How Shakespear Creats Humor in A Midsummer Nights Dream Comic Fools To create humor in drama, one must either make witty wordplay, create an amusing situation, or use physical comedy. Often jokes may be incorporated into a play, or a comic situation may result in a series of complicated antics. The tradition for some of these comic devices has been carried over for hundreds of years, dating back to Shakespeare in the 1600’s. In his play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare creates humor through three diverse devices: oxymoron’s, malapropisms and mistaken identities. All result in a farcical mix of comic situations.
Wordplay, such as the use of oxymorons, is an abundant source of humor in Shakespeare. The word oxymoron comes from the Greek meaning “pointedly foolish.” Pointedly foolish certainly applies to the mechanicals, whose ignorance provides the root of all their comedy in the play. For example, Quince refers to the play of Pyramus and Thisbe as “the most lamentable comedy.” (Iii 9) This does not make much sense, since we would hardly express sorrow over a comedy. However, as it turns out, the pathetic production they eventually put on is so bad it actually is lamentable. When Bottom says: “I’ll speak in a monstrous little voice,” (Iii 43) he surely does not mean a voice which is both monstrous and little, for something cannot be both monstrous and little.
What Bottom is trying to say is that he will speak in a “very” little voice. Bottom does not realize what he has said and creates amusing confusion for the reader. One of Helena’s oxymorons is in Act 3, scene 2, line 129: “oh devilish- holy fray!” Obviously something cannot be devilish and holy at the same time, and by most people’s standards, the devil certainly is not pious. The ignorance of Bottom and his friends seems to be bottomless and voluminous and results not only in oxymorons, but also in “malapropisms.” A malapropism is the confusion of two words that sound alike but mean different things, which results in humor. Sometimes the ignorant use of the wrong word is funny simply because stupid characters look foolishly pretentious.
This is often the case with Bottom, who tries constantly to appear extremely educated and uses long impressive words without any clue as to their real meaning. Bottom claims, “..I have an exposition (interpretation) of sleep come upon me.” (IV I 35) This phrase does not make much sense to you and me but it makes sense to Bottom, who means “.a disposition to sleep..!” The most comical malapropisms occur when the mistaken word means the exact opposite of what the speaker intended. Quince says that the play can not go on without Bottom, who is the very “paramour” of a sweet voice (IVii 8). This malapropism is doubly funny, because instead of using the word that Quince meant to say, “paragon” (an example of perfection), he says “paramour”, which means mistress. The idea of Bottom as a mistress makes the malapropism even funnier. The joke can go even further, since Bottom does become Titania’s donkey paramour.
Wordplay is not the only type of humor generated in Shakespeare’s play. The other type of humor is a form of slapstick in which mistaken identities cause an uproar of emotional mix-ups. The background of the play is a simple love “square” involving four people. Hermia loves Lysander and Lysander loves her, but Demetrious also loves Hermia, and Helena loves Demetrious. Hermia and Demetrious are engaged to wed against Hermia’s will. They all end up running off into the wood on a magic eve where fairy mischief turns everything upside down. While asleep, Puck, a fairy, squeezes juice from a flower that makes whomever’s eye it enters fall in love with the first person they see.
He puts it onto Lysander’s eye, thinking he was Demetrius. This begins the havoc of mistaken identities, because Helena is the first person he sees, which causes him to fall in love with her instead of Hermia. So now, Lysander loves Helena, Helena loves Demetrius, Demetrius loves Hermia and Hermia loves Lysander. The confusion snowballs. Every encounter the couples have gets more confusing and exasperating. “Never did mockers waste more idle breath.” Next Puck realizes his mistake and puts the flower juice on Demetrius’ eyes, making him fall in love with Helena as well. Helena, whose love has been hopeless and pathetically in vain, thinks that Lysander and Demetrius are mocking her, because they are both ,suddenly, madly and mysteriously in love with her.
Her fury with both the boys as they follow her around hopelessly in love, is filled with humor. Her exasperation is ironic, because now she has too much love instead of too little. There is also dramatic irony because the audience knows what’s going on but continues to watch her become more and more enraged. Her misplaced anger and verbal abuse of the lovers and of Hermia, whom she suspects of joining them in humiliating her, is also very funny. The reversal of situations are comic and the complexity of one wrong situation leading to another keeps the laughs coming one after another. In the end it all works out because Lysander loves Hermia; Demetrious, Helena.
Any one of the comic devices Shakespeare usesthroughout A Midsummer Nights Dream replete with humor, but the combination, repetition and complexity of mixing all these devices creates one of the classic and brilliant comedies of all times.