William Shakespeare is considered one of the most prominent playwrights of all time. 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 Shakespeare’s 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 their proper meaning.
What is Tragedy?
To understand Abel’s 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 form, it was 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 Shakespeare’s tragedy is, but scholars haven’t come to any common idea. As all Shakespeare’s 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 some common points the power of Shakespeare’s language, his insight into character, and his dramaturgical inventiveness. (5). Yet, there is one prominent feature, which distinguishes Shakespeare’s 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 Shakespeare’s dramas, particularly in Hamlet and Othello, conflict can be easily found within the protagonist Hamlet cannot find the answer to 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.
What Is the Purpose of Metadrama in Shakespeare’s Tragedy Hamlet?
Hamlet is probably one of the most famous tragedies of all time and it hasn’t lost its popularity yet. Telling a simple story of the son’s revenge for his father, the playwright managed to touch every reader and make him sympathize with the protagonist as well as other characters. Shakespeare made a great step forward, using not only traditional dramatic techniques but adding some rarely known before.
The 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 death. This play tells the story of the Duke of Vienna, called Gonzago, who got poisoned by his nephew Lucianus. Afterward, Lucianus marries Gonzagos’s 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 this the play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King. (Shakespeare, Hamlet)
And seeing the reaction of Claudius helped the Prince understand 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 duke’s name, his wife Baptista. (Shakespeare, Hamlet)
Some moments later Claudius 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 that everybody in 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 in helping the protagonist finally discover the truth and make a final decision.
How Shakespeares Uses the Pairings of Characters to Reiterate the Tragedy in Othello?
As for another Shakespeare’s tragedy, Othello, meta dramatic techniques used in this play are completely different from the ones of Hamlet. Numerous scholars, such as Abel and Homan doubt the meta dramatical 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 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:
Ha! I like not that.
What dost thou say?
Nothing, my lord, or if I know not what.
Was it not that Cassio parted from my wife?
Cassio, my lord! No, sure, I cannot think it
That he would steal away so guilty like,
See you coming.
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 author’s 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 wife’s 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:
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 that 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 universal justice, which at the end transformed into an unnamed coward (934). This presents the play as the part of the metatheatre, which is also proved by the spying scenes when the spectators get the opportunity to feel the part of the action. Therefore, the 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 a 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 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 Iago’s play completely unconsciously. Moreover, it is Iago, who frames or corrects Othello’s 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 a 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 a 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 the 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 avenging. 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 a marionette. In both Hamlet and Othello, the same metatheatrical technique is used. In Hamlet, it helps the protagonist prove his suspicions and decide to take revenge, so it plays 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 makes the tragic final the only way 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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