What literary elements are used in act 5, scene 1 of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream?

The play-within-a-play in A Midsummer Night's Dream is a parody of the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. The ways that it is self-referential (Shakespeare manipulating his own literary procedures) and how this mirrors what is going on in the main plot (participants in the play are engaged in illusion) demonstrate Shakespeare's central theme of illusion, which permeates the entire play.

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The scene consists largely of a play within a play. In order to pass the rest of the night Theseus and Hippolyta have the workmen perform a version of the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. The entertainment that is produced is intended to be like a masque, the type of...

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The scene consists largely of a play within a play. In order to pass the rest of the night Theseus and Hippolyta have the workmen perform a version of the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. The entertainment that is produced is intended to be like a masque, the type of courtly festive play popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

In this case the play-within-play format becomes a kind of parody or satire. The players give a clumsy, comical performance of a story from mythology about the tragic deaths of two lovers. Shakespeare seems to be satirizing not only the genre of the masque, but the Pyramus and Thisbe story itself, and perhaps by extension, the situations that typically occur in ancient myth. Theseus and Hippolyta are amused by the performance and make comical observations during it.

On one level the action of the scene is self-referential. Having the players enact a separate play inside, so to speak, the main one is a device typically used in the Elizabethan theatre (the most famous example would come several years after this play, in Hamlet). So Shakespeare is in effect manipulating and commenting on the literary procedures of his time. But the scene is also a microcosm of the larger message of A Midsummer Night's Dream itself. The whole play is about illusion and how our lives are interwoven with it. The performance by the "mechanicals," though like all of theatre it is based on illusion, is a kind of simplified and comical version of Shakespeare's overall theme that runs through the play.

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A few literary elements that we see in the fifth act are rhetorical schemes and different types of figurative language.

One rhetorical scheme we see Shakespeare making use of in the fifth act is wording repetition. We especially see wording repetition when we notice that Quince's prologue to the mechanicals' play within the play opens in the exact same way that Puck's closing monologue opens. Quince's prologue begins with the line, "If we offend, it is with our good will" while Puck's closing monologue begins, "If we shadows have offended / Think but this, and all is mended" (V.i.115, 418). The repetition of the word "offend" allows the reader to see that, characteristic of his wit, Puck is mocking the mechanicals while at the same time relaying a truth to make amends with Shakespeare's audience.

We also see Shakespeare using figurative language in this act by mixing up word order and meaning. Shakespeare especially uses this scheme in Quince's prologue to show us how little Quince knows about memorizing lines, delivery, or even the meaning of words. Typical of his character, Quince mixes up both word order and meaning in several of his lines. We especially see this in his lines, "To show our simple skill, / That is the true beginning of our end" (). An end is a final goal or result. Hence, what Quince really means to say is that their true goal or end is to "show [their] simple skill," and it does not make sense to refer to their goal as the "beginning of our end." If we were to reword these lines in a way that truly does make sense, we would have something like, "To show our simple skill/ That is the true end of our performance." Thus, we see that not only did Shakespeare put the word "end" in the wrong place, he gave it an entirely different meaning. Mixing up word order and meaning like this is a type of figurative language, or trope. In particular, this type of trope is a catachresis in which the wording creates impossible and nonsensical meaning (Dr. Wheeler, "Tropes").

A final type of figurative language, or trope, we see Shakespeare use in this act is simile. We see an example of a simile after Quince performs, or rather butchers, his prologue, and the other characters begin criticizing it. In particular, Hippolyta compares Quince's performance to the performance of a child playing on a recorder, or other musical instrument, who does not actually know how to play, as we see in her simile, "Indeed he hath play'd on this prologue like a child on a recorder" (129-130). In other words, this simile shows us that neither Quince nor a child actually know what he/she is doing.

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