I had a former student ask me a question, looking for sources from the early modern period for Bottom and the Mechanicals from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I thought I would post my answer because… well, why not?
In terms of direct sources, there aren’t a lot. That is, there is no primary document that says that Shakespeare was making fun of this particular person who was in this particular troupe at this particular time. That said, there are a lot of more intriguingly obscure sources of the sort I could talk about for hours. I’m going to break them down into just two strains of thought, to keep it simple
The Mystery Plays
The first place little Shakespeare would have seen theatre of any sort was probably not at a theatre (obviously, because there were none in Stratford), but in the streets. Not in the sense of the bands of roving players, either. Rather, the tradition of Mystery Plays and (to a lesser extent) Robin Hood plays were probably the first place little Shakespeare got a taste for the theatre.
Mystery plays were first performed in the late 1300s and were pretty popular until the late 1500s, so they were on their way out of style in Shakespeare’s England, but everyone remembered what they were and what they were like. They took as their topic the whole of the story of the Bible from Creation to the Apocalypse. Indeed, some of the more famous characters of Mystery plays lived on in reference in early modern drama, such as Herod. (Hamlet, in his advice to the actors, says to not bellow too much “it out Herod’s Herod.”)
Mystery Cycles were a processional form of drama where the playing space would be moved throughout a city, often ending up in dozens of different spots within the same city. There would be dozens of different playing spaces that would move, in procession, through the city, all taken together, to tell the story of human existence. And all of this would happen on one day. They were performed for everyone (so this part isn’t much like MNDream) rather than for the court.
Here’s where Shakespeare starts getting his inspiration though. The performers of the Mystery Cycles were the guilds within a town. The guilds were like medieval trade unions; I’ve got a video on these things here. There was a Carpenter’s Guild, a Mercer’s Guild, a Shoemaker’s Guild, a Grocer’s Guild… you name the profession, it probably had (and may still have) a guild associated with it. There were, absolutely, weavers’ guilds, joiners would have been in a guild, etc. etc. In fact, the name “mystery” in “Mystery Cycle” comes not from any shadowy or spiritual nature of the plays themselves but from the “misterium” or “occupation” of the guilds. In this sense, the traditional name of this genre is a bit misleading today.
In other words, Bottom is a satirical representation of a much older form of performance that was much loved but was dying out in the time of Shakespeare, which was dominated by amateur actors. Part of the ridiculousness of the Mechanicals in the Dream is that they think that they are good enough to perform before royalty. The theatre industry over the course of the 1570s had become professionalized as the Queen’s Master of Revels hired more professional and competent performers to entertain Her Majesty. The amateurishness of a Mystery Play, put on by a bunch of barely literate weavers and bellows-menders and joiners was just not going to cut the mustard.
The other major influence in the creation of the play in general and the character of Bottom in particular is the Entertainment at Kenilworth Castle in 1575. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was probably the only Englishman who had half a chance at marrying Elizabeth I. They had grown up together under adverse conditions and their families had been closely aligned for decades. In 1575, he hosted Elizabeth at Kenilworth and proposed marriage. She turned him down, but the spectacular celebrations at Kenilworth were SO GODDAM SPECTACULAR that the entire county of Warwickshire came out to see them.
Shakespeare would have been a child at this point, but his father would have been the “mayor” of Stratford and so he, along with his father, in all likelihood attended the festivities. Even if he didn’t attend, he surely heard of the wonders that were on offer at the entertainment. The whole of the landscape nearby was transformed into a pleasure garden. A magnificent fireworks display was put on. A masque was supposed to be performed, which the Kenilworth guidebook describes as having a “story hinged on a debate about whether the chaste nymph, Zabeta, should wed, and concluded with a speech urging the queen to marry.” Though the masque was never performed, a variation upon it was. Of course, why was the masque cancelled? Bad weather. This should sound familiar. When Oberon and Titania meet, Titania talks at length about how their discord was causing bad weather all over the world.
Most importantly for us, there was a play that “featuring Triton riding an 18 foot long mermaid and moving islands carrying the Lady of the Lake and her nymphs.” The play, like many of the entertainments (morris dancing, a country dance party, sports competitions, and other diversions) were actually carried out by locals who had been paid by the Earl of Leicester to be there. Though we know a play called “Hock’s Tuesday” was performed by professional actors brought in from Coventry, the play with Triton was not performed by professionals. The play is particularly interesting, if it was performed by local actors if only because it is actually referenced in the Dream when Oberon is telling Puck where to find the flower that contains the love juice.
Since once I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath
That the rude sea grew civil at her song
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres,
To hear the sea-maid’s music.
That very time I saw, but thou couldst not,
Flying between the cold moon and the earth,
Cupid all arm’d: a certain aim he took
At a fair vestal throned by the west,
And loosed his love-shaft smartly from his bow,
As it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts;
But I might see young Cupid’s fiery shaft
Quench’d in the chaste beams of the watery moon,
And the imperial votaress passed on,
In maiden meditation, fancy-free.
Elizabeth is the “imperial votaress” who passed on, untouched by Cupid’s love shaft. The whole thing was an epic fail in terms of actually getting Elizabeth to marry Leicester, but it must have made a huge impression on Shakespeare. The people who performed that play with Triton and the Lady of the Lake were weavers and simple men.
So those are two places that Shakespeare was getting his ideas from for the characters of Bottom and the others. I hope that this was useful to you. Let me know if I can answer anything else. I love talking about this stuff!