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A Midsummer Night's Dream

by William Shakespeare

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What's an example of garbled language in the play-within-a-play in Act 5 of A Midsummer Night's Dream?

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In act 5 of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the actors in the play-within-a-play tend to botch their attempts at tragic, romantic language, particularly in descriptions.

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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)

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The mechanicals' hilariously botched retelling of the love tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe is packed with garbled language and botched pathos. It is clear that these characters, as passionate as they are about the theater, do not have a full grasp on language and poetry. Still, there is no doubt their dramatic effort is entertaining as well as a sort of metacommentary of the melodrama between the Athenian lovers earlier in the play. Just as the lovers in the mechanicals' play seem ridiculous to both the audience in the play and in the real world, so, too, did the Athenians seem foolish to the faeries and the real-world audience as well.

The scene where Pyramus believes Thisbe to be dead is an excellent parody of tragic poetry, with much in the way of garbled language. Examine Pyramus's description of the moon in line 264: "Sweet moon, I thank thee for thy sunny beams." One might consider it inappropriate to describe moonlight as "sunny." After all, the sun is associated with the day. It is traditionally viewed as the opposite of the moon.

Upon finding Thisbe's bloodied mantle, Pyramus cries out that a lion has "deflowered" his love (line 284). The obvious word choice would have been "devour," since the term deflower refers to the taking of virginity.

Pyramus's death speech is also quite botched (lines 294–298):

Now am I dead,

Now am I fled;

My soul is in the sky:

Tongue, lose thy light;

Moon, take they flight.

It is likely he meant to tell his eyes to lose their light and his soul to take flight (the actor playing Moonshine actually departs when Pyramus flubs this line).

Thisbe also mismatches her descriptions of body parts when she encounters the dead Pyramus (lines 319–324):

Dead, dead? A tomb

Must cover thy sweet eyes.

These lily lips,

This cherry nose,

These yellow cowslip cheeks,

Are gone, are gone.

For example, in most love poetry, lips are red. A red nose tends to be perceived more humorously. Terms such as "yellow cowslip" are not exactly sensuous or romantic either, let alone tragic.

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In the hilarious play within the play presented in Act 5 of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, confusions abound, including the following:

  • Many examples of the use of wrong word choices occur in the prologue (lines 108-117). Examples are here highlighted in bold italics:

QUINCE. If we offend, it is with our good will. [no one offends with good will]
That you should think, we come not to offend,
But with good will. To show our simple skill, [see previous comment]
That is the true beginning of our end. [the phrasing here seems oxymoronic]
Consider then we come but in despite. [ironically, this means “in ill will”]
We do not come as minding to content you, [the sentence structure of this and of the next half line is garbled]
Our true intent is. All for your delight
We are not here
. [this whole sentence is self-contradictory] That you should here repent you, [“repent” is inappropriate]
The actors are at hand and by their show 
You shall know all that you are like to know.
[this should say something like, “you will know all that you like to know”; instead it means “you will know all that you are likely to know”]

Quince’s prologue is a perfect example of the way language and meaning are mangled in the play within the play. It is precisely such mangling that helps make this interlude so funny.

  • Further misuse of words occurs a bit later, in lines 188-193:

Flute. [as Thisbe] O wall, full often hast thou heard my moans, 
For parting my fair Pyramus and me! 
My cherry lips have often kiss'd thy stones,
[“kissed they stones” can be read as having an obscene meaning]
Thy stones with lime and hair knit up in thee. [these words only enhance the obscene connotations of the preceding line]

Bottom. I see a voice: now will I to the chink, [it’s impossible to “see” a voice]
To spy an I can hear my Thisby's face. Thisby!
[it’s impossible to “hear” a face]

In passages such as these, Shakespeare demonstrates his genius by writing lines so awfully bad that they seem awfully good.





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