him. To calm his own nerves, he begins to sing a tune. Titania wakes to his “angel(ic)” (III.i.123) notes, saying,
I pray thee, gentle mortal, sing again:
Mine ear is much enamour'd of thy note;
So is mine eye enthralled to thy shape;
And thy fair virtue's force perforce doth move me
On the first view to say, to swear, I love thee.
Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason for that: and yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays. The more the pity that some honest neighbors will not make them friends. Nay, I can gleek upon occasion.
Thou art as wise as thou art beautiful.
Titania speaks in verse, even rhyming at the end of her speech. Bottom speaks in prose, but (I’ve got to agree with the drugged Titania here) he speaks wisdom (“reason and love keep little company together”).
She tells Bottom that she does not want him to leave her; she gives him her fairies Peaseblossom, Moth, Cobweb and Mustardseed to wait on him, ordering them to feed and pamper him. Bottom plays along, conversing with each fairy, and as they leave, Titania orders her fairies: “Tie up my lover’s tongue, bring him silently” (III.i.195).
this almost feels like a kidnapping now… one has to wonder if this is the fairy way… is this how the Indian changeling boy was taken? is how Oberon would take him? or is it purely comical, to shut up Bottom’s braying mouth?… it’s all in the performance…
Act Three, Scene Two–at 463 lines–is the longest in the play, longer than any other ACT in the play (including the single scene, 420-line Act Five). It begins with Oberon musing if Titania has yet awoke (we know that she has), and then questioning the newly arrived Puck how his errands have gone. Puck recounts, with great enthusiasm, how Titania now “with a monster is in love” (III.ii.6), going into great detail Bottom’s rehearsal transformation. Oberon is thrilled (“This falls out better than I could devise” [III.ii.35]), and asks how the Athenian mission went. Puck answers in the affirmative, and when Demetrius and Hermia enters, Oberon orders, “Stand close. This is the same Athenian” (III.ii.41), to which Puck can only respond, “This is the woman, but not this the man” (III.ii.42).
Demetrius wants to know why Hermia still “rebuke(s)” (III.i.43) him. Hermia is less rebuking than fearful for the life of Lysander, implying that Demetrius may have killed him: “It cannot be but thou hast murdered him. // So should a murderer look — so dead, so grim” (III.ii.56-57). Demetrius denies the crime, even accusing Hermia of murdering him (Demetrius) with her hate. Hermia has nothing else to do with Demetrius if he cannot tell her where Lysander is, so she leaves. Demetrius realizes that there is “no following her in this fierce vein” (III.ii.82), and so he decides to rest, lies down, and goes to sleep.
Oberon is not a happy camper over this, but Puck says that “fate o’errules” (III.ii.92)… it’s not his fault, this was meant to be. Oberon gives Puck a new job: Find Helena and bring her here, while Oberon uses the love juice to charm Demetrius’ eyes again in anticipation of her arrival. Within moments, Puck is back, just ahead of Helena and Lysander, remarking, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” (III.ii.115).
Lysander arrives, asking Helena why she thinks he is being scornful to her when he is in love with her. She can’t believe him or his words:
These vows are Hermia's: will you give her o'er?
Weigh oath with oath, and you will nothing weigh:
Your vows to her and me, put in two scales,
Will even weigh, and both as light as tales.
I had no judgment when to her I swore.
Nor none, in my mind, now you give her o'er.
She sees clearly that either his vows to Hermia were meaningless (“nothing weigh”), or his new ones to her are, or both. When Lysander says that he had no judgment when he was in love with Hermia, Helena says that she thinks he has none now, either, in abandoning Hermia. At this point, Helena’s thinking pretty clearly.
Lysander then recounts what they both know: “Demetrius loves (Hermia); and he loves not (Helena)” (III.ii.136), but before Helena can respond to those words, those words wake Demetrius, who sees Helena, and as according to Oberon’s plan, falls in love with “Helen, goddess, nymph, perfect, divine!” (III.ii.137). And that’s only the beginning of his praise: “Crystal is muddy” (III.ii.139) compared to Helena’s eyes; “Taurus snow” is black compared to Helena’s skin of “pure white” (III.ii.141 and 144).
“O spite! O hell!” Helena exclaims, “I see you are all bent // To set against me for your merriment” (III.ii.145-146). And who can blame her? First, she had no lover, now she has two, the two that had been in love with Hermia, one whose beauty had earlier made her feel as “ugly as a bear” (II.ii.94). And despite the fact that this is what she had wanted (Demetrius’ love), it’s all unbelievable and she doesn’t believe it.
Both Demetrius and Lysander both try to give their former love of Hermia to the other, while keeping Helena for his own. Helena is not amused. And amusement doesn’t grow with the arrival of Hermia: when she asks Lysander why he left her side, he says that the “hate (he) bare(s)” (III.ii.190) her made him leave; Hermia perceptively notes, “You speak not as you think. It cannot be” (III.ii.191).
after all, it just isn’t conceivable that this change came about
But as Hermia basically says that it’s impossible for her lover to love Helena, Helena has had enough: “Lo, she is one of this confederacy” (III.ii.193). And what follows is an explosion of anger and a feeling of betrayal from Helena, one that leaves Hermia “amazed at (Helena’s) passionate words” (III.ii.220).
As Helena begins to verbally attack Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius are spoiling for a fight. The only thing that stops a brawl is Hermia attempting to hold Lysander back (“Hang off… let loose. // Or I will shake thee from me like a serpent” [III.ii.260-261]). When Lysander reiterates his hate for Hermia and his love for Helena, Hermia then turns on Helena, “You juggler, you canker blossom, // You thief of love!” (III.ii.282-283).
and it is on — as they say — like Donkey Kong…
The female insults begin to fly, and mainly on a purely physical level. It would seem that Hermia is short of stature, or at least shorter than Helena. As Hermia puts it,
Now I perceive that she hath made compare
Between our statures; she hath urged her height;
And with her personage, her tall personage,
Her height, forsooth, she hath prevail'd with him.
And are you grown so high in his esteem;
Because I am so dwarfish and so low?
How low am I, thou painted maypole? speak;
How low am I? I am not yet so low
But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes.
… “her personage, her tall personage” … “so dwarfish and so low” … “painted maypole”… gotta love it.
I particularly like the maypole image: tall and skinny, like a pole; painted, as in heavily made up (to hide blemishes); and an intimation of wantonness, as the maypole dances were usually fertility rites, and the maypole itself is a rather large, rather obvious, phallic symbol…
Now the men must interrupt their physical posturing to keep the “little (but) fierce… acorn” (III.ii.325 and 330) from attacking their taller love; but when Demetrius again challenges Lysander, they head off to fight, while Helena uses her physical attributes to escape Hermia (“My legs are longer… to run away” [III.ii.343]).
With the mortals gone, Oberon takes stock of the situation… and blames it all on Puck: “This is thy negligence. Still thou mistak’st. // Or else committ’st thy knaveries willfully” (III.ii.345-346). While Puck denies responsibility (“I mistook” [III.ii.347]), he can’t help but admit that he is enjoying all this: “And so far am I glad it so did sort // As this their jangling I esteem a sport” (III.ii.352-353). Oberon then tells Puck to run the boys around until they collapse from fatigue, then
crush this herb into Lysander's eye;
Whose liquor hath this virtuous property,
To take from thence all error with his might,
And make his eyeballs roll with wonted sight.
Oberon says that all this will “seem a dream” (III.ii.371) to the men. In the meantime, Oberon will release his queen and “all things shall be peace” (III.ii.377).
And the rest of the act is just watching Puck do his duty, causing all the lovers (in the fog of love) to tire and sleep near each other… all in readiness for Act Four.