Illustration of a donkey-headed musician in between two white trees

A Midsummer Night's Dream

by William Shakespeare

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How does observing Theseus, Hippolyta, and the lovers enhance our understanding of the audience-performer relationship in the context of the 'rude mechanicals'?

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Theseus choses the rude mechanicals's play because, as he puts it, the play sounds as if it mixes together opposite:

“Merry” and “tragical”? “Tedious” and “brief”?
That is hot ice and wondrous strange snow.

He also notes that nothing performed by simple, earnest-hearted people can be all bad, which tells us that he is a ruler who appreciates the little person and wants some light-hearted entertainment, no matter if poorly done. He continues to say he prefers sincerity over a polished performance. Hippolyta protests she doesn't want to bring the mechanicals out just to laugh at them and make cruel fun of them, but Theseus reassures her that is not the point.

Throughout the play-within-a-play, the on-stage audience's interaction guides us as viewers in how to see and interpret what the rude mechanicals are doing. For instance, Quince's prologue invites commentary from Theseus, Hippolyta, and Lysander on the problems of mistakes in punctuation and how this can impact meaning. As Bottom, playing Pyramus, steps out of character to address the audience directly, and Thisbe, played by Flute, explains that their lips aren't touching as she kisses Pyramus through the hole in the wall, the audience becomes more prone to interact directly with the onstage characters. When the guests are critical of the quality of the play, this give Theseus the chance to explain the true relationship between the audience and the actors and their play:

The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them.
As the audience realizes they need to use their imaginations, they are able to enter more fully into the spirit of the play—this, as Shakespeare implies, is what we as an audience should do with any play. The generous but honest reaction of the audience helps us to feel the same generosity. We can choose, as they do, to enter into the spirit of the performance and find enjoyment where we can. Through this shorter play, Shakespeare teaches us that any play is created through the interaction of the actors and the imagination of the viewer.
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When you observe a play, you may or may not understand how well the characters know one another through the script alone. When they listen or comment (unbenownst to the other performers), you might learn subtle insights into the true feelings of certain characters as opposed to the feelings they express openly to the same characters. If there is an undertone of strife or hypocrisy, you can gain understanding through the reactions of characters who are listening in on other characters.

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