The Role of Theseus in Sheakspeare’s Play

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Updated: Mar 24, 2023
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“The concept of a play within a play (or a story within a story) comes from the French saying mise en abyme, or ‘placed into an abyss.'” This writing technique has existed “for hundreds of years” and “blurs the lines of reality and fantasy.” Hamlet and Macbeth are two prime examples of literature containing this technique (Shana). Shakespeare’s various literary techniques are vital in developing A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In this play, a prominent technique Shakespeare utilizes is a play within a play.

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Among the many uses of play within a play, Shakespeare gives the play within a playing technique an effective purpose that further develops and advances the plot along.

Shakespeare presents this dramatic technique through two different approaches. The play-within-a-play technique is necessary for developing A Midsummer Night’s Dream because it provides comic relief and allows Oberon to impact the main conflict throughout the course of the story. First, the most prominent play within a playing technique provides comic relief through the laborer’s play, Pyramus and Thisbe. The plot of Pyramus and Thisbe reflects an identical conflict in that of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Muir observes, “Shakespeare was probably led to introduce the story of Pyramus and Thisbe into his play by the fact that in both plots the lovers arrange to meet outside the city walls at night; and also by the resemblances between Ovid’s story and the plot of Romeo and Juliet, a play which was probably written in the same year as A Midsummer-Night’s Dream” (141).

The laborers opted to change parts of the original play due to a possible misunderstanding that could arise as the audience views the play. This brings in the comic relief element to the story as Theseus anticipates how the play will be delivered. Shakespeare explains the play as “‘A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus/ And his love Thisbe, very tragical mirth.’/’Merry’ and ‘tragical’? ‘Tedious’ and ‘brief’? That is hot ice and wondrous strange snow!” (5.1.60-63).

From Theseus’s first introduction to the plot of the play, he found the play to be a little strange. However, he wanted to view the play because he felt the laborers worked hard for this moment. He also thought the play could be interesting to watch despite the warnings of Philostrate, who thought the play was ‘some ten words long’ (5.1.65) and made him cry not out of sorrow but of laughter. Philostrate feels the play is ridiculous and would rather spare the audience from having to see the play. Another factor adding to the comic relief is the irony of the lovers watching and enjoying the play. The main conflict of the play is based on two lovers struggling to have a relationship, so they decide to run away together. While the lovers “make fun of the laborers’ ridiculous performance,” the main conflict reveals “the lovers had been just as absurd” (Plays Within Plays).

This element plays an important role in showing the mistakes of the lovers as the story and plot unfold. Second, the play within a playing technique is more subtly shown as Oberon “seeks to ‘write’ a comedy” (Plays Within Plays) which affects the outcome of the plot. Oberon plays a pivotal role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream through his many actions that affect different characters. “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). For example, the lovers’ conflict in the story is heavily affected by Oberon’s decision on the way to solve the problem. His solution further complicates the problem as Puck gives the potion to the wrong person under Oberon’s commands. In the text, Shakespeare writes, “A sweet Athenian lady is in love/ With a disdainful youth. Anoint his eyes, / But do it when the next thing he espies/ May be the lady.” (2.2.268-271).

This decision marks a pivotal part of the story as it leads Lysander and Demetrius to fight over Helena. However, during these events, Oberon does not have a physical involvement since he is just watching over them. Oberon’s actions relate to the theme of fantasy versus reality, as many of the characters struggle to determine what occurs in the story. In addition, Oberon writes another play involving his wife Titania, using the play within a playing technique. One of Oberon’s main goals in the play is to steal the little Indian boy from Titania. He is willing to do anything it will take to get what he wants. As a result, he decides to put the potion on her eyes and make her fall in with Bottom. Oberon states, “What thou seest when thou dost wake/ Do it for thy true love take. / Love and languish for his sake.” (2.2.33-35).

He has gained the ability to control characters to get what he wants, which allows him to play a similar role to Shakespeare, the writer. Subsequently, Oberon is important in affecting character development and advancing the plot. In conclusion, the play within a playing technique effectively produces a comedic factor and shows the pivotal role of Oberon within A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This technique is used in two different situations, which are important factors in the outcome of the play. Shakespeare was proficient in adding a hidden play within a playing technique to build on the character of Oberon. He also added a humorous and ironic play within a playing technique “to comment on the nature of art and theater” (Plays Within Plays). This technique purposely gains the audience’s attention and carries the same effect on many of his other literary works. 

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The Role of Theseus in Sheakspeare’s Play. (2023, Mar 24). Retrieved from