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Shakespeare and
Elizabethan anxiety about the theatre
New buildings: The Theatre (1576); The Curtain (1577)
Philip Stubbes, The Anatomie of Abuses, 1583:
‘…but mark the flocking and running to Theatres and Curtains,
daily and hourly, night and day, time and tide, to see plays and
interludes, where such wanton gestures, such bawdy speeches, such
laughing and fleering, such kissing and bussing, such clipping and
culling, such winking and glancing of wanton eyes, and the like is
used, as is wonderful to behold. Then these goodly pageants being
done, every mate sorts to his mate, every one brings another
homeward of their way very friendly, and in their secret conclaves
(covertly) they play the sodomites, or worse. And these be the fruits
of plays and interludes, for the most part. And whereas, you say,
there are good examples to be learned in them: truly so there
Elizabethan anxiety about the theatre
‘…if you will learn falsehood; if you will learn cozenage; if you will
learn to deceive; if you will learn to play the hypocrite, to cog, to lie
and falsify; if you will learn to jest, laugh and fleer, to grin, to nod and
mow; if you will learn to play the Vice, to swear, tear and blaspheme
both heaven and earth; if you will learn to become a bawd, unclean,
and to devirginate maids, to deflower honest wives; if you will learn to
murder, flay, kill, pick, steal, rob and rove, if you will learn to rebel
against princes, to commit treasons, to consume treasures, to practise
idleness, to sing and talk of bawdy love and venery; if you will learn to
deride, scoff, mock and flout, to flatter and smooth; if you will learn to
play the whoremaster, the glutton, drunkard, or incestuous person; if
you will learn to become proud, haughty and arrogant; and finally, if
you will learn to contemn God and all His laws, to care neither for
Heaven nor Hell, and to commit all kind of sin and mischief, you need
to go to no other school, for all these good examples may you see
painted before your eyes in interludes and plays.’
Elizabethan anxiety about the theatre
Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, c.1579 (published 1595):
‘To the arguments of abuse, I will after answer, only thus much
now is to be said, that the Comedy is an imitation of the common
errors of our life, which he representeth in the most ridiculous &
scornful sort that may be: so as it is impossible that any beholder
can be content to be such a one. […] So that the right use of
Comedy, will I think, by nobody be blamed; and much less of the
high and excellent Tragedy, that openeth the greatest wounds, and
sheweth forth the ulcers that are covered with Tissue, that maketh
Kings fear to be Tyrants, and Tyrants manifest their tyrannical
humours, that with stirring the affects of Admiration and
Commiseration, teacheth the uncertainty of this world, and upon
how weak foundations gilden roofs are builded.’
Elizabethan anxiety about the theatre
Thomas Heywood, An Apology for Actors, 1612 (some of this is
paraphrasing Sidney):
‘Plays are writ with this aim, and carried with this method, to teach
the subjects obedience to their King, to shew the people the
untimely ends of such as have moved tumults, commotions, and
insurrections […] If we present a Tragedy, we include the fatal and
abortive ends of such as commit notorious murders, which is
aggravated and acted with all the Art that may be, to terrify men
from the like abhorred practises. [...] If a Comedy, it is pleasantly
contrived with merry accidents […] to shew others their slovenly
and unhandsome behaviour, that they may reform that simplicity in
themselves […] or to refresh such weary spirits as are tired with
labour, or study, to moderate the cares and heaviness of the mind,
that they may return to their trades and faculties with more zeal
and earnestness, after some small soft and pleasant retirement.’
The effects of drama upon its audience
Heywood’s view of the effects of drama tallies with
HAMLET. I have heard that guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaimed their malefactions… (2.2.591-4)
Certainly Claudius’s abrupt exit from The Murder of
Gonzago suggests that the play has ‘caught his
The effects of drama upon its audience
Hamlet has clear ideas about theatre’s potential:
‘Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this
special observance: that you o’erstep not the modesty of
nature. For anything so overdone is from 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.’ (3.2.17-24)
David Bevington on this: ‘The play Hamlet, among its other
amazing accomplishments, is an astute critical defence of
theatre at its highest potential. … Hamlet as a play is serious
about reform of the English stage.’ (2009: 142)
The effects of drama in Dream
Why are these utterances comical?:
BOTTOM. Write me a prologue; and let the prologue seem to say, we
will do no harm with our swords, and that Pyramus is not killed
indeed; and, for the more better assurance, tell them that I,
Pyramus, am not Pyramus, but Bottom the weaver: this will put
them out of fear. (3.1.16-20)
SNUG. You, ladies, you whose gentle hearts do fear
The smallest monstrous mouse that creeps on floor,
May now perchance both quake and tremble here
When lion rough in wildest rage doth roar.
Then know that I one Snug the joiner am
A lion fell, nor else no lion’s dam. (5.1.217-22)
Anne Righter on the playlet in Dream: ‘The interlude
becomes, in effect, an essay on the art of destroying a play’
(1967: 97).
Irony of conversation about staging moonlight (3.1.43-56).
Anxiety about theatre in Dream
Puck’s epilogue: a genuine anxiety about offence?
Plato’s Republic (c. 380 BC): ‘he [the poet] wakens and encourages
and strengthens the lower elements in the mind to the detriment of
reason, which is like giving power and control to the worst
elements in a state and ruining the better elements’.
Theseus on the simultaneous romance and danger of fantasy:
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold:
That is, the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. (5.1.7-17)
Fantasy and shadows
John Lyly, Court Prologue to Campaspe, 1583:
‘Whatsoever we present we wish it may be thought the dancing
of Agrippa his shadows, who in the moment they were seen
were of any shape one could conceive.’
‘Shadows’ in Dream:
Oberon as ‘king of shadows’ (3.2.348)
Fiction as shadows: ‘The best in this kind are but shadows, and
the worst are no worse if imagination amend them.’ (5.1.21011)
Players as shadows: ‘If we shadows have offended…’
(Epilogue 1)
Theatre as conjuring
Puck is a self-described ‘actor’ (3.1.74) and shape-shifter
(2.1.44-57 and 3.1.103-6).
Titania accuses Oberon of similar deception (2.1.64-8).
Love potion tricks the senses: does the enchantment
and disenchantment of Titania and Lysander mimic the
theatrical effect of the play?
What about Demetrius? (‘I have found Demetrius like a
jewel, / Mine own, and not mine own.’ 4.1.190-1)
Onstage spectators
Shakespeare’s onstage spectators are far from idealised – they
are disruptive in Hamlet, Dream and Love’s Labour’s Lost.
Hamlet makes it clear that he considers his own taste in
theatre more refined than that of the masses:
‘…for the play, I remember, pleased not the million. ’Twas
caviare to the general. But it was – as I received it, and others
whose judgments in such matters cried in the top of mine – an
excellent play, well digested in the scenes, set down with as
much modesty as cunning.’ (2.2.438-43)
Polonius is a philistine: ‘This is too long’ (2.2.501)
Sly as onstage spectator
Why do the players in The Taming of the Shrew’s Induction
perform for Sly? The real reason is not the one they tell him:
MESSENGER. Your honour’s players, hearing your amendment,
Are come to play a pleasant comedy,
For so your doctors hold it very meet,
Seeing too much sadness hath congealed your blood,
And melancholy is the nurse of frenzy.
Therefore they thought it good you hear a play
And frame your mind to mirth and merriment,
Which bars a thousand harms and lengthens life.
SLY. Marry, I will let them play it. Is not a comonty
A Christmas gambol, or a tumbling trick?
BARTHOLOMEW. No, my good lord, it is more pleasing stuff.
SLY. What, household stuff ?
BARTHOLOMEW. It is a kind of history. (Induction 2.125-36)
Sly as onstage spectator
Sly in onstage, presumably, through much of the play.
His final lines in Shakespeare’s play are after 1.1:
SLY. ’Tis a very excellent piece of work, madam lady. Would ’twere
done. (1.1.251)
But Sly features more heavily in the anonymous 1594
play The Taming of A Shrew – a text whose exact relation
to Shakespeare’s is the subject of much debate, but
which may be either a source for The Shrew, an early
draft of it, a memorial reconstruction, or an adaptation
of a shared but now-lost original source.
Sly as onstage spectator
Like Shakespeare’s play, A Shrew opens with the gulling
of Christopher Sly, but unlike Shakespeare’s, the
framing narrative resurfaces throughout the play and is
concluded at the end:
TAPSTER. Ay, marry, but you had best get you home,
For your wife will course you for dreaming here tonight.
SLY. Will she? I know now how to tame a shrew.
I dreamt upon it all this night till now,
And thou hast waked me out of the best dream
That ever I had in my life. But I’ll to my
Wife presently and tame her too,
An if she anger me. (15.8-21)
The effects of metadrama?
LUCENTIO. But stay a while, what company is this?
TRANIO. Master, some show to welcome us to town. (1.1.46-7)
PETRUCHIO. He that knows better how to tame a shrew,
Now let him speak. ’Tis charity to show. (4.1.196-7)
Graham Holderness argues that the framing narrative
‘could have been performed in the self-reflexive,
metadramatic and ironic manner of Brecht’s epic
theatre’ (1989: 25).
The effects of metadrama?
If this were indeed the case, continues Holderness, then
Katherine’s final speech
‘…might well have been delivered on the Elizabethan
stage with appropriate detachment, distancing and irony
to an audience highly sceptical of such propagandist
rhetoric; offered as a challenge and provocation to
debate rather than as an attempt at ideological
incorporation.’ (1989: 25)
Elizabeth Schafer suggests, though, that the Sly episode
can have ‘the advantage of granting modern audiences
permission to laugh at Katherina’s taming, because it is
seen to be the sort of story that only drunken
Elizabethan tinkers enjoyed or believed in’ (2002: 52).
‘Shakespeare breaks the fourth wall…’
No, he doesn’t!
Sidney again:
‘Now for the Poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never
lieth… What childe is there, that comming to a play, and
seeing Thebes written in great letters upon an old doore, doth
beleeve that it is Thebes?’
Or as the author of the second folio’s commendatory poem
On Worthy Master Shakespeare and his Poems (1632) put it:
‘… abused, and glad
To be abused, affected with that truth
Which we perceive is false; …
This, and much more which cannot be expressed
But by himself, his tongue and his own breast,
Was Shakespeare’s freehold.’ (ll. 23-42)
‘Shakespeare breaks the fourth wall…’
In the words of Julia Briggs:
‘…the performance requires the audience to believe and
disbelieve simultaneously, yielding themselves up to it
self-forgetfully, while letting the play work upon them,
involve them, possibly even change them. It requires an
immediate and unthinking response, yet pausing to
consider the nature of the theatrical illusion makes its
paradoxes of appearance and reality difficult to define.’
(1997: 253-4)
Metatheatrical self-awareness
Shakespeare frequently draws the audience’s attention to
the material realities of the playhouse and its actors,
often at moments of heightened emotion:
HAMLET. …this brave o’erhanging [firmament], this majestical
roof fretted with golden fire … appears no other thing to me
than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. (2.2.302-5)
HAMLET. Remember thee?
Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. (1.5.95-7)
Metatheatrical self-awareness
HAMLET. My lord, you played once i’th’ university, you say.
POLONIUS. That I did, my lord, and was accounted a good
HAMLET. And what did you enact?
POLONIUS. I did enact Julius Caesar. I was killed i’ th’ Capitol.
Brutus killed me.
HAMLET. It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf there.
Hamlet was played by Richard Burbage, who has played Brutus in
Julius Caesar; Polonius/Caesar was ‘probably John Heminges’ (Gurr
1996: 106).
Gurr on this in-joke: ‘It reflects in the writers the expectation that
their audiences would be well aware of their environs, and that the
fictions were to be seen as open mimicry whose pretence at deceit
was obvious.’ (1996: 106)
Metatheatrical self-awareness
In a similar manner, argues Righter, ‘Puck’s remark to
Oberon [see below] forestalls possible objections to the
artificiality of the scene which follows’ (1967: 136):
PUCK. Shall we their fond pageant see?
Lord, what fools these mortals be! (3.2.114-15)
QUINCE. …here’s a marvellous convenient place for our
rehearsal. This green plot shall be our stage, this hawthornbrake our tiring-house… (3.1.2-4)
FABIAN. If this were played upon a stage, now, I could condemn
it as an improbable fiction. (Twelfth Night, 3.4.125-6)
The life-as-theatre metaphor
The term ‘metatheatre’ was coined by Lionel Abel in his
book of the same name (1963). In the 2003 reissue
Tragedy and Metatheatre, he writes:
‘The plays I point to as metatheatre have one common
character: all of them are theatre pieces about life seen as
already theatricalized.’ (2003: vi)
JAQUES. All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players. (As You Like
It, 2.7.139-40)
The life-as-theatre metaphor
HAMLET. Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems’.
’Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief
That can denote me truly. These indeed ‘seem’,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show –
These but the trappings and the suits of woe. (1.2.76-86)
The life-as-theatre metaphor
Life itself is a ‘performance’ for numerous Shakespearean
VIOLA. I am not that I play. (Twelfth Night, 1.5.177)
IAGO. I am not what I am. (Othello, 1.1.65)
EDMUND. …and on’s cue out he comes, like the catastrophe of the
old comedy; mine is villainous melancholy, with a sigh like them of
Bedlam. (King Lear, 1.2.129-31)
CORIOLANUS. Why did you wish me milder? would you have me
False to my nature? Rather say I play
The man I am. (3.2.13-15)
CORIOLANUS. Like a dull actor now,
I have forgot my part, and I am out,
Even to a full disgrace. (5.3.40-2)
Some things a person can ‘play’ in Shakespeare:
the villain (Iago on himself in Othello, 2.3.337)
the devil (the Bastard on himself in King John, 2.1.137;
Gloucester on himself in Richard III, 1.3.343)
the tyrant (Cressida on Troilus, 3.2.114)
the cook (Titus on himself in Titus Andronicus, 5.2.205;
Belarius and his sons in Cymbeline, 3.6.31 and 4.2.209)
the orator (Edward on himself and Gloucester on himself in
3 Henry VI, 1.2.2 and 3.2.204; Buckingham on himself in
Richard III, 3.5.95)
the humble host (Macbeth on himself in Macbeth, 3.4.5)
the pious innocent (Dionyza on Cleon in Pericles, 4.3.18)
Some things a person can ‘play’ in Shakespeare
the penitent (Antony on himself in Antony and Cleopatra,
the fool (Hal on himself in 2 Henry IV, 2.2.133; Gratiano on
himself in The Merchant of Venice, 1.1.82; Hamlet on Polonius
in Hamlet, 3.1.143-4; Viola on Feste in Twelfth Night, 3.1.57)
the woman (Macduff on himself in Macbeth, 4.3.270; Wolsey
on himself in Henry VIII, 3.2.504)
the housewife (Capulet on himself in Romeo and Juliet, 4.2.44)
the knave (Rosalind on herself in As You Like It, 3.2.285)
the swaggerer (Rosalind on herself in As You Like It, 4.3.14)
the swan (Emilia on herself, dying, in Othello, 5.2.288)
Gender as performance
LORD. Sirrah, go you to Barthol’mew, my page,
And see him dressed in all suits like a lady. […]
I know the boy will well usurp the grace,
Voice, gait, and action of a gentlewoman. (Induction
1.103-4, 129-30)
Transvestism was a central preoccupation for antitheatricalists; all female characters were, of course, played by
male actors.
Cross-dressing heroines appear in The Two Gentlemen of
Verona, As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice (three times),
Twelfth Night and Cymbeline.
Rosalind in As You Like It especially draws attention to the
codes of behaviour adopted by the different genders.
Power as performance
Stephen Gosson, Plays Confuted in Five Actions, 1582:
‘We are commanded by God to abide in the same calling
wherein we were called, which is our ordinary vocation in
a commonweal. … So in a commonweal, if private men
be suffered to forsake their calling because they desire to
walk gentleman-like in satin and velvet, with a buckler at
their heels, proportion is so broken, unity dissolved,
harmony confounded, that the whole body must be
dismembered and the prince or the head cannot choose
but sicken…’
Is Gosson exposing the theatricality of everyday life
Power as performance
Stephen Greenblatt:
‘Theatricality, in the sense of both disguise and histrionic selfrepresentation, arose from conditions common to almost all
Renaissance courts: a group of men and women alienated from
the customary roles and revolving uneasily around a centre of
power, a constant struggle for recognition and attention, and a
virtually fetishistic emphasis upon manner. The manuals of court
behaviour which became popular in the sixteenth century are
essentially handbooks for actors, practical guides for a society
whose members were nearly always on stage.’ (2005: 162)
Sir Thomas More on Richard III’s rise to power, History of King
Richard III, c. 1515:
‘And so they said that these matters be kings’ games, as it were,
stage plays, and for the more part played upon scaffolds, in which
poor men be but the lookers-on.’
Statecraft as stagecraft in Hamlet
HAMLET. …one may smile and smile and be a villain.
At least I’m sure it may be so in Denmark. (1.5.109-10)
HAMLET. …my uncle is King of Denmark, and those that
would make mouths at him while my father lived give twenty,
forty, an hundred ducats apiece for his picture in little.
HAMLET. They had begun the play… (on Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern’s deaths, 5.2.32)
Statecraft as stagecraft in Hamlet
CLAUDIUS. …this vile deed
We must, with all our majesty and skill
Both countenance and excuse. (4.1.29-31)
CLAUDIUS. How dangerous is it that this man goes loose!
Yet must not we put the strong law on him.
He’s loved of the distracted multitude,
Who like not in their judgment but their eyes. (4.3.2-5)
Statecraft as stagecraft in 1 Henry IV
FALSTAFF. Shall we have a play extempore? (2.5.282-3)
PRINCE HARRY. Do thou stand for my father, and examine me
upon the particulars of my life.
FALSTAFF. Shall I? Content. This chair shall be my state, this dagger
my sceptre, and this cushion my crown.
PRINCE HARRY. Thy state is taken for a joined-stool, thy golden
sceptre for a leaden dagger, and thy precious rich crown for a
pitiful bald crown. (2.5.379-85)
Falstaff mocks the discourse of stage royalty, improvising in
iambic pentameter (2.5.395-401).
Statecraft as stagecraft in 1 Henry IV
But Harry is playing a double or even triple role in this
FALSTAFF No, my good lord, banish Peto, banish Bardolph,
banish Poins, but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true
Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant
being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff,
Banish not him thy Harry's company,
Banish not him thy Harry's company.
Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.
PRINCE HENRY. I do, I will. (2.5.478-86)
Statecraft as stagecraft in 1 Henry IV
Harry let us in on the secret at the start of the play:
PRINCE HARRY. I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him. (1.2. 192-200)
Eventually, Harry, like Puck, uses the metaphor of the dream
to describe his ludic role:
KING HARRY. I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane;
But being awake, I do despise my dream. (5.4.49-51)
Shakespeare and metatheatre
Theatre as…
moral lesson
oscillation or alienation
metaphor for everyday life
metaphor for power
Abel, Lionel (2003) Tragedy and Metatheatre: Essays on Dramatic
Form, New York: Holmes & Meier.
Bevington, David M. (2009) This Wide and Universal Theater:
Shakespeare in Performance, Then and Now, Chicago: University
of Chicago Press.
Briggs, Julia (1997) This Stage-Play World: Texts and Contexts,
1580-1625, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Greenblatt, Stephen (2005) Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From
More to Shakespeare, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Gurr, Andrew (1996) Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London, Second
Edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Holderness, Graham (1989) Shakespeare in Performance: The
Taming of the Shrew, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Righter, Anne (1967) Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play,
Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Schafer, Elizabeth (2002) Shakespeare in Production: The Taming
of the Shrew, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.