What function do the meta-theatrical moments in the play serve, and how do they challenge the connection between performance and "real" life?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The attachment of a Greek prefix [meta-]before theatre carries with it much import as it suggests the magnitude of the ancient dramas that wrought catharis (purging of pity and fear) and great audience involvement. Certainly, too, the meta-theatrical moments in A Midsummer Night's Dream take the audience to a level "meta"/beyond the dimensions of real life, thus expanding the understanding of the audience as well as adding multi-meanings.

Here are three methods of metatheatre wherein the play comments upon itself:

 1. The play within a play and a role within a role.

  • The hilarious episodes with the rustic guildsmen who, in their efforts to impress and entertain the Duke with a classic play of their own, create instead a parody of Pyramus and Thisbe, pointing to the farcical actions of the aristocratic lovers. For instance, the actual wall that the "rude mechanicals" construct between the lovers is a man pretending to be a wall signifying how the lovers build walls among themselves. Perhaps, more than this symbolic meaning, the parody represents one of bad theatre with Shakespeare examining his own art. As Theseus and Hippolyta watch, the mechanicals, they remark,

HIP. This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard.
THE. The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them.
HIP. It must be your imagination then, and not theirs. (5.1)

Thus, the audience comes to realize that the transformational power of art lies in the capacity of the imagination of the audience to bring the possible to a level in which it can become reality.

  • Bottom's role within a role connects the self-delusion of some of the amateur acting groups of Shakespeare's time--Bottom says to Snout, "What do you see? you see an ass-head of your own, do you?"(3.1.). 

2. A fourth dimension that breaks through the dimensions of the play by making reference to reality. Commentary by a chorus or a character becomes essential to the play as it reminds the readers of reality. 

  • In Shakespeare's romantic comedy reality is destablized by the fairy world. This substructure of fairies acts as a bridge between the night world of dreams of the humans and their erratic actions in daylight. Marjorie Garber, a literary critic, describes Puck as the "principal actor and agent" in a "world of enchantment, magic, music, and mischief." For, it is Puck who whisks around sprinkling love potions onto eyes (2.1), and creating havoc when he inadvertently puts the love drops onto Lysander (2.2) instead of Demetrius. Yet, he does set things right by doling out to the lovers (except Demetrius) the antidote (3.2).

Additionally, Puck comments to the audience, "O what fools these mortals be!" (3.2). Then, at the end of the play, he apologizes to the audience,

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbr'ed here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding than a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.

Puck also suggests the power of the imagination and its ability to elicit the benefits of Nature.

3. Arguably the most modern idea involving Metatheatre is that of Stuart Davis:

"Metatheatre" is a convenient name for the quality or force in a play which challenges theatre's claim to be simply realistic -- to be nothing but a mirror in which we view the actions and sufferings of characters like ourselves, suspending our disbelief in their reality.

In this definition, there is support for the theme of "Love as a Madness" resulting from the moon that bewitches. Certainly, in this romantic comedy, "the course of love never did run smooth" as lovers disobey parents, a young woman pursues her beloved while he follows someone else. The queen of the fairies argues with her king and magically falls in love with a rustic whose head looks like that of a donkey.

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A Midsummer Night's Dream

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