Bottom’s Translation

Bottom’s Translation

Enter Snout. 
  Snout.  O Bottom, thou art chang’d! What do I see on thee?
  Bot.  What do you see? You see an ass-head of your own, do you? 
Exit Snout.
Enter Quince.
  Quin. Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee! Thou art translated.  Exit.
  Bot. I see their knavery. This is to make an ass of me. 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 3.1.114-21

As evident in the way he speaks - in his penchant for bombast and malaprop - Bottom is an ass. The tautological repetition of this statement, “Bottom is an ass,” points toward the almost allegorical, deeply metaphorical nature of this character, bottom being another name for ass, a synonym Shakespeare symbolized with shocking literalness in A Midsummer Night's Dream by setting an ass head on Bottom. Perhaps it is wrong to use the notion of “stigma” to think about Bottom’s ass head – an instance of what Renaissance writers called a prodigy (an unnatural abomination such as a child with wings and a tail) in contrast to a monster (a malformed human or animal such as a child with only one arm) – and there are certainly other applicable vocabularies, but, like the mutilation of the Andronici, Bottom’s translation amounts to a stage stigma, a specifically theatrical (if heavy-handed) sign that Shakespeare used to brand the undesirable behavior of someone onto that person’s body. Approaching Bottom’s translation as stigma allows us to consider Shakespeare himself as a stigmatizer, a suggestion many may resist – I myself hesitate even as I write this – for Shakespeare clearly held a more humane theory of stigma than anyone of his time, than almost anyone of any time, but isn’t that exactly how the most difficult cases of stigma often work? The revered and powerful fix their judgment of their inferiors in their inferior’s identity by branding it on their bodies, which the stigmatizer does, not out of any malicious intent, but out of a desire to see his or her interests, judgments, and values communicated to and codified in the culture at large, unintentionally yet unavoidably establishing a stigma that often transforms and intensifies the supposed inferiority of the one to whom it is attached, like Bottom the man becoming Bottom the monster. 

Moreover, recognizing that Bottom belongs to the same representational system as Shakespeare’s earlier stigmatics – Richard III, Aaron the Moor, and Faulconbridge the Bastard in King John – allows us to observe that Shakespeare used that system, which I have called the figure of stigma, to handle a number of different kinds of stigma. All four of these characters exhibit a body that is abnormal, be it Richard’s deformed body, Aaron’s racial body, Faulconbridge’s bastard birth, or Bottom’s ass head.  All four are also villains, whether wicked criminals like Richard and Aaron (the modern, literary sense of the term villain) or low-born commoners like Faulconbridge and Bottom (the early-modern, social sense of the term). Richard, Aaron, and Faulconbridge speak directly to the audience in soliloquies and asides, yet in A Midsummer Night’s Dream this role is reserved for Puck, not Bottom. Just as Puck also bears a monstrous body, however, Bottom also speaks to the audience, albeit not directly. He speaks to us through Shakespeare’s irony, Bottom’s malapropisms winking in our direction, his words meaning something different to us in the audience, who recognize their multiple meanings, than they do to the other characters on stage. Finally, a tragicomic fate awaits all four characters except Faulconbridge. Whether he dies like Richard and Aaron or is left alone like Bottom, the stigmatized individual in Shakespeare’s drama is usually excluded from the stable society founded at the end of the play by the representative of goodness and normalcy – Richmond in Richard III, Lucius in Titus Andronicus, and Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. By using the figure of stigma to represent grossly different kinds of differentness – deformity, minority, bastardy, and idiocy – Shakespeare anticipated the sociologist Erving Goffman by nearly 400 years. In his book on Stigma (1963), Goffman dealt with three kinds of stigma: “abominations of the body,” “blemishes of individual characters,” and “the tribal stigma of race, nation, and religion.” Goffman’s list is not exactly the same as Shakespeare’s, but, like Shakespeare, Goffman’s purpose in enumerating the different kinds of stigma is to suggest that, while these kinds are distinct in their origin and presentation, there exists a single system that governs them because the stigmatized take their meaning not from what they are but from what they are not, namely normal. Stigmatized individuals have enough in common to warrant consideration under a single rubric.

Just as Bottom’s translation is the event in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that links the fairies with the humans, the magical with the natural, the allegorical with the verisimilar, the fictive with the real, it is also the bridge between Richard III and Falstaff in terms of Shakespeare’s career with stigma, in terms of his involvement with the figure of stigma. Richard, Bottom, and Falstaff each exhibit all of these elements. The details differ, but each bears an unusual and significant body; each violates the values and morals of his society; each has a penchant for the theatrical and is an audience favorite; yet each ends up excluded from the stable society finally founded at the end of the play he is in. Like Richard’s abnormality, Bottom’s is situated in a supernatural dramatic ontology, in a world filled with ghosts and fairies, yet, like Falstaff, Bottom is more annoying than evil, does not address the audience directly (but does amuse us with his wordplay), and is alienated yet not killed off at the end of the play by a representative of the good and normal. The difference between Richard and Falstaff – a difference preserved in the case of Bottom – is that Richard’s birth defects are innate, Falstaff’s obesity acquired, Richard’s abnormality being a sign set on him (his enemies say) by God, Falstaff’s abnormality clearly the effect of his own agency (his excessive eating and drinking). To be sure, Bottom’s abnormality is a sign of his stupidity: he is as dumb as an ass, so he gets an ass head to show for it, just as Richard had an external deformity to signify his internal deformity. Yet Richard himself says his deformity is not the sign but the cause of his villainy, swapping a logic of similarity for a logic of contiguity, metaphor for metonym, sign for cause. Of course, the ass head is not the cause of Bottom’s villainy, but it is the effect, insofar as Puck observes Bottom’s stupidity and consequently decides to personify that behavior in the ass head. In other words, Bottom’s villainy produces his abnormality, just as Falstaff’s irresponsibility produces his obesity. As such, the ass head is both the sign and the effect of Bottom’s stupidity, locating Bottom in a middle space between metaphor and metonymy, between a logic of similarity and a logic of contiguity, between supernatural and secular versions of stigma.


Assheads in the Sixteenth Century
Midas’s Transformation
Monstrosity in Shakespeare 


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