“Puck pokes fun at Bottom by making fun of him.”

Well, as we used to say a few years ago, Duh.

This sentence is so short that even its writer should have noticed that it is circular, or self-defining. I can’t imagine why she thought it was worth the space.

My colleague Richard Reagan (passing my office door as I write this and dragged in to play) says he would have commented to the student: “Puck is apparently stuck in a rut, and so are you too!” (Nice rhythm, that.)

This kind of statement does get onto a page when the writer has no idea what to say but feels compelled (“the teacher made me do it!”) to say something. And that’s what happened in this case: She was answering one of the short-answer questions on a test from me—the question that I considered the test’s “gimme.” It was worth, if I recall correctly, 5 points, and I was sure no one could possibly miss the answer.

Q: How does Puck poke fun at Bottom?

A: By giving him an ass’s head. / By putting a donkey’s head on him. / By transforming his head into an ass’s head. (Any of these variants would have been okay.)

Landseer's 19th-century painting of Titania, Bottom (as ass), and the faerie train.
Thanks to http://www.museumsyndicate.com for making it available.

This trick by Puck is played out over the course of at least four scenes, and referred to in at least two others. Puns on “ass” abound, and Bottom’s lines are full of words that incorporate the sound “nay,” or “neigh.” He asks for hay to eat.

I showed the class videotape clips of a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream I had directed. The ass’s head was a large, vivid full-head mask. The actor plied it with grace and comic skill. Titania stroked it lovingly and sensually.

I mean, Come On!

Somehow, this student had no recollection of the transformation of Bottom. Had she read the play? Had she seen the video? Had she listened to the discussions (at least two classes’ worth)? Not a trick question!

Faced with the question on the test, clearly she had no idea what to say…but she felt she had to say something.

From her point of view, though, how could I mark her answer wrong? Making fun of someone is surely a way of poking fun at him. Had her vocabulary been a little bigger she might have said that Puck pokes fun at Bottom by mocking him—actually, that would have added a milligram of information to the sentence, at least clarifying that the “fun” was mockery, rather than, say, tickling. Or taunting (the way Puck does taunt Lysander and Demetrius, for instance).

In fact, my student’s “answer,” opaque as it is, challenges the (ever-hopeful) reader perhaps to look for some clarity, some deeper meaning the student may have had in mind. Presuming there might be a difference between “poking fun” and “making fun,” we can take some time to look at the other actions of this sprite. Actually his jokes do take more than one form. Puck’s “fun” with the young lovers is consequent on his own errors, and is directed at them; they are aware of and frustrated at being taunted although they have no idea what its source is—just fog, or inexplicable fickleness, they think. His “fun” with Bottom, on the other hand, is an intentional joke and is shared with us, the audience. Bottom is blissfully unaware that anything is wrong: when his friends run away from him, he assumes there’s something wrong with them; even after the spell has been lifted he remembers his ass-self as a dream, not as a real experience, and actually plans to celebrate the dream in a ballad. Thanks in part to his own enormous ego, he never guesses that we and Puck are laughing at him. With some resourcefulness, a writer could use my student’s answer to launch a fairly interesting discussion.

Well, I did mark her answer wrong anyway, and she never asked me why (a pretty good indication that she knew it was no answer in the first place).

Recently I gave an announced quiz to my freshmen, asking mostly questions with pretty obvious answers (for those who had done the reading). One of my students confidently and unhesitatingly wrote replies to every question, and from a distance I watched with pleasure, thinking to myself, “Well, he certainly is prepared, just as I expected from him.” The paper he turned in looked (from a distance) like a sure winner. When I actually read it, though, I discovered that after each question he had simply rewritten the question. He wanted to seem to be doing very well on the quiz. Was that meant to fool me, or his fellow students? Was he saving face before them even though he knew he couldn’t pass the quiz? Another student in the class, one who also is usually well prepared, simply handed me his quiz paper with no answers or answer-substitutes at all, murmuring “I’m so sorry” as he did so.

Which of these three students would impress you the most? For my money, I’d take Student #3. But how many of us are willing to be that honest, and that aware of the impact of the failure?

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

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