Date:October 29, 1992
Class:Literature & Arts A-40a, Harvard University
Comments: When you read all of Shakespeare's plays over the course of a single year, you tend to have to write a great deal about him. Part of the assignment for this paper was to analyze the way language was used to influence the mood of a scene.
  Thematically, it deals with the use of a play within a play. If I remember correctly, the assignment here was to compare the use of language in at least two different plays.
Hook: Like all Harvard students, I eventually learned that it pays to entertain your TF. They have to slog through tons of papers, so the more fun you can make it for them, the better for you. I think this is the first paper where I did this consciously. It helped that I liked the TF.


“If you could deal with your reflection,
I’m sure you’d see into my eyes.”
   —Ozzy Osbourne

In the play internal to Midsummer Night’s Dream, Pyramus and Thisbe, Shakespeare comments on Midsummer obliquely, making Pyramus and Thisbe tell the story of Romeo and Juliet, which itself serves as commentary on Midsummer. Pyramus and Thisbe is the story of Romeo and Juliet but using language to butcher it into absurd comedy, much as Midsummer Night’s Dream is Romeo and Juliet but using variation on outcome to make it comic.

Pyramus and Thisbe tells the story of two lovers: a man who kills himself when he thinks his love dead, and a woman who rises from a faux-death only to stab herself into a real one upon finding her love dead. On the other hand, Romeo and Juliet tells the story of two lovers: a man who kills himself when he thinks his love dead, and a woman who rises from a faux-death only to stab herself into a real one upon finding her love dead. Both are tragic plays; only the utterly inept execution of the play by Peter Quince’s troupe makes Pyramus and Thisbe funny. The Quince production is a direct parody of the style, words and forms of Romeo and Juliet.

Romeo and Juliet begins with a classic Shakespearean sonnet informing the audience of what they will be seeing on stage. It is flawlessly constructed and classically rhymed. Each line, generally speaking, is a complete phrase, rolling smoothly in iambic pentameter, its innate nobility announcing that this will be a tale to rend our souls. The few irregular spondaic feet, such as those in “Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean” (The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Oxford University Press, 1988, R & J I.i.4), are utilized not only to emphasize the words spoken, but also to call attention to the unnaturalness of the situation which is to develop on stage. The dual meaning of “civil” drives home the point that something really tragic is going to happen, that decorous behavior is giving way to family conflict. The structured order of the prologue, however, manages to control the madness, serving as counterpoint to the anarchy which is to follow.

Quince's opening prologue, however, is anarchy itself. Though only ten lines long, it holds just enough of the rhyme scheme and line construction to remind us of a sonnet. As a sonnet, however, it is castrated at best. It’s base meter is just consistent enough to suggest that it is iambic, but it is riddled with spondaic, trochaic and anapestic feet, seemingly at random. Some lines defy all attempts at scansion, such as “Consider then that we come but in despite. / We do not come as minding to content you / Our true intent is. All for your delight” (Mid. V.i.112-114) which, even in their most sane form, require the strangeness of bacchic and anapestic feet. This pseudo-sonnet is a nightmarish riot of punctuated lines, shattering the phrase by phrase beauty of its tragic clone’s prologue. The bizarre splits in the above line make us as unsettled in hearing them as un-actor Quince must be in delivering them. The rhyme scheme—rhyming oft-rhymed, monosyllabic words and even words to themselves (“you” and “you”)—is designed to be pathetic to show that Quince is pathetic. All of this contributes to stealing the edge from the tragic story of Pyramus and Thisbe, distracting us to laughter with ineptness.

This same technique, nullifying the tragic outcome with moronic poetry, acting and form, is used to mockingly mirror scenes from Romeo and Juliet. When Juliet discovers Romeo’s dead body, she no sooner sees it dead than she tries to bring about her own death, welcoming it. “O churl,” she says in noble iambic pentameter, “drunk all, and left no friendly drop / To help me after? I will kiss thy lips.” (R & J V.iii.163-164) This statement is made all the more tragic by Romeo’s still warm lips, making the audience weep with ‘if only’s. By contrast, Thisbe approaches the recent suicide which had been her lover with “Asleep, my love? / What, dead, my dove?” (Mid. V.i.319-320) and then goes on a sophomoric poetry jaunt, using color and plants to describe her love’s facial features. Again, lines spoken in a horrendous situation sounding absurd due to their lack of pattern and simple rhyme. To end it, there is no “happy dagger” for Thisbe, no erotic suicide and noble tragic death. For her there is only “And farewell friend, / Thus Thisbe ends. / Adieu, adieu, adieu.” (340-342)

Tripling words like this is another device which makes us laugh by illustrating the ineptness of the Quince production. A word repeated twice, used sparingly and cleverly, can add just enough emphasis to bring out tragic meaning— the “civil” line above, for example. Romeo expresses his love to Juliet when parting with “Adieu, adieu” (III.v.59), and we believe his love, the single repetition strengthening it. Repeated three times, however, a feeling is generated that the speaker, intending to be real and dramatic, instead become false and melodramatic; the the writer of the line wanted it to mean something, but lacked the creativity to make it believable, or even mediocre. Pyramus ends life on a note as equally melodramatic as Thisbe’s death, although just three repetitions weren’t enough for him, he being the star of the play and all. Only after five repetitions of “die” (V.i.301) does he expire (a fact made a bit more humorous to the reader by the stage direction “He dies” to the right of the line). Earlier, Pyramus frets “O night, O night, alack, alack, alack.” (170) Again, a line meant to show the despair Pyramus feels falls short of its goal and drives the audience to smile, and, lest the reader miss the point of its stupidity, Shakespeare surrounds the line with a full ten “O”s staring out like the baleful eyes of some trite metaphor.

In Pyramus’ night speech, Shakespeare pulls in yet another element with which to parody Romeo and Juliet: that of thematic symbols, in this case, night. In both Romeo and Juliet and its comedic twin, night becomes an amorphous place where anything might occur. Juliet embraces it for this reason, waiting for its cover to undertake illicit love. “Civil”, she calls it, and “black” (III.ii.9), “gentle” and “loving” together with “black-browed” (20). Later, night is given “horrible conceit” (IV.iii.36) because it is unpredictable when Juliet would like it to be predictable. By comparison, the day is early on called “tedious” (27) and structured. Later, when the situation is more desperate, Romeo indicates that the day will ruin them (III.v.36), because if they are found within it, it’s inflexible laws will kill their love. Though we never see day in Pyramus and Thisbe, night is equally random, filled with lion attacks, love, and death.

Night’s unpredictability in the two plays is perhaps the most direct reference to Midsummer Night’s Dream made by Pyramus and Thisbe. Night in Midsummer is also a mercurial landscape where loves are targeted to hates and vice-versa, where men become beasts and where you’re never sure if you are dreaming. When the day breaks on the four lovers, they are confused, and therefore still think it is night: “It seems to me / That yet we sleep, we dream.” (IV.i.191-191) The use of night in Midsummer and Pyramus and Thisbe complement each other, serving the standard purpose for which Shakespeare utilizes plays within plays, but by so crassly spoofing Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare makes the latter play’s comparison with Midsummer unavoidable. Romeo and Juliet and Midsummer Night’s Dream are essentially the same play with different resolutions. Both feature a daughter who rebels for love, and either play (at least plot-wise) could have been made a tragedy, by killing off everyone, or a comedy, by everyone’s living happy ever after.

In some ways, this duality is evident in the reaction of the plays to the characters in them. In Romeo and Juliet, no one left alive at the end has a shred of understanding of what has just happened, and, likewise, the characters of Midsummer have understood nothing about what has occurred both in their lives and in the play they witness at the end. Throughout Romeo and Juliet, gold and references to gold and money are used in negative ways, purchasing death for example, and as a contrast to good, musical silver. “It is ‘music with her silver sound’ because musicians have not gold for sounding.” (IV.iv.165-166) The pun here on gold means, obstensibly, money, but it also infers that because musicians are not associated with gold, they can produce a beauty unproducible were they instead contaminated with it. It is therefore the ultimate tragedy when Montague offers to raise a statue of Juliet in pure gold (V.iii.298), proving that he and Capulet had no clue about for what their children died. In the same vein, Theseus and company miss the point of Pyramus and Thisbe when they prevent the epilogue. “No epilogue, I pray you; for your play needs no excuse. Never excuse; for when the players are all dead there need be no to be blamed.” (V.1.349-351) They sit unaware that the play could have just as easily described them, had events conspired against them. Theseus, and the rest as well, speak throughout Pyramus and Thisbe in prose. All rhyming and other verse from before, and with it perception, is gone. As for Quince’s troupe, there is never doubt that they are clueless as to what is happening, their inept acting providing testament.

Further linking the two main plays through Pyramus and Thisbe is the theme of impatience. Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet are filled with both waiting and interruptions. Juliet is constantly waiting impatiently for night to come:

Gallop apace, you firey-footed steed,
Towards Phoebus’ lodging. Such a waggoner
As Phaëton would whip you to the west
And bring in cloudy night immediately. (R & J III.ii.1-4)

Her plea is brimming with words of speed: “gallop apace”, “firey”, “whip”, “Phaëton” (not just the god, but a reference to a swift four-wheeled chariot), “immediately”. These words make us as impatient as she. Immediately following this speech, Juliet has a second dialogue with her Nurse in which the Nurse takes so long to get to the point that you’ve almost forgotten why she is talking. The audience wishes to (like Juliet does) scream at her “What devil art thou that dost torment me thus?” When the nurse finally does tell the story, it is of something which we have already seen, repeated again and making us even more impatient.

Likewise, Theseus waits for his wedding day with phrases invoking plodding endless journeys:

Four happy days bring in
Another moon—but O, methinks how slow
This old moon wane! She lingers my desires
Like a stepdame or a dowager
Long withering out a young man’s revenue (Mid. I.i.2-6)

Again, the speech is ripe with temporal words: “slow”, “old”, “lingers”, “stepdame or a dowager” (both references to the aged), “long withering”. We are meant to feel the time moving as slowly as he does. The whole play, in fact is crammed with time references, centered around Hermia’s deadline, which enhances the feeling of impatient time-awareness by constantly reminding us of it. Midsummer also uses repetition to make this point, with Puck telling Oberon what he has done, Oberon telling Titania what she did while drugged, and so on. Even the humans are not immune, saying “And by the way let us recount our dreams.” (IV.i.197)

The audience is fairly bludgeoned with impatience in all forms during Pyramus and Thisbe, an effect which serves to tie each play to the others. In Pyramus and Thisbe, not only are the characters impatient, commenting to the viewer on the play, but the characters these characters play are impatient as well. Pyramus is as impatient for the end of night as Juliet was for its coming, and the two lovers are impatient with kissing through the wall. After a rapid fire exchange, Pyramus and Thisbe agree to meet “straightaway” (V.i.201) and “without delay”, (202) speeding actions as all the other main characters do in the three plays. At the same time, Bottom continually breaks character to interrupt and explain the play, which shows not only his impatience, but makes the characters of the larger play, as well as we the audience, impatient as well.

This theme of impatience, as well as the language, action of form of the Quince production, serves to connect Pyramus and Thisbe to Romeo and Juliet. By virtue of starting within Midsummer Night’s Dream, this connection, as well as parallel themes, connect these two major plays as commentary on each other. Midsummer Night’s Dream is essentially the story resulting if one gave Romeo and Juliet a happy ending, a point which is made explicit in Quince’s troupe’s unwittingly comical corruption of Pyramus and Thisbe.

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