A Midsummer Night's Dream

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Plays Within Plays Theme Analysis

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A Midsummer Night's Dream is a play containing other plays. The most obvious example is the laborers' performance of Pyramus and Thisbe, and their inept production serves three important functions in the larger structure of the larger play. First, the laborer's mistakes and misunderstandings introduce a strand of farce to the comedy of the larger play. Second, it allows Shakespeare to comment on the nature of art and theater, primarily through the laborer's own confused belief that the audience won't be able to distinguish between fiction and reality. Third, the laborers' play parodies much of the rest of A Midsummer Night's Dream: Pyramus and Thisbe are lovers who, facing opposition from their parents, elope, just as Hermia and Lysander do. So even as the lovers and Theseus make fun of the laborers' ridiculous performance, the audience, which is watching the lovers watch the laborers' play, is aware that the lovers had been just as absurd.

A Midsummer Night's Dream also contains a second, subtler, play within a play. In this play within a play, Oberon is playwright, and he seeks to "write" a comedy in which Helena gets her love, Lysander and Hermia stay together, Titania learns a lesson in wifely obedience, and all conflicts are resolved through marriage and reconciliation. And just as the laborers' play turns a tragic drama into a comic farce, so does Oberon's when Puck accidentally puts the love-potion on the eyes of the wrong Athenian man. And yet Oberon's play also serves a counter purpose to the laborers' play. While the laborers' awful performance seems to suggest the limit of the theater, Oberon's play, which rewrote the lives of the same mortals who mock the laborers' play, suggests that theater really does have a magic that defies reality.

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Plays Within Plays ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Plays Within Plays appears in each scene of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Plays Within Plays Quotes in A Midsummer Night's Dream

Below you will find the important quotes in A Midsummer Night's Dream related to the theme of Plays Within Plays.
Act 1, scene 2 Quotes
That will ask some tears in the true performing of it. If I do it, let the audience look to their eyes. I will move storms. I will condole in some measure.—To the rest.—Yet my chief humor is for a tyrant. I could play Ercles rarely, or a part to tear a cat in to make all split.
The raging rocks
And shivering shocks
Shall break the locks
Of prison gates.
And Phoebus' car
Shall shine from far
And make and mar
The foolish Fates.
This was lofty!—Now name the rest of the players.—This is Ercles' vein, a tyrant's vein. A lover is more condoling. (12)
Related Characters: Nick Bottom (speaker)
Page Number: 1.2.23-39
Explanation and Analysis:

A set of fellow novice actors discuss their upcoming play Pyramus and Thisbe. One of them, Bottom, pompously describes his acting talents and presents a short monologue to back up that claim.

Though the tone of this passage is difficult to capture in text alone, Bottom and his fellow actors are meant to be ridiculously comic, bumbling characters. His pronouncements are overly ornate and self-aggrandizing: He claims to be able to provide the “tears” desired by audience members, but also to “move storms” or physically change the environment. Despite his profession as a weaver, he claims to have a natural affinity for “a tyrant” and implies that the audience will need a measure of “condoling” after his performance because it will be so moving.

The ridiculous quality of these claims is made more evident by the example monologue that Bottom delivers. His close adherence to the end-rhymes comes off as sing-song and childish in nature, while the brevity of each line sabotages the grand images he purports to convey. Some of the images are themselves nonsensical. Rocks do not rage, and shocks do not shiver; in fact it would be more logical to speak of shivering rocks and raging shocks. Similarly, it is Bottom who is far more “foolish” than the Fates. Shakespeare establishes the farcical quality of Bottom and his fellow troop. At the same time, through Bottom and his troupe, Shakespeare begins to good-naturedly mock the conventions of tragic romances as well as theater more generally.


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Act 2, scene 2 Quotes
When thou wakest, it is thy dear:
Wake when some vile thing is near. (22)
Related Characters: Oberon (speaker), Titania
Related Symbols: The Love Juice
Page Number: 2.2.39-40
Explanation and Analysis:

Oberon has snuck past Tatiana’s attendants as she sleeps. He places the love potion on her eyes and hopes she will spy something unpleasant when she wakes up.

These lines describe succinctly the way the love potion will affect Tatiana. Whatever she sees when she stops sleeping will be her “dear”: the thing she loves the most. And thus Oberon hopes that what she spies will be “vile,” causing her to fall in love with some odious being. By rhyming “dear” with “near,” he draws attention to the way that Tatiana’s love will be predicated on proximity rather than real romantic sentiment. Indeed, the rhyme is important to note here, for it presents these lines as sonorous rather than actually sinister. As is characteristic of this comedy, the plot resists entering a truly negative realm. Even as Oberon moves to deceive Tatiana, his lighthearted tone presents the behavior to be a mere dalliance or game.

Act 3, scene 2 Quotes
When in that moment, so it came to pass,
Titania waked and straightway loved an ass. (33)
Related Characters: Robin Goodfellow (Puck) (speaker), Nick Bottom, Titania
Related Symbols: The Love Juice
Page Number: 3.2.35-36
Explanation and Analysis:

The first being that Titania sees when she awakes is a bewitched Bottom who now has the head of a donkey. Puck explains those events to Oberon with what might be best described as delighted glee.

These lines fulfill Oberon’s earlier hope that Tatiana would spy something “vile” when she awoke. Indeed, his wish seems to have been fulfilled far beyond his hopes. For she has fallen in love not only with a “vile” human but actually a partial animal: an “ass” both in name (Bottom) and body. That Puck conveys this information with his characteristic singsong tone presents it to be lighthearted. But beyond that levity, he also adopts the distanced perspective of a theater director or storyteller. Puck describes Titania’s actions—“so it came to pass”—as if they were performed by a character in a different tale. Thus he presents himself and Oberon as the creators of the plot events being watched by the audience. Shakespeare forefronts, in this way, how people can function as playwrights, scripting their lives and those of others from a distanced point of view.

Lord, what fools these mortals be! (117)
Related Characters: Robin Goodfellow (Puck) (speaker), Hermia, Helena, Lysander, Demetrius
Page Number: 3.2.117
Explanation and Analysis:

Puck has just seen Helena being pursued by Lysander—and both are about to enter the stage with Demetrius. He correctly expects that the two will compete for her love and looks forward to the show.

This line corroborates the way Puck sees himself as a theater director for the events that transpire—as opposed to a character directly involved in the narrative. Describing the other characters as “mortals” sets up a clear divide between the supernatural forest creatures and the normal humans. And considering them to be “fools” places them in a position of subservience: They are following the pre-designed games of Oberon and Puck rather than acting of their own independent accord. As a result, Puck is able to look on the behavior of Helena and her two new lover’s with pure whimsy, for their issues exist in a distanced and, for him, meaningless realm. Shakespeare thus shows that adopting a removed perspective allows one to aestheticize and find humorous what might otherwise be a dramatic or painful series of events. And, of course, the audience of the play gets an extra thrill of delight as they – the ultimate viewers with a removed perspective – watch Puck watching the "mortals."

O spite! O hell! I see you all are bent
To set against me for your merriment:
If you we re civil and knew courtesy,
You would not do me thus much injury.
Can you not hate me, as I know you do,
But you must join in souls to mock me too?
If you were men, as men you are in show,
You would not use a gentle lady so;
To vow, and swear, and superpraise my parts,
When I am sure you hate me with your hearts.
You both are rivals, and love Hermia;
And now both rivals, to mock Helena:
A trim exploit, a manly enterprise,
To conjure tears up in a poor maid's eyes
With your derision! none of noble sort
Would so offend a virgin, and extort
A poor soul's patience, all to make you sport. (147)
Related Characters: Helena (speaker), Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius
Page Number: 3.2.148-164
Explanation and Analysis:

Helena is now being pursued by Lysander and Demetrius after they have both been bewitched by the love potion. Believing that they are making fun of her, Helena spurns their advances and scolds them for this behavior.

This soliloquy makes a sharp distinction between courteous and uncourteous forms of behavior. Helena considers Lysander and Demetrius’ actions to do her “injury” and “mock” her because, she believes, their behaviors do not accurately represent how they feel. To support this point, Shakespeare uses the language of performance and play: The men act from “merriment,” they act “in show,” and it is all done “to make you sport.” These descriptions corroborate the way Puck and Oberon have staged their own sport of romance in the play. Helena is correctly able to recognize the falsehood in the mens’ behaviors, but she cannot recognize that they are merely characters acting out their parts. And, meanwhile, the men have become so overwhelmed by their "parts" because of the love potion, that they don't even know that they are in fact playing parts.

Helena's speech also confirms the way she is ever-aware of gender role complexity. She implicitly denies Lysander and Demetrius's manhood by saying they are men “in show” rather than in actuality (which also would have been funny in Shakespeare's time, when women weren't allowed to be actors and so the actor playing Helena would, in fact, have been a man). And calling their behavior “A trim exploit, a manly enterprise” is a sarcastic way of saying that she finds their behavior manipulative and thus un-masculine. Similarly, she takes on the traditional role of “gentle lady” and “poor maid”—surprising considering that Helena had previously bucked gender roles by desiring to be the pursuer or wooer. Her new adherence to a division between manly and unmanly behaviors thus shows how rapidly the supernatural forest environment can shift the characters’ identities. Just as Demetrius and Lysander have been bewitched into love and into the roles of pursuers, Helena has been metaphorically enchanted in this new, more passive position.

Act 4, scene 1 Quotes
May all to Athens back again repair
And think no more of this night's accidents
But as the fierce vexation of a dream. (50)
Related Characters: Oberon (speaker), Hermia, Helena, Lysander, Demetrius
Page Number: 4.1.68-70
Explanation and Analysis:

Oberon at last feels pity for the way he has treated Titania and the other characters. He informs Puck to finish undoing his mischief and to allow the characters to depart the forest.

These lines verify the sharp division between the play’s urban and forest settings. Whereas the forest is seen as the place of fantasy and magic, the city promises a return to normalcy. Oberon’s use of the word “repair” stresses how the character's return to Athens will restore order to the broken relations and return to normal any behaviors made strange by the forest. His strict delineation between the two spaces casts the events that have transpired in the forest as whimsical and temporary—and to have little relevance to the rest of the characters’ lives.

Oberon also addresses the importance of dreams in this play. Hoping the other characters will think of the events in the forest as only “the fierce vexation of a dream” means that they will consider them to have been a psychologically real experience but one that has no pragmatic effect on their lives. He thus aligns the forest environment with nighttime and dreams, whereas Athens is associated with daytime and “reality.” These associations further emphasize that the romantic complications that have taken place in the forest are to be taken as illusory, for they should be seen as temporary and unreal.

And yet, as becomes clear just a few lines later, the wild, magical, "unreal" events of the forest have actually untangled the romantic mess of the four lovers in a way that the law of Theseus and Athens never could. 

I know you two are rival enemies:
How comes this gentle concord in the world,
That hatred is so far from jealousy,
To sleep by hate, and fear no enmity? (129)
Related Characters: Theseus (speaker), Lysander, Demetrius
Page Number: 4.1.148-151
Explanation and Analysis:

Theseus has stumbled upon Lysander and Demetrius sleeping by each other. He wonders how their proximity is possible considering how they had previously battled for Hermia’s favor.

These lines return to the question of shifting identities, for Lysander and Demetrius’ current behaviors are highly surprising in light of their previous ones. Theseus begins with the firm affirmation “I know” and then wonders how their deviation—“gentle concord”—from his knowledge of their rivalry would be possible. He wonders how the “jealousy” that they feel of each other would not inspire “hatred,” for presumably if they did indeed hate each other they would fear “enmity” or some kind of negative retribution. His incredulous response shows that Theseus expects the two to have consistent identities and behaviors—and that he is surprised when Oberon’s exploits have pacified them.

Importantly, this conclusion requires an external viewer—Theseus—to make sense of the way these two men have changed. Others within the forest are similarly bewitched actors in Oberon’s play and thus unable to rationally recognize how quickly they have shifted allegiances. But Theseus is able to stand apart from the action and thus offer this insight. Shakespeare thus makes him an analog for the audience—one who questions character development like any good interpreter.

And yet, at the same time, Theseus's confusion at the change in Lysander and Demetrius's characters again emphasizes how a viewpoint based entirely around "law" and "reason" is insufficient to comprehend or affect a world full of the irrational human feeling of love. 

I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about t'expound this dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had—but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be called 'Bottom's Dream', because it hath no bottom. (Bottom)
Related Characters: Nick Bottom (speaker), Peter Quince
Page Number: 4.1.215-226
Explanation and Analysis:

After the other characters have left, Bottom finally wakes. He can recall the events of the previous night, but considers them to be a dream.

Although Bottom tries to explain the content of his dream, the majority of his description actually points out how inarticulable he finds his experience. That it is “past the wit of man” implies that it cannot be understood by human intelligence, and indeed he contends that a man would have to be “but an ass” and “but a patched fool” (both of which Bottom actually was during the night) if he believed he could describe the dream. The repetition of “methought” similarly undermines the certainty of what has transpired: Bottom presents each sentence as potential rather than certain. He then explores the limits of the human senses, contending that sight, sound, touch, taste, and even the emotional faculties of men are unable to make sense of what has occurred.

These lines presents Bottom as newly humbled by his experience in the forest which he sees as beyond human control. They further divide the illusory experiences of the night with rational human faculties. His comments are also quite ironic, for Shakespeare himself has described the contents of the dream by writing this very play. Bottom’s wish that his dream serve itself as fodder for Peter Quince’s play directs the audience’s attention to this exact incongruity. Shakespeare thus subtly differentiate between two processes: comprehending an event and conveying it through art. Though man may not be able to make sense of Bottom’s dream, that dream can be transformed into art that might be able to give them a kind of access to the experience of the dream.

Act 5, scene 1 Quotes
You, ladies, you whose gentle hearts do fear
The smallest monstrous mouse that creeps on floor,
May now perchance both quake and tremble here,
When lion rough in wildest rage doth roar.
Then know that I, as Snug the joiner, am
A lion fell, nor else no lion's dam.
For if I should as lion come in strife
Into this place, 'twere pity on my life. (209)
Related Characters: Snug (speaker), Snug
Page Number: 5.1.232-240
Explanation and Analysis:

The laborers perform their farcical version of Pyramus and Thisbe, much to the enjoyment of the other characters. Here, Snug enters playing the lion and reassures everyone that he isn't really a lion because he's worried he might scare the audience.

Snug’s speech epitomizes how the actors comically misinterpret the way audiences experience theatre. The laborers assume that others are unable to differentiate between theatrical lions and real lions – between what is real and what is pretend. As a result, Snug assumes the “ladies” present will fear his representation of a lion simply because they would fear a real lion. 

The scene is deeply comical—to the audiences both within and outside the play—because genuine theater is supposed to maintain illusions rather than shatter them. No audience, after all, would ever have legitimate concerns about a lion being real, but they pretend to think so to maintain the illusion of performance. Snug’s speech thus becomes a farcical rift on theatrical conventions themselves. It is worth mentioning, however, that the play’s characters did struggle in the forest to differentiate between reality and theater, between waking life and dream. Thus while Snug’s speech may seem ridiculous, it also carries a poignant undertone that our borders of reality and illusion may not be quite so strict.

And Snug's ridiculous belief in theater's potential to overwhelm the audience also hints at theater's real magic, which is an ability to feel real even as the audience knows that it isn't, an ability to make the audience feel the dream even when it isn't dreaming.

Not a mouse
Shall disturb this hallow'd house:
I am sent with broom before,
To sweep the dust behind the door. (297)
Related Characters: Robin Goodfellow (Puck) (speaker)
Page Number: 5.1.404-407
Explanation and Analysis:

As the play draws to a close, Puck enters alone and reflects on its denouement. He avows to leave behind a tranquil environment.

Earlier, Snug mistakenly worried that the audience of his play would mistake it for real. Here, Puck acts as if the play in fact is real and promises to sweep up after it and scrupulously clean the space of anything from the play that remains. Puck thus reiterates both how all that has occurred will soon fade into the past and be "unreal" to the audience that watched the play, but also that the play will leave remnants behind with the audience. In other words, he asserts both the plays unreality and its reality, and in so doing once again highlights the magic of theater, which is to find a common ground between reality and unreality in which actors, characters, and audience can co-exist.

These lines also subtly allude to the physical space of a theater. After Shakespeare’s play has ended, all will indeed be silent, and custodians will presumably have to sweep it with a “broom.” Puck thus verifies that he has been playing the metaphorical role of stage assistant to Oberon throughout their play within this play. And he cleverly describes the very space in which the audience sits as “this hallow’d house.” Shakespeare thus likens the ephemeral nature of this play to the broader experience of attending theater—in which great actions are staged for a moment but then soon return to quiet absence.

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend,
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue,
We will make amends ere long,
Else the Puck a liar call.
So, goodnight unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends. (430)
Related Characters: Robin Goodfellow (Puck) (speaker)
Page Number: 5.1.440-
Explanation and Analysis:

Puck is left alone on the stage at the play’s end to address the audience directly. He recommends that they think of what has transpired as a dream.

This final monologue verifies the parallels that have been made between the performance of theater and the experience of a dream. Puck likens the actions to “visions” and trivializes the action by describing it as a “weak and idle theme”—as something that would appear ephemerally, in one’s dream. In that case, it would be easy to “mend” any offense because the consequences of that offense would be non-existent. Puck insists on his own honesty, and he challenges the audience to call him a “liar” if the play indeed does not fade away like a dream. These lines thus corroborate that the events are supposed to be seen as transitory, a perspective that would allow one to view from a distance, as art, all that has occurred.

By invoking his original name “Robin,” Puck also marks the shift back from the forest dreamscape into reality. Recall that the fairy bestowed that name on him in the first supernatural scene in the play. Thus by taking back his own original identity, Puck signals to the audience that they will now resume their normal human endeavors beyond the confines of Shakespeare’s work. In this way, Shakespeare presents the theater as itself a way to escape normal human concerns for a moment—to take on new identities in a metaphorical dreamscape or forest environment, before returning to reality.