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.
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.