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Michael Haase
Prof.
ENGL 320
Nov. 5, 2016
The Purpose and Effects of Metatheatre in
Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream
Elements of metatheatre seem much out of place in a piece such as A Midsummer’s Night

Dream by Shakespeare. With the theme and plot concerning the nature of love and the comedy

revolving around a romantic intrigue, there seems to be little correspondence between the action

of the story and the meta sub-plot involving the “rude mechanicals”. Indeed, with the

denouement of the main conflict occurring in the fourth act and the sub-plot continuing into the

fifth act, the elements of metatheatre in the play appear superfluous and raise questions as to the

purpose of its existence. It’s thus, owing to the dissonance between the main and sub-plots, that

an examination into the sub-plot is necessary for understanding the play overall as the sub-plot

essentially transforms the play as whole; one couldn’t accurately interpret the meaning of the

play without analyzing the meta elements as well. Without them the play would reside solely in

the literary genre of comedic fantasy-romance. With the addition of the sub-plot however, it

transcends to become a meta-commentary of art and social class. The moral and themes of the

plot change when the sub-plot is introduced: meta elements are used in this play to comment on

theatre and art in general while also paying homage to patrons of the arts. With the artisans in the

play representing the subordinate class and Theseus and Hippolyta representing the aristocracy,

Shakespeare is able to pay tribute to his benefactors and insert a message about the role social

class plays in the production of art in a play primarily about fairies and quarreling lovers. In sum,

the introduction of meta elements into the play alters how one interprets it by shifting the focus

from a romantic satire to a parody of art and class.
Art and class had gone hand-in-hand during the Renaissance. Establishing relationships

with wealthy patron has been the traditional means of acquiring fame and success since time
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immemorial. Michelangelo would not have been as successful without the support of Pope Julius

II, and Gaius Maecenas of Rome assisted famous classical poets such as Virgil and Horace, to

give a few examples. Patronage was essential in building social status as much then as it still is

today, as without it artists would go generally unnoticed regardless of talent or skill. The

foundation of art as it is known today was established upon patronage. Needless to say,

Shakespeare was no exception to the rule and required support from several royal or noble

dignitaries. In some instances, he even performed in front of the English monarch such as during

the premier of his play, The Tempest, which was first staged before James I. In the play, A

Midsummer’s Night Dream, Shakespeare was able to express his acknowledgement and gratitude

towards such benefactors by integrating characters like Theseus and Hippolyta. The role of these

characters consists mainly of observing the action of the plot, particularly the stage performance

of act V. Thus, they create a parallel between themselves and the audience who are observing the

play itself. In order to show appreciation for his supporters he gave these characters exalted

characteristics such as nobility and command. “’The battle with the Centaurs, to be sung
by an Athenian eunuch to the harp.’ We’ll none of that. That have I told my love, In glory of my

kinsman Hercules. ‘The riot of the tipsy Bacchanals, tearing the Thracian singer in their rage.’
That is an old device, and it was played. When I from Thebes came last a conqueror,” (5.1.43). In

this instance, Theseus is described as kin to Hercules, and proud conqueror. Moreover, Theseus

later says, “The kinder we, to give them thanks for nothing. Our sport shall be to take what they

mistake,” (5.1.83). Here, he proves himself not only kind and generous but also patient and

understanding.
With A Midsummer’s Night Dream Shakespeare was able to pay speak indirectly to these

benefactors through the means of the characters Theseus and Hippolyta, personages which his

supporters would’ve been able to identify with through their similarity in position. As

metafiction functions to speak to the audience whether directly or indirectly, by arranging a
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parallel between the play and the reality, members of the audience are able to recognize

themselves in the characters they’re witnessing. This is how they’re able to receive the message.

Shakespeare’s message in this case concerns the need for the support that artisans require and the

expectation of patricians to furnish artisans with the means of producing works of art. As he

portrays Theseus and Hippolyta as royalty willing to deign to humor artistic performances,

despite their mediocrity, he paints a model of the responsible spectator; Although Philostrate

says, “No, my noble lord. It is not for you,” (5.1.70), Theseus remarks, “I will hear that play. For

never anything can be amiss When simpleness and duty tender it,” (5.1.76). Shakespeare means

to say that a performance should be appreciated for the effort put into it, regardless of the quality

of the execution.
To further honor his patrons, Shakespeare humbles himself and the artisan in general via

analogy to clumsy peasants. Where the spectators are given lofty attributes, the actors are

literally made out to be asses. They’re inept, naïve, and haven’t even a complete understanding

of the story they’re acting out: “Marry, our play is The most lamentable comedy and most cruel

death of Pyramus and Thisbe. A very good piece of work, I assure you, and a merry,” (1.2.5).

Through belittling himself in this way, Shakespeare makes his audience seem elevated.
Not to shame himself entirely however, Shakespeare is sure to give these characters

qualities such as diligence, devotion, sincerity, and respect for their audience. Shakespeare

depicts the artisan as a dutiful servant his patrons, dedicated to his work and concerned with the

happiness of his audience.
With this information in mind, one’s interpretation of theater is shaped from being simply

actors and spectators to obligated workers functioning in a hierarchical scheme; goods passing

circularly with one class producing for the other and vice-versa. Shakespeare reminds the

audience that no person can exist in society without having some function or effect. Without

patronage, the artisans would not have the means to work, and without art, society would lack
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the relish and décor that people enjoy. Thus Shakespeare illustrates the responsibilities attached

to class through his representation of social hierarchy in the play.

http://galileo.rice.edu/lib/student_work/florence96/jessdave/patronage.html