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.