Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Playing No Part but Pyramus: Bottom, Celebrity and the Early Modern Clown

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Playing No Part but Pyramus: Bottom, Celebrity and the Early Modern Clown

Article excerpt

HAMLET's famous instructions to the players who arrive at Elsinore includes the directive that the "clowns speak no more than is set down for them." (1) This offhand remark is not only one of the scant pieces of evidence we have for Shakespeare's critique of clowning practices, but representative of the more general dearth of evidence on this popular form of entertainment. Much of the information that we have on sixteenth-century clowning comes through playbills, anecdote, and most importantly, the plays themselves. What is known is that Will Kemp, the chief clown of The Chamberlain's Men and a significant presence in Shakespeare's early works, abruptly left the company in late 1599, bringing to an unceremonious end a long tradition of rustic clowning that began with Richard Tarlton two decades earlier. Kemp was replaced by Robert Armin, who established himself as a fool, not only in his own 1600 text, Foole Upon Foole, but also in the subtle shift of the clown's personae in Shakespeare's seventeenth-century plays from country simpletons such as Dogberry and Launcelot Gobbo to the more acerbic and urbane Lavatch, or Lear's unnamed Fool.

A Midsummer Night's Dream occupies an ambiguous place in its relationship to clowning and scripted drama. The juxtaposition between rule and misrule that Wiles sees as the key organizing principle of Shakespeare's pre-Hamlet theatre (2) simply does not exist in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Instead, the play renegotiates the role of the clown through dramaturgy, planting the seed for the shift from "clown" to "fool" five years prior to Armin's arrival at the Globe. The decision to divide the clown's role in between Puck and Bottom dissipates the performer's power, denying Kemp (if indeed, we assume that the role was written for and performed by Kemp) the opportunity to take command of the stage. The play repeatedly encourages Bottom to overstep dramatic boundaries and then mercilessly mocks him for doing so, while authorizing Puck to reign as the Lord of Misrule.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the actions of the clown become integral to the plot, and thereby controlled by the playwright. Rampant improvisation is identified as a hindrance to the dramaturgical process, and the text recognizes the actor as distinct from the play only in order to dismiss him as foolish and pretentious. Donald Friedman's claim that in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the clown is "both displayed perfectly, and, in a sense, imprisoned" by the playwright deserves some consideration; (3) however, Friedman fails to account for the way in which Bottom's containment is countered by Puck's autonomy, a decision that simultaneously illustrates Shakespeare's recognition of the limitations of a performer's celebrity, and his dependence on the spontaneity generated by such figures. What Shakespeare does in A Midsummer Night's Dream is repackage the rustic clown in such a way that neutralizes the power held by those who perform such roles, instead, giving the festive influence of misrule to the more urbane Puck who is defined by his place as a servant in an established aristocracy. Puck's limited autonomy stands in contrast to Bottom, who spends much of the play unsuccessfully begging for opportunities to do as he would like. Together, these figures of the clown illustrate formal drama's dependence on the unrealized potential for chaos that is characteristic not only of comedy, but of theater as a whole. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare resists the coexistence of two contrary forms of representation (the celebrity clown versus the player), insisting that if both forms must be allowed onstage, it can only be in the service of the play.

The clown was a popular and well-established figure on the early modern stage, an unofficially continuation of the Lord of Misrule, who, after enjoying significant popularity during the reigns of early Tudor monarchs, had fallen from formal courtly recognition during the years of Mary and Elizabeth. …

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