“Good Peter Quince:” Shakespeare’s most autobiographical character

Peter Quince and Bottom
Richard Ruiz (Peter Quince) and Holly Twyford (Bottom) in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Folger Theatre, 2016. Teresa Wood.

 A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream is one of William Shakespeare’s most popular plays, and for good reason. Frequently a young person’s introduction to the playwright’s work, it’s an entertaining comedy filled with magical fairies, earnest lovers, and funny mechanicals (as well as — in the best productions — intensely earnest mechanicals and lovers who are also funny). But most importantly (for me, anyway), Midsummer is intriguing because it contains Shakespeare’s most autobiographical character: Peter Quince.

Peter Quince, a humble carpenter by trade, is, like Shakespeare, a total man of the theater. He acts, writes the scripts, frets about their reception, schedules rehearsals, puts prop lists together, assembles his performers, assigns them their roles, directs their performances, and wrangles and massages the insecurities and egos of his actors. In creating Quince’s script for “Pyramus and Thisbe,” Shakespeare parodied the probable source material for his own Romeo and Juliet, the ill-fated lovers from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In the performance of “Pyramus and Thisbe”, Shakespeare not only satirizes romantic tropes he himself employed; he makes merry fun of the nervous, over-the-top, scene-stealing antics of actors everywhere, possibly (probably?) even ones from his own company.

(Plus: turning an actor into an actual ass? A hilarious anthropomorphizing redundancy.)

Peter Quince isn’t Shakespeare’s only biographical character, of course. Every fictional creation is by definition imbued with aspects of their authors, and since at least the late 19th century, Prospero has also been seen as an autobiographical figure, with his final soliloquy in the epilogue of The Tempest understood to be essentially Shakespeare’s retirement speech, his farewell to London and to theater. The specificity of that interpretation seems unlikely, however, since Shakespeare went on to collaborate on at least two other plays, so his retirement, while possibly pending and on his mind, wasn’t imminent.

But I’m intrigued by the similarities between the two plays. The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are the only plays Shakespeare didn’t largely base on existing material or histories, so it’s fun to consider them his most wholly original and deeply revealing dramatic works. In addition to young lovers and royal intrigue, each play features an older man with extraordinary powers and his magical servant; nobles lost amidst nature and falling victim to supernatural forces; encounters with creatures who are half-man, half-beast; and major performance pieces. Shakespeare re-purposed many tropes in his plays, but it’s intriguing that when creating original stories exclusively from his “mother wit” (as opposed to basing them on earlier works), he returned to fundamental elements that reveal his fascination with the mysterious and inexplicable.

Speaking of performance pieces and plays within plays, you could certainly argue (and I have) that Shakespeare’s most famous character, Hamlet, “served as his creator’s mouthpiece on all things related to plays, players, and stagecraft,” and, as such, might also be considered Shakespeare’s most autobiographical character. After all, the melancholy Danish prince, while famously thoughtful and ambivalent about everything else in his life — and willing to weigh the pros and cons of every decision at great length in justifiably renowned soliloquies — is single-minded and emphatic about the ways in which actors must say the lines “set down for them.” In fact, in this particular instance, Hamlet wrote those lines himself, so it’s no wonder he was being so persnickety, and it’s easy to imagine Shakespeare putting into Hamlet’s mouth the exact words he said verbatim to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

But while Hamlet is a part-time playwright and shares with Shakespeare strongly-held views on performance, it’s tough to picture this 30-year-old philosophy student, reluctant revenger, and heir to the Danish throne as a truly autobiographical character.

There is also an undeniably Peter Quince-ish quality to Holofernes in Love’s Labor’s Lost. Holofernes is a schoolmaster, and clearly Shakespeare’s parody of a particularly verbose and pedantic type, but he also fancies himself a poet and possibly a playwright. Like Peter Quince, he produces a show (a pageant of the Nine Worthies), assembling the cast, assigning them roles, and — like Bottom if he’d had his druthers — willing to play at least three of those roles himself. I suspect, however, that Holofernes is not a self-portrait but rather a caricature of men Shakespeare might have known — or might well have become, had not London and the theater beckoned.

One can point to innumerable examples in Shakespeare’s plays reflecting biographical elements in his life (in fact, please do so in the comments). But I like to see both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest as the mirrors Shakespeare held up to reveal his own nature. And while the comedy of the antics of Puck and his fellow fairies, the mixed-up lovers, the marital tensions, the ridiculous threat of death for disobeying one’s father, the questionably consensual infidelity all make A Midsummer Night’s Dream fascinating, I’m sure I’m not the only one who delights in the comic tension of watching the great playwright Peter Quince’s adaptation of “Pyramus and Thisbe” unfold in rehearsal and in performance, and in discovering how and whether the most important audience member, Theseus, will find it “very notably discharged.”

4 Comments


  • I was thinking about the Fool in King Lear. Some of his comments I could imagine would be close to what Shakespeare might be thinking at his most melancholy or wittiest, offering his take on the foolishness of sovereigns and the powerful.

  • I have found a Jesuit source for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As for The Tempest, my article published in The Heythrop Journal in 2016 shows how a Jesuit writing a treatise immediately following the drafting of The Tempest describes himself in terms of Prospero: “A Jesuit Shakespeare?” The Heythrop Journal. 57, no. 5 (September 2016): 770-788 (online: DOI: 10.1111/heyj.12313).

  • Not strictly autobiographical, but Chorus in Henry V gives us explicit insight into how Shakespeare thought about the theatre – its possibilities and practical limitations – while simultaneously providing ‘connective tissue’ for the action of the play. It’s as though Shakespeare says to the audience, “Now, here’s what is going to happen, here’s how I do it, and here’s what you have to do to help make it happen”. I can’t think of where he’s more explicit about theatre craft without a comic overlay. Just a thought.

  • I’m glad Holofernes gets a mention, as Love’s Labour’s Lost also lacks authoritative source material. If I remember correctly, Stephen Greenblatt in Will of the World posits that Shakespeare could have been a schoolmaster for a lord during his “lost years,” which would make the figure a little more autobiographical.

    And let’s not forget Timon, who also orchestrated a production and seems to me to be a bitter autobiographical portrait.


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