9

Ralph Crown mentions in this answer that a particular line in the play Hamlet could be interpreted as Hamlet breaking the fourth wall, and implies that this is common in Shakespeare plays:

Another [interpretation] is that Hamlet, like several other characters in Shakespeare, is aware of being a fictional construct.

I'm curious about how widespread this phenomenon actually is, especially if we exclude things like the "Chorus" or "Prologue" in plays such as Romeo and Juliet or The Winter's Tale, and also exclude lines such as the one in Hamlet which could be interpreted as fourth-wall-breaking but could also be interpreted in other, non-immersion-breaking ways. I realise that there's a lot of ambiguity and double meanings in Shakespeare, but some things leave little room for doubt.

How many of Shakespeare's actual theatrical characters have lines which are fairly unambiguously breaking the fourth wall?

5
  • 1
    Do you make a distinction between "addressing the audience" (Richard III) and "the character knowing s/he is a character" (Puck at the end of MSND)? Or would you count both of those as the same thing? Jul 20 '17 at 12:30
  • @LaurenIpsum Hmm, good question. I guess they're both forms of breaking the fourth wall, just on different levels. A good answer might cover both types.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jul 20 '17 at 12:32
  • 1
    This question is way too broad.
    – user111
    Jul 20 '17 at 16:48
  • @Hamlet How is this question too broad and yours isn't? It would be helpful if you could leave more detailed feedback. (For the record, I've upvoted yours and voted to leave open.)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jul 21 '17 at 8:54
  • @Randal'Thor because my question is about Shakespeare breaking the fourth wall in a very specific way. The answer to this question is "too many times to count". And as Lauren Ipsum's comment implies, you need a better definition of "breaking the fourth wall".
    – user111
    Jul 21 '17 at 14:14
6

The original claim isn't that characters break the fourth wall, just that they are aware that they are fictional. In TV Tropes terms, this is leaning on the fourth wall or lampshading. (Not coincidentally, both use the same line from Twelfth Night as a page quote!). Many of these examples "could also be interpreted in other, non-immersion-breaking ways", but I'd argue that an audience watching a play on a stage with a literal proscenium would not fail to notice that the actors are commenting on the play in progress.

Here are some examples from the Leaning on the Fourth Wall page:

  • Twelfth Night: "If this were play'd upon a stage now, I would condemn it as improbable fiction" (Act 3 Sc 4)
  • As You Like It: "All the world's a stage and we are but players." (Act 2 Sc 7)
  • Julius Caesar: "How many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over in states unborn and accents yet unknown!" (Act 3 Sc 1)
  • Macbeth: "Life is but a walking shadow [= actor], a poor player [= actor] who struts and frets his hour upon the stage" (Act 5 Sc 5)

And some from the Lampshade Hanging (Theatre) page:

  • Most of the female characters pretending to be male tend to lampshade the fact that they are male actors playing a female characters disguised as male.
  • Hamlet's "Speak the speech I pray you" monologue can be seen as a combination of putting a shade on the common Theater techniques of the era, and a Take That! against the overuse of it.
  • In Henry VI Part 3, things are going badly for the Yorkists at the Battle of Towton. The leaders gather and exchange poetic speeches about how badly it's going, that being how characters do things in these plays. Warwick reproves them thusly: "Why stand we like soft-hearted women here, / Wailing our losses, whiles the foe doth rage; / And look upon, as if the tragedy / Were play'd in jest by counterfeiting actors?"

And some examples from my own brain:

  • The most straightforward example is characters who explain their actions (past and planned) to the audience in soliloquies, although this is more of a theatrical device than fourth-wall breaking. This includes Richard III, Iago and, of course, Hamlet.
  • The Merchant of Venice: "I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano; / A stage where every man must play a part, / And mine a sad one." (Act 1 Sc 1)
  • The Tempest: "These our actors, / As I foretold you, were all spirits and / Are melted into air, into thin air: / And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, / The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces, / The solemn temples, the great globe itself, / Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve / And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, / Leave not a rack behind."
1
  • Thanks for this nice and informative answer. Some actual quotes from Richard III, Iago, and Hamlet might be a nice addition, but I guess they (and Shakespeare characters as a whole) are well known for soliloquising anyway.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jul 21 '17 at 23:52
2

Unambiguously is key here, since his plays are filled with little winks to the audience. The first example that came to mind was Robin Goodfellow's monologue at the end of Midsummer Night's Dream:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this and all is mended:
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearnèd luck
Now to ’scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long.
Else the Puck a liar call.
So good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

1
  • 1
    Assuming, of course, that epilogues are allowed. There are post-modern elements in Shakespeare, but nothing like the 4th wall breaking in Stoppard, although I doubt it is coincidental that Stoppard uses Shakespeare for a play that is partly about breaking the 4th wall.
    – DukeZhou
    Jul 21 '17 at 19:39
2

None of Shakespeare's characters break the fourth wall. As I have pointed out in a related question, the first Western publication that defined the convention of the fourth wall was Denis Diderot's Discours sur la poesie dramatique, published in 1758, almost a century-and-a-half after the end of Shakespeare's career. In addition to the fourth wall, Diderot also urged the use of prose dialogue and detailed pantomime but his ideas on staging had little influence on the theatre of his time (Brockett and Hildy, page 277, 291).

The "fourth wall" is a convention that was developed mainly in the nineteenth century, during which the box set gained wide acceptance. Brockett and Hildy inform us that the Bancrofts (Marie Wilton and her husband Squire Bancroft) did a lot to win acceptance for the box set (page 396):

The Bancrofts also firmly anchored acting behind the proscenium arch. The retreat from the forestage had begun with Garrick, but, despite several attempts to abandon the proscenium doors, they were not removed at Drury Lane until 1822 and at Covent Garden until 1823. (...) The apron persisted, however, and actors continued to use it. But after 1867, the "fourth wall" was always respected at the Prince of Wales's Theatre. When the Bancrofts moved to the Haymarket in 1880, they extended the gilded proscenium arch across the bottom of the stage to emphasize the picture frame. By 1900 the use of the apron had been seriously curtailed in virtually all of London's theatres.

The developments described here took place more than 250 years after Shakespeare's death.

In France, the theatre manager André Antoine took the "fourth wall" even further (Brockett and Hildy, page 429):

The "fourth wall" was observed consistently; in designing settings, he arranged rooms as in real life and only later decided which wall should be removed. Often furniture was placed along the curtain line, and actors were directed to behave as though there were no audience.

Fintan O'Toole is right when he points out (page 16) that

In Shakespeare's time there is no convention which says that an actor cannot notice and address the audience. On the contrary, the audience is noticed, winked at, teased and made aware of itself.

J. L. Styan argues that Elizabethan theatre derived at least part of its vitality from the apron stage and the easy access it gave the actor to the audience (page 17, emphasis added):

The platform's vitality derived from this quality of its central control of the house: the immediately felt contact with the spectator, the absence of an inflexible 'fourth wall' of darkness to which actors play in a modern theatre. The audience was not there to counterfeit its participation in the play, like that watching a Victorian melodrama. It was caught up in an act of creative collaboration.

What modern audience experience as "breaking the fourth wall" appears to derive from one of the strengths of the apron stage. Styan gives several examples of characters that address the audience.

The character "Rumour" in the Induction The Second part of King Henry the Fourth:

Open your ears; for which of you will stop
The vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks?

Flavius in Act 1, scene 1 of Julius Caesar:

Hence! home, you idle creatures get you home:
Is this a holiday?

(This may not seem like an address to the audience unless one knows that the groundlings were often lower-class people who should have been at work.)

The stage-keeper in the Induction of Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair:

Gentlemen, haue a little patience, they are e'en vpon comming, instantly. He that should beginne the Play, Mafler Littletvit, the Proctor, (…)

Wellborn at the beginning of Philip Massinger's A New Way to Pay Old Debts:

No bouse? nor no tobacco?

When the acress playing Cleopatra catches a "fish" from the audience in a performance at London's Globe Theatre (Antony and Cleopatra, Act 2, scene 5), that may seem like a fourth-wall breaking moment to an audience that is used to a box set, but the apron stage at the Globe, where the audience stands on three side of the stage, has no imaginary fourth wall between the actors and the audience.

The audience of Shakespeare's plays was already aware of the theatricality that characterised the performance. As Perry McPartland writes in his doctoral dissertation,

in the early modern public theatres where Shakespeare’s plays were originally put on – in which performances took place in the open-air, on bare or almost bare promontory stages, and unfolded according to dramatic traditions that had yet to find place for realism and its fourth wall, wherein the performance of persona bore no imprint of Stanislavsky’s method – the sense of drama’s duality was much more prominent.

What the other answers to this question describe has nothing to do with breaking of the fourth wall (from the point of view of Shakespeare and his contemporaries) and rarely fits into the category of "lampshading". Several of the examples given are more properly described as metatheatrical references. Breaking the fourth wall and metatheatricality are to some extent related, but not every instance of breaking the fourth wall can be categorised as metatheatre. For example, the scene from Antony and Cleopatra (see above), which feels like fourth-wall breaking for a modern audience, is not explicit metatheatre.

Hence, the correct answer to this question is that none of Shakespeare's characters break the fourth wall but many speeches that feel like wall-breaking to a modern audience can be seen as metatheatrical references.

References

  • Brockett, Oscar G.; Hildy, Franklin J.: History of the Theatre. Eighth edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1999. McPartland, Perry:: Shakespeare and Metatheatrical Representation. Doctoral thesis. Kristiansand: University of Agder, 2020.
  • O'Toole, Fintan: Shakespere is Hard, but so is Life. London: Granta, 2002.
  • Styan J. L.: Shakespeare's Stagecraft. Cambridge University Press, 1967.
0

It very much depends on the production. In many modern productions soliloquies and some humour are performed to the audience or a even a wink or aside to the audience.

But that doesn't mean they're unambiguously fourth wall breaking in the text. Hamlet probably wouldn't in real life enunciate his famous speech and it's surely a theatrical device. But just because something is present that wouldn't be present if the audience were not doesn't mean the fourth wall is broken.

That might be eye contact or a hand to the side of the mouth against the other players directly lines to the audience that indicates the actor is directly interacting with the audience.

For example, Julius Caeser musing how many future generations will watch the scene is slightly humourous and deliberate irony. Whether the wall is broken is how he delivers the line.

There's bawdy humour in Shakespeare so without any historical record I'd guess some it went on.

There's a line in Hamlet that is often interpreted as a pop at Will Kempe (one of the players who had maybe left or was certainly starting to fall out with everyone):

and let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them. For there be of them that will themselves laugh to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the meantime some necessary question of the play be then to be considered.—That’s villainous and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it."

Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 2

With no evidence I can only imagine some gesture being made to indicate who was meant - big laughs!

1
  • Interesting information, but in the question I'm specifically "exclud[ing] lines such as the one in Hamlet which could be interpreted as fourth-wall-breaking but could also be interpreted in other, non-immersion-breaking ways". There are tons of lines which could be interpreted as fourth-wall-breaking, up to and including the famous "All the world's a stage" speech, but I'm more interested in those which unambiguously do so.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Oct 15 '18 at 19:47

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.