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The Play's the Thing: The Use of Theatre in Shakespeare

A Midsummer Night's Dream and Hamlet


“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” This might have seemed the case in you lived in a Shakespeare play, for nearly all of his plays refer, in one way or another, to plays and playing. In many of them, it is with just a line, comparing life to a stage, as in this line from As You Like It, or calling another person an actor. However, in some, Shakespeare has a full-blown play taking place inside his own play. Two of the most notable of these are A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the play put on by the Mechanicals, and Hamlet, in which “the play’s the thing will catch the conscience of the king.” But before we look at these two plays in detail, what is the purpose of Shakespeare’s continual reference to theatre?

The traditional wisdom in writing plays is to avoid drawing attention to the fact that it is, in fact, a play, and not real life. Shakespeare, however, continually reminds us that we are watching a play. For Jaques, the character who speaks the “world’s a stage” monologue in As You Like It, is being portrayed by a player. In Twelfth Night, Fabian compares the trick played on Malvolio to a ludicrous play, saying ‘If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.’ This only makes the audience remember that it is being played upon a stage. Does Shakespeare intend us to agree with Fabian and condemn his plays as improbable fiction? I think not. While the sequence of events in Shakespeare’s plays may be improbable, the themes and principles contain deep truths. In fact, it is not the plot that is of most importance in any great play, but how the plot reveals human nature. For Shakespeare, the story is only the vehicle for getting ideas across to his audience. Therefore, he had no problem appropriating previous stories or history, even, to his own ends—changing what he wanted to fit with what he wanted to say. Rather, Shakespeare is reminding us that we are watching a made-up play, and that we must look beyond the surface to see the purpose in it.

For while the events are imaginary, the characters and emotions are not. Sometimes what seems to be real, the things we can touch and see with our eyes, are not as real as those things which we must imagine. Our outward senses can be deceiving, and Shakespeare teaches us that the “real” is not always the most helpful to us, and often it is the “unreal” that we need to understand. Plays are “unreal”; the people are actors; they put on costumes and makeup; and no matter how hard playwrights attempt to make them “real,” they will never be “real.” They will always be an imitation of life, not life itself. We must go to plays, learn what they have to teach us, and then return to real life with new knowledge about it that we could not have learned from life itself.

Shakespeare uses the play-within-the-play device specifically for a couple of reasons. Firstly, to teach the audience how to watch a play. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there are two audiences for Pyramus and Thisbe: the audience in Theseus’s court, and the audience watching Shakespeare’s play. We see how they watch the play, and we may learn from it. Hamlet describes the theatre as holding “a mirror up to life.” If the play in Hamlet reflects life within Hamlet, then it is an easy leap to the conclusion that Hamlet itself reflects our life. What is true on stage is true in real life.

As well as reflecting life in general, the play-within-the-play also tends to reflect, or even reproduce, to a certain extent, the main action. This is the purpose of most of Shakespeare’s subplots, but having the events of the main story encapsulated inside a play reinforces his intentions. This is especially clear in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I will look at more closely in a minute. In Hamlet, of course, the play is an exact re-enactment of the events which occurred shortly before the beginning of Hamlet, namely, the death of Hamlet’s father at the hand of Claudius.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a great starting point for studying the themes of Shakespeare—it has nearly everything: forbidden love, disguises, the spiritual world, a comic subplot, magic, weddings, and most importantly for our purposes, a play-within-the-play. To really discuss The Most Lamentable Comedy and Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe, we need to look for a minute at the whole subplot involving the Mechanicals, the group of labourers who decide to put on a play to perform at Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding. Their story serves to reflect the action of the main plot involving the two sets of lovers and to deflect the ridicule which would otherwise fall on the lovers. For love is, in this play, ridiculous. “Love makes fools of us all.” The Mechanicals and the lovers are out in the woods in Act III: the lovers wandering around foolishly, not knowing who they should love yet utterly convinced that they do know; the would-be actors rehearsing their play, not knowing how to do it, yet believing they have it under control. Bottom thinks he knows everything about everything, when in reality, he knows nothing about anything, until he is treated to the most wondrous vision of being an ass beloved by a faithless fairy.

Every time I see A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed, I forget that Pyramus and Thisbe is coming. It always seems slightly tacked on to the end of a play which finished with Act IV. And yet, after I watch Act V, I am always convinced that the performance of Pyramus is essential to the play. From a purely dramatic perspective, it ties off the Bottom subplot without leaving any loose ends. But also, the play tells us how we are to react to the main plot, and teaches both the audience within A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the larger audience outside of it some things. The plot of Pyramus is basically Romeo and Juliet: Young lovers are forbidden by their fathers to love each other; they plan to meet each other in a wood, Thisbe is frightened away by a lion, Pyramus finds her cloak and kills himself, thinking her dead, and Thisbe finds him dead and stabs herself. What makes it funny is the total ineptitude of the players. They cannot act, they continually break out of character to talk to the audience, and they seem to have no idea what is going on in the play they are playing.

And yet, if it is played right, the play still has an impact on Theseus and his court, especially at the death of Thisbe. The reason for this may be that they, as well as we, can see that Pyramus and Thisbe is a reflection of the events of the main story, much as the entire subplot is a reflection of the themes of the main story. Pyramus and Thisbe are forbidden to love each other by their fathers; Hermia and Lysander are forbidden to love each other by her father. Pyramus plans to meet Thisbe in a wood to run away together; Lysander sets up a meeting in the wood to run away with Hermia. Pyramus is surprised in the wood by a force of nature, the lion, and killed. Lysander’s love for Hermia is (temporarily) killed by a supernatural force, Oberon’s love-flower. The fact that Pyramus and Thisbe ends in death for the lovers sobers the real lovers, as they are forced to contemplate their own death. Another theme in Shakespeare is the need to prepare for death. In the comedies, this preparedness always involves getting love figured out. Everyone must find out who to love, how to love, and what it is like to be loved before he or she is ready to die. Pyramus and Thisbe had love figured out, as shown through Thisbe’s last speech, which should bring true emotion to the audience after the ridiculousness of the previous scenes. Our lovers now also have love figured out, though it took supernatural means to bring it about.

Much can be said about Bottom’s declaration that “the wall is down.” For in Pyramus and Thisbe, they were indeed separated by a wall, the wall between their respective fathers’ houses. It is for another paper to examine Wall in-depth, but the wall, also is a reflection of what is going on with Hermia, Lysander, Helena, Demetrius, and even Theseus and Hippolyta. All of these lovers had walls of some kind or another between them, which are finally brought down by the end of the play. Hermia’s father placed the wall between her and Lysander, forbidding them to marry. Demetrius put up a wall between himself and Helena, refusing to requite her love. Theseus and Hippolyta themselves had a sexual barrier between them, having to wait until their wedding night before they could consummate their love. In the fairy world, Oberon allowed a wall of jealousy to cut him off from his queen Titania. By the end of the play, the walls are all down, and Bottom makes sure we know it.

In order to get these walls down, the lovers had to go through a dream, and to a play. Dreams and the theatre are related: both are built upon imagination, both require a suspension of belief, both are “unreal,” both take us away from the everyday world, and both may teach us things that we would never learn from real life. Dreams can be very powerful—nightmares often leave the dreamer in a cold sweat and keep him from returning to sleep for fear. Hamlet likens death to a sleep, and is afraid of it, not knowing “what dreams may come.” The theatre also has a power over us, if it is good theatre. It will move us to tears or laughter, sometimes both; and if it is extraordinary, it will force us to reflect on our own lives, confronting our inner selves and becoming better people for it. Bottom is worried about the power of the theatre. As they are rehearsing, he insists that a prologue be written to assure the ladies that Pyramus is not dead and that the lion is not really a lion. There is a tension created on stage between fantasy and reality. For if a play is too real, it may be too terrifying, either physically or psychologically, to watch. Yet if it is too fantastical, it will not be believed and will make no difference in the lives of the audience. This tension is well explored as the Mechanicals try to make Pyramus both less real, by denying the reality of Pyramus’ death, and more real, by wanting to have moonshine and a real wall. It turns out to be impossible to make these things real on stage, and imagination must suffice. Theseus affirms that the audience must, in fact, aid in making the theatre work: “The best…are but shadows. And the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream ends with Puck talking directly to the audience, asking that their imagination amend whatever faults are found in it, and requesting applause, a huge reminder that we are actually watching a play ourselves. Puck asks us to do for A Midsummer Night’s Dream exactly what Theseus said was necessary for Pyramus and Thisbe. Shakespeare is teaching us how to watch his plays. We are not to be bystanders, idly watching other people do all the work to bring a play to us; rather we must be an active part of the play itself, bringing our imagination to bear on it to amend its faults, make it real, and deduce its value to our lives.


The play in Hamlet, titled The Murder of Gonzago, plays a much more central role to the plot of Hamlet. Instead of being part of a fifth-act resolution, it occupies the center scene of Act Three. It really marks the turning point in Hamlet, as Claudius realizes that his secret is out, and Hamlet knows how his father died. In fact, it is the play itself that reveals this information to Claudius, or at the very least, convicts Claudius in his soul of the sin he has committed against his brother. It is unclear whether Claudius immediately figures out that Hamlet knows the truth, or if the play merely awakens Claudius’ latent conscience. In any case, he begins to pray for his soul in the next scene, and he also prepares to send Hamlet away, fearing him.

Hamlet has a problem. Several, really. But he uses The Murder of Gonzago to work on two of them. First off, he has to trick Claudius into revealing his part in Hamlet’s father’s murder. Although he trusted the ghost at the beginning of the play, he is now starting to doubt the ghost’s believability. He wants backup, and he uses Gonzago to “catch the conscience of the king.” The plot of Gonzago is nearly identical to the story the ghost told Hamlet of his own death, and Hamlet hopes that Claudius will start and give himself away while watching it. Hamlet is relying on the power of theatre to awaken his uncle’s conscience, reminding him of his murderous deed. Secondly, Hamlet has to find out who else, if anyone, was involved in the murder. He is especially interested in the reaction of the queen; besides wanting to know if she was in on the murder, he wants her to realize her unfaithfulness in remarrying so quickly after his father’s death.

For the play to be convincing enough to wrench these reactions from the king and queen, it has to be well acted. To this end, Hamlet has around fifty lines of acting advice for the players. He tells them not to overact, keeping them from the errors of the Mechanicals of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for this play is not to be a comedy, and he does not want it to lose its effectiveness through absurdity. He denounces those who would try to get easy laughs when the play has “some necessary question…then to be considered.” Hamlet himself has a “necessary question” that he has inserted into the play that he wants to make sure is heard and considered. Yet, he does not want the players to be unemotional. They must “suit the action to the word,” for the purpose of any play is to “hold a mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image.” In other words, plays reflect human nature. One who is virtuous will see their virtue reflected, and one who is evil will see their evilness reflected. It is the latter that Hamlet is counting on in his uncle. This idea is not a new one. Aristotle argued that truth cannot be seen directly, but only in reflection. The value of playing lies it its ability to reflect the truth about human nature.

The question of what should be shown on stage was a big issue in Elizabethan times. The Puritans of the time were afraid that if vice were shown on stage, it would cause vice in the audience that would not otherwise have been there. Therefore, only edifying, virtuous things should be portrayed in the theatre. The playwrights argued, as Shakespeare does here through Hamlet, that virtue will breed virtue, but that showing evil on stage will also breed virtue, as the audience is frightened by the events that occur because of evil. It is frightening when Macbeth changes from a loyal soldier to a murderous tyrant, because we fear that under similar circumstances, we might do the same thing. It is frightening when Hamlet is so caught up with revenging his father that he is in danger of losing his soul, because we fear for our own. Hamlet intends to use this fear that good theatre evokes to frighten Claudius and Gertrude.

Before we look more closely at The Murder of Gonzago, there is a portion of another play within Hamlet. We are not told the title, but it is based on Virgil’s Aeneid, involving the murder of King Priam by Pyrrhus. Hamlet has seen the company of players perform this play before, and has memorized some of the speeches. When the company arrives in Denmark, he is moved to speak and hear from this play. Pyrrhus was the son of Achilles, the great Greek warrior who was finally killed by Priam of Troy during the Trojan Wars. Pyrrhus enters Troy with one thing on his mind: kill the man who killed his father. Sound familiar? It gets better. When Hamlet can remember no more, the First Player continues the scene, describing the great battle between Pyrrhus and Priam. Pyrrhus is right on the point of killing Priam, his sword raised above his head, but, “like a neutral to his will and matter,” he cannot deal the death blow. Pyrrhus is irresolute, his hesitation against both his will and his duty, and yet he hesitates. Hamlet also is driven by revenge to kill the man who killed his father, and Hamlet also is irresolute and hesitant. However, though we notice these similarities, Hamlet himself seems to identify Priam with his father, rather than with Claudius, because the next thing he asks the player to recite is the response of Priam’s queen Hecuba when she learns that her husband is dead (Pyrrhus did kill Priam after that moment’s hesitation). Hecuba reacted with sorrow, mourning and anger to the death of her husband and king; this is how Hamlet thinks that his own mother should have felt at the death of Hamlet’s father. In the comparison between Hecuba and Gertrude, Hecuba’s grief wins over Gertrude’s unfaithfulness. Alternately, Hamlet could have recognized himself as Pyrrhus and Claudius as the Priam who killed his father. In that case, Hamlet’s paleness and weeping would be caused by his realization that Gertrude could very well have been involved in her husband’s death, and would sorrow at Claudius’ death. Perhaps this is where Hamlet begins to see the opportunity to convict not only Claudius but also Gertrude with The Murder of Gonzago.

For these scenes from Virgil almost certainly give Hamlet the idea of using a play to trap Claudius. After the players leave and Hamlet is alone, he wonders at their ability to bring forth such strong emotion in a cause that is not true, when he cannot bring himself to do anything against his father’s murderer. He is caught in the power of theatre, and decides to use that power against his uncle. He even renames the play The Mousetrap for Claudius’ benefit.

Hamlet puts his plan into action the very next day, having asked his best friend Horatio to keep an eye on Claudius and Gertrude for any sign of guilt during the play. Before Gonzago proper begins, the actors put on a dumb show, basically running through the action of the play quickly and silently—a sort of preview. Claudius does not do anything at this point, for whatever reason; possibly the court is not yet paying attention to the play. The play itself begins with a king and queen conversing. Interestingly enough, the portion of the play we see relates more to the question of Gertrude’s involvement in the murderous plot than that of Claudius. The king and queen have been married for thirty years, and the king fears that he will soon die, leaving his queen behind to remarry. She declares that she will never marry again: “None wed the second but who killed the first.” Hamlet notes “That’s wormwood,” making a biblical allusion to the “wormwood and the gall,” the bitter wine given to Jesus Christ as he hung on the cross. This is the first provocative line in Gonzago; the first to hint that there is a connection between what is happening in the play and what is happening in Denmark. The queen goes to on to say that every time she went to bed with her second husband, it would be like killing the first again. All of this talk of the queen’s avowed faithfulness to her current husband is clearly meant to provoke Gertrude. In fact, at the next Gonzago scene break, Gertrude thinks the queen is defending her faithfulness too much. She would, of course, for by now she must have recognized herself in the queen. She knows how difficult it is to remain faithful to a dead husband. Hamlet, however, brings the point even more home by declaring that the queen will remain true to her word. This, as we know from the dumb show, is not true. Gonzago’s widow ends up wedded to his murderer, just as Gertrude ends up wedded to Claudius.

The speech in lines 196 to 225 is thought by some to be the speech written by Hamlet. If so, it is fascinating that it concerns his own vacillation and Gertrude’s unfaithfulness rather than Claudius’s guilt. The more I think about it, the more this theory makes sense. After all, the action of the play in itself is enough to convict Claudius. Everything is the same, even down to the poison in the ear. And even if Hamlet changed that to make it fit, that is only a change of stage direction and does not explain the speech he intended to write. Also, we know that the speech was to be written for the First Player, who plays the king. It is possible that he plays another part as well in which he could have said the speech, but it is unlikely, given the size and importance of the part of the king. Hamlet is not concerned only with Claudius’s guilt. He also wants a reaction from Gertrude, something that quite possibly was not guaranteed by the original play. This speech also shows Hamlet’s own state of mind at this point in Hamlet. The bulk of it argues that plans built solely on passion fail, because passion is an emotion, and emotions are not lasting. In Gonzago, the king is referring to the queen’s passionate denial of any intention to remarry at the king’s death, which she will renounce soon after his death. But it could just as well refer to Hamlet’s loss of enthusiasm for killing his uncle. In fact, this idea is repeated at least three more times elsewhere in the text. As far as Gonzago itself goes, the speech is a warning to the queen not to be too sure about her vow never to remarry—she has a high likelihood of breaking it, as Gertrude did.

The next scene in Gonzago is the most important, as it relates to the play’s role in Hamlet. By this point Hamlet is very excited, discussing the play’s action with anyone who will listen, and some who would probably rather not. A character called Lucianus comes on stage, nephew to the king—a close relation. His short speech tells of the strong poison he possesses, and he quickly takes it and pours it into the ear of the king. Hamlet helpfully explains that he poisons the king as he sleeps in the garden, and he will soon gain the love of the king’s wife. Claudius gets the point and storms off, ending the performance. Hamlet’s plan has worked, and the power of the theatre has caught the conscience of the king, who straightaway goes to pray for his soul—unsuccessfully as it turns out.

This play is different from the play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the obvious reason that it performs an essential role to the development of Hamlet’s plot. Pyramus and Thisbe is important to reinforce Shakespeare’s meaning in Dream, but by the time it happens, all of the real action has already taken place and the problems been resolved. Gonzago, on the other hand, is Hamlet’s proof that Claudius killed Hamlet’s father, and offers Claudius a chance to repent and save his soul, which he is ultimately unable to do.

Its position at the center of Hamlet also points to the centrality of the theme of acting in Hamlet, and the rest of Shakespeare’s plays in fact. Everyone in Hamlet is acting. Hamlet is acting mad. Claudius is acting innocent. Gertrude is acting as though nothing is suspicious about remarrying so soon after a loved husband’s death. Polonius is acting wise. Perhaps the only one who is not acting is Ophelia, who truly loves Hamlet and never says different. Her purity cannot exist beside the rampant hypocrisy in Denmark, and she dies.

Acting plays a big role in many of Shakespeare’s plays; Edgar in King Lear acts mad to escape death. Regan and Gonerill act the loving daughters. In A Winter’s Tale, Florizel and Perdita act as the king and queen of the May, even speaking at a different level. Viola pretends to be a boy in Twelfth Night, bringing two sets of lovers together through her actions. Everyone in Much Ado About Nothing is disguised; there is even a costume ball to bring attention to the fact. Pretty much everyone in Shakespeare is acting, or disguised at some point—a type of acting. The resolution comes when the disguises are removed, and the acting stops, revealing the true person underneath; each must accept who he is and who everyone else is, and still love them.

If theatre is the mirror of nature, and what is true on stage is true in real life, what do we learn from watching Shakespeare? All the world’s a stage…and we are also playing parts. Even if we do it unconsciously, most of us are acting out a role—whether it is to be accepted, or popular, or to be loved or get a better job. These disguises may be necessary for a time, as Viola’s was necessary until it was safe for her to remove it, but when it comes right down to it, we must be able to separate our roles from ourselves, and be willing to step out of them at the right time.

We must also learn to recognize our own situations in the plays that we see. If not the exact events of our life, as Gonzago reflects Hamlet, at least we must see the emotions and vices. Good theatre should convict us, just as Gonzago convicted Claudius, seeing the state of his own soul reflected on stage. We just have to take the step that he could not, and allow the power of theatre to change us for the better.


This paper originated as a term paper for Shakespeare, Harlaxton College, Spring, 2002.

©2002 by Jandy Stone