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.
Plays Within Plays ThemeTracker
Plays Within Plays Quotes in A Midsummer Night's Dream
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)
Titania waked and straightway loved an ass. (33)
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)
And think no more of this night's accidents
But as the fierce vexation of a dream. (50)
How comes this gentle concord in the world,
That hatred is so far from jealousy,
To sleep by hate, and fear no enmity? (129)
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)
Shall disturb this hallow'd house:
I am sent with broom before,
To sweep the dust behind the door. (297)
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)