Comparing A Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet


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A Midsummer Night's Dream is, in a way, Romeo and Juliet turned inside out--a tragedy turned farcical. The tragedy both are based on is the story of "Pyramus and Thisbe." In one, Ovid's story is treated as a melodrama (in Romeo and Juliet) and in another, it is fodder for comedy (in A Midsummer Night's Dream).

 

The tale of "Pyramus and Thisbe" is simply told in Book IV of Metamorphoses. The title characters are in love with one another, but they cannot be together because they are separated by a wall. More importantly though, they are separated by their parents who forbid the relationship to progress. The two lovers will not be denied and so plan to meet in secret one night. However, each arrives at the arranged rendezvous point at different times, and this complicates things. Pyramus arrives after Thisbe, but she is hidden from sight at that moment, and he believes she has been eaten by a lion because he finds a bloody scarf of hers, so he kills himself. When Thisbe comes out of hiding, she finds her beloved dead and, too, commits suicide.

 

All this is certainly very sad and pathetic. So what better story to base a melodramatic play on? Shakespeare does just that in Romeo and Juliet. He uses Pyramus and Thisbe, borrowing their plight of being separated by parents, their clandestine relationship, and their suicides.

 

Through this, he satisfies the qualities of melodrama. Romeo and Juliet wrings a good cry out of audience members probably every time it is performed. That is because it is easy to identify with the "star-crossed lovers" and the fact they are kept from what they want most. Empathy plays a major role, as much as any of the characters. It almost makes the audience part of the play. The spectator is part of the action in essence, rooting for the good guys, for "us," and not "them," the bad guys.

 

However, the protagonists do not win in the end. This is yet another melodramatic quality found in both "Pyramus and Thisbe" and in Romeo and Juliet. It seems that they should, and will, be together in the end and be allowed to love each other freely, but that is not the way it turns out. Instead, the young lovers are dead by play's end because of pride and hate. The entire audience watching this spectacle is left feeling the same way and asks, "But why couldn't they just be together?

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     Yet in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the same story of "Pyramus and Thisbe" is found altogether laughable. Melodrama turns to comedy, especially in the way actors handle perform it and the way Shakespeare has created new characters from nowhere, and not even human characters at that. Pyramus and Thisbe are suddenly joined by Wall, Moonshine, and Lion, who each introduces himself. Lion even goes so far as to explain that he is not really a lion, just an actor playing a lion (so as to not frighten the ladies)!

 

In addition to these comic elements, what is really surprising is that the tragedy of "Pyramus and Thisbe," as performed in A Midsummer Night's Dream, follows nearly all the stages of comedy. An obstacle is provided in the form of the parents' decree that their children cannot be together. Wall acts a blocking figure, in the most literal sense, and the parents, then, are the establishment figures. Complication ensues when Pyramus mistakenly thinks Lion has eaten Thisbe. There is even a discovery when Thisbe, it turns out, was not really eaten at all. Yes, she and Pyramus still take their own lives in this play within a play, and that is not much in the form of celebration, of course. However, the mechanicals are asked to omit the epilogue to their play and instead perform a dance; certainly, that can count as a festive activity in terms of being celebratory.

 

Ovid's tale, then, was told in one to draw out tears, a kind of catharsis, and in another for laughs. Shakespeare handled both of these perspectives deftly, using the story of "Pyramus and Thisbe" in Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream to great success. This demonstrates how a story can be told in widely different manners as one would like, that is, if it is done well.


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