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.