Fancy's Images: Contexts, Settings, and Perspectives in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries

By Charles R. Forker | Go to book overview

1 Shakespeare's Theatrical Symbolism and Its Function in Hamlet

I

A rapid glance at any concordance will reveal that Shakespeare, both for words and metaphors, drew abundantly from the language of the theatre. Terms like argument, prologue, stage, pageant, scene, player, act, actor, show, audience, rant--these and their cousins that evoke dramatic connotations occur again and again throughout his plays in instances that range from very literal or technical significations to highly figurative and symbolic ones. This constant recourse to dramatic vocabulary suggests an analogy in Shakespeare's mind between life and the theatre--an analogy that he himself makes explicit and that even the name of his own theatre, the Globe, reinforces. Examples are not far to seek. Everyone will recall the famous reference of Jaques ("All the world's a stage" [ As You Like It, II. vii. 138]) and Macbeth ("Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage" [ Macbeth, V. v.24-25]); and there are many others. Not infrequently the figure is associated with pain or death and the relation of man to the cosmos; hence, it becomes a natural focus for the idea of tragedy. The banished Duke in As You Like It speaks of the world as a "universal theatre" that "Presents more woeful pageants than the scene/Wherein we play" (II. vii.136-138); Lear with the penetration of madness bewails that "we are come/To this great stage of fools" ( King Lear, IV. vi.182-183); and Richard of Bordeaux, the actor-king, glances back over his life to find it as unreal and as temporary as a play--"a little scene,/To monarchize, be fear'd, and kill with looks" ( Richard II, III. ii.164-165). 1

That Shakespeare should have conceived of man as an actor, the world as a stage, and the universe as its backdrop is not extraordinary, for, apart from the fact that he himself played the triple role of actor, playwright, and part owner of a theatre, the metaphor was of course a Renaissance commonplace. The motto of the Globe, "Totus mundus agit histrionem," is only the most succinct expression of an idea extended to greater length in Montaigne, in Erasmus's Praise of Folly, in Romei's Courtier's Academie, and in the works of Shakespeare's fellow dramatists, as, for instance, the induction to Marston's Antonio and Mellida. 2

The intention of this essay is to analyze some of the elaborate ramifications of the theatre symbol as it functions throughout Hamlet, to suggest that by reexamining the play with emphasis on the theme of acting, we may reach certain new perceptions about its dramatic architecture and see some of its central issues ( Hamlet's delay, for instance,

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