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ACT I, SCENE 2
A group of craftsmen have been instructed to present a play to honor Duke Theseus on his wedding day. They have decided on the play, "The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe." As the scene opens, they are assigning the roles. Peter Quince seems to be the natural leader of the group, even though the more humorous Nick Bottom has decided to steal the show. Nick is to play the hero Pyramus, and Francis Flute is to play Thisbe. Starveling, Tom Snout, and Snug have also been assigned their roles. The group decides to meet the following night in the nearby woods in order to rehearse the play without interruption.
The second scene introduces Shakespeare's second world - that of the Athenian Craftsmen. To indicate the change in status between the gentry of the first scene and the craftsmen of this second scene, the language immediately shifts from the high, flowery poetry of the aristocracy to the commonplace prose of the working class. There is also a contrast between the simple, and at times crude, behavior of the common people with the sophistication of the gentry
This scene reveals Shakespeare's capacity to laugh at himself as a dramatist, as well as at other previous and contemporary dramatists. The title of the play that the craftsmen plan to present is a parody of an actual drama, "A Lamentable tragedy mixed full of pleasant mirth containing the life of Combyses, King of Persia," which was published in 1570. Shakespeare is laughing at the needless wordiness of both the titles.
The craftsmen are all presented as realistic characters. Peter Quince, the carpenter with a calm self-assurance, is the organizer of the group; he is able to put the overly enthusiastic Nick Bottom in his place. Nick is the harmless, though conceited, weaver who believes that he could successfully play all the roles in the play, including the hero, the heroine, and the lion; he is a typical Shakespearean comic character -- a loud-mouth who thinks he is better than his friends. Francis Flute, Snug Snout, and Starveling are minor characters who are not sure of their own essentiality.
The reactions of the craftsmen to the roles assigned to them contribute a great deal of humor to the play. When Bottom is offered the hero's role, he asks, "What is Pyramus? -- a lover or a tyrant?" He is sure that when he performs with all of his emotions, he will "move storms." Flute, who is to play Thisbe, wonders if the character is a noble knight. When he is informed that it is the lady whom Pyramus loves, he has a great concern about his beard. When Snug is told he is the lion, he is worried about his lines, since he is "slow of study." Compare this anxiety with Bottom's bragging, "Let me play the lion too." Bottom feels enthusiastic about the lion's role because he could roar so well that the Duke would say, "Let him roar again; Let him roar again." Quince reminds him that if he roared too loud he would scare the ladies which would "hang us all, every mother's son."
Shakespeare throws light here on the English society of the time. Puritans, a group of austere Christians who looked down upon the pastimes of the people, were becoming stronger. Their targets included the theatre and stage artists. The actors were often part of touring groups and were frequently accused of stealing and were punished. As a result, Shakespeare had to exercise utmost care while writing a play in order not to offend the powers that be.
Technically the scene is also important, for it introduces Shakespeare's second group and links it to the woods, which will become an important setting in the play. The connecting link between the gentry and these workmen is Philostrate, who had been requested in the first scene to organize merriments to celebrate the wedding. In this scene, the group's decision to rehearse in the woods brings them to the same scene of action where, earlier, the lovers had decided to move.