Theatre and Metatheatre in Hamlet and Othello

2021-05-01 09:28:18
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William Shakespeare is considered as one of the most prominent playwrights of all times. His play Hamlet is staged all over the world in traditional and non-traditional versions, the story of Romeo and Juliet became a symbol of true love and has been used in films, theatre, music and visual arts for many decades, while Othello became a denotation of all jealous husbands. All of Shakespeares tragedies are called masterpieces and the name of the dramatist himself stands for the higher level of dramatic arts and writing. Yet, according to Lionel Abel, the plays of William Shakespeare cannot be named tragedy in its proper meaning.

To understand Abels point correctly, it is important to remember what a genre of tragedy is. According to Oxford Dictionary, tragedy is a play dealing with tragic events and having an unhappy ending, especially one concerning the downfall of the main character (Oxford Dictionaries). Tragedy as a genre first appeared in Ancient Greece, but in its more modern from it coined in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. In those times it came back to the main Aristotelian principle of drama the unity of three points - place, time and action. Another important principle contained the idea that all characters should be strictly divided into positive and negative ones, without any semi-tones. What does William Shakespeare present in his plays Hamlet and Othello, which are considered classic tragedies?

There have been numerous attempts to give a clear definition of what Shakespeares tragedy is, but scholars havent come to any common idea. As all Shakespeares dramas differ one from another greatly, it appeared very difficult to find a formula for all of them, but Tom McAlindon states, that there are same common points the power of Shakespeares language, his insight into character, and his dramaturgical inventiveness. (5). Yet, there is one prominent feature, which distinguishes Shakespeares dramas from other theatrical texts. As it is known, that every drama is based on conflict, usually between protagonist and antagonist, or protagonist and society. But in Shakespeares dramas, particularly in Hamlet and Othello, conflict can be easily found within the protagonist Hamlet is cannot find the answer for the famous question To be or not to be?, while Othello is unable to understand whom to believe and which way to choose.

Another important point of understanding is the notion of metatheatre, first introduced by Lionel Abel. According to the scholar, it is as reflecting comedy and tragedy, at the same time, where the audience can laugh at the protagonist while feeling empathetic simultaneously. (4). As for another theorist of the metadrama Richard Hornby, he identified such metatheatre techniques as the play within the play, the ceremony within the play, the role-playing within the role, literary and real life reference and self-reference (32). Many of these issues are clearly traced in the dramas Hamlet and Othello by William Shakespeare.

Hamlet is probably one of the most famous tragedies of all times and it hasnt lost its popularity yet. Telling a simple story of sons revenge for his father, the playwright managed to touch every reader and make him sympathize the protagonist as well other characters. Shakespeare made a great step forward, using not only traditional dramatic techniques, but adding some rarely known before.

First and most prominent metadramatic technique used by Shakespeare in this drama is the play within the play. Obviously, it is the famous The Mouse Trap, staged by the actors, invited by Hamlet to remind Claudius of his did. This play tells the story of the Duke of Vienna, called Gonzago, who got poisoned by his nephew Lucianus. Afterwards Lucianus marries Gonzagos wife, as Claudius did with Gertrude. Staging the story, which was so alike the crime that had recently taken place in the palace, Hamlet wanted to catch the conscience of the king:


I'll have grounds

More relative than thisthe play's the thing

Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King. (Shakespeare, Hamlet)

And seeing the reaction of Claudius helped the Prince understood that he was right in his suspicions. First, the King was very surprised with the choice of the play and asked Hamlet about it. The latter answered:

This play is the image of a murder done in Vienna.

Gonzago is the dukes name, his wife Baptista. (Shakespeare, Hamlet)

Some moments later Claudiuss reaction gave him away:

CLAUDIUS stands up


What, frighted with false fire?


Give me some light, away! (Shakespeare, Hamlet)

Moreover, Claudius found out that Hamlet had discovered the truth and knew he had to act thereafter. Yet, this play was much more important for Hamlet, who had no more doubts about the murder of his father and was ready for the revenge:


Contagion to this world. Now could I drink hot blood

And do such bitter business as the bitter day

Would quake to look on

Let me be cruel, not unnatural. (Shakespeare, Hamlet)

The technique of the play within the play serves also as a symbol everybody I the drama is acting and pretending to be someone, who they are not. Therefore, it is clearly seen that the technique of the play within the play does not only present the highest dramatic skills of Shakespeare, but also plays a very important role it helps the protagonist finally discover the truth and make a final decision.

As for another Shakespeares tragedy, Othello, metadramatical techniques used in this play, are completely different from the ones of Hamlet. Numerous scholars, such as Abel and Homan doubt the metadramatical nature of this tragedy as it does not eliminate the border between illusion and reality, but even makes it stronger. Unlike most metatheatrical works, Othello recognizes the reality and affirms it again and again. Yet, even in this drama may be found transformed technique of the play within the play. This inner play is directed by the antagonist Iago, who makes Othello act according to his, Iagos, rules and desires. Othello is completely unaware, that the situation around him is not real, but artificially created by another person. As a perfect example of this can serve the following conversation:

IAGO Ha! I like not that.

OTHELLO What dost thou say?

IAGO Nothing, my lord; or ifI know not what.

OTHELLO Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?

IAGO Cassio, my lord! No, sure, I cannot think it

That he would steal away so guiltylike,

Seeing you coming.

OTHELLO I do believe 'twas he. (Shakespeare Othello)

Therefore, Iago is represented as the author of the play, where Othello is just a marionette, just a performer of the authors will. For Othello the world he is living in seems real, while it is an illusionary one, which creates the effect of double reality. On the contrary, Othello seems to be completely blind and deaf to his wifes words, unlike Iagos, whom he believes more and more and is playing according to his script. Like a marionette, he does what his master makes him do without a slight notice of it. Finally Othello thinks that he has made a decision, long expected from him by Iago, to kill Desdemona:

OTHELLO Get me some poison, Iago, this night: I'll not

expostulate with her lest her body and beauty

unprovide my mind again. This night, Iago.


Do it not with poison. Strangle her in her bed,

even the bed she hath contaminated.


Good, good. The justice of it pleases. Very

good. (Shakespeare, Othello)

Therefore, Iago appears to be a good director and manipulator and the final of the play only proves this the goal of Iago to destroy Othello is achieved as the latter kills himself.

The scholar John Bernard states that Othello himself appears in different roles throughout the play. At the very beginning he acted as the exotic outsider, later he changed his role into the universal justicer, which at the end transformed into unnamed coward (934). This presents the play as the part of metatheatre, which is also proved by the spying scenes, when the spectators get the opportunity to feel the part of the action. Therefore, audience receives one of the roles in this play.

Another trait of metatheatre is performed by Iago in the play. From time to time he reveals his true nature in front of the spectators, not Othello, in other moments masking himself under the image of great helper and advisor for the protagonist. Iago plays different roles within the play, but the most important one is the role of the-play-within-the-play director. As the Sidney Homan, author of the book When the Theatre Turns to Itself: The Aesthetic Metaphor in Shakespeare, states that all other characters of the play act on the makeshift stage, created by Iago (55). Some of the characters do it consciously, some, like Othello perform Iagos play completely unconsciously. Moreover, it is Iago, who frames or corrects Othellos perception of different events and actions.

So, despite the fact, the two plays of William Shakespeare Hamlet and Othello are very different in plot and ideas included, they have some similar motives, both theatrical and metatheatrical. Both protagonists are put into the situation, which has almost no way out. Hamlet is obliged to do something to avenge his murdered father, if he remains indifferent he will let the evil embodied in his uncle spread further. Unlike Hamlet, Othello lets himself be deceived by his rival Iago, who secretly hates him, and be skillfully dictated how to behave. In the face of danger, the two protagonists act differently Hamlet finds the way to punish the murderer of his father, while Othello becomes a victim of the villainous plan of Iago. This difference is very clearly seen in terms of metatheatre. Hamlet understands that he is only a part of big play, but he can change his role, so he pretends to be mad and acts in this way in order to achieve his goal of avenge. On the other hand, Othello gets into a trap, made by Iago, who appears as the director of his own play, where Othello only has the minor role of marionette. In both Hamlet and Othello is used the same metatheatrical technique the play within the play. In Hamlet it helps the protagonist prove his suspicions and decide to take a revenge, so it play a crucial role in the tragedy. In Othello the-play-within-the-play technique also changes the course of events, as Iago stages his play in order to defeat Othello and succeeds in it. Therefore, in both tragedies the metatheatrical technique of the play within the play is used, which influences the events greatly and make the tragic final the only way of out.


Abel, Lionel. Metatheatre; a New View of Dramatic Form. New York: Hill and Wang, 1963. Print.

Bernard, John. "Theatricality and Textuality: The Example of Othello." New Literary History 26.4 (1995): 931-49. Web.

Homan, Sidney. When the Theater Turns to Itself: The Aesthetic Metaphor in Shakespeare. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1981. Print.

Hornby, Richard. Drama, Metadrama and Perception. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell UP, 1986. Print.

Mcalindon, Tom. "What Is a Shakespearean Tragedy?" The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Tragedy: 1-22. Print.

"Oxford Dictionaries - Dictionary, Thesaurus, & Grammar." Oxford Dictionaries - Dictionary, Thesaurus, & Grammar. Web. 17 Feb. 2016.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1968. Print.

--- Othello. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984. Print.

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