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William Shakespeare’s Metadrama

‘Shakespeare’s plays reflect not life but art. ’ Make use of this remark in writing an essay on Shakespeare’s use of Metadrama. 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 essay’s definitions of Shakespeare’s 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 world’s 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”

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 playwright’s 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… ”

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 Shakespeare’s 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. This melodramatic over acting style however, is not that far removed from some of Shakespeare’s 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 Shakespeare’s and his contemporaries’ work well, and who would understand the parody. Performers throughout history have parodied one another’s 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. 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;” 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:” 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 Hamlet’s 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. Hamlet’s 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. Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king. ’ 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. ” 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

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