Metadrama in Hamlet (Shakespeare)
Reading Hamlet (Shakespeare) for the first time, with no specific purpose, and reading the play again to understand the role of metadrama can only be described as a feeling of having read two different plays. When reading the play for the first time, the techniques served their purpose – the asides, the soliloquies, using a play to find “proof” of Claudius’ guilt, even accepting the word of the ghost, resulted in automatically assuming the characters were stepping out of their roles as actors to provide readers and audiences with information to use in understanding the fictional characters the actors were playing.
As complex a character as Hamlet was, we knew he was tragic because of his inability to take action, we knew Claudius was guilty after his father’s ghost spoke, but nonetheless were satisfied that he revealed himself by his reaction to watching a re-inaction of murdering his brother in the play Hamlet arranged. Just as one couldn’t experience a magician’s illusion if the magician simultaneously explained how the illusion was being created, it wasn’t possible to automatically accept the information provided by metadrama.
By constantly pushing a “pause button” to examine the way metadrama was manipulating our interpretation of the play, every alternative explanation, every contradiction, every question about why the actors were separating themselves from their roles rendered the play a mixture of confusing fragments, albeit fascinating fragments, using the same majestic language as in the perfectly flowing and exquisitely moving drama that emerged on first reading.
When people first saw Hamlet at the Globe Theater (Malone), and thus had no prior knowledge about the play, consider at what point in the play they came to believe both King Claudius and Gertrude were guilty of something. They and Hamlet both were introduced at the beginning of Scene II (6). After the King first had a chance to demonstrate what seemed at most some unintended insensitivity in view of the still recent death of Hamlet’s father by referring to him as “my cousin, and my son” (7), Hamlet informed the audience of his disdain for the King in an aside, “A little more than kin, and less than kind” (7). Why should we infer that Hamlet’s feelings were justified, as it did turn out, or even, as it did not turn out, that Hamlet was even an objective judge of his own feelings? Throughout the play, Shakespeare demonstrated artistic genius in expressing in his characters the automatic role of unconscious mental activity more than 200 years before another genius, Sigmund Freud, developed the now-accepted general theory that our perceptions, memories, and emotions are not exact replicas of experiences, but instead are distorted when formed and become increasingly distorted over time in a direction consistent with unconscious biases or assumptions (279-294).
Perhaps a key to why Hamlet has remained so fascinating and perhaps the reason we consider him a tragic figure is that his unconscious came to his rescue each time he might have examined feelings he probably would have suspected were out of proportion with reality if demonstrated by anyone but himself. During his first soliloquy, were it not for what seemed a recurring need for self-justification, he might have examined his own responsibility for depression severe enough for him to wish “the Everlasting had not fix’d His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter” (9). The possibility of using God as an explanation for his inaction (i.e., not committing suicide, as he desperately craved to do) is discussed below when it becomes more than a possibility. But in this soliloquy Hamlet introduced another recurring pattern, never questioning his own reasoning. The shock of the unexpected death of a parent who is not old certainly can cause unbearable anguish, as well as elicit other strong emotions, but Hamlet didn’t seem to recognize that a major part of his anguish was not over the death of his father, not over his perception of Claudius’ inferiority, not even over any suspicion that his mother’s relationship with the King might have begun before her husband’s death, but over his certainty that his mother’s fast remarriage (maybe her remarrying at all) was a betrayal, seemingly not only of his father but of Hamlet himself. There have and still are cultural expectations about the length of mourning before marriage, but there is no tradition of violations of these expectations producing rage (were fast remarriages considered shocking, Claudius would have had good reason to delay rather than risk arousing suspicion of his crime). Rage not only wouldn’t be surprising in children but wouldn’t even be surprising in a person experiencing the kind of shock Hamlet experienced, but the reader or audiences expected the soliloquy to provide a rational explanation from Hamlet himself. On close reading, however, the information seemed to be that Hamlet’s rage was both specifically directed at the outrageousness of his mother having sex and then, unable to hold his mother specifically to blame, to “Frailty, thy name is woman!” (9). Might Shakespeare again have foreseen one of a variety of Freudian, though by no means generally accepted, explanations, for example, close identification with his father including sex with his father’s wife? When does his mother ever get around to showing us the loathsome side of her that Hamlet has led us to expect? She doesn’t seem guilty of any more than being too trusting and also too willing to tolerate her son’s immature disrespect and find virtues in any of his accomplishments. For example, instead of feeling fear at the end when Hamlet and Laertes are trying to kill each other, she was being a cheerleader for her son: “He’s fat, and scant of breath. Here, Hamlet, take my napkin, rub thy brows; The queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet” (143) and, in the process, drinks from a cup she hadn’t known her husband had filled with poison intended for Hamlet.
In addition to using asides and soliloquies to separate characters from their parts in the play, the climax of Hamlet was in the form of metadrama, using a play as a device to trap Claudius into feeling remorse for murdering his brother. All aspects of the drama in a drama were masterful and absorbing – but, simultaneously, confusing on close scrutiny. Why would the Claudius described to Hamlet, indeed inscribed on his soul, by his father’s ghost as “that incestuous, that adulterate beast” guilty of “murder most foul” (29) – in short, a sociopath – be inspired to develop a conscience he never had after watching anything? Would a sociopath even give himself away by showing recognition of the character in the play? Why did Hamlet not interpret his mother’s total lack of distress, as she comfortably responded to Hamlet that “The lady protests too much, methinks” (82), as an indication of her innocence. Most of all, why did Hamlet’s ploy work exactly as intended? And where did this “conscience” go after Hamlet again found a reason not to kill him? This reason, though another excuse, also reflected a rather odd brand of Christianity, where people unfortunate enough to die in accidents or as victims of murder – or heroically in spontaneously risking their lives to try saving another person (i.e., heroes) – require a sojourn in Hell. After all, if Claudius murdered Hamlet’s “father grossly, full of bread; With all his crimes broad blown” (92) must serve time in Hell, who could be innocent enough to go to Heaven after dying unexpectedly, without time to fulfill what seems the only requirement: dying while in prayer?
Freud, Sigmund. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Trans. & Ed. James Strachey.
New York: Norton, 1965.
Malone, Cynthia Northcutt. Framing in Hamlet. 1991. 13 Dec. 2008.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. 13 Dec. 2008.
Cite this Metadrama in Hamlet (Shakespeare)
Metadrama in Hamlet (Shakespeare). (2016, Oct 14). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/metadrama-in-hamlet-shakespeare/