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Irony in A Midsummer Night's Dream
As a comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is filled with examples of irony, a literary device in which the audience knows something that the characters on stage do not. Many of the most comical instances of irony in the play are those involving the laborers’ excessive, ironic confidence in their acting ability. The audience knows that they are horrible actors, and irony adds to the humor of this.
Irony Examples in A Midsummer Night's Dream:
Act III - Scene I
"I see their knavery: this is to make an ass of me; ..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
Bottom claims that his fellows are trying to make him an “ass,” or appear foolish by their “knavery,” or their making fun of him. What he doesn’t know is that Puck has literally given him the head of an ass, or a donkey, making this statement quite ironic.
Act IV - Scene I
"I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be call'd ‘Bottom's Dream,’ because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the latter end of a play, before the Duke...." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
Bottom’s lines here are also ironic in that Shakespeare has actually succeeded in describing the events of the “dream” by writing the play itself. Bottom’s hopes that the contents of the dream can help inspire Quince’s ballad, reminds the audience of this very irony. Thus, Shakespeare highlights the way in which art can help people to comprehend an event that might be otherwise difficult to fathom. Bottom’s dream can be translated into art that is accessible for others to better understand.
"I am such a tender ass..." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
This is another example of irony. Bottom not only thinks he needs to shave his hairy face, but he also uses the word “ass” here to refer to himself as a simple, tender fool. However, we know that an “ass” is also a word for donkey, and Bottom still has no idea that he has the head of an ass.
Act IV - Scene II
"No; he hath simply the best wit of any handicraft man in Athens..." See in text (Act IV - Scene II)
The men continue to express their despair at Bottom’s disappearance, even claiming that Bottom is the most clever and articulate man out of all the laborers in Athens. This is, of course, ironic considering the amount of buffoonery and self-importance that Bottom has shown and also that they think Bottom can play a role better than an actual actor.
"No, in truth, sir, he should not..." See in text (Act V)
In yet another example of how badly the laborers are acting, Bottom breaks character to speak directly to Theseus because he is worried that his acting is so good that no one will be able to tell that he is just an actor playing Pyramus. This is ironic, of course, because the audience (meaning Theseus and the others) as well as Shakespeare’s audience know that they are watching a play and that there never was a risk of someone mistaking Bottom for actually being Pyramus.