Bless the Bottom: on euphemism

/ by Fiona Sampson

Bless thee, Bottom! bless thee! thou art translated. 
– William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 3 Sc 1

It must be one of the earliest, as well as best known, euphemisms in the canon of English literature, and it’s still toe-curlingly pleasurable today. During an amateur dramatics rehearsal in some woods near Athens, a troupe of workmen discover that, in the course of a brief absence from their improvised stage, Bottom the weaver has acquired a donkey’s head. Whereupon the tactful Peter Quince utters with his marvellously unjudgemental summation, “Bless thee, Bottom! bless thee! thou art translated.” 

The hapless Bottom, mere mortal plaything of fairies, can only bray confusion in return. His friends’ terror makes him afraid in turn. When he accuses one of them, Snout, of having an “asshead”, and the whole group of “wanting to make an ass of me”, we laugh knowingly, just as he fears his friends are doing. But Quince’s famous line, “thou are translated”, is a kind of key to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is the moment at which a character within the play tries to name, and so tame, the processes of transformation and parallelism that almost everyone in this dream of doublings must undergo. And as such it’s the moment towards which the action of the play rushes, and from which it rushes away. 

Shakespeare’s most famous comedy of displacement, parallels and dual identities is  as his comedies of “doublings” tend to be  deeply bound up in, and inter-bound with, translation. Peter Quince’s generous and yet cautious sense of this term might even be Shakespeare’s own. We recognise the parallels, the doublings, well enough. The Athenian Court take time out from the rigours of formality when they go into the woods at midsummer. There they are echoed, shadowed, doubled by the Fairy Court, one member of whom  its Queen, Titania  is herself turned into a fool by enchantment: just as her very name is a belittling feminisation that turns the notion of a supernaturally powerful ‘Titan’ inside out. 
Within the woods, the Athenian Court turn into us their audience, as they view the familiar Shakespearean play within a play. And there, too, workmen transform themselves into actors in order to render theatrical homage to a parallel, aristocratic “world” far removed from their own station. This act of homage turns these men, the Mechanicals, into protagonists: and their worldly masters into their passive audience. Besides, they have already translated themselves: the only place where the troupe of working men can rehearse is away from daily life: outside the city and at night. Of course we also know that, in another contract of translation, Shakespeare’s heroines were played by boys; something that Flute camps up in his reluctance to play the part of Thisbe in the Mechanicals’ performance. And so on. 

It’s a glorious conceptual clockwork; a complete, complex mechanism that tick-tocks between either and or. For in Midsummer, the play named for and set at the moment when the year changes direction, things are not in flux, fuzzy or fluid. Instead they flip-flop, turn on a dime, are turned on their head, mirrored, switched. There is no change except by transformation. Because it comes at the heart of these transpositions Quince’s euphemism, his choice of the word “translated”, is brim-full of such absolute, transformative switching.  
Euphemism itself, of course, is always a kind of switch. In place of what we expect, language gives way and drops us down through one of its characteristic lift-shafts into another register, and another reality. Like the child sitting on her father’s lap who becomes helpless with laughter when he suddenly opens his knees so she falls between them  only she doesn’t fall, she swings, he has her by the arms  a child for whom the security of sitting on a lap is subverted in a glorious game that makes the lap a place of airy absence  we topple into the euphemism. And swing there, laughing. Euphemism replaces the “crash-landing”  in anger, judgement, shame  that we anticipated with its light touch of good manners: even, as here, of laughter. For we all know what the “missing” term was. Euphemism relies on this knowledge to achieve its effect; it is a collaborative form of translation.

Only Bottom is unrelieved by any swing or fall into a second register. He has fallen already, after all, through the hierarchy of species to the lowly position of donkey. He’s neither smiling nor laughing. We forget this when we think of the “translation” that has made him such a famous figure of apparently harmless family fun.  (Shakespeare swings us down and then again up. He almost dandles us.) Poor Bottom. Bless thee, Bottom.

Poor Bottom’s snigger-worthy name subverts his windy pomposity even before he becomes a literal ass. His language is full of translations, which is to say malapropisms: “there is not a more fearful wild-fowl than your lion living” he comments inaptly, before using “defect” for “effect”. Shakespeare and his audiences knew three centuries before Sigmund Freud that parapraxis, too, is a type of translation; three and a half before Jacques Lacan, they had divined that the unconscious is structured like a language.  
Parapraxis is both inadvertent Freudian slip and advertent pun. Bottom’s innocence is an inadvertency as blaring as a fart. But through it he takes on the role of the cunningly choreographed clown who speaks truth to power in many a Shakespeare tragedy. Yet Bottom is neither a professional Fool nor a Holy Fool.  And the status quo he challenges is merely our own idea that we are singular individuals, gifted with self-knowledge. Contradicting this idea of singularity, “I am large, I contain multitudes,” Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’ famously boasted, at the end of the nineteenth century. Bottom declares his own potential for multiplicity inadvertently, after he has been translated into another self. Under Puck’s, Oberon’s spell, he is no longer a man making an ass of himself, but a donkey trying to play the courtly lover.  

If such multiplicity is a kind of wild knowledge that threatens the stately progress of the unified, Cartesian self through the world, it’s also cosily contained by the resolution of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which Bottom is translated back into his human, daylight self as the talkative weaver of Athens. Bottom, like the Biblical Job, is  collateral damage in a game played by immortals: in the great game of divine pride. The incident of his indignity is merely a move in Oberon’s campaign to restore his own dignity by destroying that of his wife; as Job’s destruction is merely the cost he must bear for a divine desire to win a wager with Satan. Job’s God, like Oberon, feels that in restoring the status quo he has undone his own transformative mischief.  Things have gone back to normal. Job and Bottom can carry on as if nothing has happened. Job’s wealth and family are increased far beyond what he had before: therefore, he has nothing to complain of, the Bible implies. 

Normal service is resumed. Indeed in Shakespeare’s play his characters are not even, finally, absolutely certain that anything at all has happened.  But something has. That lift-shaft moment of transformation, that dive through euphemism, joke and the mirror of parapraxis into translation, has taken place. And it has demonstrated the flimsiness of what is.

Bottom is not a translator. He is translated. It’s in Bottom’s own self, as well as in the stable account of things, that transformation has created its rift. Bottom’s great change, and the changing ways he’s spoken of, are reminders that things need not be so. They are the threat and promise that something other is already present with us. Inside our own identities, inside each moment of perception, each interaction, the other is always there. Not Other, but intimately us.
It’s an instability to terrify the bigot and the totalitarian alike.  Euphemism, parapraxis and all the other ways in which language plays with possibility  interchanging self and other, transforming what is the case into one of a number of cases, throwing a switch between registers and narratives  throw everything it says into question, and throw its speakers into question too. Bottom’s “translation” is the play that speaks truth to power. Bless thee, Bottom!

Fiona Sampson