Why have a play within the play?

Revisiting Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dreamlast night, after having not read it since high school, left me to ponder an important aspect of the play that I hadn’t realized six years earlier: what is the significance of having a play within the play? The very first time I read the late-sixteenth-century comedy, I was merely entertained by the ragtag troupe’s amusing performance of “Pyramus and Thisbe,” appreciating it as a humorous addition to an already whimsical and lighthearted production. Peter Quince’s gang of “actors” is utterly ridiculous; at first glance, they could be perceived as little to nothing more than comic relief among the two other, more intricate, plots of the play.

Looking deeper, however, there might be more than meets the eye. I made a connection between A Midsummer Night’s Dream and two other major plays by Shakespeare—Hamlet and The Taming of the Shrew—both of which feature the peculiar literary device of a play within the play. Clearly, there is a reason why Shakespeare uses this technique repeatedly in his works. What’s unclear, at least to me, is what that reason is exactly. (I admit I haven’t had the time to review the play within Hamlet before this blog post, and I won’t cheat by posting a summary from Wikipedia, but I do remember it as being quite significant to the plot.) The most interesting use of this device though, in my opinion, is in The Taming of the Shrew, where the entire play itself is framed within the plot of a drunken Christopher Sly being tricked into thinking he is of nobility. Though, in this particular instance, the subplot featuring Sly has nothing to do with the action of the play itself, it could have been used to relate to the audience in some way, possibly by bringing an actor in character into the audience as “one of them” watching the play unfold. It must have been amusing, and a rather realistic experience, to the Globe Theater’s audience to have a drunken Sly among them, stumbling and slurring about.

Returning to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the frame play takes on a different role as it is housed within the larger, main play. Here, it is more of a supplement plot, but as I said earlier, it still retains significance. As we discussed in class, Shakespeare was a professional actor and playwright, and he valued the input and teamwork of his fellow actors. Trial-and-error was no doubt a large part in the compositional process of a play, and one could only imagine how painstaking it must have been to get all the parts exactly right, not to mention working together. Granted, Shakespeare most likely worked entirely with professional actors who took their roles seriously at all times, but doesn’t Peter Quince’s acting troupe almost seem like a lighthearted tribute to the whole creative process of constructing a play? I feel that Shakespeare very often dropped tributes to himself as a playwright as well as the creative process as a whole within his works; an example of which is the character Prospero in The Tempest, who is often believed to be the characterization of Shakespeare himself. I can’t help but believe that the motley crew of tradesmen-actors is his cheeky nod to the tedious-in-real-life process of writing a successful play.
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5 thoughts on “Why have a play within the play?

  1. Barbara Gallagher

    Good post! If I am to give my humble opinion, I think the "play within the play" (or even the prologue to the actual play which is at the end of the play) gives Shakespeare an opportunity to use wordplay, give the audience an opportunity to identify with some of the characters, and provide a contrast in the way the aristocrats and fairies speak and the way common people speak. Often the characters will use it. For example, when Bottom calls "the flowers odious" instead of sweet-smelling, when Flute inadvertently calls Ninus' tomb "Ninny's tomb," or when Quince says Bottom is a "very paramour for a sweet voice" instead of "paragon." In addition, much of the audience would identify with the characters of Bottom, Snug, Flute Snout, Starveling, and Quince, and maybe even feel superior to them. Furthermore, all of the characters in the play speak not only a common language, but they also speak prose, unlike the aristocrats and the fairies, who mostly speak in heroic couplets or at least end-rhymes.

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  2. Christina Lee

    I had questions about this as well. Why compose a play within a play? Your analysis of Shakespeare's previous profession as an actor, truly does play a large part in creating this multifaceted world. I also like the above comment about the whole views of the fairies and how they view the marriage. But this play speaks volumes about the type of love and marriage relationship that you are suppose to have during these times. It seems as if Shakespeare is being a rebel thorough his art by showing the power behind move being part of marriage. However, I also believe that this play was written as to foreshadow the events that are to follow. During Shakespeare's time, the audience would have known that this is a tragic play about forbidden love. Skewing it and making it such that it is going to be played by a bunch of fairies and badly at that tells the audience that this is going to be a comedy about forbidden love that will not end in tragedy.

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  3. Kelly Prendergast

    I like that you discuss the play from the point of view of a writer, rather than merely examine the general literary elements and themes that are traditionally discussed. I think that your ideas about Shakespeare's habit of dropping "tributes to himself as a playwright" are interesting. It seems that oftentimes Shakespeare's plays are analyzed based on the view from the audience and searched for time period-relevant information that would help to understand the underlying themes present to audience members. However, your post highlights a new perspective; Shakespeare's addition of inside jokes and underlying themes relevant to himself and the creative process. If you analyze his plays through this lens, it seems to emphasize Shakespeare's role as an author/playwright and, in a way, humanizes a man that is put on such a high pedestal. When you look through this lens, it highlights Shakespeare's voice throughout the writing, giving the reader more of a sense of Shakespeare as a man cleverly inserting his own inside jokes into his plays. Because so much of his plays are analyzed based on how they would be received by the audience of the time (including the current events that would influence how it would be received), it's interesting to think instead of how Shakespeare would amuse himself in the audience watching his play performed, and laughing at his own inside jokes and nods to his creative process.

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  4. Cyrus Mulready

    You raise some great points here, Tom, about the use of plays within plays throughout Shakespeare. I agree that these are notable examples of the playwright examining his own art form. I'd like to make a different suggestion about the "mechanicals'" play, though–what if we viewed this as a professional playwright like Shakespeare having some fun pointing to the silliness of amateurs? Perhaps Shakespeare was propping up his art by tearing down the lame attempts of others? This still underlines your main point, that the play within the play ultimately touches upon an attempt by Shakespeare to show off his abilities.

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  5. Erika Pumilia

    Tom, you know I have to be honest, I was thinking about this exact thing. At first as I was reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I was thinking, "how strange it is for Shakespeare to write a story like this and include a "mini" play in it". I can't help but wonder if Shakespeare is doing this because it is something that he knows about. I mean the man is after all writing wonderful plays and how often do we find ourselves writing about things that we love and are quite knowledgeable about.

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