Shakespeare constantly plays with metadrama and the perception of his plays as theatre and not life with the complications inherent that in life we all play roles and perceive life in different ways. The play has recognition of its existence as theatre, which has relevance to a contemporary world that is increasingly aware of precisely how its values and practices are constructed and legitimised through perceptions of reality.
Critic Mark Currie posits that metadrama allows its readers a better understanding of the fundamental structures of narrative while providing an accurate model for understanding the contemporary experience of the world as a series of constructed systems. From this quote metadrama can be said to openly question how narrative assumptions and conventions transform and filter reality, trying to ultimately prove that no singular truths or meanings exist.
In respect to the plays of Shakespeare, critic John Drakakis supports this notion arguing that Julius Caesar may be read as a kind of metadrama: by figuring Caesar, Brutus, Cassius and others as actors, self consciously fashioning Roman politics as competing theatrical performances the play enacts the representation of itself to ideology, and of ideology to subjectivity. Moreover if the subjects within the fiction of Julius Caesar are radically unstable by virtue of their representations then so is the theatre whose function is to stage this instability.
This means that Julius Caesar fits within this essays definitions of Shakespeares work reflecting art not life, but also if we are to think of life in terms of people playing roles within their lives where All the worlds a stage , and perceiving reality in a myriad different ways then theatre reflects life reflecting art – a complication that students of Shakespeare would expect the Bard to enjoy. Feste in Twelfth Night exemplifies this notion, Nothing that is so is so (Act IV scene i, line 8)
Shakespeare uses Feste to foreground the artificiality of the complex theater and language systems that the audience absorbs, saying, Nothing that seems real is how you perceive it. It is a metadramatic irony that Shakespeare uses the fool to do this. Wordplay for the comedic fool and for Shakespeare is at the heart of their art. Shakespeare repeatedly draws attention to theatrical devices and mechanisms and foregrounds the fact that his plays are carefully constructed art. This essay examines the various metadramatic constructions that Shakespeare used to achieve this and examines the effect of these dramatic constructs for the audience.
Dramatic constructions were written to be presented and understood in performance. The nature of these constructions lies in how they are assembled. How the words work with and against each other ambiguity, paradox, pun, literary and cultural reference. Some aspects of the works are conscious, some unconscious but the playwrights intentions do not matter as we the audience view the art first and then the artist. There are certain conventions used in Elizabethan theatre. The audience needs to know how these conventions work before they can accept them.
As there were only two or three professional theatre groups operating at the time Shakespeare knew his audience and there is evidence to suggest that he wrote specifically for these people who no doubt kept returning because they enjoyed the way he wrote and the experience of the play. One convention which foregrounds the theatrical is the aside where for example Hamlet speaks very loudly so that the audience who may be ten meters away can hear him clearly and yet another person on the stage only three meters away cannot hear a word.
The audience accepts this as a known convention. The effect of this is that the audience continues to interpret and actively participate in the metadramatic constructs, and co-operating with the artificiality of the play thereby increasing their involvement and enjoyment in the play as a whole. Shakespeare is not afraid to parody his own work. When Hamlet meets the Players he begins to quote a passage. Note the style of the lines, The rugged Pyrrhus, like th Hyrcanian beast… (Act II, scene ii, line 425)
They are written in a pompous, mechanical formal style using exaggerated metaphors and similes: With eyes like carbuncles, the hellish Pyrrus / Old grandsire Priam seeks (Act II, scene ii, lines 438-440) This style was much used by Shakespeares earlier contemporaries, the sort of passionate speechifying Bottom makes use of in Midsummer:- That will ask some tears in the true performing of it: if I do it, let the audience look to their eyes; I will move storms, I will condole in some measure. To the rest: yet my chief humour is for a yrant: (Act I, scene ii lines 21-25) This melodramatic over acting style however, is not that far removed from some of Shakespeares earlier plays such as Titus Andronicus which critics have remarked is sometimes a little wooden, and as Midsummer was written before Hamlet we can surmise that Shakespeare was aware enough of his former style to be willing to parody it. Whilst Shakespeare may have found these lines a little flat, the Elizabethan audience would probably not find these lines as outmoded as a current audience might.
However it is certain that the style of the lines are in contrast to the style of Hamlet which makes them stand out. The effect of this is to foreground the theatrical for those audience members who knew Shakespeares and his contemporaries work well, and who would understand the parody. Performers throughout history have parodied one anothers work in this way. This parody of his own work is an appreciation of the concept that even his own perception of what is good work is changing. Not only do people perceive differently from each other but also differently from themselves over time.
In a wonderful self-reflective, self parody in Twelfth Night Fabian says, If this were played upon a stage now, I could Condemn it as an improbable fiction. (Act III, scene iv, line 126) Shakespeare overtly foregrounds the artificiality of his play. This emphasises the humour and absurdity of the farcical nature of the torment of Malvolio. Shakespeare enjoys toying with conventional theatre conventions and renders absurd the love at first sight myth by showing Titania to be in love with Bottom who has an Ass head.
Bottom says, Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason for that: and yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together now-a-days; (Act III, scene i, line 135) Love as a form of madness is a conventional notion in the drama of the period and is central to the understanding of Midsummer. In a wonderfully ironic line Titania replies, Thou art as wise as thou art beautiful (Act III, scene i, line 140). Bottom is known to the audience as being comically stupid and is obviously very ugly.
Nevertheless, at the same time the line is paradoxically true because of these very things. Shakespeare twists the convention through paradox to produce humorous results that could only take place in theatre. The dramatic construction Titania, is used to good effect in a metadramatic device, saying that the mortal world is in disorder because of immortals discord. Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer, The childing autumn, angry winter, change Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world, By their increase, now knows not which is which: (Act II scene i, line 134)
At the time of the first productions of this play the Elizabethans had endured many bad summers and so Titania and the play makes reference to a real life situation saying that the discord of fairy world upsets the weather in the mortal world. However, it is a fairy that crosses the divide between real and unreal to speak about Elizabethan reality. A twisting Shakespearean metadramatic construct that foregrounds the theatrical and its constructed interaction with reality. Perhaps the best example of this crossing the boundaries between art and real life is in Hamlet.
In Prince Hamlets soliloquy at the end of Act II scene ii lines 521-580 Hamlet is disgusted with himself because the actor could weep for Hecuba in the ancient story, but Hamlet “can say nothing; no, not for a king, / Upon whose property and most dear life / A damn’d defeat was made” (lines 542-545). He cannot act, upon a real life and more deserving incident. He continues by vilifying Claudius “bloody, bawdy villain! / Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain! ” (lines 554-555). Hamlet reproaches himself for his procrastination – for acting mad instead of acting on the revenge.
He then reflect on his own words, instead of doing anything, he “Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words (line 560) Now he is cursing because he is doing nothing but cursing, and he realizes it. He is actually acting like the melodrama of the Elizabethan period and it becomes like A part to tear a cat in – he is overacting. This is metadrama where an actor reproves himself for his acting in the real life of the play. Regular Elizabethan theatre goers would, no doubt have appreciated this sophisticated metadramatic construction.
Hamlets idea of using a play as a truth testing mechanism to see Claudius reaction to the murder is a wonderful example of uniting the themes of theatre and real life. the play’s the thing Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king. (Act II, scene ii lines 579-580) Hamlet thinks that Claudius reaction to theatre (the unreal) is sufficient to prove his guilt in the real world. However during the play itself he says to Claudius who is annoyed at the plot of the play: No. no, they do but jest; no offence I th / world. Act III, scene ii lines 221-222) Hamlet makes a metadramatic reference concerning the theatre crossing into reality saying that it is only theatre and cannot be taken seriously. This line can be seen as one of the reasons that Shakespeare used to excuse any sensitive material in his play that might have got him into trouble with certain audiences. Shakespeare sets plays in faraway, strange lands it is only England if you make it about England yourself. Some of content is politically sensitive, for example Coriolanus, Richard II and Julius Caesar.
The theatre is most like life in revealing that people play roles for example a man in the same day can be a father, a mechanic, a cook. Claudius has no moral right to the throne – he is only an actor. It is possible to say that all kings usurp a role at which they are not skilled, since they have never done it before. Hamlet says, He that plays the king shall be welcome; (Act II, scene ii, line 309) foregrounding this concept for the audience. PLAY WITHIN A PLAY Plays such as A Midsummer Nights Dream and Hamlet contain a play acted out within the play itself.
This draws attention to the devices of drama and plays with the notion of theatre. Shakespeare has actors in a play who play actors. DIRECT ADDRESS Actor can directly address audience as audience to foreground the fact that this is theatre. GHOSTS AND FAIRIES INTERTEXTUALITY The title A Midsummer Nights Dream where even this is obviously a metadramatic construct as if the title of a play could be anything else. The whole thing is obviously a dream and so therefore is not real and is made up. The sub-title What you will can be seen as a reference to perception.
Whilst being written by Will Shakespeare, whatever your perception of this play is acceptable and you may even name it as you see fit. The naming of characters is important. Theseus is from Greek myth where Ariadne helps Theseus defeat the minotaur. Theseus then betrays her by leaving her behind when he sails away. Theseus therefore has connotations for a learned audience of being a man willing to harm a lady. The effect of the metadramatic construction of naming the Duke Theseus is to heighten the audiences suspicion that harm may actually come to Hermia through his association with the Greek myth.
The name of the mechanicals for example Bottom is telling as Bottom is of a low class status, it has base humour connotations as in a persons posterior and as Bottom is a weaver it is a pun on yarn as in continuous thread and also a tale of incredible happenings. Shakespeare loved his compound puns and enjoyed showing how clever he was at constructing them. The Mechanicals in Midsummer further extend the range of metadramatic devices contained within the text. They take a mechanical approach towards the theory of representation.
They struggle with role play emphasizing its artificiality to the audience and so reminding them that they are watching a play. Quince knows so little of the conventions of theatre that he thinks the ladies may fear the lion played by Snug: – An you should do it too terribly, you would fright the duchess and the ladies, that they would shriek; and that were enough to hang us all. (Act I scene ii, lines 65-67) They fail to understand the illusion/reality conventions of performance which as performers provides humour to the play for the benefit of the audience.
Their function in Midsummer is to further the range of comedy and contrast the fairy world. The actors in Shakespeares troupe were used to playing comic roles and it is possible that Shakespeare wrote these into the play with specific actors and audiences in mind to enjoy. The mechanicals enter the wood and Quince says, for our rehearsal this green plot shall be our stage, this hawthorn-brake our tiring-house; (Act III scene i, lines 4-5,) The green plot both grass and plot of play is a combination of pun and metadramatic reference. The eye becomes linked to the idea of judgment and perception itself.
This is interwoven with the idea of metadrama and Shakespeare constantly plays with the idea of perception of the plays as theatre and not life with the complications inherent that in life we all play roles and perceive life in different ways. Hermia says in line 55 of Act I, scene i I would my father look’d but with my eyes. However, what she means is I wish my father looked with my perception. Shakespeare may well have considered that the magic of Oberon alters perception to love, whilst the magic of theatre is capable of altering perception in several different ways simultaneously.
Helena says in the last speech of Act I, scene i, And as he errs, doting on Hermia’s eyes, So I, admiring of his qualities: Things and vile, folding no quantity, Concerned with Lysanders perception of Hermia the way that Shakespeare presents his drama uses artful language systems with the use of alliteration (r sounds) and puns (eyes, I) which is obviously artistic expression and unlike real life, foregrounding the theatrical systems to the audience and allowing them to enjoy the magical/unreal theme.
This essay has examined the various CRITIC Patricia Waugh also provides a comprehensive definition by describing metafiction as “fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality”