The play A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Williams Shakespeare contains two distinctly different subplots within the lager structure of itself, which can be considered as a remarkable characteristic of the dramatic construction in general and of Shakespeare’s play in particular. Although Shakespeare borrows the themes, characters and stories from the history of the ancient Greece and Greek mythology, the play-within-a-play structure shows his creations and his own work. The play-within-a-play structure serves the function of recapping many important themes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and allows Shakespeare to comment on the nature of art as well as criticize the acting of amateurs who perform and play on the stage yet do not understand what they actually do.
The first play-within-a-play is a performance of Pyramus and Thisbe played by the laborers. It is similar to the main play in many aspects including commons in the story of the Athenian lovers and some of the overall themes. Pyramus and Thisbe face parental disapproval in the subplot just like the couple Lysander and Hermia do in the main plot. Despite its dramatic premise, the craftsmen play the love story of Pyramus and Thisbe in such a comical way that parodies the melodramatic Athenian lovers and gives the play a very joyful and comical ending. The role played by the darkness of night creates another similarity as it causes the romantic confusion in both plays. Pyramus, in the dark of the night, mistakenly believes that Thisbe has been killed by the lion when he sees her bloody mantle; he, thus, commits suicide because of this misinterpretation. Likewise, the mix-ups and meddling of the love fairy Puck cause the Athenian lovers face a miserable situation, which also happens at night in the wood. Though the performance of the craftsmen makes the Athenian lovers’ story which involves strong emotions become comical and hilarious, the sub play serves as symbol for the larger play itself. It is explained while the lovers and Theseus and Hippolyta are mocking the ridiculous performance of the laborers, the audiences watching the lovers watch the craftsmen’s play are concurrently aware of the lovers’ own absurdity.
Moreover, the play-within-a-play of the craftsmen suggests the strict requirements and the limit of the theatre. The workmen establish a very unlikely dramatic troupe. All of these characters appear comical because of their superficial characteristics and personal traits. They bumble, mispronounce words, and play the part of the fools. These untutored craftsmen are worried about their new dramatic roles for Pyramus, Thisbe, a wall, a lion, and a moon since none of them has had a previous acting experience. In spite of their preoccupation, the leader of the troupe Quince fails to help the actors correct their pronunciation and master important techniques for dramatic performance. During the rehearsal time, instead, he only tries to match the actors in hope that they will play out. On one hand, the play-within-a-play is offered as a comic interlude to display Shakespeare’s creativity. One the other hand, the sub play helps the audiences understand some of the overall themes in the main play. That is, the play does not clearly explain how the craftsmen come together and how or by whom they are selected to be worthy to play. These characters and the sub play they perform exist to raise questions about the fitness for acting a certain role in a play. The issue of whom is worthy to putting on a play is also one of the concerns in the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Another aspect of this issue comprising who is responsible for bringing a play to the audiences or what thoughts and actions are proper in order to bring a play to stage should be also concerned. The conversations among the craftsmen-actors in which they argue whether they can bring an actual wall to stage and conclude that it is impossible to carry out demonstrate this point.
Another play which can be considered as a second play-within-a-play is written by the Oberon, the King of all fairies. He creates a play in which the mortals are the performers. Marriage and reconciliation are the means for resolving all conflicts. In Oberon’s play, Helena gets her love, Lysander and Hermia stays together, and Titania has a lesson of obedience. As the workmen turn the tragic drama of the Athenian lovers into a comic farce by their awful performance, Oberon does the same when his fairy Puck accidentally put the love potion on eyes of the wrong Athenian man. This mistake causes the Athenian lovers experience an intensive misery, which also creates a comical situation. Similar to the first play-within-a-play, the second serves an important role to signify the larger play.
In “What hempen home-spuns have we swagg’ring here?” Amateur Actors in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Coventry Civic Play and Pageants, Clifford Davidson discusses the play-within-a-play structure and its purpose. He indicates that the play-within-a-play raises questions of imagination and stage reality (Davidson 87). Also, the author argues that Shakespeare uses this structure to parody the older dramatic styles of the public theaters fashionable when they tended to use the bombastic language and clumsily use the mythological subjects in their performance (Davidson 88). Above that, Davidson points out a very important issue that Shakespeare makes a comparison between the inadequate of the acting amateurs and the highly professional work conducted by his own company through the parody with the acting of the craftsmen in the subplot (88). According to the author, however, Shakespeare seems to have a negative view on the play and the players in many provincial cities and towns, which probably can cause severe misrepresentation about the quality of the amateur actors or companies (96). Davidson explains that by saying that “for the spectacles that cities like Coventry were able to mount were surely not so rough and “amateurish” as we might imagine” or “the quality of the production were surely much, much higher that Shakespeare’s play-within-a-play in A Midsummer Night’ Dream would seem to suggest” (96).
The play-within-a-play is analyzed studied from a different point of view in the article The Act of Change in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Alan Bellringer explores the art of acting which he claims is “a valid part of the art of living” and its importance (213). He asserts that “the sub plot about the Athenian workmen’s underserved success in the amateur dramatic competition is thematically relevant and supportive” (Bellringer 213). On the other hand, the author sees acting and plays as a mean for normal, simple and blundering people like the character Bottom to “escape from their stereotyped tradesmen’s personalities through their imaginative art of drama, the world of ‘shadows’”. Through the play and acting, these craftsmen-actors can “briefly change their status in life” and “find fulfillment in their new-found importance as actors”. Regardless of “a mere matter of talented extrovertism”, Bellringer compliments the performance of the craftsmen for their contribution to the success of the play even though it is intended as a ridiculous performance used to satirize the dramatic play of Pyramus and Thisbe and turn it into a comical play (215). He stresses the dynamism as the essential quality of this comedy and states that the purpose of play-within-a-play is about the “use of change” or the “amendment of life” (Bellringer 217).
The play-within-a-play structure recaps the principles themes and ideas of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and has a significant contribution as a representation of the main play. The similarities in the sub play clarify the overall scheme. It also serves as a tool for Shakespeare’s creative work and a mean for the audiences to distinguish between the fiction and reality and realize the nature of art in theatre.
Bellringer, “The Act of Change in a Midsummer Night’s Dream”. English Studies 64.3 (1983): 201-17. International Bibliography of Theatre & Dance. Wed. 10 Apr. 2014.
Davidson, Clifford. “”What hempen home-spuns have we swagg’ring here?” Amateur Actors in a Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Coventry Civic Plays and Pageants”. Shakespeare Studies 19 (1987): 87-96. International Bibliography of Theatre & Dance. Wed. 10 Apr. 2014.