Shakespeare’s Pyramus and Thisbe: The “Rude Mechanicals”

Pyramus and Thisbe, House of Loreius Tiburtinus, Pompeii.
File:Pyramus and Thisbe Pompeii.jpg wiki commons.

Flute and the Rude Mechanicals of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

In Ovid’s Metamorphosis, “Pyramus and Thisbe – one of the pair the most beautiful of youths; the other most esteemed of those girls whom the Orient held – lived in houses side by side” (Ovid, 4.55-66). Thisbe, esteemed girl, is not original to Shakespeare, although his treatment of her, and Pyramus is, as the play within a play is presented seriously by the “Hard-handed men…Which never labored with their minds” (MSD 5.1.72-73), who are “translated” as Quince says. They have become more, elevated by this performance for they “have now toiled their unbreathed memories / With this same play against your nuptial” (5.1.74-75) as Egeus states. Each of these men, is transformed, in this case “Francis Flute, a bellows mender” (MSD “The persons of the play”) has become Thisbe, by the magic of the art of the theatre, perhaps not perfectly but enough so that Theseus says “If we imagine no worse of them than they of they them- / selves, they may pass for excellent men” (MSD 5.1.211-212), and later after her soliloquy Theseus magnanimously calls it a “fine tragedy” (5.1.344), perhaps sarcastically, but still he gives the players a leave, rather than the noose. After all it was he who chose their work and he and his companions found it helped “wear away this long age of three hours” (5.1.33).

Thisbe: “Come, blade my breast imbrue.” (MND 5.1.331)
From: Women With Swords in Art By Lili Loofbourow| October 3, 2011
Pyramus-and-Thisbe-by-Niklaus-Deutsch.jpg

Flute, whose name is perhaps a pun on the sound made by bellows as they are squeezed when not mended, has become the female lead. A bellows is from Old English meaning “blast-bag, blowing-bag” according to OED etymology and it has the additional meaning to “that which blows up or fans the fire of passion, discord, etc.” and also applies to the lungs, also is a contrivance for providing air for a musical instrument (bellows, n). “We heard a hollow burst of bellowing Like Buls, or rather Lyons.” (Tempest (1623) ii. i. 316 cited in “bellowing, n”). Thus we find that Flute could be a mender of the musical instruments required in a church as this source in the OED says “1566 Churchwardens’ Accts. St. Dunstan’s, Canterb., ‘One payer of orgens lackeng iij pypes, also thear lacketh the pesys of led belongen to the belowes.’” (bellows, n). One would think that a bellows mender, which the OED cites A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the original source of the term, would be a person of some importance in the community of artisans. Not a mere bellows mender, but a craftsman whose job was to make the instruments sing and not wheeze. Whether this is a feminine process is another matter, perhaps as the blowing is masculine then the mending of the blower, would be by implication feminine, thus Shakespeare has named Flute as our Thisbe at least in this speculation for as Harold Bloom states “the ‘mechanicals’ are English rustic artisans – the sublime Bottom, Peter Quince, Flute, Snout, Snug, and Starveling – and so come out of Shakespeare’s own countryside, where he grew up” (Bloom 149).

“Woodcut illustration (leaf [c]5v, f. [xv]) of Pyramus and Thisbe, hand-colored in red, green, yellow and black, from an incunable German translation by Heinrich Steinhöwel of Giovanni Boccaccio’s De mulieribus claris, printed by Johannes Zainer at Ulm ca. 1474″
from: Penn Provenance Project.

These were the men of the theater, as David Kathman in his article “Grocers, Goldsmiths, and Drapers: Freemen and Apprentices in the Elizabethan Theater” shows with masterful research, that there were many tradesmen in the theater, in fact “[t]he role of guilds and livery companies in the development of medieval English drama has long been recognized, as has their key role in the production of London Midsummer shows and Lord Mayor’s pageants” (Kathman 1). He goes on to describe the importance of the apprentices freed from their trades to perform as actors and their importance to the London theater (2). This is significant as the inclusion of the “rough mechanicals” would have been thus traditional for a Midsummer show and as the Dream is a Midsummer show, there would be reason to include a performance by the men of the guilds or trade. Perusing the list of actors who were tradesmen in Kathman, there are no bellows menders listed (47-49), so an easy correlation between Flute and a particular player remains elusive. But the fact that some fifty persons individual identities from the sixteenth and seventeenth century English theater have been identified, is significant in itself.

Wall scene.
“[Shakespeare] cast the diminutive Nashe – who famously could not grow a beard - as Francis Flute the bellows-mender, forced to play Thisbe through his lack of facial hair…
From The Shakespeare Code blog site.

Greenblatt says in his Will in the World, “[e]ven as he called attention to the distance between himself and the rustic performers [in the Pyramus and Thisbe sequence], then Shakespeare doubled back and signaled a current of sympathy and solidarity… borrowing from the old morality plays and folk culture…he understood… that he owed a debt. The professions he assigns the Athenian artisans were not chosen at random - Shakespeare’s London theater company depended on joiners and weavers, carpenters and tailors…” (Greenblatt, 52). This world of the make believe high society, in the Dream, mirrors that of the society to which Shakespeare aspired and perhaps at this stage of his life, in the mid 1590’s, had gained some position, for A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been considered to be written for a wedding of the upper classes at which Queen Elisabeth may have attended (47). Yet Shakespeare, at least in this play, does not forget the common people, and the tradesmen who are the foundation upon which the theater is built as Kathman states “London livery companies played a crucial role in the economics of the professional theater” (Kathman 2), providing talented your apprentices, such as Flute, to play Thisbe.

“Edward Kynaston, one of the last boy players (1889 engraving of a contemporary portrait)”
Wikipedia

A will o’ the wisp such as Thisbe representing tragic love, in the hands of coarse amateurs would have been an object of mockery, and among the nobility portrayed in the play she is, but not so much, for as Greenblatt shows, Shakespeare “conferred an odd, unexpected dignity upon Bottom and his fellows, a dignity that contrasts favorably with the sardonic rudeness of the aristocratic spectators” (Greenblatt 52). The bard seems to have been allowing a certain grace to Thisbe’s plaintive cry “Lovers make moan” (MSD 5.1.321), even as he follows with an absurdity “His eyes were green as leaks” (5.1.322), but she recovers with a classical reference, “O sisters three” (5.1.223) and then allows another absurd reference to the common, “With hands pale as milk”(5.1.224). The common substances of daily life leaks, and milk, mixed with the references to the classical fates, and a call to the universal moaning of all lovers who have lost loved ones, surely would have touched upon things that were meaningful to all the audience, and elicited sympathetic attention as well as the critical, for even Theseus could not do more than complain of the author, and even then compliments in a backhanded way, “if he that writ it had played Pyramus / and hanged himself in Thisbe’s garter, it would have been a / fine tragedy” (5.1.342-344).

“Bankers of York, from the Ordinances of their Guild, 1595-96.”
internetshakespeare.uvic.ca

Thus it is that I agree with J. P. Conlan in the argument he makes “showing that Elizabethan comedies written for the court could and did advise on policy” (Conlan 118). But short of an epic study of Shakespeare’s Ovid, the proletarian feminism implicit in Flute’s Thisbe and its revolutionary implications, something that deserves a much longer presentation, this will conclude noting that Shakespearean stage utilized and depended upon the apprentices that came from among the artisan classes and the guilds. These talented youths fed the theater with its female roles as Kathman documents so meticulously naming among many others “William Trigge, bound on 20 December 1625 for twelve years; … Trigge was one of the leading actors of female roles for the King’s Men in the late 1620’s, playing at least five female roles between 1626 and 1632” (Kathman 10). Kathman documents his legal petitions to be released from apprenticeship from William Heminges son John “pur apprendre larte que dite John hennings adonc visat … l’arte d’ une Stageplayer” (11). Perhaps Flute was one of these apprentices, learning his skill as an actor, and that Shakespeare was in A Midsummer Night’s Dream presenting his acting family in all its levels of skill to the court to appreciate the effort that went into making the rude artisans into accomplished artists and thus recommending an indulgence toward his trade. Thus making the sows ear of Flute into “one of the most esteemed girls of the orient” by the metamorphosis made possible by the theatrical artistry of himself, hanged as he was on Thisbe’s garter. Harold Bloom says “It is a curious link between The Tempest, Love’s Labor’s Lost and A Midsummer Night’s Dream that these are the three plays, out of thirty nine, where Shakespeare does not follow a primary source” (Bloom 149). The primary source in this case was the world in which he found himself, and his actors in the play within a play were his fellows, both literally and literately.

Map Created by Ralph Agas (c.1570-1605)
From shakespearesengland.co.uk

Works Cited
“bellowing, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2014. Web. 16 June 2014.
“bellows, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2014. Web. 16 June 2014.
Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books. 1998. Print.
Conlan, J. P. “The Fey Beauty Of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Shakespearean Comedy In Its Courtly Context.” Shakespeare Studies 32.(2004): 118-172. Academic Search Complete. Web. 25 June 2014.
Greenblatt, Stephen. Will in the World. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 2004. Print.
Kathman, David. “Grocers, Goldsmiths, and Drapers: Freemen and Apprentices in the Elizabethan Theater.” Shakespeare Quarterly. 55.1 (Spring, 2004). 1-49. Jstor.org. Web. 22 June 2014.
Ovid, “Pyramus and Thisbe.” Metamorphosis.4.55-66. CSULBBeachboard. Web. 14 June 2014.
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Norton Shakespeare Based on the Oxford Edition Second Edition: With an Essay on the Shakespearean stage by Andrew Gurr. Eds. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 2008. 849-896. Print.

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