How is inversion (audience-spectator) used in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and what is the purpose of the play-within-the-play?

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litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Shakespeare uses inversion when the characters become the audience, and the audience knows more about the play they are performing than the characters do during the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe.

Shakespeare used the device of a play within a play in other works, such as Hamlet.  It is a way for him to hold a mirror up to characters, if they choose to look into it, and to highlight certain themes.  Throughout A Midsummer Night’s Dream we have several subplots going on that have similar themes revolving around love in different forms. 

There is the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta, Athenian royalty, and the struggles of the four young lovers—Lysander, Demetrius, Hermia, and Helena—who are trying to pair up in the proper way.  There is another plot line involving fairies who are arguing and who interfere with the lovers and the actors because they are annoyed that they are in the woods. 

Contrasting with these plots is the comedic but heartfelt struggle of the craftsmen’s attempt to put on their meager production of Pyramus and Thisbe. a tragedy of two young lovers who simply aren’t meant to be together.

Marry, our play is, The Most Lamentable Comedy

and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe. (Act 1, Scene 2)

At the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta, the craftsmen perform their play for all of the other characters in the play.  The audience has watched the young lovers throughout their mishaps, and laughed and cried along with them.  Now, through the inversion technique, Shakespeare allows his audience to watch the characters in the play become an audience themselves while some of the characters—the craftsmen—remain actors playing different roles while the other characters watch.

A play there is, my lord, some ten words long,(65)

Which is as brief as I have known a play;

But by ten words, my lord, it is too long, (Act 5, Scene 1)

The play, of course, is terrible.  The “actors” are not really actors.  They are a carpenter, a joiner, a weaver, a bellows-mender, and a tailor.  They over-act, forget their lines, and just overall make a mess of things.  They give a prologue that is so long that it basically describes everything that happens in the play.  The audience, as well, is not a good audience.  They talk through amongst themselves, engage with the actors, and basically joke their way along.

However, everyone has a good time.  All’s well that ends well.  Shakespeare reminds everyone that in love, you end up with the one you are supposed to end up with (or, I suppose, love the one you’re with).  Perhaps he is reminding his audience that even if the actors are not completely professional, you can still have fun.  The very act of going to a theater is a social activity.  It is an act of enjoying yourself, and being with the ones you care about, and being part of a good story.  Sometimes the lines between audience and actor even get a bit blurred.

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