Throughout A Midsummer Night's Dream, a humble group of Athenian craftsmen (the Mechanicals) go all Inceptionon us and practice a play-within-the-play that they hope to stage at Theseus's wedding celebration. The play is Pyramus and Thisbe and its performance takes up nearly all of Act 5, Scene 1, where the craftsmen comically bumble their way through what's supposed to be a classic tragedy.
By focusing so much attention on this play-within-the-play, Shakespeare has ample time to reflect on his own art and to ask the following questions: What is it that makes good theater? Can anyone be an actor? What kind of person is an ideal audience member? Can uneducated commoners appreciate art? The answers to these questions can vary, but, for the most part, the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe functions as a parody of bad theater and reminds us that being a stage actor is craft that requires intellect and its own set of skills.
Questions About Art and Culture
Discuss the overall function of the play-within-the-play. Why do you think Shakespeare included the Mechanicals' performance of Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night's Dream? How does the play-within-the-play allow Shakespeare to reflect upon the nature of the theater?
Compare and contrast the plot of Pyramus and Thisbe to A Midsummer Night's Dream.
When describing the Mechanicals, Philostrate calls them a group of "Hard-handed men that work in Athens here, / Which never labour'd in their minds till now" (5.1.72-73). What exactly does Philostrate mean when he says this? What does this comment suggest about his attitude toward the relationship between education, intellect, and the theater?
Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night's Dream around the same time he penned Romeo and Juliet, a play that's heavily influenced by the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. Read Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and then compare and contrast it to the Mechanicals' performance of Pyramus and Thisbe.
Chew on This
A Midsummer Night's Dream suggests that acting is a craft that requires intelligence, education, and skill.
Although the Mechanicals' performance of Pyramus and Thisbe is unnecessary in terms of furthering the plot of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the play-within-the-play serves an important function because it allows Shakespeare to explore the nature of his own art.