Sunday, November 21, 2010

Dramatic Illusion in A Midsummer Nights's Dream: The Play Within The Play

The only other play of Shakespeare's, so far as I can recollect, to have another play tucked inside it is Hamlet. As you may remember, Hamlet has the players who happen to be passing through Elsinore put on a play that mimics the circumstances of his father's death—or rather, murder. It is a test, or, as Hamlet calls it a mousetrap. When the King reacts violently to this play, Hamlet knows that his father's ghost had told him the truth. What he doesn't realize is that by exposing the King as a murderer, he has also blown his own cover. Now the King knows what Hamlet knows.

The play-within-the-play in A Midsummer Night's Dream that the tradesmen of Athens put on for the entertainment of the court—"A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus/ And his love Thisby; very tragical mirth"—is only slightly connected to the plot of the play. The cast happens to be rehearsing in the forest near the spot where the aristocratic lovers of the main plot have agreed to meet, which also happens to be the place where Oberon and Titania (King and Queen of the faeries) are trying—and failing—to settle their differences over who should possess a particular 'changeling' child'; he resorts to force i.e. magic. But magic, like force, can have unintended consequences: the aristocratic lovers become totally confused, and Bottom, the weaver, mischievously given a donkey's head by Oberon's agent, Puck, becomes the willing lover of Titania, the intended victim of Oberon's magic.

While Bottom is having the time of his life as the bestial object of Titania's sexual desires,  the upper-class lovers are madly chasing each other through the forest in abject confusion.

When the magic spells are finally lifted, everyone is happy to be able to get on with their lives: the lovers return to Athens in perfect harmony with each other—each lad has his lass and vice-versa—Titania and Oberon are reunited as if nothing untoward had happened, and Peter Quince is able to get on with his play.

Here's is where we begin to see what the play-within-the-play is all about. The lower class players are as deeply confused about dramatic illusion as the upper-class lovers had been about their real feelings, which, thanks to the magical manipulations of Oberon and Puck, they are finally able to recognize.

When the upper-class lovers are happily married and looking for some slight diversion before bed-time, they are delighted—more so than they expect— to watch a play in which the actual and imaginary, art and life, are totally confused. What's important here is that both audiences,  the lovers and the larger audience out there in the theatre, are in the same boat.

Plays are designed to draw an audience into its make-believe world so that there are moments when they forget that that they are watching a play.

Watching the clumsy efforts of the Athenian tradesmen as they try to pull off that bit of theatrical magic, we may forget that these clumsy oafs are really professional actors drawing us into another illusion—the illusion of course being that Bottom and his friends really don't know what they are doing. We laugh, not realizing that we've been fooled again.

The fact that A Midsummer Night's Dream has so many layers of dramatic illusion—more than any other play of Shakespeare's—is what makes it so utterly charming.


  1. People change in embarrassing ways, falling in and out of love, but the high-status people like to think that they are above change and above embarrassment. We know that isn't true; we have just seen the reversals. The nobles however are back to being noble, are having fun at the artisans expense, prior to romping with their new mates. We have that sort of fun too; the artisans are really funny. But the nobles cross a line with this poor guy who has the moon part; they actually go up on stage and mess with his lantern, and he just sort
    of collapses, saying basically, "Look, I'm just this guy, here with my dog, doing this thing they told me to do, playing the moon." Denying common humanity is crossing a line; you can't forget the moon in the man. The Guthrie staged it in the round, in 69, so the theater audience was oriented the same way as the nobles, in a circle around the players, so when people got taken aback by the nobles' arrogance, they then noticed their own, standing as they were as a second ring of spectators.

  2. My favorite line in Shakespeare comes from Pyramus and Thisbe: "O night, which ever art when day is not!"
    The Taming if the Shrew begins as if it will be a play within a play. Somehow, the opening scene has no matching closing scene.