The Merry Conceited Humors of Bottom the Weaver is a 17th-century adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, reworking the play by focussing and expanding on the subplot of the mechanicals. Other than the mechanicals – Quince, Bottom, Flute, Snout, Snug and Starveling – the only other characters in the play are Oberon, Titania, Puck (called here Pugg), Theseus and Hippolyta. There are a few lines for Egeus and two lords in the last scene, although these characters are left out of the list of characters. The plot of the lovers has been completely left out.

The play was devised by Robert Cox, probably in the 1640s. As is indicated on the title page, it had been performed both by professionals, ‘his Majesties Comedians’, and by a group of apprentices ‘for their harmless recreation’. The list of characters offers the earliest suggestion for the longstanding tradition of doubling up roles in performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Oberon is listed as ‘King of the Fairies, who likewise may present the Duke’, and Titania, ‘his Queen the Dutchesse’. The workers (other than Quince) are listed alongside their roles in Pyramus and Thisbe, and Pyramus, Thisbe and Wall are bracketed off with the note: ‘who likewise may present three Fairies’. The practice of doubling roles is believed to have been necessary for full productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Shakespeare’s day; if it was not employed, there would not have been enough actors in a company to fill all the parts.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream: a tradition of adaptation

The play is testament to the popularity of the mechanicals with theatre audiences. It is also part of a tradition of adaptation that lasted from the mid-17th century to the early-19th century. During this time, all but one of the recorded productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream were adaptations that cut down Shakespeare’s text to focus on a particular strand of the complexly interwoven plot, often with a heightened sense of spectacle. Other examples include The Fairy Queen (1692), which cut Shakespeare’s text in half to make way for a series of fairy masques scored by Henry Purcell; and David Garrick’s operatic adaptation, The Fairies (1755), which included only a quarter of Shakespeare’s text but added a number of songs taken from Shakespeare and other literary figures. Garrick cut the mechanicals (he thought they were too low brow for opera) and focussed instead on the lovers and the court.

The Thomason Tracts

The copy of the playscript digitised here is part of an important historical collection at the British Library called the Thomason Tracts – a vast collection of over 22,000 printed pamphlets, books and newspapers, printed mainly in London between 1640 and 1661, and originally brought together by George Thomason, a London bookseller and a friend of John Milton. They are one of the most significant sources relating to the turbulent period of the English Civil War in the mid-17th century. Many of these items are now rare or unique, and these copies also offer extra evidence in the form of Thomason’s own annotations with publication dates and attributions of authorship.