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Story within a story

From Academic Kids

A story within a story is a literary device or conceit in which one story is told during the action of another story. 'Mise en abyme' is the French term for the same literary device (and also refers to the practice in heraldry of placing the image of a small shield on a larger shield). A story within a story can be used in novels, short stories, plays, television, films, poems, music, and even philosophy.

The inner stories are told either simply to entertain or more usually to act as an example to the other characters. In either case the story often has symbolic and psychological significance for the characters in the outer story. There is often some parallel between the two stories, and the fiction of the inner story is used to reveal the truth in the outer story. Often the stories are used to satirize views, not only in the outer story but also in the real world. The Itchy & Scratchy Show from The Simpsons and Terrance & Phillip from South Park both comment on the levels of violence and acceptable behaviour in the media and allow criticism of the outer cartoon to be addressed in the cartoon itself.

These stories may disclose the background of characters or events, tell of myths and legends which influence the plot, or even seem to be extraneous diversions from the plot. If a story is told within another, rather than being told as part of the plot, the motives and the reliability of the storyteller are automatically in question. The original author is regarded as a truthful even if he is telling fiction whereas an internal teller may alter or disguise details to make himself appear better. This allows the author to play with the reader's perceptions of the characters. In Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales the characters tell tales suited to their personalities and tell them in ways that highlight their personalities. The noble knight tells a noble story, the boring character tells a very dull tale and the rude miller tells a smutty tale.

In some cases, the story within a story is actually involved in the action of the plot of the outer story. An example is "The Mad Trist" in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher", where through somewhat mystical means the narrator's reading of the story-within-a-story influences the reality of the story he has been telling, so that what happens in the "Mad Trist" begins happening in "The Fall of the House of Usher". Also, in Don Quixote by Cervantes, there are many stories within the story which influence the hero's actions (there are others which even the author himself admits are purely digressive).

An inner story is often independent so that it can either be skipped over or read separately although many subtle connections may be lost. A commonly anthologised story is The Grand Inquisitor by Dostoevsky from his long psychological novel The Brothers Karamazov and is told by one brother to another to explain, in part, his view on religion and morality. It also, in a succinct way, explains many of Dostoevsky's own views.

A similar device known as a frame tale is when several short stories are linked together with another story about one or more fictional storytellers. An example of this is The Book of One Thousand and One Nights.

With the rise of literary modernism, writers experimented with ways in which multiple narratives might nest imperfectly within each other. A particularly ingenious example of nested narratives in a poetic context is James Merrill's 1974 poem "Lost in Translation".


Play within a play

This dramatic device was apparently first used by Thomas Kyd in The Spanish Tragedy around 1587, where it forms the spectacular resolution of the story. Kyd is also assumed to have used it in his lost Hamlet (the so-called Ur-Hamlet). In The Spanish Tragedy, Hieronimo is so convinced of the far-reaching consequences of his "revelation" that he predicts it will bring about the "fall of Babylon". In his use of the play within the play, Kyd seems to take Aristotle's idea of drama as catharsis to its apocalyptic conclusion.

William Shakespeare used this device notably in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Hamlet. In Shakespeare's Hamlet the Prince of Denmark Hamlet himself asks some strolling players to perform the Murder of Gonzago. The action and characters in the play mirror some of the events from the play Hamlet itself and the prince writes additional material to emphasise this. Hamlet wishes to provoke his uncle and sums this up by saying "the play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king." Hamlet calls this new play The Mouse-trap, a title Agatha Christie would later borrow for a long-running play.

When characters in a play perform on stage the action of another play, often with other characters forming an "audience", the audience in the theatre sometimes loses its privileged omniscient position because it is suddenly not clear who is in the play and who is in the play within. The device, then, can also be an ironic comment on drama itself, with inversions and reversals of its basic elements: actors become authors.

Alternatively, a play might be about the production of a play, and include the performance of all or part of the play, as in Noises Off or The Producers.

See also

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