A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare

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Pyramus and Thisby is hilarious, but it is also cathartic. The passions and taboos released in the fairy world of our subconscious need to be identified and dispelled by the exorcism of laughter. Demetrius, Lysander, Helena and Hermia all need the healing of comedy, which is why they are made to watch their own extravagant passions being so brutally caricatured.

Pyramus and Thisby is also much more closely related to the action of the rest of the play than may, at first, appear. This is revealed, particularly, by the dramatis personae that Peter Quince (played, it would be nice to think, by Shakespeare himself) finally settles upon. Obviously, Pyramus and Thisby themselves are essential to what storyline there is, but otherwise (having presumably rejected the various mothers and fathers of the main characters mentioned in Act One, Scene Two) the roles Quince chooses all have a symbolic value. First on stage is Wall, who comically represents the many barriers to the ‘course of true love’ that have been met with in the play, most brutally in Egeus’ denial of his daughter Hermia’s love. Lion and Moonshine then enter together. Much comedy is made of the first (‘ This grisly beast ’), but Lion also reminds the audience of the multitude of references to dangerous animals in the play. Moonshine represents perhaps the most enduring symbol of A Midsummer Night’s Dream . Shakespeare’s moon could be said to represent everything and nothing, and that, perhaps, is his point is choosing such a changeable symbol. The moon is a constantly fluctuating reference point for so many of the characters. In one place it represents an old ‘dowager,’ elsewhere a virgin, in another place a lover, in another lunacy, or fairy magic or romance or chastity or plague-inducing vapours…The word ‘moonshine’ itself can mean ‘something unreal’ or ‘nonsense’ in this period. Shakespeare’s use of the moon is designed to create some kind of over-arching, inclusive emblem for the play. Perhaps, he merely worked every reference to the moon he could into the text to suggest his night time setting as vividly as he could to his audience. More likely, his purpose is to create a kind of ‘anti-symbol’: an emblem that does not unite ideas, but which creates a complex web of paradoxes and strange juxtapositions – the very contradictions of the moon as symbol come to stand for the unpredictable and unstable changeability of the Athenian wood itself.

Pyramus and Thisby therefore is a true conclusion to A Midsummer Night’s Dream . Its laughter is healing (after all the madness of love endured in the wood), as is the social harmony that it represents, with commoners and nobility united in the celebration of a marriage. The play has a happy ending, and would be inconceivable without it, of course. But Shakespeare knew enough of his craft to leave that moment of doubt and uncertainty for his audience to ponder.

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William Shakespeare