Discuss the role of the play-within-a-play in Act V of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Does the Pyramus and Thisbe story have any relevance to the main story, or is it simply a comical interlude? What effect does the craftsmen’s production of their play have on the tone of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a whole?
The story of Pyramus and Thisbe offers a very subtle return to a couple of the main elements of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: lovers caught up in misunderstanding and sorrow enhanced by the darkness of night. Like the main story of the outer play, the inner play consists of a tragic premise made comical by the actors. The craftsmen’s unintentionally goofy portrayal of the woe of Pyramus and Thisbe makes the melodramatic romantic entanglements of the young Athenian lovers seem even more comical.
However, it is important to recognize as well that the inherent structure of a play-within-a-play allows Shakespeare to show off his talent by inserting a gem of pure comedy. The conflicts have been resolved and a happy ending procured for all; the performance, thus, has no impact on the plot. Rather, the craftsmen’s hilarious bungling of the heavy tragedy allows the audience, and the melodramatic Athenian lovers, to laugh and take delight in the spectacle of the play.
How does the play’s broad frame of reference heighten its use of contrast as an atmospheric device? More generally, how does Shakespeare use contrasting tones and characters in the play?
That Shakespeare takes his characters from vastly different sources (e.g., the bumbling, rough craftsmen and the delicate, fanciful fairies) contributes to the imaginative scope and pervasive absurdity of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare combines the contrasting elements of the play in startling and grotesque ways, as in the royal Titania’s love for the ass-headed Bottom. He thus creates the sense that the normal rules and operations of reality have been suspended: if the magical Titania can fall in love with the ludicrous Bottom, anything can happen. The play’s extraordinarily varied frame of reference, which includes elements of Greek mythology (Theseus and Hippolyta), aspects of the contemporary London theatrical tradition (males playing females in the craftsmen’s play), characters of Babylonian origin (Pyramus and Thisbe) and from English fairy lore (Puck), and classical literary analogues (Titania and Oberon), adds to the surreal quality of the play by juxtaposing elements that clash stylistically.
How is A Midsummer Night’s Dream structured? Is there anything unusual in its treatment of the five-act dramatic form?
A Midsummer Night’s Dream fits into four acts all of the material that would normally occupy a five-act play; the main story, climax, and even a period of falling action are capped by a happy turn of events that would seem to mark the play’s end. It is somewhat strange, then, that Shakespeare includes a fifth act. Since he has already resolved the tensions of the main plot, he treats Act V as a joyful comic epilogue. Except for a short closing scene, the act is committed wholly to the craftsmen’s performance of Pyramus and Thisbe. In wrapping up the conflict before the last act, Shakespeare affords himself the opportunity to give the audience one act of pure, uncomplicated comedy. He offers a play-within-a-play whose comical rendition caps the cheerful mood of the Athenians watching the play.
1. Though Bottom often steals the show in performance, Puck is usually considered the most important character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Comparing Puck to Bottom, why might Puck be considered the protagonist? In what way does Puck’s spirit dominate the mood of the play? In what ways does the comedy surrounding Puck differ from that surrounding Bottom?
2. Compare and contrast the Athenian lovers with the craftsmen. In what ways are the dispositions of the two groups different from each other? Are they the same in any way?
3. What role do Theseus and Hippolyta play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream? What is the significance of the fact that they are absent from the play’s main action?
4. It has been argued that the characters of the Athenian lovers are not particularly differentiated from one another—that Hermia is quite like Helena (even down to her name) and that Demetrius resembles Lysander. Do you think that this is the case, or do you think that the lovers emerge as individuals? If you believe that these characters are quite similar to one another, what do you think Shakespeare’s intent was in making them so?
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