The Play Inside The Play

Though I have read A Midsummer Night’s Dream once before I still find myself asking the same questions. What is the purpose of the play inside the larger play? Why is the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe being performed inside of the comedy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

Being readers of Shakespeare, we are familiar with the fact that he was commonly influenced by past works. The story of Pyramus and Thisbe was just a part in the classic book, Metamorphoses, by Ovid. Shakespeare turned that story into one of his most famous tragedies, Romeo and Juliet. So why is it appearing again? Is he trying to show off his smarts? Or is there a much deeper reason for the famous cameo?

[Spoiler Alert] The characters of A Midsummer Night’s Dream do not come to such a tragic end as those in Pyramus and Thisbe, but some of the same major themes exist in both stories.

Helena’s extreme desire for Demetrius parallels the love that exists between the two lovers in Ovid’s story. We first meet Helena when she appears to Hermia and Lysander in Act I. The two women exchange words, revealing their opposite desires. While Hermia is not in love with Demetrius, Helena cannot stop loving him. She knows that Hermia is the object of Demetrius’ desire, but still fights herself about why. Helena understands that she is the opposite of Hermia (fair and not as beautiful) and that is why Demetrius will not love her. When Hermia and Lysander leave her, she laments about the love that she will never feel in return. Later in Act II, Helena calls herself “a spaniel”; Demetrius’ dog that will follow him no matter how much he mistreats her. Though Pyramus and Thisbe are not struggling to win each other’s love, Helena’s near desperate desire to capture Demetrius’ eye, parallels the fatal love that exists in Pyramus and Thisbe.

More than Helena and Demetrius, it is the story of Hermia and Lysander that most closely, parallel the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe. Hermia and Lysander are star-crossed lovers, who are forbidden to marry each other. Hermia’s father has already promised her to another man, Demetrius, and it is too late for Lysander to wed Hermia. The only way the two lovers to be together, is if they run away from Athens, and escape the people that are trying to keep them apart. This is the story—almost verbatim—of Pyramus and Thisbe.

William Shakespeare was obviously no dumby. Ovid’s famous love story does not appear for funsies. With the over dramatic men who are acting in the play inside the play, Helena’s desperation to be a dog, and Hermia and Lysander’s crazy situation, I think Shakespeare is trying to exemplify just how ridiculous and dangerous this kind of love can be.


3 thoughts on “The Play Inside The Play

  1. hackb

    I was pretty awestruck somewhat early on in the play. When Egeus declares the decision for whom his daughter will marry, I was pretty floored, and intrigued at the same time. But then he one ups himself and also states that if she doesn’t want to marry Demetrius, she can die. That’s love, there. She’s forced into a relationship (with the man she doesn’t love) or she can die. Hmmmm….
    This seems similar to the Indian tradition of arranged marriage. But they seem to greet it with a bit more acceptance. Death doesn’t appear as an alternative. And even if it is, it’s not very publicized. But Egeus’ decision to kill his daughter based on her decision of lover is over the top. What’s more confusing is that he’s willing to do this. He either feels that death will be a sweet relief compared to the life she’ll lead with Lysander (who clearly has the better name of the two, as it roughly translates into “liberator;” oh, the irony, Shakespeare) or that she will die because of her lacking desire to follow his will. It’s odd to think that a father would be willing to inflict this upon his own daughter.
    It’s interesting to think of this concept in modern days. The father still has enough say over his daughter but also effectively her fate. And it blows my mind to think that he was willing to kill her rather than let her make her own decisions.
    However, she’s also given another option. She can also enter the convent and become a nun. This is enacted by Theseus, which means that he is given similar authority over Hermia. This is an interesting concept, to think that he’s allowed to make similar decrees over Hermia as is her father. Hermia, meanwhile is not given any say about the matter.
    The options that we’re given to her we thought to be made in her best interest. But it wasn’t up to her to make her own decision. This seemed foreign in tradition; not so much about the arranged marriage, but more about the punishment by death. Shakespeare, however, uses this technique to raise the stakes. The story wouldn’t be as gripping if it only dealt with the idea of arranged marriage. So instead, it creates a larger conflict that needs resolution. What at first seems to be a ridiculous ruling quickly plays a huge role in the resolution of the plot. This allows for Lysander to devise the plan to escape and also lets Helena reveal the scheme to Demetrius, who is supposed to “win” the heart of his lover. Surely, this loss of Hermia would anger him and cause for more rising conflict.
    What begins as something that seems ridiculous and blown out of proportion to the reader quickly develops into the central driving force of the plot. As offbeat and disturbing as it may be, the plot relies on it, and Shakespeare effectively uses the idea to make the audience invest interest and concern in the characters.

  2. jacobic1

    Reblogged this on Shakespeare I and commented:

    The play within a play is a very smart tool that Shakespeare made use of. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream the play within the play mocks the tragedy, as we can see in how the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe is performed, and by whom. Instead of having a serious performance by well-trained actors, Shakespeare has lay-actors perform the play. The play thereby gets a comic touch to it. The play within the play also reflects the themes and motifs of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Nowack*, 74), such as love
    At Shakespeare’s times it was very common to embed a play within a play. These plays were called court masks, and “end with the killing of of the guilty part of the cast” (Nowack*, 66), and sometimes even involved members of the royalty as actors. Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream does not contain such a court mask, as key elements of the court mask are missing (e.g. the royal cast). Nevertheless, Shakespeare used some of the court mask’s characteristics (such as the deadly ending) to design his play within a play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
    *Nowak, Helge: Literature in Britain and Ireland, A History. Narr Francke Attempo Verlag GmbH & Co. KG. Tübingen 2010.

  3. annaleasully

    I agree with your idea that Shakespeare is trying to “exemplify just how dangerous and ridiculous love can be,” but in this play it is definitely more comedic and lighthearted than the tragedies of Pyramus and Thisbe and Romeo and Juliet, this is most certainly a relief. However, although there are comedic elements and silly antics with mischievous fairies A Midsummer Night’s Dream possesses some of the darker elements of a modern tale. For example Helena calling herself “a spaniel” is very self-degrading; she does this because she feels that she is Demetrius’s dog and she very much in love with him. Perhaps this was meant to be amusing in the time of Shakespeare, but I, from a modern standpoint have a difficult time not feeling extremely sorry for her. Demetrius is a fickle jerk and the fact that Helena cannot seem to get over her feelings for him is a small tragedy within this greater comedy. Love most certainly is a “dangerous and ridiculous” game.


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