The Shakespeare Institute
MA "Shakespeare and Theatre"

Module # 1 - Shakespeare's Theatre
Essay #1
Explore the Metatheatricality in Hamlet.

          William Shakespeare was not only a playwright and a poet; he was also an actor and a shareholder in a theatre company and two theatres.  While all playwrights use the conventions and resources of theatre on the stage to bring the world of their plays to life, Shakespeare also used the world and the language of theatre itself, on the page and within the text of his plays, to add multiple levels of complexity to his characters and a sense of connection for his audiences.  Ian McKellan, in John Barton's Playing Shakespeare, explains:

                    Perhaps it's because Shakespeare himself was an actor that he uses the
                    metaphor of the actor and of the theater so often in his plays.  Often when
                    a character is at the peak of his emotional problems he compares himself
                    with an actor: "struts and frets his hour upon the stage."  This has a wonderful
                    resonance for an audience... 

This metatheatricality is so seamlessly integrated into the dramatic context of Shakespeare's plays that it bridges the gap between art and life, actor and audience, pretence and reality.   More than most writers, Shakespeare was totally immersed in the world of theatre, and all his plays are filled with theatrical metaphors and images.  In none of these, however, is this metatheatricality more evident than in Hamlet

          Shakespeare has created in Hamlet an entire work infused with metatheatre.  Anne Barton, in her introduction to the 1980 Penguin edition of Hamlet called the play "unique in the density and pervasiveness of its theatrical self-reference."  Allusions to theatre and acting in Hamlet can be found in a variety of forms throughout the text.  The first and most obvious of these is his direct use of theatre.  The Players  their relationship with Hamlet, their performances and the effects of these on the action  bring the world of theatre directly into the world of the play.  The court's interactions with them show a strong familiarity with and understanding of theatre as well as its importance and place in their own lives.  The Murder of Gonzago, a play-within-a-play, is not, as in Taming of the Shrew, just a convenience to allow an induction that introduces and provides a framework for the main action.  It is very much a major element of the plot mirroring the events of the play and allowing Hamlet to use theatre not only to reflect those events, but also to affect them directly.  Theatrical metaphors and images, a second form of metatheatricality, abound in Hamlet. Shakespeare has filled its pages with words such as perform, act, show, prologue, play, applaud, part, prompted, cue, and globe.  Hamlet, on hearing his father's Ghost beg him to "remember me", responds, "Remember thee? / Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat / In this distracted globe." (1.5.95-7).   Gertrude reflects, "To my sick soul, as sin's true nature is, / Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss." (4.5.17-18).  These metaphors are a more subtle form of metatheatricality and more integrated into the fabric of the text, but they help to form a continuous theatrical context.  References to contemporary theatre are also evident throughout the play.  Polonius is proud of his stint as an actor in the University, when he announces, "I did enact Julius Caesar.  I was killed i' the Capitol." (3.2.96), a reference, perhaps, to the possibility that the same actor who played Polonius in Shakespeare's original production had also played Caesar in Shakespeare's earlier play.  Polonius sees himself as a theatre critic, apparently as common in Shakespeare's day as in our own, at first relishing his announcement of the arrival of the "tragedians of the city" and his recitation of their playing credits in "tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral" (2.2.421-2) and then endlessly critiquing the First Player's performance.  Shakespeare's knowledgeable and appreciative audiences would have enjoyed both of these contemporary references.  Finally, and less obviously, Shakespeare has embedded subtle stage directions into his text that encourage the actors in certain moments to perform in a self-consciously theatrical style.  Claudius addresses the court as though performing before an audience, Ophelia's mad scene appears much like a private act for the benefit of Claudius and Gertrude, and the Gravedigger's scene seems nothing so much as a vaudeville routine.

          As important as these self-referential aspects of metatheatricality are in Hamlet, they are only the most visible instances of this dramatic device.  On a deeper level, Hamlet, in itself, can be envisioned as a play inside a play.  One of the major themes of Hamlet is the conflict and contrast between truth and illusion, honesty and pretence, reality and appearance.  Nothing in this play is what it seems.  Claudius, Polonius and ultimately Hamlet himself each take on the role of master of the play, director, choreographer or even playwright.  Elsinore is more than just a castle; it is, figuratively if not literally, a stage on which the performance takes place.  Almost every major character, except Horatio, becomes an actor playing a role.  Claudius, a murderer, adulterer, and usurper of the throne, plays the loving subject, brother and uncle and the rightful ruler of Denmark.  Gertrude plays the loving wife of King Hamlet, even as she marries his brother and murderer with "unseemly haste," and the happy and serene "imperial co-jointress" to the throne even as she subconsciously represses her own guilt over her actions.  The Ghost is ordered by Horatio to "Stay, illusion!" (1.1.139) and even Hamlet wonders whether it might not be what it seems: "The spirit I have seen / May be the devil, and the devil hath power / T'assume a pleasing shape"(2.2.587-9).  Polonius, a wily and experienced politician, plays the doddering old man.  Ophelia plays the obedient daughter to her father while never abandoning her love for Hamlet.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet's childhood friends, play their concern for him, while in reality they are self-serving courtiers acting as spies for Claudius.  Even, and especially, Hamlet, putting on "an antic disposition", plays madness to enable himself to discover the truth of his father's murder.  The play itself constantly hovers on the border between reality and pretence, and at the height of its dramatic tension, during the performance of The Murder of Gonzago, the boundaries of identity between Gertrude and The Player Queen, Claudius and the Player King and Lucianus shift, merge and become indistinguishable, and pretence and reality momentarily become one. 

          The 1980 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hamlet, directed by John Barton and starring Michael Pennington as Hamlet, has been perhaps the most self-consciously metatheatrical production of this play, bringing the idea of Hamlet as a theatrical experience to its ultimate conclusion.  The set, designed by Ralph Koltai, consisted of a makeshift platform set on the larger stage, transforming the image of Elsinore from a figurative stage into a literal one. As Irving Wardle wrote in his Times review on 3 July 1980, "Where is Elsinore?  It is a stage.  Who is Hamlet? A man who may not be able to take action but who can always put on a show."    The entire production was designed to be perceived as a performance, with the actors changing costume onstage in sight of the audience, "entering" as they stepped onto the platform and taking the props from a prop basket.  Anne Barton stresses, in her Introduction to the Penguin edition, which was reprinted in part in the Playbill for the production and which, presumably, influenced her husband's concept, that "Hamlet as a whole is concerned to question and cross the boundaries" between "dramatic representation" and  "life".    The resulting staging made that perfectly clear.  Every aspect of this production focused on the theatrical, and, as Michael Pennington realized, this emphasis helped him find justification for some of the textual imbalances that he had found in Hamlet's use of language:

                    There are vertiginous switches in him from the humdrum to the hypermetaphorical
                    and back which I could understand better when I saw that he sees himself
                    simultaneously as a private man and also as a miscast avenging angel in some
                    atavistic tragedy.
Speaking of his understanding and gradual acceptance of John Barton's concept, Pennington continued,

                    Clearly the distinction between self-dramatization and real feeling, theatricality
                    and life, runs right through the play, and was beginning to influence my reception
                    of the text; and soon the theatrical world itself  hampers, cloaks and property
                    swords  began to appear in rehearsals.  

Barton had taken Shakespeare's verbal metatheatricality and physicalized it to a degree that had not been done before.  In the process, he had given his actors a new tool with which to explore Shakespeare's most internal characters.

          Indeed, with all the extensive theatrical references throughout every aspect of the play, it is the character of Hamlet himself who is the most consciously theatrical and the most affected by the intense metatheatricality that Shakespeare has created for him.  In many ways it seems as though Hamlet was imbued with Shakespeare's own theatrical experience and knowledge.  A thoughtful man, a man of letters who spends much time in reading and writing in his "tablets", a university student who has an intimacy with and love for theatre, Hamlet, like Shakespeare himself, sees the world in theatrical terms.  Lionel Abel, speaking of Hamlet's confrontation with the Ghost suggests "the reaction of Hamlet is that of a man with a playwright's consciousness who has just been told to be an actor, and is now determined to make an actor of the very playwright who cast him for an undesired role."  He maintains that the ghost gives stage directions with the force of death and hell behind him, while Hamlet "has the force of his,  that is Shakespeare's,  dramatic imagination."  He calls it a struggle "between two playwrights."   But Hamlet, like Shakespeare, is more than just a playwright.  Hamlet the actor dominates the action.  In fact, Hamlet spends the whole play struggling between the ambiguities of the multiple meanings of the verb "to act"     "to do something, exert energy or force, to be employed or operative" and "to pretend or perform as an actor".  This, then, is Hamlet's conflict: Hamlet, so often criticized, even by himself, for his inability to act  that is, to "do something"  is an expert in his ability to act  that is, "to pretend or perform".  When he decides to "put an antic disposition on" (1.5.179) he immerses himself in the role. Like any good actor he gets into costume and acts for Ophelia, as she reports to Polonius:

                    Lord Hamlet, his doublet all unbraced,
                    No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled,
                    Ungartered and down-gyved to his ankle,
                    Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other,
                    And with a look so piteous in purport
                    As if he had been loosed out of hell
                    To speak of horrors, he comes before me. (2.1.79-85)

He is devastating in his irony as he acts the madman for Polonius, filling his ramblings with double meanings that even Polonius can not help but find intriguing: "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't." (2.2.204-5).  Later, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he continues to hover between sense and nonsense, and touches very close to home as he describes in detail:

                    This goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile
                    Promontory.  This most excellent canopy, the air, look
                    You, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical
                    Roof fretted with golden fire   (2.226-9)

That "sterile promontory" is, of course, the stage of the Globe on which the actor playing Hamlet was originally speaking, and the "most excellent canopy" not only the sky, but also the painted heavens of the playhouse.  This is one of those moments when Shakespeare reveals himself through Hamlet and lets his audience in on the joke.  When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern announce the arrival of the players, Shakespeare again shares with the audience a bit of contemporary theatrical gossip concerning the competition between the adult acting companies and that "aerie of children, little eyases, " the Children of the Chapel who played at Blackfriars Playhouse.  This time Hamlet is the questioner and Rosencrantz tempts him with the news, emphasizing even more Hamlet's interest in all things theatrical. 

        Even in the height of his passions, Hamlet is still rational enough to maintain the fiction of madness.  After his perceived triumph at "The Mousetrap", when he believes that Claudius has revealed his guilt, he still plays the madman with Polonius as well as with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, so much so that Guildenstern pleads with him "Good, my lord, put your discourse into some frame and start not so wildly from my affair."  When they try to manipulate him, he extends the theatrical metaphor to include the musical as he accuses Guildenstern of trying to "play" him like a pipe:

                    You would play upon me, you would seem
                    To know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my
                    Mystery, you would sound me from my lowest note to the
                    Top of my compass; and there is much music, excellent
                    Voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak. (3.2.347-51)

Even after killing Polonius, confronting his mother, attempting to evade capture and finally being brought before Claudius he rambles on with double meaning meant to confuse and mislead as to his sanity and culpability.  Hamlet is a consummate actor.

          It is fascinating, then, that it is the arrival of the Players, whose job it is to create pretence, which acts to blur those lines of pretence and bring both the play and Hamlet closer to reality.  It is revealing that when confronted by these real actors, Hamlet's pretence disappears and his true feelings surface.  When the Players appear, it is apparent that he knows them well, greeting the First Player with recognition and affection, commenting on the change in his appearance: "O, my old friend!  Thy face is valanced since I saw thee last.  Com'st thou to beard me in Denmark?"  He teases "my young lady and mistress"  in Shakespeare's day a boy actor who played the women's roles  with surprise at how much he has grown and the prayer that "your voice, like a piece of uncurrent gold, be not cracked within the ring."  When he asks for a speech it is not a random one, but one he knows well enough to quote from. In many productions, including the 1980 BBC TV production starring Derek Jacobi , the 2000-1 Royal National Theatre production starring Simon Russell Beale , and Barton's 1980 production with Michael Pennington , Hamlet actually picked up the players' props and acted out the opening lines of the speech.  Hamlet's choice of speech is a deliberate one; he is looking for something.  The speech he chooses is one that mirrors, in his mind, his own situation, with similarities and contrasts that illuminate for him the heart of his dilemma: a "mobled queen" who acts when her husband is killed, unlike his own mother and an immobilized Pyrrhus who, about to strike a fatal blow, "did nothing".  Hamlet, listening, is spellbound, increasingly annoyed at the interruptions of Polonius.   John Barton, in his 1980 RSC production, added an additional "did nothing" and had Hamlet anticipate the First Player's words, emphasizing the moment and ensuring that the audience understood that this was the motivation for Hamlet's "rogue and peasant slave" soliloquy that follows, precipitated by his anger at his own inability to act while a mere actor reciting a speech could fill with enough emotion to bring color to his face and tears to his eyes.   It is this inability to live up to the standards set by the players he admires so much that triggers his own plan to use them to expose Claudius.  Additionally, it is this knowledge of theatre that he shares with and derives from Shakespeare that allows him to choose a play for them to perform that mimics his father's murder, and that same borrowed creativity and playwriting skill that enable him to write the lines he inserts into the play. 

          Some actors have found, within the text and guided by Shakespeare's embedded stage directions, hidden moments of intense theatricality.  Both Michael Pennington and Derek Jacobi chose to create a vividly theatrical moment in the middle of the "rogue and peasant slave" soliloquy, but each in a slightly different way.   The differences between the two performances were subtle and both were effective, but the effects on their audiences were very different.   Each used stage props, including a sword, taken from the player's basket, referring to them in the early lines of the speech comparing their own actions  or inactions  to those of the Player, and built the speech in intensity until the moment when they cry "Bloody, bawdy villain! / Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain! / O, vengeance!"  Then, in apparent acknowledgement of the absurdity of this theatrical outpouring, they drop the sword and their voice, despairing, "Why, what an ass am I!" (2.2.568-71).   In Pennington's performance his emotional build was internal, coming directly from his preceding recognition of his own cowardice and acknowledgement of what he "should" do, then moving into a true emotional height in his rage against Claudius.  His use of the prop sword was organic, as though he had momentarily forgotten that it wasn't real.  His release was an understanding that, while he could pretend to himself, his own reality was very different .  Jacobi, on the other hand, acknowledged the theatricality of his actions right from the outset of those lines.  Looking at the prop sword in his hand and taking his cue from that, he "performed" them, as though visualizing how an actor might play them, tapping into the emotion that he seemed incapable of reaching on his own.  His underlying emotion was real, but his "performance" was consciously theatrical.  His release was his own understanding that this was not who he was and that he couldn't pretend so, even to himself.    Two actors, each taking the same text and using the same theatrical device, and yet creating his own individual interpretation; both strong and eloquent examples of finding the metatheatricality built into the text of Shakespeare's Hamlet.

          Whether overt, suggested by language, or implied by embedded stage directions, it is clear that Shakespeare intended metatheatricality to be an essential ingredient in the construction of Hamlet, both the play and the character.  It is also clear that he did it, not simply to please the crowd with cheap tricks or as a new dramatic gimmick, but rather to allow himself, and Hamlet, to emphasize all the more strongly the contrast between truth and pretence, reality and illusion.  In doing this, Shakespeare opened a door to the internal life of his characters as he had never done before and allowed the theatre that he knew so well to help communicate this life to his audiences.  Hamlet himself, speaking once again for the playwright, revealed Shakespeare's intentions in his advice to the Players:

                    the purpose of playing, whose end, both at
                    the first and now, was and is to hold, as 'twere, the mirror
                    up to nature: to show virtue her own feature, scorn her
                    own image, and the very age and body of the time his
                    form and pressure.  (3.2.19-23)

By creating a reality that was all illusion and a pretence that revealed the truth, Shakespeare enabled us to get beneath appearances and look into the hearts of his characters.  In this play, which is arguably the most intimate and psychological of his plays, Shakespeare's use of metatheatre is the key that unlocks that door.

                                                                                                                        .--- Arlene Schulman, October 2005