Peter Quince, an Athenian carpenter, greeted his amateur acting company as they trouped into his workshop. Philostrate had announced to all Athens that a play would be performed in front of the Duke, on his wedding day, as part of the wedding celebrations. Any group of citizens could submit their idea and one would be chosen when the time came.
Quince surveyed his would-be actors. ‘Is all our company here?’ he said.
Nick Bottom was a weaver. He was thick-set, sturdy and rugged, and as enthusiastic as anyone could be about the art of acting. ‘It would be best to call the role, man by man, according to your list,’ he said.
Quince lifted a sheet of paper from his workbench. ‘This is the list of everyone in Athens thought fit to take part in the play to be performed before the Duke and the Duchess on their wedding day, at night,’ he said.
He was about to begin the roll-call when Bottom raised his hand. ‘First, good Peter Quince,’ he said, ‘say what the play’s about, then read the names of the actors, and so bring it to an end.’
‘Well, our play is “The sad comedy and cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe.” ’
Bottom nodded wisely at the assembled company. ‘A very good piece of work, I assure you,’ he said, ‘and very entertaining. Now, good Peter Quince, call the names out from your list. Gentlemen, spread yourselves out.’
Quince adjusted his spectacles and cleared his throat. ‘Answer as I call you,’ he said. ‘Nick Bottom, the weaver?’
Bottom snapped to attention. ‘Ready!’ he exclaimed. ‘Tell me the part I’m to play and then carry on.’
‘You, Nick Bottom, are to play Pyramus.’ Quince put his finger on the next name but before he could call it Bottom interrupted.
‘Who’s Pyramus? A lover or a great hero?’
‘A lover, who kills himself, most heroically, for love.’
Bottom smiled. ‘That will bring out some tears if it’s performed well. If I do it the audience will have to look to their eyes. I’ll storm my passion and rave my grief mightily. And so on and so forth. But my real gift is for playing heroic parts. I can be a great Hercules, or a reveller, enough to bring the house down.’ He placed his hand over his heart and took up a declamatory pose:
‘The raging rocks,
And shivering shocks,
Shall break the locks
Of prison gates:
And Phoebus’ car
Shall shine from far
And make and mar
The foolish fates. High stuff! Now name the rest of the players.’ He smiled round at the company. ‘That was the Hercules style, the heroic method. A lover is more tear-jerking.’
Quince waited until he was sure Bottom had finished then adjusted his spectacles again. ‘Francis Flute, the bellows-mender?’
Francis Flute had been hiding nervously behind his friend, Tom Snout. He raised his hand tentatively, and in a high-pitched voice, registered his presence: ‘Here, Peter Quince.’
Quince looked over his spectacles at the young bellows-mender. ‘Flute, you must take on Thisbe.’
‘Who’s Thisbe,’ said Flute. ‘A wandering knight?’
‘It’s the lady that Pyramus loves.’
Flute shook his head vigorously. ‘No, please, don’t make me play a woman. I’ve got a beard coming.’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ said Quince, kindly. ‘You can play it in a mask. And you can speak in as tiny a voice as you like.’
Bottom clasped his hands together. ’If I can hide my face, let me play Thisbe too,’ he said. ‘I can speak in a wonderfully high voice.’ He put his hands round his mouth to form a trumpet and lowered his voice to a deep bass: ‘Thisne, Thisne!’ he called. Then he ran to the other side of the workshop. ‘Ah!’ he exclaimed in a falsetto, ‘Pyramus, my lover dear! Your Thisbe dear, and lady dear!’
They all stared, speechless, as he looked from one to the other for approval. Quince shook his head and tutted. ‘No, no,’ he said. ‘You must play Pyramus. And you, Flute, Thisby.’
Bottom drew himself up. ‘Well, carry on,’ he said.
Quince put his finger on the next name on his list. ‘Robin Starveling, the tailor?’
Starveling raised his hand. ‘Here, Peter Quince.’
‘Robin Starveling, you must play Thisbe’s mother. Tom Snout, the tinker?’
‘Here, Peter Quince.’ Snout smiled.
‘You, Pyramus’ father. Myself, Thisbe’s father. Snug the joiner, you the lion’s part. And I hope the play’s all cast now.’
Snug looked bewildered and he slowly mouthed the word ‘lion’. He put his hand up and Quince nodded. ‘Have you written the lion’s part out?’ said Snug. ‘I’m a very slow learner.’
‘You can make it up,’ said Quince reassuringly, ‘because it’s nothing but roaring.’
‘Let me play the lion, too!’ cried Bottom. ‘I’ll roar so that it will do any man’s heart good to hear me.’ He opened his mouth wide and roared, pawing the air as he did so. ‘I’ll roar so well that the Duke will say, ‘Let him roar again! Let him roar again!’ ’
‘If you did it too terrifying, like that, you’d frighten the Duchess and the ladies, and they’d scream. That would be enough to hang us all,’ said Quince.
Bottom looked to his friends to contradict Quince but they all nodded. ‘We’d all be hanged, every mother’s son of us,’ said Starveling.
Bottom sighed at his friends’ lack of understanding. ‘I grant you, friends, that if you frightened the ladies out of their wits they’d have no choice but to hang us, but I will aggravate my voice so much that I’ll roar for you as gently as any sucking dove.’ He pawed the air again, very delicately this time, and in the most gentle way, he roared ever so softly. ‘I’ll roar for you as though I were a nightingale.’
Quince sighed. ‘You can play no part but Pyramus. Pyramus is a handsome man, as handsome a man as you could ever see on a summer’s day: a really lovely, gentlemanly man. So you have to play Pyramus.’
Bottom nodded decisively. ‘Well, I will take it on! What’s the best beard for me to play it in?’
‘Whichever you like, of course,’ said Quince.
‘I’ll perform it in either your straw-coloured beard, your ginger beard, your bright red dyed beard, your pure yellow – a French king’s golden – beard…’
Quince laughed. ‘Some French kings have no hair at all, so you’d have to play it clean-shaven!’
They all laughed and, after a moment, Bottom laughed too, more loudly than the others.
Quince took a sheaf of papers from his workbench. ‘But gentlemen, here are your parts.’ He handed each man a copy. ‘And I must beg you and ask you and hope that you will learn them off by heart by tomorrow night, and meet me at the palace wood, a mile outside town, by moonlight. We’ll rehearse there because if we meet in the city we’ll be dogged by onlookers and everyone will know what we’re doing. In the meantime I’ll draw up a list of props that our play is going to need.’ He indicated the door. ‘Now don’t let me down,’ he said.
Bottom addressed the departing actors. ‘We’ll meet and we’ll be able to rehearse there most obscenely and courageously. Make the effort. Be word-perfect. Adieu!’
‘We’ll meet at the Duke’s oak,’ said Quince.
‘That’s it,’ said Bottom. ‘Be there or watch out!’