The Play Within The Play In Midsummer Night's Dream

Discuss the play within the play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


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Ans. The Play-within-the Play: This play within a play is therefore used by Shakespeare to make a subtle point about theatre, namely the fact that it is only acting. The Mechanicals like to perform a play at Theseus’ wedding. Theseus is an enlightened ruler, notable for his wise judgement but there is a limit to his abilities: the problem Egeus gives him seems incapable of solution, so he tries to buy time and work on Egeus and Demetrius. But there seems little hope that the “harsh Athenian law” will produce a solution acceptable to all parties.


In this play the apparently anarchic tendencies of the young lovers, of the mechanicals-as-actors, and of Puck are restrained by the “Sharp Athenian Law” and the law of the Palace Wood, by Theseus and Oberon, and their respective consorts. This tension within the world of the play is matched in its construction: in performance it can at times seem riotous and out of control, and yet the structure of the play shows a clear interest in symmetry and patterning.


Confronted by the “sharp” law of Athens, and not wishing to obey it, Lysander thinks of escape. But he has no idea that the wood, which he sees merely as a rendezvous before he and Hermia fly to his aunt, has its own law and ruler. As Theseus is compromised by his own law, so is Oberon. Theseus wishes to overrule Egeus, but knows that his own authority derives from the law, that this cannot be set aside when it does not suit the ruler’s wishes. He does discover a merciful provision of the law which Egeus has overlooked (for Hermia to choose “the livery of a nun”) but hopes to persuade Demetrius to relinquish his claim, insisting that Hermia take time before choosing her fate. The lovers’ difficulties are made clear by the law of Athens, but arise from their own passions: thus, when they enter the woods, they take their problems with them. Oberon is compromised because his quarrel with Titania has caused him and her to neglect their duties: Oberon, who should rule firmly over the entire fairy kingdom cannot rule in his own domestic arrangements. We see how each ruler, in turn, resolves this problem, without further breaking of his law.

In the love relationships of Theseus and Hippolyta, of Oberon and Titania and of the two pairs of young lovers, we see love which, in a manner appropriate to the status and character of the lovers, is idealized eventually. The duke and his consort have had their quarrel before the action of the play begins, but Shakespeare’s choice of mythical ruler means the audience well knows the “sword” and “injuries” referred to in 1.2; we see the resolution of the fairies’ quarrel and that of the lovers during the play, and all is happy at its end. But whereas the rulers resolve their own problems, as befits their maturity and status, the young lovers are not able to do so, and this task is shared by Oberon and Theseus. Oberon orders Puck to keep Lysander and Demetrius from harming each other, and Theseus confirms their wishes as he overbears Egeus’ will. He is not now breaking his own law, because Demetrius cannot be compelled to marry against his will.


A ridiculous parallel case of young lovers so subject to passion that, after disobeying their parents’ law, they take their own lives, is provided by Pyramus and Thisbe. Lysander and Demetrius laugh at the mechanicals’ exaggerated portrayal of these unfortunates, but the audience has seen the same excessive passion in earnest from these two.

If Lysander breaks – or evades – the Athenian law knowingly, then the mechanicals break the law of the wood unwittingly. Puck’s conversation with the first fairy in 2.1, makes clear that the wood is where Oberon and Titania keep their court, though they travel further afield. (Oberon, according to Titania, has come “from the farthest steep of India” because of the marriage of his favourite to Theseus, while the Fairy Queen has also been in India with the mother of her changeling.)


In the end we can conclude that 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.


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