One of the notable characteristics of the dramatic construction and presentation of William Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the fact that it contains two distinctly different plays within the larger framework of the main play. The author’s skillful development and juxtaposition of these simultaneously unfolding plays serves the function of reiterating some of A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s principal themes. Similarly, the utilization of this multiple play structure also situates Shakespeare in relationship to the creative process and his own work. Furthermore, the three-play structure allows the reader to question the very nature of creativity and of love. The play staged by the mechanicals is particularly effective in this regard. The comic, lighthearted tone of the players as they prepare for and fulfill their roles in Pyramus and Thisbe serves as a welcome contrast to the more dramatic circumstances between the women characters in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Hermia, Lysander, Helen, and Demetrius, as well as the more fanciful plot involving the faeries. Even more than these other plays, the play of the mechanicals raises a number of important questions about life, love, and creative production and performance.
The lower class laborers who comprise the unlikely dramatic troupe which will perform Pyramus and Thisbe are introduced to the reader in Act I, Scene II of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Everything about these players is comical, from their most superficial characteristics to their deeply embedded personality traits which include a habit of bumbling, mispronouncing words so that the meanings of their sentences are completely and comically misconstrued, and generally playing the part of fools. As soon as the reader learns of the rag-tag actors’ names—Bottom, Flute, Snug, Snout, Starveling, and Quince– he or she becomes immediately oriented to the fact that the introduction of these characters is intended to disrupt the larger narrative of the play and if anything, provide further comic relief to the slightly more serious (although still lighthearted) main narrative. Additionally, these goofy characters also exist to raise questions about the subjects and themes in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that are most present throughout the work. This observation is confirmed with each new detail that the reader learns about each of the tradesmen/actor characters. Nick Bottom is a weaver who, like his fellow tradesmen, has no previous acting credentials. In fact, it is not entirely clear how these men have come together or who decided that they were “worthy” of putting on a play. This issue of worthiness, or fitness, for playing certain roles, whether on the stage or on life, is a central theme and preoccupation in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Upon learning that he will be assigned to play the lead role of Pyramus, “a lover that kills himself most gallant for love” (Shakespeare 17), Bottom asserts that he will be so effective in his role that he will elicit the audience members’ tears: “I will move storms,” he proclaims to his fellow actors (Shakespeare 17). Flute is also comical and in many ways, he acts as a comic foil for Bottom, especially as Bottom ends up taking himself seriously, despite the fact that the audience is well aware of the situation. For Flute’s part, he begs not to be cast as a female character because he has “a beard coming” (Shakespeare 18). Bottom will also evidence a preoccupation with his beard later in the play, as he questions the other cast members how he should wear his beard so that it will be most appropriate and most convincing for his role. While these details may seem to be little more than humorous distractions, they actually serve much more profound purposes in the overall scheme of the play. In a certain sense, Shakespeare seems to be using these amateur actors as a way of opening a conversation both with himself and with the reader about the nature of the creative process. The actors are so preoccupied with the minutiae of their newfound dramatic craft, yet they fail to engage more important creative concerns, such as correct pronunciation and the mastery of crucial dramatic resources and techniques, including memorization, line cues, timing, and the congruence of affect with speech. Quince spends much of the troupe’s rehearsal time trying to harmonize the untutored actors so that their performance will eventually, hopefully, play out seamlessly. While it can be suggested that Shakespeare is merely offering a comical interlude to discuss the creative process, there is also the dual purpose of how these issues make the reader even more keenly aware of some of the major themes in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by William Shakespeare
Shakespeare was, of course, masterful in the use of all of these resources and techniques, so perhaps his preoccupation with them in this play within a play was more intended to be a larger critique of creative processes, and the dramatic process in particular. Shakespeare seems to be asking, through the clever staging of this subplot or sub-play, what elements of the creative process are most important, and which elements are most likely to determine the effect of the play in terms of the degree to which it engages the viewer and helps him or her to comprehend the play’s central themes.
This hypothesis about Shakespeare’s intentions seems to gain additional evidence when one considers the extended conversation among the tradesmen-turned-actors regarding the nature of the setting and the props that can be employed in order to faithfully render the scene that conversation about the nature of the setting and the props that can be employed in order to faithfully render the scene that they believe Pyramus and Thisbe requires. The actors are most preoccupied with the ways in which moonlight can be evoked and how a wall, which they consider central to the development of dynamic tension in the plot, can be represented. One character asserts in one of the important quotes from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, “we must have a wall in the great chamber… for Paramus [sic] and Thisby [sic]… did talk through a chink in the wall” (Shakespeare 47). The players debate whether an actual wall could be brought to the stage, and conclude that it would not be possible to do so. Instead, given the importance of the wall to the development of the story, it is determined that one of the trademen/actors will play the part of a wall. Again, while these may seem to be petty details hardly deserving of the several lines of dialogue which they occupy in the text of the play, Shakespeare allows the men the liberty to explore these issues, perhaps as a means for he himself, as well as the reader, to reflect upon the different elements that comprise the dramatic product and process. Indeed, this particular conversation among the Pyramus and Thisbe players is very process oriented, and invites the reader to consider what thoughts and actions are required in order to bring a play before an audience. The conversation also causes the reader to consider who is responsible for bringing the play before an audience. There is shared responsibility between the playwright and the actors, the latter being the party responsible for interpreting the former’s intentions.