A Look at Upstart Crow – Lord, What Fools These Mortals Be!

A very affectionate look at Upstart Crow by Chasqui Penguin.

Each episode has a theme, usually revolving around one of Will’s plays, and in this series of articles the aim is to give a little more background to those and the surrounding Upstart Crow storylines, together with the facts, deliberate anachronisms and the characters involved.

Series 3

Episode 1 – Lord, What Fools These Mortals Be!

This first episode in the third (and, so far, final) series of Upstart Crow is based on Shakespeare’s famous comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream (AMND). Though the episode does not closely follow the play’s storyline, the use of a magic potion is central to the plot, as in the play.

AMND is set in and around Athens and thought to have been written around 1595–96, its premiere recorded as taking place on 1st January 1605 at court – probably for the entertainment of James I as well as his family and entourage – though its stage debut was at the Globe some time later. However, these dates do not coincide with those hinted at in the Upstart Crow episode, as we shall see later. Below is a synopsis of the play, followed by a more in-depth look at the episode.

The title page of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from the first quarto, published in 1600


Main characters:

Puck (also known as Robin Goodfellow) – a mischievous fairy who lives in an enchanted wood and is a servant to Oberon, King of the Fairies

Titania – the Fairy Queen, Oberon’s wife

Nick Bottom – a weaver

Lord Egeus – courtier of Duke Theseus

Brief Story Outline:

AMND follows the play-within-a-play format, often associated with Shakespeare, and consists of several subplots. One subplot involves two Athenian couples escaping to the woods; Lysander and Hermia decide to elope and are soon followed by their friends Demetrius and Helen. At the request of Oberon, Puck plays a trick on all four of them when they are asleep. This involves rubbing the juice from a certain purple flower on their eyelids. The effect of the potion is to make each fall in love with the first person they set eyes on when waking. Inevitably, this results in Lysander and Helen becoming a couple and the same happens to Demetrius and Hermia. Added to this, for the rehearsal of the play within, mischievous Puck gives lowly weaver Nick Bottom an ass’s head to wear. To complicate matters Oberon and his wife Titania have quarrelled and Puck anoints the eyes of the sleeping Titania with the magic juice from the purple flower. On awakening she sees Bottom complete with ass’s head and, despite his appearance, falls in love with him. At Oberon’s command, Puck reverses the effect of the potion on Titania and the two couples, restoring normality, with a happy ending for all.

UPSTART CROW – Lord, What Fools These Mortals Be!

The title of this episode is a line spoken by Puck in Act 3, Scene 2 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.He is speaking to Oberon and remarking on the behaviour of the two couples in the woods, though he is actually the instigator of it with the magic potion.

This episode opens with Will overseeing the rehearsal of his new play A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Red Lion theatre, though in reality none of Will’s plays were ever linked to this Tudor playhouse. His plays were performed at the Curtain, the Rose and later the Globe, by the King’s Men (formerly the Lord Chamberlain’s Men), though where rehearsals took place is unclear. Condell is playing the fairy queen Titania and Kempe is portraying a lowly weaver. Titania awakes and sees the weaver; both speak the actual lines from Shakespeare’s play (Act 3, Sc 1), though in the original the weaver sings his words:

What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?

The finch, the sparrow and the lark,
The plain-song cuckoo grey

I pray thee gentle mortal, sing again.
I love thee.               

Will declares this scene a ‘celebrated comic moment’, which is disputed by Burbage and Condell, who points out, ‘Surely, to be a celebrated comic moment it has to be funny.’ Will explains that it is funny as the fairy queen falls in love with a common weaver, an unlikely situation. This does not convince the actors and Burbage threatens to find another writer if Will fails to come up with ‘a funny name and an inspired visual gag’ which, throughout most of the episode, the Bard finds an almost impossible task.

Back in the London lodgings, Kate picks holes in the plot, especially objecting to the inclusion of fairies but Will reveals that he has met one called Puck and it was this sprite who gave him the idea for the potion in his latest comedy. In reality, fairies were popular characters in plays of Shakespeare’s era and AMND with its three fairies proved to be a crowd-pleaser. However, in the course of conversation Will reveals to her and his servant Ned Bottom that he never felt worthy of his wife Anne, feeling convinced that she married him not out of love but because she was expecting their baby. He longed for her to love him, as he loved her. There is then a flashback: Shortly before the day of his marriage, Will is walking in the greenwood near his home in Stratford when he encounters a fairy and with the words from the play (Act 2, Sc 1) addresses him:

Either I mistake your shape and making quite,
Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite
Call’d Robin Goodfellow: are not you he
That frights the maidens of the villag’ry

Thou speak’st aright;
I am that merry wanderer of the night.
I jest to Oberon, and make him smile
When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile

Puck already knows Will’s love predicament and offers him a solution, which is a bottle containing a magic potion for his sweetheart’s eyes, to ensure her love for him. The flashback ends and Will continues with the story, telling Kate and Bottom that Puck sold him a love potion for five shillings. On their wedding night Will gave this to Anne, suggesting she should rub it on her eyes to soothe them. As she has shown love for him throughout their marriage, he is convinced that the potion worked, though Kate and Bottom seem sceptical. While this scene with Puck does not follow the AMND plot exactly, it fits well within the Upstart Crow setting.

Will is still stuck for a funny name for the lowly weaver and for a visual gag when Kit, who has moved into Will’s lodgings till he gets his ‘permanent digs’, arrives wearing an ass’s head. He has returned from a stag hunt where he targeted a donkey tethered to a post as it was much easier to catch! He cavorts around the room wearing the ass’s head before asking Bottom to mount it – a double entendre slipped in there – and despite the fact that both Bottom and an ass’s head are in front of him, Will fails to see any comedy potential in either of these.

Kit goes on to admit that the ass’s head is a disguise as he fears for his life, due to ‘debts, vengeance, spying, betrayal’. The real Christopher Marlowe did have reason to fear for his life. He had been accused of heresy and if found guilty would have faced execution. However, before any court case took place Marlowe was reported to have died on 30th May 1593, the result of a violent altercation in a government safe house in Deptford. Whether he was murdered or secretly left the country, possibly permanently, has been open to speculation since the coroner’s report was discovered in 1952 and certain anomalies in the recording of events were queried. However, these events in Marlowe’s life pre-date the writing and performance of AMND.

Veering further away from the plot of AMND, Robert Greene arrives with a marriage proposal for Kate from Lord Egeus, ‘the richest man in Southwark’, who owns the house where she, Will and Bottom live. Should Kate refuse to marry him, it could mean eviction. Kate points out that her mother has a lease for the house, but Greene hints at this carrying no weight in court, due to Lord Egeus’s influential status. He then informs Kate that she has a fortnight in which to make her decision. Despite the eviction threat, she refuses the proposal there and then, saying there is no way that she would become the wife of this ageing, warty aristocrat. After Greene has left, Will and Kit try to persuade her to marry Lord Egeus, but Kate is adamant that she will marry for love only. Although Kit concludes that they can’t make Kate love Lord Egeus, Will is not so sure.

Robert Greene has been one of the regular characters in Upstart Crow since the first episode, set in 1592. Throughout the three series, he is employed in a variety of positions, none of which he held in real life. However, in Upstart Crow these positions give him power through which he regularly tries to discredit Will. University-educated and among the better-known writers of the era, the real Robert Greene died on 3rd September 1592 and, therefore, his appearances in all episodes beyond this date constitute anachronisms. Undeniably though, without his presence as the antagonist, Upstart Crow would have lost a valuable asset as he is generally an integral part of the plot in each episode.

In the next scene Will has returned to Stratford and, with his daughter Susanna, goes for a walk in the greenwood, where he tells her of his encounter with the sprite years before. Susanna is not convinced of the potion’s efficacy but suddenly Puck appears and, after some preliminary conversation, sells Will another bottle of the magic solution, though the price has increased to 10 shillings (‘10 bob’, as Puck tells Will).

Back in London, Will reminds Kate that Lord Egeus will visit in person the next day for her answer to his marriage proposal. Kate still stands fast by her decision and seems undaunted by the consequences of refusing the offer of marriage from this influential man. In a clandestine attempt to change Kate’s mind, Will tells her that he can see she has been crying, a statement she emphatically denies. He then leaves her the bottle of magic potion, referring to it as balm, and suggests she should apply it at night to soothe her eyes. Unbeknownst to Will, Kate sees through this ploy, as it seems to mirror his gift of a similar bottle to Anne, and makes plans for the morning.

The next day, Robert Greene arrives ahead of Lord Egeus. Will, thinking Kate will have used the potion, insists all hide so the first person she sees will be her future husband. Meanwhile, Kate calls Bottom into her room, looks straight at him, speaks the words ‘What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?’, then pretends she is madly in love with him. Bottom is perplexed by her behaviour but Will believes that Kate did use the potion but the plan has gone wildly wrong. At this point Lord Egeus arrives and announces he has ‘come for the girl’. Kate walks towards him and tells him, with an apology, that she is in love with her Bottom. Believing that she loves another, Lord Egeus threatens to ruin them all, especially Bottom, and turns to leave. However, Will has a plan. He tells Bottom to put the ass’s head on, calls Lord Egeus back, then throws the potion in the nobleman’s face. On opening his eyes, Lord Egeus catches sight of Bottom wearing the ass’s head and instantly falls in love with him, asking, ‘What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?, before mayhem ensues.  Bottom is chased out of the room by Lord Egeus, with Robert Greene following, believing sorcery afoot. The summing up of the previous few minutes by the three remaining characters in the room differs slightly. Kit thinks it weird, Will is certain that Lord Egeus is over his infatuation with Kate and she admits that she is not in love with Bottom, didn’t use the potion and is amazed that it worked, adding that she retracts her views on Will’s new play as it now seems ‘grittily’ realistic.

With the turmoil over, Will returns to the difficult subject of finding a funny name and visual gag for his new play. The penny suddenly drops as, with his familiar exclamation of ‘Hang on, hang the futtock on!’, he realises he has both with Bottom and the ass’s head. This, of course, adheres to AMND, with Bottom wearing the ass’s head and the two comic ideas centring on his character, though Shakespeare himself seems to have gone one better by also giving the weaver the first name of Nick. All that said, in the late 16th century the word nick was used to mean stealing. Regarding the weaver’s surname, there is no clear evidence that the word bottom meant buttocks in Shakespeare’s day – academic opinion differs on this question – but it did imply end or base and may have been used by the Bard to convey the idea of a person of lowly social status, though the character of Nick Bottom was by no means shy and retiring, more inclined towards bossiness than subservience.

Kempe plays AMND’s Bottom in Upstart Crow, and it is conjectured that Shakespeare wrote the role for the real Will Kempe, the famous comic actor. However, he would never have played the part in front of an audience as he left the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in the late 1590s and is believed to have died in 1603, though that date is unconfirmed.

Unusual though the word ‘futtock’ is, it is not invented; the dictionary definition is the singular name for timbers forming part of a ship’s frame. However, this meaning is unlikely to have been the inspiration for its inclusion in Upstart Crow. It is more probable that Ben Elton chose to use it as Futtocks End is the title of a 1970 short comedy film, written by and starring the late great comedy actor Ronnie Barker whose character was General Futtock. Ben Elton is known to be a big fan of Ronnie Barker and presumably used the word as a tribute to the man who also became his friend.

Moving on, AMND’s debut performance is underway at the Red Lion, and we have a glimpse of the scene which was being rehearsed earlier, but this time with Kempe’s Nick Bottom wearing the ass’s head and Condell still playing the Fairy Queen, Titania:

What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?

The finch, the sparrow and the lark,
The plain-song cuckoo grey,
Whose note full many a man doth mark,
And dares not answer nay

The audience erupts into laughter. Burbage is delighted with the reaction to the play and is convinced that the comedy will ‘ring through the ages’. Will agrees, adding ‘those who don’t find it funny will feel obliged to pretend to…’ and he’s happy with that! However, Ned Bottom takes exception to his name being used for comedic purposes!

As mentioned towards the start of this article, none of Shakespeare’s plays were performed at the Red Lion. This theatre was built by John Brayne in 1567, closing the following year when Shakespeare was four years old. Burbage had no connection with this playhouse, though he did join forces with John Brayne, his brother-in-law, in 1576 for the building and co-ownership of The Theatre, where some of Shakespeare’s early plays were staged.

The penultimate scene in this Upstart Crow episode focuses on Will and Anne having their usual late-night chat, with him telling her the saga of Kate, the potion and all the mayhem it created. Anne recalls Will giving her a bottle to soothe her eyes on their wedding night. She admits that her eyes didn’t need soothing, she did not use the potion and certainly doesn’t need such a concoction to love him, which surprised him.

All episodes but one end with Will and Anne’s late-night chat, Lord, What Fools These Mortals Be! beingthe exception. The final scene takes us back to the greenwood with Puck speaking a soliloquy from AMND (Act 5, Sc 1):

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended.
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.⁠
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream

He then finishes with ‘If fun you’ve had and fun you seek/Dream again with us next week’, lines which can be attributed to Ben Elton, one of the finest comedy writers of our age.

The next Facts List will delve into Series 3’s second episode Wild Laughter in the Throat of Death and the speculation surrounding the report of Christopher Marlowe’s death in 1593.

Twitter: @ChasquiPenguin