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ACT V, SCENE 1
The scene is set in the palace of Theseus, where the Duke, Hippolyta, Philostrate, and the other lords have assembled. Hippolyta speaks about the strange story of the two pair of lovers. Theseus dismisses the story as a figment of their imagination, because according to him, "The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact." Lysander, Demetrius, Hermia, and Helena then enter "full of joy and mirth." Theseus greets them saying, "joy and fresh days of love / Accompany your hearts!" Lysander returns the greeting.
Theseus calls for entertainment. Philostrate provides him with the list of what is available and asks him to choose. When Theseus reads about "a tedius brief scene of young Pyramus and his love Thisbe: a very tragical mirth," he is amused and curious. He exclaims: "Merry and tragical! tedius and brief!" He wants to know how to find concord out of this discord. When Philostrate tells him more about the play, Theseus decides to see it. Philostrate tells him that the play is worthless, but Theseus has made up his mind. Philostrate, therefore, ushers in the craftsmen, dressed for their parts.
In this play within the play, Quince and his men present their "most lamentable comedy." It starts with Quince reading the prologue and introducing the characters. The royal audience, knowing what to expect, makes witty remarks. Snout comes out as the wall; he holds up his fingers to indicate the "crack" through which Pyramus and Thisbe are to whisper to each other. Bottom enters as Pyramus; when he does not see Thisbe, he curses the wall. Theseus remarks, "The wall, methinks, being sensible should curse again." Bottom forgets that he is acting in the play and turns to the Duke; he explains that the wall is not to speak because it is Thisbe's turn to speak. The play proceeds in this humorous vein, causing much light-heartedness amongst the audience. At the end, Bottom offers the audience a choice, whether they would like an epilogue or a Bergomask dance. The Duke says, "No epilogue, I pray you; for your play needs no excuse." He begs for the Bergomask.
The Duke announces that it is midnight, "almost fairy time." It is time for him and Hippolyta to retire to bed. He announces, however, that the marriage celebrations will go on for a week "in nightly revels and new jollity." After Theseus departs, Puck enters, followed by Oberon and Titania. Oberon tells the fairies to sing the song after him, and Titania adds, "Hand in hand, with fairy grace / Will we sing, and bless this place." The fairies bless the bridal beds; then Puck speaks an epilogue: "If we shadows have offended / Think but this, and all is mended." He entreats the audience to treat the play as though it were a dream and to "give me your hands, if we be friends / And Robin shall restore amends." With this light note, the play comes to an end.
In this last scene the plot comes to its happy ending. Theseus and Hippolyta, Hermia and Lysander, and Helena and Demetrius are all happily married, and Theseus declares that the wedding celebration will go on for a week. The fairies (Puck, Oberon, and Titania) come in at midnight, to bless the bridal beds, in keeping with an old English tradition. It is obvious that the quarrel between the fairy king and queen has been fully resolved, for they are happy to sing and dance together as they bless the marriages.
The sub-plot, centered on the craftsmen, also ends happily. Bottom is not "transported" as they had feared, but arrives in time to save the interlude. Not surprisingly, the Duke chooses to see the play even though Philostrate, the master of ceremonies, says it is worthless; Theseus is fascinated with the title and wants to see a "tragical mirth."
When Peter Quince presents his play, Shakespeare uses the opportunity to parody many of the stage productions of his day. It was still the practice in Elizabethan times to introduce the play and important characters in the form of a lengthy prologue, similar to the chorus in classical Greek drama. Even though Shakespeare employed the prologue in some of his earlier plays, he stopped the practice early in his career. For example, A Midsummer Night's Dream dives into the action, with no prologue. By making Peter Quince present an elaborate and laborious prologue, Shakespeare is laughing at this dramatic practice.
Several changes have been made in the play from the time of the rehearsal (Act I scene ii) to the time of the final production. Starveling was to play Thisbe's mother, but in the actual interlude, he plays Moonshine, with Thisbe's mother being dropped. Snout, who was originally assigned the role of Pyramus's father, becomes the wall in the play. Quince was to play Thisbe's father, but instead he reads the prologue. It is impossible to know if the changes were intentional. The changes could have been erroneously captured in the written version of the play, or Shakespeare could have made the changes deliberately because as a dramatist he would have experienced the difference between the preparation and the final presentation of a play.
During the play within a play, the language is labored and the cause for much mirth. From time to time, the audience cannot help making comments. When Snout, the wall, speaks his part, Theseus remarks, "Would you desire lime and hair to speak better?" When the audience wonders if the lion would also be made to speak, Demetrius replies, "One lion may, when many asses do." When finally Pyramus and Thisbe kill themselves, Theseus comments that the "moonshine and the lion" are left to bury the dead. At the end of the play, Theseus announces that they should all go to bed since they have "over watched" during the night.
The introduction of the fairies at the end of the play is one of Shakespeare's masterstrokes of plot construction. After just watching the world of the craftsman, the world of the gentry announces that it is midnight, "fairy time." Almost on cue, the fairies appear, bringing the three worlds together once again, this time in Athens rather than in the woods. When the fairies bless the beds of the wedded gentry, it is the perfect culmination to the play. The action has reached a happy and logical conclusion, with no loose strings left hanging. As always, Shakespeare has unified his plot, by beautifully weaving together the three disparate worlds of the play. The outcome is a delightful romantic comedy.