An online dramaturgical casebook.

The tyrant’s vein

Act 1 scene 2:

BOTTOM: That will ask some tears in the true performing of it: If I do it, let the audience look to their eyes; I will move storms; I will condole in some measure. To the rest:– Yet my chief humour is for a tyrant: I could play Ercles rarely, or a part to tear a cat in, to make all split.

The raging rocks,
And shivering shocks,
Shall break the locks
Of prison gates,
And Phibbus’ car
Shall shine from far,
And make an mar
The foolish fates.

This was lofty!– Now name the rest of the players.– This is Ercles’ vein, a tyrant’s vein; a lover is more condoling.

  • a part to tear a cat in: According to a 1778 edition of Midsummer, “We should read: A part to tear a CAP in. for as a ranting whore was called a tear-sheet, [2d Part of Hen. IV-] so a ranting bully was called a tear-cap. For this reason it is, the poet makes bully Bottom, as he is called afterwards, wish for a part to tear a cap in. And in the ancient plays, the bombast and the rant held the place of the sublime and pathetic : and indeed constituted the very essence of their tragical farces.”

    An 1821 edition says “In the old comedy of The Roaring Girl, 1611, there is a character called Tear-cat, who says : ” I am called, by those who have seen my valour, Tear-cat.” In an anonymous piece called Histriomastix, or the Player Whipt, 1610, in six acts, a parcel of soldiers drag a company of players on the stage, and the captain says : ” Sirrah, this is you that would rend and tear a cat upon a stage,” &c. Again, in The Isle of Gulls, a comedy by J. Day, 1606 : ” I had rather hear two such jests, than a whole play of such Tear-cat thunderclaps.”

  • The raging rocks, etc: The 1821 edition says of these lines “The verses recited by Bottom were probably a quotation from an old play, founded on the labours of Hercules.” Charles Creighton argues that the lines “contain the main ideas of the famous eastern pediment of the Parthenon (lately under his care in the British Museum), showing the birth of Pallas, the patron goddess of Athens …


    In the Homeric Hymn to Pallas (which was not translated into English by Chapman until a good many years after this play was printed) the subject is the same as that of the Parthenon pediment, namely, the circumstances attending the birth of the goddess. The earthquake and the commotion of the sea are first described, with the shaking of Olympus itself and the amazement of the gods and goddesses thereon ; then comes specially the reining in of his horses by Phoebus to watch the convulsion of nature ; but the Fates are not mentioned at all, although their amazement is one of the most significant things in the legend in marble. Whether Shakespeare had seen some model of the Parthenon, or some good print of it and of its principal sculptures, or some other marble showing the birth of Pallas, it does not appear possible to doubt that the great Athenian legend is the subject of the nonsense verses which are given to Bottom to declaim as a specimen of ” ‘Ercles’ vein.”

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