The “metatheatricality” of
Hamlet – third lecture
“These indeed seem/ For they are
actions a man might play.”
The “metatheatrical” or self-
referential side of Hamlet
• Perhaps the strangest, most challenging side of
• Play-wrighting generally involves creating a
credible presentation of reality.
• Self-referential moments in a play go in just the
opposite direction, reminding us it‟s “just a play.”
• Only a supremely self-confident dramatist could
afford to do this.
• But why would he do this?
• Difference from MND.
Necessity of seeing play in the
theater for metatheatrical
dimension to emerge
• In fact, in Shakespeare‟s own theater.
• Most of the references are to the material
elements of theater, esp. Elizabethan theater.
• None of it works in film or video
• Unless terms are anachronistically “translated”
to film, video --
• -- as in fact happens in Michael Almereyda‟s
version with Ethan Hawke.
• Clip of “To be or not to be” from Almereyda
Hamlet with R & G in the Globe,
• “I have of late . . . lost all my mirth . . .
• “that 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.”
• All physical features of the Globe.
• How did audience react?
The “sterile promontory”
“This majestical roof, fretted with
“The tragedians of the city”
• Leads immediately to R & G speaking of
the arrival of the players.
• Which immediately cheers Hamlet up.
• And we hear London theater gossip: “the
late innovation” of children‟s companies.
• “The tragedians of the city” -- the Lord
Chamberlain‟s Men, who are playing
• They‟re just as good as ever, but . . .
In the Folio text, p. lii-liii of Pelican
• . . . we hear more about the “late innovation,” “an eyrie of
children, little eysas.”
• Obviously the children‟s companies had become quite
popular . . .
• And threatened the adult companies.
• Hamlet seems to voice Shakespeare‟s opinion about
writers making the kids “exclaim against their own
• Real battles between the playwrights and the players?
• “Much throwing about of brains.”
• “Do the boys carry it away”?
• Ay, “Hercules and his load,” the emblem of the Globe,
where we‟re standing (or sitting)!
• “The boys” are the Lord Chamberlain‟s company!
Where in the world (or globe) are
• In Elsinore?
• Or London?
• In Hamlet‟s story?
• Or gossiping about the latest trends in
• At this point who‟s speaking? Hamlet,
Prince of Denmark?
• Or the actor playing Hamlet?
The actors arrive
• And are praised by Polonius: “The best actors in the
world . . .”
• Is he praising the Lord Chamberlain‟s Men?
• Hamlet‟s enthusiastic greeting – and the request for a
speech, “a taste of your quality.”
• Hamlet begins,
• And the actor takes it up.
• Until Polonius stops it -- because the actor is acting too
• Hamlet‟s soliloquy measures himself against the actor:
“Is it not monstrous . . .”
• “And all for nothing!/ For Hecuba. What‟s Hecuba to him
or he to her,/ That he should weep for her?”
• What‟s Hamlet to us, or we to him . . .?
And Hamlet acts badly?
• He works himself up to some of the worst poetry in the
play: ll 515-20 (the soliloquy we saw Branagh act in the
• Which he himself recognizes as bad acting: “Why what
an ass am I!”
• Which is just the sort of thing he criticizes when he
speaks to the player, III, 2.
• “O it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-
pated fellow tear a passion to tatters . . .”
• And Hamlet gives acting lessons to the player, telling
him exactly what theater is.
• “For anything so overdone is from [counter to] the
purpose of playing, which is . . .”
• The most extensive discussion of theater and acting
from the period.
The pervasiveness of the theater
• In his first appearance, Hamlet refers to acting,
role-playing: I, 2, 76ff.
• “Seems, Madam? Nay, it is. I know not seems . .
• “‟Tis not alone my inky cloak,” that is, my
costume, my acting, my gestures, all the ways of
portraying grief, that denote me truly.
• These seem, these are actions a man might
play, might act.
• Seems to admit that he is in part acting, but
insists he has an interior that exceeds this.
“This fellow in the cellerage”
• At II, 1, 152ff, we hear the “ghost under the
stage” cry “Swear.”
• And Hamlet jokes, “You hear this fellow in the
• And they move around the stage as the actor
playing the ghost moves under the stage.
• Hamlet: “Well said, old mole! Canst work in the
ground so fast?”
• Does this mock the very dramaturgy of the play
Polonius as Julius Caesar
• Later, in play-within-play scene, we learn
that Polonius acted in the university, “and
was accounted a good actor.”
• Says “I did enact Julius Caesar.”
• Against which Hamlet makes a silly joke.
• Guess which play the Lord Chamberlain‟s
men last performed before Hamlet.
Can we say what the theater
• Is there a linkage implied between “acting”
• What does it mean for Hamlet to act his
• What is his part?
• How to act it well?
• When does he act it badly?
• Does he come to understanding of role?
• How to enact the role of revenger?
“If it be not now, . . .”
• Hamlet‟s fatalism in V, 2, 197, just before the
• The return of his sanity, calm – has he learned
• “There is a special providence in the fall of a
• “If it be now, „tis not to come; if it be not to come,
it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come.
The readiness is all”
• What does he mean by “it”?
• “Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what
is‟t to leave betimes? Let be.”
• The role of revenger linked with acceptance of
And finally, Hamlet can ACT?