A Problematic Play for the Duke

Amidst fairies squabbling, lovers fighting, and a particularly mischievous hobgoblin laughing at everyone else’s expense, a party of mechanicals occasionally takes centerstage in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  This comical band of commoners endeavor to rehearse and eventually perform a play at King Theseus’ wedding celebration.  However, even without the magical events of the night that effect the players, their performance is riddled with inconsistencies and alterations so that the final product is almost nothing like their original script.

When the mechanicals enter the story in the first act, Quince the Carpenter reads the play’s name; he reads the title as “The most lamentable / comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and / Thisbe,” a counterintuitive name to say the least (I. ii. 11-13).  Since the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe is a tragedy that ends with the characters’ suicides, it should not be classified as a comedy.  Next in this scene, Quince assigns the men their characters to play.  Three of these characters go to Snout, Snug, and Starveling: Thisbe’s parents and Pyramus’ father (I. ii. 58-61).  This moment’s significance—or lack thereof—is only apparent later in the play.

The mechanicals appear again in the woods at the beginning of Act III to rehearse.  Upon gathering, Bottom and Quince point out problem after problem in the script from the sensitivity of the subject matter to the number of props in the story. They then propose the addition of a narrator to read a prologue serving as a disclaimer along with characters serving as the props “Wall” and “Moonlight.”  After the technical difficulties have been resolved, the actors begin practicing their lines.  At this point in the rehearsal, Bottom’s head is transformed offstage, his friends panic when he reenters, and everyone expect the Weaver run away in terror.  The band only reunites and makes for the Duke’s palace once Bottom’s spell is lifted.

After all their unpredicted hardships, the troupe finally puts on their play in the final act.  The final product, however, is nothing like what it was supposed to be.   Even the name of the play has been changed to “A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus / And his love Thisbe, very tragical mirth” (V. i. 60-61). The changes discussed in the third act have been implemented at a price; Pyramus and Thisbe’s parents have been replaced by the Prologue, the Wall, and the Man in the Moon.  Also, strangely enough, the scene and the lines rehearsed the previous night are nowhere to be found.  The lines they do recite, the likes of which include, “Now die, die, die, die, die,” and “Adieu, adieu, adieu” are trite and overly dramatic (V. i. 322, 364).  Worse yet, throughout the play, Theseus, Hippolyta, and the four wedded lovers are so busy cracking jokes at the performance that the tragic nature of the story is completely lost.  The tragedy has been transformed into a comedy, providing a laughable end to the mechanicals’ arc.

The struggles of the mechanicals are appreciated for two reasons.  First, they offer a more raucous, vulgar, but easily understandable comedy compared to the whimsical fairies and the bewitched lovers.  More intriguingly, however, their predicament is a nod to Shakespeare’s own craft.  They are bad actors putting on a bad play, but are themselves played by professional actors in not just a good play, but a time-honored staple of English literature.

~Mich Walter

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