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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?

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    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? – Lauren Ipsum 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
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    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
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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."
  • 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
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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.

  • 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
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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!

  • 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

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