The garbled meaning of the play-within-a-play that the “rude mechanicals” perform at the wedding feast of Theseus and Hippolyta in act 5 begins with carpenter Peter Quince’s description of the play itself as
the most lamentable comedy,
and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe.
(act 1, scene 2, lines 11–12)
This somewhat nonsensical, oxymoronic description of the play as a “lamentable comedy” is reflected as “tragical mirth” in the “brief” (5.1.46) that Philostrate, the Master of the Revels, gives to Theseus, from which Theseus chooses the after-supper entertainment.
THESUES: A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus
And his love Thisbe; very tragical mirth.
(act 5, scene 1, lines 60–61)
Theseus chooses to see the play about Pyramus and Thisbe almost by default, since Theseus considers the other choices as “not sorting with [not appropriate for] a nuptial ceremony” (5.1.59).
In due time, Peter Quince enters and introduces the play in what is essentially a parody of the prologues that Shakespeare and his contemporaries wrote for many of their own plays.
PROLOGUE: If we offend, it is with our good will.
That you should think, we come not to offend,
But with good will.
(act 5, scene 1, lines 115–117)
The language of Pyramus and Thisbe is garbled, sometimes beyond comprehension, but the traditional roles of actor and audience are also confused. Shakespeare toys with the concept of metatheatre, not only with the play-within-a-play itself but when Nick Bottom, as Pyramus, breaks the “fourth wall” to address Theseus and to instruct Theseus about what Bottom perceives as Theseus’s misunderstanding of the nature of a play.
THESEUS: The wall, methinks, being sensible, should curse
PYRAMUS: No, in truth, sir, he should not. Deceiving me is
Thisbe's cue. She is to enter now, and I am to spy her
through the wall. You shall see it will fall pat as I told
you; yonder she comes.
(act 5, scene 1, lines 187–192)
The levels of metatheatre include the play of A Midsummer Night’s Dream itself, the play of Pyramus and Thisbe, and Bottom’s breaking of the “fourth wall” of the play-within-a-play within the play of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
As the play progresses, the garbled dialogue of Pyramus and Thisbe gives way to what might be considered the garbled dialogue of Theseus, Lysander, Demetrius, and Hippolyta, who get caught up in fractured metaphors, horrendous puns, and other tortured wordplay made at the expense of the “rude mechanicals” and their presentation of Pyramus and Thisbe.
The onstage audience to Pyramus and Thisbe and the audience to A Midsummer Night’s Dream are spared an epilogue to the play-within-a-play, but Shakespeare takes the opportunity to give Puck an epilogue to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which he reminds the audience that they have been watching a play:
PUCK: That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream.
(act 5, scene 1, lines 420–423)