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ACT I. SCENE II.
In this scene Shakspeare takes advantage of his knowledge of the theatre, to ridicule the prejudices and competitions of the players. Bottom, who is generally acknowledged the principal actor, declares his inclination to be for a tyrant, for a part of fury, tumult, and noise, such as every young man pants to perform when he first steps upon the stage. The same Bottom, who seems bred in a tiring-room, has another histrionical passion. He is for engrossing every part, and would exclude his inferiors from all possibility of distinction. He is therefore desirous to play Pyramus, Thisbe and the Lyon at the same time. JOHNSON. Line 271. -the scrip.] A scrip, Fr. escript, now written
So Chaucer, Troilus and Cressida, 1. 2. 1130:
STEEVENS. Line 278. —grow to a point.] Dr. Warburton read go on; but grow is used, in allusion to his name, Quince. JOHNSON. Line 278. And so grow to a point.] The sense, in my opinion, hath been hitherto mistaken; and instead of a point, a substantive, I would read appoint, a verb, that is, appoint what parts each actor is to perform, which is the real case. Quince first tells them the name of the play, then calls the actors by their names, and after that, tells each of them what part is set down for him to act. WARNER. Line 284. -spread yourselves.] i. e. Stand individually apart.
Line 299. I could play Ercles rarely, or a part to tear a cat in.] In the old comedy of The Roaring Girl, 1611, there is a character called Tear-cat, who says, "I am called, by those who have
seen my valour, Tear-cat." In an anonymous piece called Histriomastix, or the Player whipt, 1610, in six acts, a parcel of soldiers drag a company of players on the stage, and the captain says, "Sirrah, this is you that would rend and tear a cat upon a stage," &c. Again,
In The Isle of Gulls, a comedy by J. Day, 1606. "I had rather "hear two such jests, than a whole play of such Tear-cat thun"derclaps." STEEVENS.
Line 320. -as small, &c.] This passage shews how the want of women on the old stage was supplied. If they had not a young man who could perform the part with a face that might pass for feminine, the character was acted in a mask, which was at that time a part of a lady's dress so much in use that it did not give any unusual appearance to the scene: and he that could modulate his voice in a female tone might play the woman very successfully. It is observed in Downes's Memoirs of the Playhouse, that one of these counterfeit heroines moved the passions more strongly than the women that have since been brought upon the stage. Some of the catastrophes of the old comedies, which make lovers marry the wrong women, are, by recollection of the common use of masks, brought nearer to probability. JOHNSON. slow of study.] To study, is the theatrical term
Line 337. for learning a part.
-an -] i. e. As if.
365. —your perfect yellow.] Here Bottom again discovers a true genius for the stage by his solicitude for propriety of dress, and his deliberation which beard to chuse among many beards, all unnatural. JOHNSON,
Line 366. -French crowns, &c.] That is, a head from which the hair has fallen in one of the last stages of the lues venerea, called the corona veneris. To this our poet has frequent allusions. STEEVENS.
Line 374. -properties,] Properties are whatever little articles are wanted in a play for the actors, according to their respective parts, dresses excepted. The person who delivers them out is to this day called the property-man. STEEVENS.
Line 380. At the duke's oak we meet.
-hold, or cut bow-strings.] This proverbial phrase came originally from the camp. When a rendezvous was appointed, the militia soldiers would frequently make excuse for not keeping word, that their bowstrings were broke, i. e. their arms unserviceable. Hence when one would give another absolute assurance of meeting him, he would say proverbially—hold or cut bow-strings-i e. whether the bow-string held or broke. For cut is used as a neuter, like the verb frets. As when we
say, the string frets, the silk frets, for the passive, it is cut or
ACT II. SCENE I.
Over hill, over dale, &c.] So Drayton in his Court of
Thorough brake, thorough brier,
Thorough muck, thorough mire,
Thorough water, thorough fire.
Line 9. To dew her orbs upon the green:] The orbs here mentioned are the circles supposed to be made by the Fairies on the ground, whose verdure proceeds from the fairy's care to water them.
They in their courses make that round,
Line 10. The cowslips tall her pensioners be;] The cowslip was a favourite among the fairies. There is a hint in Drayton of their attention to May morning.
-For the queen a fitting tow'r,
That ever went to gather May,
Line 11. In their gold coats spots you see;] Shakspeare, in Cymbeline, refers to the same red spots.
A mole cinque-spotted like the crimson drops
Line 16. lob of spirits.] Lob, lubber, looby, lobcock, all denote both inactivity of body and dulness of mind. JOHNSON. Line 23. changeling:] Changeling is commonly used for the child supposed to be left by the fairies, but here for the child taken away.
-sheen.] Shining, bright, gay.
30. But they do square.] To square here is to quarrel.
Robin-good-fellow;] Reginald Scot gives an account of this frolicksome spirit, in his Discovery of Witchcraft, London, 1588, 4to. p. 66. "Your grandames, maids, were
wont to set a bowl of milk for him, for his pains in grinding of "malt and mustard, and sweeping the house at midnight-this "white bread, and bread and milk, was his standing fee."
Line 37. Skim milk; and sometimes labour in the quern,
And bootless make the breathless houswife churn.] The sense of these lines is confused. Are not you he, says the fairy, that fright the country girls, that skim milk, work in the hand-mill, and make the tired dairy-women churn without effect? The mention of the mill seems out of place, for she is not now telling the good but the evil that he does. I would regulate the lines thus: And sometimes make the breathless housewife churn Skim milk, and bootless labour in the quern. Or by a simple transposition of the lines;
And bootless, make the breathless housewife churn
Line 39. -no barm;] Barme, a name for yeast, yet used in the midland counties. So in Mother Bombie, a comedy, 1594:
"It behoveth my wits to work like barme, alias yeast." STEEV. Line 41. Those that Hobgoblin call you, and sweet Puck,
You do their work.] To those traditionary opinions Milton has reference in L' Allegro,
Then to the spicy nut-brown ale,-
A like account of Puck is given by Drayton,
Of purpose to deceive us;
He doth with laughter leave us.
It will be apparent to him that shall compare Drayton's poem with this play, that either one of the poets copied the other, or, as I rather believe, that there was then some system of the fairy empire generally received, which they both represented as accurately as they could. Whether Drayton or Shakspeare wrote first, I cannot discover. JOHNSON.
Line 44. Puck. Thou speak'st aright.] It seems, that in The Fairy Mythology, Puck, or Hobgoblin, was the trusty servant of Oberon, and always employed to watch or detect the intrigues of Queen Mab, called by Shakespeare Titania. For in Drayton's Nymphidia, the same fairies are engaged in the same business. Mab has an amour with Pigwiggen; Oberon being jealous, sends Hobgoblin to catch them, and one of Mab's nymphs opposes him by a spell. JOHNSON.
-a roasted crab;] i.e. A wild apple.
56. And tailor cries,] The custom of crying tailor at a sudden fall backwards, I think I remember to have observed. He that slips beside his chair falls as a tailor squats upon his board. Besides, the trick of the fairy is represented as producing rather merriment than anger. JOHNSON. Line 58. And waxen- -] And increase, as the moon waxes. JOHNSON.
60. But room, Faery,] All the old copies read-But room Fairy. The word Fairy or Faery, was sometimes of three syllables, as often in Spenser.