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

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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.

Read the study guide:
A Midsummer Night's Dream

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