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Bottom in the Cubicle

Bottom in a modern cubicle office on the phone while other annoyed co-workers look at him over their cubicle walls.

Many Shakespeare Characters
Are Living and Working Among Us

This guy I once worked with was friendly, competent, hard working, and intelligent. Yet, his proclaimed breadth of expertise in so many different fields bothered me a little. It wasn't jealousy on my part, but wariness that he could be as accomplished in so many skills—in every skill, it seemed—as he considered himself. I never added up all the references to his training and experience, but he must have been a quadruple major in college and had at least a half-dozen tenured jobs.

It was at a staff meeting that this guy's link to Shakespeare revealed itself to me. As each of the organization's managers took turns reporting on his or her department and project, this guy interjected his observations and suggestions regarding those respective departments and projects, and he did this with all the assuredness of someone who intimately knew each department and project. You could sense exasperation and even antagonism rising in his fellow managers. But I—even though I was similarly intruded upon—started chuckling to myself as I realized I was watching the performance of a real-life Bottom, Shakespeare's most lovable know-it-all in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Shakespeare created many iconic characters of the English language: Hamlet, Othello, Iago, Lady Macbeth, Richard III, Cleopatra, and Falstaff. But he also wrote a wider cast of characters as typical as you, me, your brother, your mother, the guy in the next cubicle, the boss you couldn't stand, the woman you work for now, your play group: Emilia, Hotspur, Horatio, the Countess, Fluellen, Iachimo, Olivia, and all the other characters in The Merry Wives of Windsor, to name just a few.

Though written 450 years ago and speaking Elizabethan idioms, sometimes in iambic pentameter, these characters are just slightly exaggerated versions of people you know today. Minor characters in Shakespeare's canon though they may be, they are nevertheless archetypes in our own day-to-day lives, as loveably irritating and as intriguingly dangerous as our friends, family, and colleagues.

Want to do a parlor game for your Shakespeare group? Identify characters from a play reincarnated as someone you know. Or, when you read the plays, typecast people you've encountered in each of the parts and watch the action literally take shape around you. In that staff meeting with Bottom, I was suddenly among the rude mechanicals. There in the flesh were Peter Quince (the organization's chief operating officer) and Snug (an assistant director in his first week on the job).

My personal and work lives have been peopled with Shakespearean characters. I once worked with Holofernes from Love's Labour's Lost, a guy who not only trumpeted his learning at every opportunity, he also was as boringly voluble as the Navarre schoolmaster. He strived to outsmart everything anybody said—to the point that I tried to not say anything that would wind him up and hope that his Energizer Bunny–powered intellect would eventually wind down. Get stuck in an office or hallway with this guy and you became a very Dull, indeed.

I knew a Henry VI. He was such a nice guy and had great credentials, but he constantly seemed overwhelmed by the scope of his responsibilities, and he was constantly buffeted by the organization's political infighting. He came with a wife, too, a Queen Margaret, and I'll leave it at that. I worked with the cobbler who opens Julius Caesar. He wasn't really a cobbler, though he did much cobbling as a graphic designer, especially when he was given a short deadline, but he had the same kind of wit and go-along-for-the-ride attitude. Then there was our Paulina from The Winter's Tale. Easily the wisest person in the organization, she drew on a long line of practical experience and a deep well of common sense to keep us on the straight and narrow. She could emasculate all us guys with her look and “really?” demeanor. However, she knew whereof she spoke—ignore her warnings at your peril—and she always somehow brought projects to life in the end.

We have a Don Armado in our family, who not only is a hopeless romantic (and yet a most honorable man), he uses the most idiomatic language to say the simplest things. I've known three Hotspurs; what troubles me is that while he's one of my favorite Shakespeare characters, I really didn't like his real-life versions (actually what worries me more is that Sarah, my wife, likens me to Hotspur—and she's right).

Then there was the truly bizarre moment of leaving a production of Much Ado About Nothing and encountering a real Dogberry and Verges. The Folger production set the play in a D.C. Caribbean neighborhood with Dogberry as a blowhard of a security guard. On our way home, we came upon two Metro System police officers: way overweight, gadgetry jangling from their belts, superior attitudes encasing a lack of wit and wisdom. The larger one sauntered along the station platform, boarded our train, and then passed through car to car while his smaller associate followed in his steps and mannerisms. These two were so ridiculous and the timing of their appearance so apt (we'd never seen them before or since) that I still wonder if they were some sort of performance art epilogue to the Folger production.

I don't mean to be disdainful of my former colleagues for likening them to Shakespeare's comic or tragic characters. One of Shakespeare's singular talents is that even in the small roles and his stock figures, he gives his characters so many dimensions. Casting the characters in my life as the characters in Shakespeare's plays has helped me see both in more dimensions. My own Holerfernes, as hellish as he could make 20 minutes of conversation, was also a true visionary and a friendly man; and we should also note that Shakespeare's Holerfernes, as ridiculous as he may seem to audiences, does garner respect in his community.

A better example is Bottom. He is a stock clown; his overly ambitious memory and self-view outstrip his actual experience and breadth of skills; and Puck calls him “the shallowest thick-skin of that barren sort.” Still, remember that Puck is disdainful of all humans; that Bottom's fellows truly love him and say he has “the best wit of any handicraft man in Athens”; and, though a stock clown, he is the only mortal who gets to see—even consort with—the fairies. Plus, Shakespeare puts the play's wisest line in his mouth: “To say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays.”

So, when I say I suddenly saw my colleague—my friend—as Bottom at that staff meeting, I saw Bottom more respectfully than I ever had before. But he's still pretty funny to watch, holding forth with his self-sense of expertise on any and all matter—my colleague, that is (and, well, Bottom, too).

Eric Hotspur Minton
March 1, 2012

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