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The Irrational Nature of Theater

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By the time A Midsummer Night’s Dream reaches its final act, the major conflicts of the play have already more or less been resolved. Thus, instead of serving its usual function, this comedy’s Act V offers the audience a chance to reflect on what they just watched. The play within a play in particular can be interpreted as illustrating Shakespeare’s vision of theater. He places his actors on a stage within a stage, a location where they can evade the official authority of the expectations of not only real life, but the relativistic “real life” shared by all the characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In this fantasy world of Pyramus and Thisbe the actors are free to speak in opposites, misnomers and ridiculous extremes, which forces their audience to try to tease some order from their disorder. This is consistent with how the audience should approach interpreting A Midsummer Night’s Dream: by understanding the nuances of the confused interactions of the characters from such a removed perspective, one can then, in the words of Theseus, “find the concord of [the] discord” within their own lives. (5.1.60) In this regard, Shakespeare’s theater serves as a simplified, “distilled” version of confused reality, in which, freed from the authority of the grossly murky ambiguities that haunt real life, the playwright deliberately arranges each line and stage direction so as to give the audience digestible art.

Two aspects of the language and plot of the play within the play make it this caricature of theater. First, the performance is colored by concrete irrational dualities that represent the disorder of the world as we understand it. The play aims to be both a comedy and a tragedy, the characters aim to be both actors and the characters they play, improper punctuation reveals double meanings of their lines, and Bottom goes so far as to mix up the senses of sight and sound. Second, the theatrical elements are both simplified and exaggerated to depict the disorder offered by the medium of theater more overtly than in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, allowing the audience to grasp more easily the purpose of the art. Examples of this “distilled” aspect include the straightforwardness of the action and motives of the character (such as the pure love between Pyramus and Thisbe), the overuse of flowery language, and the overacting on the part of the actors.

The most obvious duality of the play within the play is that it strives to be both a comedy and a tragedy. The very title of the performance bills it as “very tragical mirth.” (5.1.57) Egeus rationalizes this paradox by stating that while in plot the play is a tragedy, in that Pyramus kills himself, in execution it is a comedy, due to the ineptitude of the actors. However, the fact remains that the two genres are actually mutually exclusive ­ a play cannot have both a comedic and tragic resolution. Since the play attempts to do both, it causes the audience to think from a more removed level of analysis and reflect on the purpose and effect of theater. The confusion between lovers at the heart of Pyramus and Thisbe is analogous to the confusions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is as if Shakespeare is telling the audience that his play could just as easily have turned out the way the Peter Quince’s tragedy did, but did not. By squeezing both genres into one play, Shakespeare uses disorder to create an effect similar to that generated by a cubist painting ­ he shows the audience how perspective influences their approach to understanding an artistic work.

Another irrational doubling takes the form of the self-awareness of the actors. Tom Snout and Snug the Joiner both identify themselves by their actual names in addition to identifying their roles, preventing the audience from thinking about them in terms of one or the other. The members of the troupe go so far as to break character and engage the audience mid-scene. For example, in response to Theseus’s quip that the Wall should curse Pyramus, Bottom takes his statement at face value, replying “No, in truth, sir, he should not.” (5.1.180) In his response, a broken prose replaces the lyric verse of his actor voice, further emphasizing his doubled nature, as does his use of the grounding qualifier “in truth.” That Bottom fails to understand Theseus’s jest and instead interprets it on a literal level demonstrates how he is removed from the conventions of “real” communication. Similarly, Snug’s self-awareness is an ironic one, punctuated by his wearing of the lion suit so “half his face [is] seen through the lion’s neck.” (3.1.32-33) He acts conscious of how his roar will affect his audience, but while he fears it will frighten them, they instead mock his gentleness. The overall effect of this behavior on the part of the actors is a blurring of the lines between their two personae. This is another disorder which, by attempting to untangle it, the audience acquires an appreciation for unraveling the disorders of real life.

The garbled syntax and punctuation of the play, perhaps best represented by Peter Quince’s prologue, constitutes a third paradoxical confusion. His attempt at a well-mannered address becomes misconstrued into a self-parody as he “doth not stand upon points.” (5.1.118) For example, when he states, “If we offend, it is with our good will. / That you should think: we come not to offend,” the period at the end of the first line totally changes what he meant to say. (5.1.108-109) Instead of apologizing for his troupe in case they offend the audience, he says that it would be intentional. This passage can be likened to the optical illusion that looks like both a duck and a rabbit depending on how you look at it: the punctuation and delivery serve as hinges around which the meaning swivels. By comprehending the slipperiness of this “grammatical” illusion, the audience sees how it should take contextual parameters into effect when they go about discerning meaning from life.

The final layer of confusion demonstrated by the play within the play is that of the most fundamental aspect of understanding ­ sensory perception itself. Bottom, as Pyramus, confuses sight with sound: “I see a voice. Now will I to the chink / To spy an I can hear my Thisbe’s face.” (5.1.190-191) This synesthetic moment is as pure and simple of a misunderstanding as possible. As a character within the play, Bottom is unable to understand his mistake; only the distanced audience can. The audience is to take away from this the knowledge that they should be sure to question even their senses in trying to unravel confusions. Just as Lysander and Demetrius argued over the differences between the slight differences in appearance of Hermia and Helena and got caught up in the sensory aspect of the argument, we should be careful not to rely on possibly misleading or disordered sights and sounds.

Not only is Pyamus and Thisbe full of layers of disorder, but it also full of exaggerations of delivery that drive home the point that it is meant to serve as a distilled version of our actual reality, and that the distilled lessons we learn about understanding apply to our actual lives. Perhaps most prominent is the purity of the character’s motives and the simplicity of the story. Whereas A Midsummer Night’s Dream is filled with characters with convoluted agendas who must be manipulated to love each other properly, in this play it is a given that the lovers are simply one-dimensional lover stock characters. The plot is a very straightforward one as well, and Quince even warns the audience ahead of time how things will go. This short play is very easy to understand, unlike Shakespeare’s long play. The effect of this simplification of plot and characters is to make the play serve as an accessible symbol for all plays, so that when the audience learns how to appreciate it, they can appreciate the function of art in general.

The characters use language that also caricatures poetry to reinforce this point. In describing Pyramus’s suicide, Quince adopts a ridiculous amount of alliteration: “Whereat with blade ­ with bloody, blameful blade / He bravely broached his boiling bloody breast.” (5.1.145-146) Bottom similarly refers to the beams of the moon as “gracious, golden, glittering gleams.” (5.1.263) His speech to the night gets so caught up in the language it seems devoid of meaning: “O night with hue so black, / O night which ever art when day is not.” (5.1.167) This technique goes hand in hand with the overacting of the actors, in particular by Bottom. His death scene, in which he manages to rattle off six lines after initially stabbing himself, is absurdly overdramatic, and ends with him repeating “die” five times. (5.1.295) In sum, the extreme artificiality and over-the-top concentration of theatrical elements within the play makes it a symbol, albeit an ironic one, of art, which if one could decipher, one would know how to decipher all art.

By constructing a play within a play, Shakespeare affords himself the opportunity to reduce to essentials and comment on his craft by placing characters in an environment where they do not have to behave in accordance with their world. Shakespeare makes a point by condensing the types of disorders that compose the lives of people into a short and essential production that is meant to reflect the production in which it is planted. By watching and attempting to “find concord from the discord” embodied by the interactions of characters within a play, we can learn how to apply the same process to the disorder in our own lives ­ we are to watch life as we are to watch a play, and vice versa. This is consistent with Shakespeare’s own description of the poet, as delivered by Theseus at the beginning of the act:

“The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.” (5.1.12-17)

Like the poet, we are to use our imagination to master concepts (“create shapes”) from the unshaped, confused world in which we dwell.

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The Irrational Nature of Theater. (2018, May 14). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 2, 2020, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-theater-as-irrational-distillate-in-a-midsummer-nights-dream/
“The Irrational Nature of Theater.” GradesFixer, 14 May 2018, gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-theater-as-irrational-distillate-in-a-midsummer-nights-dream/
The Irrational Nature of Theater. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-theater-as-irrational-distillate-in-a-midsummer-nights-dream/> [Accessed 2 Dec. 2020].
The Irrational Nature of Theater [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2018 May 14 [cited 2020 Dec 2]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-theater-as-irrational-distillate-in-a-midsummer-nights-dream/
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