At first glance, Peter Quince is just a minor character in one of the many subplots of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ In this lesson, however, we’ll take a closer look, investigating Quince’s impact on the play’s humor and our experience as an audience.
Who Is Peter Quince?
If you ever catch an episode of 30 Rock, you’ll have a sense of how hard it is to deal with actors on a daily basis. In every episode, Liz Lemon (played by Tina Fey) has to deal with the antics of two eccentric actors, Jenna Maroney (played by Jane Krakowski) and Tracy Jordan (played by Tracy Morgan).
This kind of story is by no means new, however. In fact, you can find a sixteenth-century equivalent to Liz Lemon in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.The name of this Lemon-esque character is Peter Quince. Quince is a carpenter who has one ambition: to put on a play for the nobility of Athens. In order to do this, Quince assembles a group of other craftsmen to serve as actors. This seems simple enough, but one actor in particular makes Quince’s task infinitely more complicated.
The First Meeting
In the second scene of the first act, we see Quince’s group of actors meet for the first time in Quince’s home. This scene also introduces the character Nick Bottom, a weaver with an inflated ego. Shortly after Quince calls the meeting to order, Bottom attempts to take control.
Let’s look at how the scene starts:QUINCEIs all our company here?BOTTOMYou were best to call them generally, man by man,according to the scrip.QUINCEHere is the scroll of every man’s name, which isthought fit, through all Athens, to play in ourinterlude before the duke and the duchess, on hiswedding-day at night.BOTTOMFirst, good Peter Quince, say what the play treatson, then read the names of the actors, and so growto a point.
QUINCEMarry, our play is, the most lamentable comedy, andmost cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby.BOTTOMA very good piece of work, I assure you, and amerry. Now, good Peter Quince, call forth youractors by the scroll. Masters, spread yourselves.QUINCEAnswer as I call you. Nick Bottom, the weaver.BOTTOMReady.
Name what part I am for, and proceed.From the very beginning of this exchange, we can see that Quince will have to work very hard to keep Bottom in line. Notice that Bottom starts giving orders before he even introduces himself. Still, Quince remains patient and tries to keep the meeting moving forward. Unfortunately, as Quince gives each actor his part, Bottom continues to make the meeting about him, volunteering to play every part himself.
Although Quince is able to convince Bottom to stick to the part he was given, the meeting ends (just as it began) with Bottom cutting Quince off:QUINCE. . . But, masters, hereare your parts: and I am to entreat you, requestyou and desire you, to con them by to-morrow night;and meet me in the palace wood, a mile without thetown, by moonlight; there will we rehearse, for ifwe meet in the city, we shall be dogged withcompany, and our devices known. In the meantime Iwill draw a bill of properties, such as our playwants. I pray you, fail me not.BOTTOMWe will meet; and there we may rehearse mostobscenely and courageously.
Take pains; be perfect: adieu.QUINCEAt the duke’s oak we meet.BOTTOMEnough; hold or cut bow-strings.
In the first scene of the third act, Quince, Bottom, and the other actors meet in the woods outside of Athens to rehearse. Before rehearsal can begin, however, Bottom interrupts Quince:QUINCEPat, pat; and here’s a marvellous convenient placefor our rehearsal. This green plot shall be ourstage, this hawthorn-brake our tiring-house; and wewill do it in action as we will do it before the duke.
BOTTOMPeter Quince,–QUINCEWhat sayest thou, bully Bottom?BOTTOMThere are things in this comedy of Pyramus andThisby that will never please. First, Pyramus mustdraw a sword to kill himself; which the ladiescannot abide. How answer you that?After Bottom brings up this concern about the play’s violent content, two of the other actors (Snout and Starveling) join the conversation:SNOUTBy’r lakin, a parlous fear.STARVELINGI believe we must leave the killing out, when all is done.
BOTTOMNot a whit: I have a device to make all well.Write me a prologue; and let the prologue seem tosay, we will do no harm with our swords, and thatPyramus is not killed indeed; and, for the morebetter assurance, tell them that I, Pyramus, am notPyramus, but Bottom the weaver: this will put themout of fear.QUINCEWell, we will have such a prologue; and it shall bewritten in eight and six.
BOTTOMNo, make it two more; let it be written in eight and eight.As you can see, Quince has much less authority in this scene than he did during the first meeting. Instead of giving Quince the chance to respond to Bottom’s concern, the other actors look to Bottom for direction, which he is all too eager to give. Even when Quince agrees to write the prologue, Bottom still has the last word, ordering Quince to write the prologue in a certain meter (a pattern of syllables that gives a line of poetry its rhythm).
As the scene progresses, Bottom continues micromanaging (controlling the smallest details of a project), adding more ‘improvements’ to the play, which include a talking lion and an actor dressed up as a wall. Once the rehearsal finally begins, a scheming fairy named Puck enters. To make some mischief, Puck transforms Bottom’s head into a donkey’s head, which causes the other actors (Quince included) to flee in terror.
We next see Quince in the second scene of the fourth act. The group has gathered once again at Quince’s home, but Bottom is still missing after what happened in the woods. Surprisingly, Quince appears to genuinely miss Bottom. Take, for instance, the following conversation Quince has with Starveling and another actor named Flute:QUINCEHave you sent to Bottom’s house ? is he come home yet?STARVELINGHe cannot be heard of.
Out of doubt he istransported.FLUTEIf he come not, then the play is marred: it goesnot forward, doth it?QUINCEIt is not possible: you have not a man in allAthens able to discharge Pyramus but he.FLUTENo, he hath simply the best wit of any handicraftman in Athens.QUINCEYea and the best person too; and he is a veryparamour for a sweet voice.Luckily, Bottom appears in the nick of the time, and the actors are able to put on their play. In the first scene of the fifth act, Quince enters to deliver the prologue (which Bottom demanded in an earlier scene):If we offend, it is with our good will.
That you should think, we come not to offend,But with good will. To show our simple skill,That is the true beginning of our end.Consider then we come but in despite.We do not come as minding to contest you,Our true intent is. All for your delightWe are not here.
That you should here repent you,The actors are at hand and by their showYou shall know all that you are like to know.The prologue goes on to describe the entire plot of the play, warning the audience of the violence that is to come. However, the opening lines of the prologue are the most important because they are metatheatrical.
In other words, it reminds the audience (both the audience of Quince’s play and the audience of A Midsummer Night’s Dream) that they are watching a play, whose characters are portrayed by actors. What’s more, because Quince’s play is contained in a larger play, the performance is called a play within a play.
Let’s summarize what we’ve learned about Peter Quince.
Quince is a carpenter who wants to put on a play for the nobility of Athens. Among the actors he recruits is a self-absorbed weaver named Nick Bottom, who quite literally steals the show from Quince. However, because of the antics of a fairy named Puck, Bottom is separated from the group and the play is almost cancelled.
Fortunately, Bottom returns in time for the performance, which includes a metatheatrical prologue delivered by Quince.