Photo: Kari Sarkkinen

Inner and outer narratives - a delightful mess of stories and storytelling


Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream consists of several parallel narratives. There is one angle focusing on the lovers (Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius), one focusing on the fairies (Tytania and Oberon), and yet another one focusing on the craftsmen, or, as they are called in the play, the Mechanicals. They are especially interesting to us, because their storyline is all about them rehearsing and performing the play ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’.

The concept of having a play within the play, or to put in another way, an inner narrative within an outer one, is not an unusual structure in theatre. From a scholarly perspective, this kind of literary device (called a mise en abyme by Lucien Dällenbach) refers to the use of an element within a work which mirrors the work as a whole. This is used in other types of art as well, for example by placing a mirror in a painting, showing us something that would otherwise not be in the picture. In theatre, the addition of a play within the play or a dream-sequence, are two examples of how the mise en abyme is used. An example of non-parodic mise en abyme can be found in another of Shakespeare’s plays: Hamlet (ca 1600). The inner play here is, similarly to ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’, a piece that already existed, and was probably still regularly performed during the time of Hamlet’s premiere. The play is used by Hamlet to figure out whether or not his uncle has murdered his father. He therefore alters the original play, called The Murder of Gonzago, so that it bears clear resemblance to the events that led to his father’s death, and renames it ‘The Mousetrap’. This play both sets the stage for coming events and retells the story of what has already happened. Further, with its old fashioned poetic language and performance style, it gives a sharp contrast to the outer drama.

We can find the mise en abyme in opera as well. Two examples of an ‘opera within the opera’ structure can be found in Richard Strauss’ (1864–1949) Ariadne auf Naxos (1912), and F. L. Gassmann’s (1729–1774) L’Opera Seria (1769). Both of these are comedies, portraying opera companies preparing and performing opera serias (tragedies). In Kaija Saariaho’s (b. 1952) L’Amour de loin (2000), the female lead has a dream which mirrors the frame narrative and also foretells the tragic ending.

The narrative tool of mise en abyme can serve many different purposes. It might be there to give some comical relief, or to set the stage for further events. Almost without exception though, the inner narrative is there to shed new light on the frame story. In the case of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fates of Pyramus and Thisbe bears clear resemblance to the story of Hermia and Lysander.


Merry and tragical, tedious and brief

‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ is the story of two young lovers who are forbidden to marry by their parents. They arrange to meet, but when Thisbe arrives, slightly before Pyramus, she sees a lion and runs away in fright. Her veil however gets left behind. When Pyramus arrives, he sees the veil and assumes that a wild beast must have killed Thisbe. He kills himself in despair, and when Thisbe returns to tell him what happened, she finds him dead on the ground. She then takes her own life with the same sword that Pyramus has used.

This story has been retold many times, the most famous interpretation is probably Shakespeare’s own Romeo and Juliet. When it is now inserted in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it can be viewed in several different lights: Partly, it is the tragedy balancing the comedy that is the outer story. It reminds us that love stories do not end well by default, and that the fate of our four lovers could very well have ended on a similar note, if Theseus had not decided to overrule Hermia’s father and if Demetrius had not been left under the influence of the drug. On the other hand, the rehearsal and performance of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ is definitely among the most hilarious parts of the entire A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Mechanicals are portrayed as really bad actors, and therefore it would seem like the whole thing is a parody of the original tragedy. In a way it is also a parody of Romeo and Juliet, which was written approximately three years before A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the opera version, Britten takes the element of parody one step further as he includes parodic versions of music from several famous composers.

A witty partition

Another way of looking at this, is by thinking about the concept of reality within the play. Here, we have to get back to looking at the entire story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is rather complex in its narrative – moving between the three main storylines but also altering them and changing perspectives until we almost lose track of what we are watching. The character Puck is the one who leads us through the whole plot. He is interacting with all three groups of people, constantly meddling with the action on stage. The story of the lovers begins on one note, but then, under the influence of Puck’s magic potion, it suddenly changes direction entirely. Some might argue that this as well could be seen as a play within the play – this time one that is written and directed by Oberon and Puck. Furthermore, the story of Tytania and Oberon gets side-tracked when Oberon bestows the drug upon his wife, and she becomes enamored with one of the Mechanicals, whom Puck has given the head of an ass.

In a sense, all three storylines have a sub story of some kind. In addition to this, we also have short moments of storytelling, like when Bottom or Hermia recalls their dreams. Shakespeare constantly shifts our perspective of what is real and not – sometimes the characters are themselves, but at other times they are under the influence of something that makes them behave in an uncharacteristic way, and sometimes they are simply acting a different character. By doing this, Shakespeare blurs our perception of what is real and not, and in a way that might bring us closer to the story. After all, the characters on stage are constantly struggling to keep up with what is going on, so it is only fair that we get a bit of that as well.


“I, one Snug the joiner, am a Lion”

Within all these different layers of reality, the addition of Pyramus and Thisbe explores the whole basis of make-believe of theatre. When the Mechanicals constantly feel the need to explain what they are supposed to play, there is an extra comic effect in their actions – everyone knows that the guy playing the lion is not a lion, but we in the audience also know that he is not a joiner; he is actually an actor (or in our case, an opera singer), pretending to be a joiner who pretends to be a lion. In Shakespeare’s time, since women were not allowed on stage, we would also have had the difference between the young men playing Hermia, Helena and Tytania, and the man playing Flute/Thisbe. All of them were to portray women on stage, but while the first three simply were men portraying women, the fourth one was supposed to portray a man portraying a woman.

In the very end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck steps out to deliver the epilogue, where he asks the audience forgiveness if we do not like the play. He suggests that if we did not like it, we should just think that what we’ve seen has been visions while we slumbered in the hall, and then all will be mended. While it was common during Elizabethan times for the plays to end with a similar apology, it is also a clear reference to the play we’ve just seen, and a reminder of what the Mechanicals have told us earlier; theatre is not real – and if we did let ourselves get lost in the story, it was all just A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


Text: Ylva Gruen