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A Midsummer Night's Dream Play Within a Play: Analysis

Instructor: Dori Starnes

Dori has taught college and high school English courses, and has Masters degrees in both literature and education.

The play, 'Pyramus and Thisbe,' with its tale of doomed lovers, is included in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' for many reasons. It not only gives authenticity to the setting and furthers the comedy, it serves as a warning as to how terribly wrong things could have gone for the characters in the main play.

A Terrible Play

Did you ever watch something so bad, you just had to laugh? That is the way the play Pyramus and Thisbe within Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is received. Bad titles, terrible acting, and a depressing storyline all combine to make the performance a disaster. And yet, the play-within-a-play serves some very specific purposes. This lesson will focus on analysis of this play with the main play, A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Pyramus and Thisbe

The play Pyramus and Thisbe is put on by ''the mechanicals,'' a group of tradesmen who are actors in their spare time, led, in title alone, by Peter Quince, a carpenter. In actuality, the play-within-a-play is driven by Nick Bottom, a weaver, who is obviously used to getting the main roles (in this case, he plays the title character Pyramus.) Bottom goes on to have a major part in the action of the larger play as well, when he is the unwitting victim of King of the Fairies, Oberon, when seeking revenge on his wife, Queen Titania.

Pyramus and Thisbe is a tragic tale of doomed lovers
Pyramus and Thisbe is a tragic tale of doomed lovers

Pyramus and Thisbe is the story of two lovers who are kept apart by their parents. They try to arrange an elopement, but tragedy intervenes. Thinking Thisbe has been mauled by a lion (Pyramus finds her bloody cape left behind,) Pyramus commits suicide. Then Thisbe, who has escaped from the lion, finds her lover's body. She kills herself.

The mechanicals perform the play (badly) in front of the lovers Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius, and Duke Theseus and his bride, Hippolyta, at their triple wedding.

Within the larger context of the play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, the actors'/mechanicals' portrayal of Pyramus and Thisbe serves several purposes.

Function as a Classic Tale

Does the plot of the play-within-a-play sound familiar? Well, it should. It's the basis Shakespeare used for his most famous tragedy, Romeo and Juliet.

The original story of Pyramus and Thisbe is told in the Roman Ovid's, Metamorphoses, first published in 8 AD but based on an even earlier oral myth (most likely from a Greek source, as so much of what became Roman mythology was.) Chaucer told it in 1380 in his The Legend of Good Women, where he devotes a chapter to Thisbe. In 1562, Arthur Brooke wrote A Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, which became Shakespeare's source for Romeo and Juliet about 30 years later.

Pyramus and Thisbe first appeared in writing in 8 AD by Ovid
Pyramus and Thisbe first appeared in writing in 8 AD by Ovid

Shakespeare's inclusion of this story in A Midsummer Night's Dream is partly because it echoed these classic tales. The action in A Midsummer Night's Dream is set in ancient Athens, and the use of an ancient Greek tale within the play added to the authenticity of the setting.

Function as Comedy

The inclusion of the play-within-the-play serves to further the comedy of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The title of the play, which is introduced as A Tedious Brief Scene of Young Pyramus and His Love Thisbe, A Very Tragical Mirth is full of oxymorons. And even Peter Quince himself, when telling the others about the play, calls it 'The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe'. The titles are designed to make us chuckle and take the depressing themes in Pyramus and Thisbe a bit less seriously.

The play is also performed badly, with the actors speaking out of turn, and the lovers and Duke freely commentating on the acting and the play itself. While some of the bad performance is understandable, as the lead actor had a donkey's head and was missing for the majority of the rehearsals, the rest is done for the pure comedic value.

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