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  • Are Shakespeare's plays always metatheatrical?
  • Stephen Purcell

The ambiguity of the term "metatheatre" derives in part from its text of origin, Lionel Abel's 1963 book of the same name. By his own admission, Abel's use of the term was "loose and sometimes erratic" (v). If we use the term in its broadest sense—to describe any theater that in some way draws attention to its own artifice—it becomes evident that early modern drama is always "metatheatrical" to some extent: these plays are designed never entirely to lose sight of the material realities of their performance, or of the physical co-presence of their audiences. If this is the case, how useful is the term "metatheatre"? Indeed, are Shakespeare's plays always metatheatrical? This article unpicks some of the conflicting notions of metatheatre suggested in Abel's book, and suggests a modified conceptual model based on the work of Arthur Koestler. Arguing against the tendency to see early modern theatrical self-consciousness as a form of proto-Brechtian alienation, it uses Koestler's concept of bisociation to think about the delight produced by "universes of discourse colliding, frames getting entangled, or contexts getting confused" (40). It considers several examples from performance, especially moments from productions at the reconstructed Shakespeare's Globe, to argue that metatheatre functions as a kind of imaginative game. This game may be prompted by cues in the written text, but it is one that can be played only in performance. While Harry Newman's essay for this special issue argues that metatheatricality was available to early modern readers "on the paper stage of printed playbooks" (104), my essay posits a decidedly more theatrical definition of the term, contending that the agency of the actors plays a central role in determining the metatheatricality of particular moments on stage.

Some definitions of "metatheatre" are more specific. One is the play-within-the-play, or more broadly, the play that stages some kind of sustained exploration of the nature of dramatic art. Abel opens his book [End Page 19] with a chapter on Hamlet, and when he turns to Shakespeare's wider body of work, his first observation is that "Shakespeare experimented throughout his whole career with the play-within-a-play, sometimes introducing play-within-a-play sequences in his tragedies, almost always introducing such sequences in his comedies" (140). By this definition, plays like Hamlet, Love's Labour's Lost, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Henry IV Part 1 might be considered metaplays alongside more recent examples such as Chekhov's The Seagull, whose first act revolves around the characters' preparations for, and aborted staging of, an experimental play on a makeshift lakeside stage at a Russian country estate. Indeed, like some of its Shakespearean counterparts, The Seagull's play-within-a-play is framed by discussions of art, the imagination, and the responsibilities of the dramatist.

But though Abel recognizes that some of the plays he is discussing can "be classified as instances of the play-within-a-play", many of them do not employ the device. "Yet the plays I am pointing at do have a common character," he continues:

All of them are theater pieces about life seen as already theatricalized. By this I mean that the persons appearing on the stage in these plays are there not simply because they were caught by the playwright in dramatic postures as a camera might catch them, but because they themselves knew they were dramatic long before the playwright took note of them.


There are two important aspects to this description, the closest Abel comes in the book to offering a definition of his term. First is the notion of life as "already theatricalized": Abel opens the book with an analysis of Hamlet not because of The Murder of Gonzago, but because he reads the play as a text populated with characters who behave either like dramatists (Hamlet, Claudius, Polonius, and the Ghost) or like actors (Gertrude, Ophelia, and Laertes). In this sense, we might see a play such as Ibsen's A Doll's House as a metaplay, featuring as it does a protagonist who stage-manages her family...