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Metatheatrical Elements in Hamlet and King Lear

In the Middle Ages and until the Renaissance, man's dispute with madness was a
dramatic debate in which he confronted the secret powers of the worldi. This idea
seemed to be of great importance at the time Shakespeare wrote his plays, as he
approaches the topic in different ways throughout his several works. Shakespeare
enhanced the above mentioned idea using metatheatrical allusions throughout his plays.
The term metatheatre refers to playwrights making allusions to theatre and acting
throughout a play. This technique serves the purpose to enhance the play’s most tense
moment and to encourage a more active participation. It also leads the audience to
identify themselves with the charactersii. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet and King Lear,
instances of this technique can be traced in different forms, namely, the use of words
related to theatre, playwright-characters and in-set plays. To identify these three
examples, I will analyse: a) words related to theatre present in both plays; b) how late
King Hamlet and King Lear manipulate others; c) how in-set plays appear.

Firstly, Hamlet is loaded with metaphors and imageries that directly allude to
theatre. In King Lear, these metaphors are a bit hard to find, though. In this respect,
Maynard Mack (1955) claims that these references to theatre are used to create a
theatrical atmosphere in an attempt to make spectators part of the play and encourage
reflection. Also, Shakespeare makes evident that the conflicts presented can take place
not only on stage, but in real life. On hearing the ghost final order “remember me,”
Hamlet’s response is:

HAMLET: Remember thee?

Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee? (1.5. 102-104)

In this extract, the words seat and globe refer to theatre as people who attended
Shakespeare’s theatre The Globe around 1600-1601 could witness Hamlet’s first time
on stage. In this way, the playwright successfully mixes both play and reality to create a
temporally bound nature of the performance of the playiii.

Similarly, the reference to theatre in King Lear can be seen in:

EDGAR: As I stood here below, methought his eyes

Were two full moons (4.6. 69-70)

With these lines, Edgar, while maintaining a conversation with Gloucester,

pictures himself as a spectator who is looking at a performance on stage. In this case,
Gloucester’s fail suicidal intent.

Secondly, playwright characters are used to convey the paradoxes of real life and
fiction. They act as if they were directors within the play. Playwright characters are
capable of creating a parallel reality. In doing so, they try to influence other characters’
minds and, consequently, the future course of actions. In this sense, “through a
character’s metatheatrical sensitivity, a playwright could bring forth the dialects of
drama and life, illusion and reality, seeming and being, acting and doing illustrated in
the mechanism of role-playing”iv.

One example of this technique is the late King’s ghost speaking to Hamlet in 1. 5.
As there is no evident reason in the play to think that Claudius predecessor did not die
from natural causes, it might seem odd for Hamlet to learn that his late father was
actually poisoned. This playwright character tells Hamlet that he is dwelling in the
Purgatory for the sins he could not confess. The dramatization of illusion is evident as
the ghost succeeds in installing in Hamlet a thirst for revenge, so characteristic of
tragedies, through an exhaustive explanation of the happenings. This new desire to
avenge his late father forces Hamlet to become a mad in craft. As a result, different
deaths take place at Elsinore castle which could have been avoided.

A quite similar situation takes place in King Lear when in 1.1, Lear interprets
Cordelia’s answer as inappropriate. He asks her to re-think and, therefore, refresh her
speech as though she were rehearsing. Cordelia knows that her father is used to being
flattered all the time. However deep her love for him is, she sets a limit to it, which
infuriates Lear as he was trying to manipulate her to convey different personal purposes.
This manipulation can be paralleled to a director giving orders to the player as, by
“employing a playwright’s consciousness of drama to impose a certain posture or
attitude on anotherv,” Lear fails to control Cordelia’s true love.

In this brief summary of actions, it can be seen how playwright characters want to
modify reality by manipulating another character. This manipulation may or may not
accomplish its goal.

Lastly, in-set plays are of paramount importance as interplay of illusion and reality
is put into questionvi. In-set plays can be presented in two distinct, though quite similar
ways: a) through a proper play inside the play; b) through playwright characters. With
this in mind, I will now proceed to analyse how metatheatrical allusions are portrayed in
Hamlet and King Lear to help Hamlet with his antic disposition, and to the apparition of
Poor Tom, respectively.

One characteristic of tragedies is that revenge has to take place at some point of
the play. Prince Hamlet, who is depressed and rather melancholic at the beginning,
encounters his father’s ghost one evening. This apparition explains to Hamlet that
Claudius, poisoned him. Irascible prince Hamlet follows his late father’s words to take
revenge on King Claudius. Nonetheless, the prince feels quite confused towards the
apparition and wonders whether it was real or a trick of his eyes. Then, Hamlet decides
to adopt an antic disposition and, furthermore, determines that the perfect way to know
if the ghost’s words were true is by setting a play that mirrors nature in the most direct
and realistic aspect. The mimesis performed, that is the representation of happenings as
told by the ghost, is such that infuriates Claudius, who abruptly leaves the room. It is at
this moment that Hamlet confirms the ghost is trustworthy. This play shows a paradox
in that it not only reminds the entire audience of some moral values, but also evidences
Hamlet’s intention: to avenge his father by killing Claudius if his theory is confirmed.

In this brief summary of the inset-play, the attention of Hamlet’s audience is

directed towards the business of acting itself: people can see on stage how a director
(Hamlet) tells the actors what he wants to portray, the feelings he wants to convey, and
the type of catharsis he wants the audience to undergo. In this respect, the wall between
reality and fiction is broken as Hamlet’s audience can access the world of theatre behind
the scenes.

Hamlet’s antic disposition can be compared to Poor Tom’s. The latter character
from King Lear pretends he is mentally insane to make his way into salvation. The
importance of this new character resides in that he ultimately takes over The Fool’s

place, being that of commenting upon Lear’s actions and events, as well as, on
occasions, acting as the King’s conscience.

According to Foucault, madness involves a loss of self as identity becomes

incoherent, so it could be said that Edgar’s disguise is a form of madness. He plays Poor
Tom as a beggar in conversation with devils:

EDGAR. Frateretto calls me, and tells me Nero is an an-

gler in the lake of darkness. Pray, innocent, and be-
ware the foul friend. (3.6.6-8)

Here, one can argue that Edgar resorts to biblical allusions so that people around
him believe him mad as a result of a pact with the Devil vii. Nevertheless, King Lear is
not one to judge, as he has no one, but the Fool by his side.

Through Poor Tom, Edgar is able to speak his true pain. As Edgar, he tells only
the audience that he has ‘Escap’d the hunt’ (2.3.3) set on him by his father. Poor Tom,
on the other hand, mocks at the king by calling him “faul”. This fracturing of identity
into different parts is evident as “Poor Tom’s language slips into different voices:
‘Beware my follower. Peace, Smulkin, peace, thou fiend!’ (3.4.139)”viii.

These examples show that metatheatrical allusions help to set the play in motion.
Words, playwright characters and in-set plays serve to convey and identify ourselves
with the actions and sufferings of the characters. In doing so, the audience is drawn into
the realm of the play and starts questioning that what they are watching is in fact an
admixture of illusion and reality.

Foucault, Michael. Madness and Civilization
Hubbert, Judd D. (1991). Metather: The Example of Shakespeare.
Flaherthy, K. (2008). Theatre and Metatheatre in Hamlet.
Chu, H. (2003). Self-reflexivity in the Mirror of Theater: Metatheatre in Five English Renaissance Plays.
Abel, Lionel (1963). Metatheatre. A New View of Dramatic Form.
Ibid. iii.
Kessler, Ana M. (1980). Madness in Shakespeare’s Major Tragedies. A Tentative Analysis towards a
Laingian Interpretation.
Woods, Gillian (2016). King Lear: Madness, the Fool and Poor Tom


Abel, Lionel.Metatheatre. A New View of Dramatic Form. New York: Hill and Wang, 1963.
Aristotle and S. H. Butcher. Aristotle’s Poetics. New York. Hill and Wang. 1951.
Chu, H. Self-reflexivity in the Mirror of Theater: Metatheatre in Five English Renaissance
Plays. National Taiwan University, 2003.
Flaherthy, K. Theatre and Metatheatre in Hamlet, 2008.
Foucault, Michael. Madness and Civilization in Kessler, Ana M. Madness in Shakespeare’s
Hubbert, J (1991) in Chu, H. (2003). Self-reflexivity in the Mirror of Theater: Metatheatre in
Five English Renaissance Plays. National Taiwan University
Kessler, Ana M. Madness in Shakespeare’s Major Tragedies. A Tentative Analysis towards a
Laingian Interpretation. Florianópolis, 1980.
Mark, Maynard. “The World of Hamlet.” Tragic Themes in Western Literature. New Haven:
Yale UP, 1955.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear, Bevington, 1988.
---. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Wright, 1959.
Woods, Gillian. King Lear: Madness, the Fool and Poor Tom PDF file.