“This wide and universal theater”: Tricks of the theatrical trade in Shakespeare’s plays

“Write what you know” is the age-old wisdom young writers are always given, and though he never wrote a backstage comedy (or, for that matter, a backstage history, tragedy, or romance), William Shakespeare filled his plays with the tricks of his theatrical trade.

I’m not talking about the theater techniques any playwright uses to tell a story. From his earliest comedies to his last romances (and including at least one sonnet), Shakespeare used theater as metaphor, creating characters with surprising amounts of knowledge about actors and how they work, and situations in which playacting and pretend serve to advance the plot and reveal character.

In his first comedy, Two Gentlemen of Verona (which some argue is also his first play), Shakespeare had one of his female characters cross-dress as a man. A comic device, to be sure, but also Shakespeare’s meta commentary on the artificiality of the performance itself, an acknowledgement that the audience knows it’s a boy playing a woman playing a man, and that the character pretending to be something she’s not is a reflection on the boy actor pretending to be something he’s not.

1 Henry IV at Folger Theatre
In Henry IV Part 1, Falstaff enlists Hal to “have a play extempore,” in which they can role-play and rehearse how the young prince might answer his father. (1 Henry IV, Folger Theatre, 2019. Photo by C. Stanley Photography)

Shakespeare’s histories are similarly filled with references to and applications of the actor’s art, most certainly drawn from the playwright’s early beginnings as an actor. In Richard II, Richard is compared to his predecessor and found wanting, like a mediocre actor left onstage once the “well-graced” star has exited. In Henry IV Part 1, Falstaff enlists Hal to “have a play extempore,” in which they can role-play and rehearse how the young prince might answer his father. In Henry VI Part 3, the future-Richard III soliloquizes about how, like an actor, he can “wet [his] cheeks with artificial tears / And frame [his] face to all occasions.” In the opening speech of Richard III, Richard breaks down his appearance almost as if he’s a casting director deciding what roles he might be right for. Since he is “rudely stamped,” “deformed,” “unfinished,” and “not shaped for sportive tricks,” he concludes that since he “cannot prove a lover,” he is “determined to prove a villain.” He even coaches his accomplice Buckingham in terms a director might use: “Canst thou quake and change thy color, / Murder thy breath in middle of a word, / And then again begin, and stop again, / As if thou were distraught and mad with terror?” Buckingham assures Richard, “Tut, I can counterfeit the deep tragedian.”

Shakespeare’s deepest tragic character is similarly imbued with all his master craftsman’s knowledge of theatrical art. Hamlet’s intricate knowledge of theater reveals the character’s concern with the performative aspects of grief, the inherently deceptive aspect of playacting, and the revelatory potential of live performance. There’s great meta comedy too, when Hamlet chastises the traveling players, giving them notes about their performance, with Shakespeare’s own frustration with certain members of his company becoming crystal clear when he has Hamlet insist, “And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them!” (Emphasis mine…and probably his.) There’s grim comedy, as well, when Hamlet confides in the audience, “I have heard / That guilty creatures sitting at a play / Have by the very cunning of the scene / Been struck so to the soul” — particularly when the actor looks accusingly at different members of the audience as he’s saying “guilty creatures.”

The tragedians
The tragedians who perform a play that Hamlet uses to ascertain Claudius’s guilt. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, 2015, Folger Theatre. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Hamlet’s use of a play-within-a-play to expose Claudius’ guilt “and spur [his own] dull revenge” illustrates theater’s power to reveal truth through pretend. Shakespeare’s regular deployment of theater techniques and creation of characters rich with theatrical knowledge calls attention to the tricks of his trade, but rather than alienating the audience, it invites them in, making them co-conspirators with the characters in the play by treating them as knowledgeable colleagues alert to their role in the telling of the play. As he famously put it in As You Like It:

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players…”

Shakespeare didn’t need to set a play in a theater. All his plays are set in a theater — and yet manage to encompass “the great globe itself.”

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