As long as there have been shows, there have been shows-within-shows. William Shakespeare popularized the trope with his comedies A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and The Taming of the Shrew, and writers have continued to play with contained narratives ever since. See Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, for example, and the movies Rushmore, Shakespeare in Love, and Birdman – to name just a few.
This construction of an alternative reality can serve a variety of purposes. Perhaps its creator is striving to make sense of their life and surroundings, perhaps they are attempting to rewrite history, or maybe they are seeking to glean something about their peers from their reactions. Often, the play within the play does a lot of the legwork on its own: it can act as a foreshadowing of impending events (see A Midsummer Night’s Dream) or as a self-fulfilling prophecy (see Black Swan).
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