What is the function of the play within a play in A Midsummer Night's Dream?

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The Mechanicals’ performance of Pyramus and Thisbe in William Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream serves two primary functions.

The first function of the play within a play is comedic. Bottom is one of the most loved characters in the play for good reason! Watching the bumbling artisans, who...

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The Mechanicals’ performance of Pyramus and Thisbe in William Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream serves two primary functions.

The first function of the play within a play is comedic. Bottom is one of the most loved characters in the play for good reason! Watching the bumbling artisans, who believe themselves to be talented actors, trying to string together a coherent performance for the royal wedding is riotously funny. The hyperbolic power struggle between Bottom and Peter Quince leads to increasingly ridiculous suggestions from the amateur cast members. For example, look at this exchange from Act I, as Bottom attempts to persuade his friends that he can play all the characters of Pyramus and Thisbe simultaneously, including a lion.

BOTTOM
Let me play the lion too: I will roar, that I will
do any man's heart good to hear me; I will roar,
that I will make the duke say 'Let him roar again,
let him roar again.

QUINCE
An you should do it too terribly, you would fright
the duchess and the ladies, that they would shriek;
and that were enough to hang us all.

The dramatic irony here is wonderful. The Mechanicals are worried that they are so skilled at acting that they will scare the royal ladies and be executed for their acting prowess! The audience of A Midsummer Night’s Dream finds similar exchanges between the Mechanicals comedic because of this irony.

A second, more nuanced function of the play within a play is to mirror the plight of Lysander and Hermia. The story that the Mechanicals adapt for their performance is based on a tale from Ovid, where two lovers fall in love against the wishes of their parents, elope, and kill themselves in the forest over a misunderstanding. Pyramus and Thisbe’s initial situation is not all that different from that of Lysander and Hermia. In the opening scene, Lysander and Hermia also decide to elope to escape the disapproval of the Duke and their families over their love affair. The consequences of this decision were dire, and without the magical intervention of the fairies, the play might have ended on a much more tragic note for these lovers. The echoes of Pyramus and Thisbe in the plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream remind the audience that love does not always end happily.

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Although the action of A Midsummer Night's Dream takes place in an enchanted fairy tale forest, Shakespeare nonetheless wants his play to have the ring of truth about it in terms of its presentation of love and emotion. The tale of Pyramus and Thisbe fulfills this function admirably as it is an ancient story passed down from generation to generation, imparting much valuable wisdom down through the ages. The play, though ineptly performed by Bottom and his troupe of "mechanicals" does at least contain enough of a moral message to give Hermia and Lysander an insight into the potential pitfalls of the love they have for each other.

The play-within-a-play also serves the valuable function of commenting on the main characters, highlighting just how absurd the two love-birds have been throughout the course of the play. (That is the main play, A Midsummer Night's Dream). Hermia and Lysander may find the mechanicals' bungling antics a source of amusement, but in actual fact, they're really laughing at themselves. Even if they don't gain a useful insight into their own characters by this uniquely bad staging of Pyramus and Thisbe, we the audience most certainly do.

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The play of Pyramus and Thisbe is important to A Midsummer Night’s Dream because it provides a parallel plot of comic relief and silliness that also underscores the themes of the play.

In a way, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is two plays.  About half the play consists of the Craftsman, or “mechanicals” attempting to put on a play called Pyramus and Thisbe for the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta.  The Craftsman have no theatrical experience and very little education, and Nick Bottom often prevents them from getting anything done, but they do their best.

Philostrate sees the play rehearsed, and is convinced that while it is laughingly bad, it is not proper wedding entertainment.  The play is only ten words long.

But by ten words, my lord, it is too long,

Which makes it tedious; for in all the play

There is not one word apt, one player fitted. (Act 5, Scene 1, p. 67)

Philostrate says that the play brought tears of laughter to his eyes, and Theseus chooses it because it is not too serious or common.  The plot of the play involves two lovers who cannot be together, just as Hermia and Lysander are being separated.  Through a misunderstanding, Pyramus ends up killing himself because he thinks Thisbe was killed, and then Thisbe kills herself when she finds Pyramus.

The main plot lovers’ quarrels do not end in disaster, but they almost did.  After Puck anointed the wrong Athenian youth, trouble happened.  Demetrius and Lysander were fighting over Helena, and almost killed each other.  It was only because Oberon intervened and put a stop to the madness that they made it out unscathed and the pairs of lovers were properly reunited.

The final act of the play weaves both plots together, and shows that even with misunderstanding things can end well as long as we stick it out, but love can be tough.

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The "play-within-a-play" concept was one Shakespeare used often (see "Hamlet" and "Love's Labor's Lost"). The play in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" has a few functions.

First of all, it provides a bit of relief after the entire play--a chance for the audience to take a look at something completely inane and funny, which is ironic because one might consider that the lovers in the forest might have been acting a bit inane and silly as well.

IT also cements the relationships between Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius, Hippolyta and Theseus and Titania and Oberon--they are in contrast to the doomed love of Pyramus and Thisbe.

Shakespeare also put the awfully produced play in Act Five of his play in contrast to his--he hopes that the audience will receive his play better than the mechanicals' play is received by the lovers. However, it could also be Shakespeare indicating that the audience shouldn't take "A Midsummer Night's Dream" too seriously. This connects with Puck's epilogue--"We we spirits have offended/think but this and all is mended..." It's up to you to make the call on this part.

Hope this helps!

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