The play within a play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a peculiar device in the way it is executed, leaving much of the reason for its inclusion up to interpretation. The actual play happens at the end of the resolution, as an added bit of comedy. But is it really just for laughs?
In my eyes, Shakespeare includes the play within a play as a way to comment on the nature of love in Midsummer, and the nature of love in comedies and tragedies in general. A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens with a very serious impending threat – the possible execution of a girl for her refusal to conform to patriarchal rule. This could be the very opening of a tragedy, but the comedy begins in the way Shakespeare decides to portray the lover’s plight. The play within a play mirrors this depiction; Shakespeare takes a classic tragedy, and through the mechanical’s dismal understanding of tragedy, it becomes comic genius. Theseus and his court are thoroughly entertained, making various jests at the expense of the production’s disjointed portrayal. Theseus takes great pleasure in the comedy, proclaiming that “This palpable gross play hath beguil’d / The heavy gait of night.” (5.1.361-2). He recognizes the need for self parody, and to laugh at one’s own tragedy and pain.
Shakespeare understands that a doomed love can either be funny, like in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or it can be deadly, like Pyramus and Thisbe or Romeo and Juliet. Sure, the play within a play is comic, but it’s also Shakespeare’s way of telling the audience that tragedy and comedy are what you make of them.