Understanding The Terms Of The Metadrama English Literature Essay


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There was no term metadrama in the Elizabethan period but the practice of metatheatre was a phenomenon on the stage. The idea of metadrama is that it highlights the fictional status of a drama, both in the reading and performance. Direct addresses to the audience are the most typical metadramatic form in referring to the play as a play and its theatrical situation. These direct addresses include prologues, epilogues and soliloquies/ asides/ self-talk. However it is not just the direct address to the audience that highlight the metadramatic play, there are other aspects. The play within a play, the idea of ceremony and ritual within a play, role-playing and real life references, and the self-reference of the characters are all key examples of the metadramatic presence in plays especially in the Shakespearean drama. This paper will discuss how certain aspects of both Titus Andronicus and Richard III can be considered metadramatic. The aforementioned soliloquies, play within a play, ceremony and ritual will feature strongly in this discussion. The two plays were published within a year of each other, Titus Andronicus in 1592 and Richard III in 1593, and so hold many similar metadramatic traits. The characters in which these traits are most obvious are Aaron the Moor and Richard the Duke of Gloucester. Both indulge in the soliloquy and delight in being the puppeteer of the characters that surround them, the latter stressing the idea of a director and a cast. There is also the case of self-reference being present in the majority of the asides that both characters verbalize. The paper will also, using the aside, discuss the power play between the male and the female characters, as both indulge in self-talk.

Point One-The term 'Soliloquy':

To understand the use of the soliloquy as a metadramatic characteristic one must first engage with the conventions that went with the use of the soliloquy in the Renaissance period in which Shakespeare wrote. As a rule all words spoken by an actor represented the words spoken by the character portrayed. Certain soliloquies represented speeches rather than internal monologues. This is demonstrated by the sheer amount of soliloquies in Renaissance dramas that were overheard in the course of a play. The soliloquy can also be shown in an aside. This is where the executor of the soliloquy was aware of the presence of another character and still speaks the aside but guards it from being overheard. This trait of the aside is more visible in Richard III rather than Titus Andronicus. However the option for the soliloquy to be overheard is exploited rigorously in Titus Andronicus. This occurred when the speaker was unaware of another character. And like any talent the guarding of an aside/soliloquy could be performed well or badly. The speaker had to be on constant guard when speaking and if they lowered their guard at any one point they gave the other characters the opportunity to overhear the soliloquy. These conventions were maintained religiously in the Renaissance dramas and experienced playgoers were aware of them. The conventions generated opportunities for eavesdropping, which delighted playgoers. Shakespeare used the soliloquy with regularity in all of his plays, following the Renaissance trend (Hirsch: 2010: 40).

Point Two- The 'Soliloquy' in Richard III:

In discussing the soliloquy Richard is a necessary character to mention. Richard's soliloquies determine how the audience perceive his actions. In his opening speech Richard shows his yearning for personal revenge which ultimately stems from his own physical deformities.

"Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,

Have no delight to pass away the time,

Unless to see my shadow in the sun

And descant on mine own deformity.

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,

To entertain these fair well-spoken days,

I am determined to prove a villain..." (1: 1: 24-30).

His first soliloquy marks him as a director to the audience, confirmed in the closing soliloquy of the scene, which Richard also performs. The above quotation is halfway through Richard's first meeting with the audience, the first four lines are a commentary on his appearance and the latter three are an indication to the direction of the play. Richard is portrayed as a warlike character in this excerpt. "This weak piping time of peace" indicates that his preference lies with war rather than peace. There is a distain for the lax attitude of men who spend time lying in the sun, "Have no delight to pass away the time... in the sun". This section of the soliloquy is where Richard detaches himself from the others in the play. Before he used "our", now he uses "my" and "I". And while Richard is portrayed as a villain obsessed with power, he is also pitiable (Campbell: 1963: 308). He cannot be held responsible for his actions as his body; his nature has led him to behave this way. However, Richard does not hide himself. "I am determined to prove a villain" sets the tone for the rest of the play. The audience is now waiting for Richard's villainous activities. Lionel Abel discusses how metadrama allows the audience to empathize with the main character; Richard is a prime indicator of this usage of metatheatre (Abel: 2003: 172).

Point Three- The 'Soliloquy' in Titus Andronicus:

Again the trait of metadrama as a way of the audience empathizing with the character is shown by Aaron in Titus Andronicus. Aaron has always been portrayed as the violent character in the play, simply by his being a Moor. Moors were considered barbarous heathens, dangerous and undaunted, or perhaps unaware, of the limitations set by the civilized man (Bloom: 1981: 42). Shakespeare manages to convince the Elizabethan audience that Aaron is a plausible villain with little effort. It is making the audience empathize with Aaron that is difficult.

"But I have done a thousand dreadful things

As willingly as one would kill as fly,

And nothing grieves me heartily indeed

But that I cannot do ten thousand more." (5: 1: 141-144).

Aaron's thirst for cruelty is insatiable. He has committed some terrible crimes and has designed crimes that were perpetrated by others. His evil is represented as an intrinsic part of his race. He is bound to serve by his race, his being black (did you mean by his race or for his race?). Shakespeare emphasizes this by giving Aaron no motives for his transgressions. Aaron's soliloquy in Act four shows his compassion for his new son but even in this, his barbarous nature emerges.

"..To dispose this treasure in mine arms

And secretly to greet the empress' friends.

Come on, you thick-lipped slave, I'll bear you hence,

For it is you that puts us to our shifts.

I'll make you feed on berries and on roots,

And fat on curds and whey, and suck the goat,

And cabin in a cave, and bring you up

To be a warrior and command a camp (4: 2: 175-182).

To Aaron, unlike the civilised characters of the play, his son is a "treasure". He speaks of caring for his son, but unlike the normalcy of protecting his son he seeks to make him stronger, to raise him "to be a warrior".

In this show of compassion for the baby the idea of the Senecan revenge tragedy is brought to the fore again. Aaron's soliloquy brings to mind the Spartan ideal of raising their children to fight. Boys were separated from their mothers at the age of seven, Aaron's son will be a better warrior separated from his mother even earlier. He also references his own 'blackness', his origins. "You thick-lipped slave" is a direct comparison to Aaron's own appearance. The "thick-lipped" is appearance related and while Aaron may not be a "slave" per se (rephrase) , he has always been at the behest of Tamora. He is also aware that this baby is trouble, "puts us to our shifts" or in modern words "causes us to plan" can be seen as plan for trouble. However this soliloquy later leads to trouble for Aaron, just as he perceived. It is overheard by a Goth soldier under Lucius' command. It has a decisive effect on his future and it sticks to the conventions laid out for soliloquies in Renaissance plays (Hirsch: 2003: 131). It is however this act of protecting his son that humanises Aaron. Even upon being captured he only seeks to secure a future for his son, despite knowing he will not escape Lucius.

And much as Richard is the puppeteer of his cast, so is Aaron. He uses Tamora's sons Chiron and Demetrius throughout the play to achieve his own aims. He takes advantage of their sexual desire for Lavinia in order to control them. These asides in reference to Chiron and Demetrius recall Richard's asides to Catesby and Buckingham.

Point Four-'Self-Talk' in Richard III:

The soliloquy sets the scene for self-talk/reference, for without it the self-talk would be nonsensical as the audience would have no knowledge of the character upon which to base their opinions. Richard III is more successful in the use of the soliloquy as a base for self-talk, but only because Richard himself was already a historical figure known to many playgoers, if not personally, by word of mouth and writings. Self-reference is used to question the exaggerated portrayal of Richard. The metadramatic aspects of Richard III are particularly noticeable in how Richard is portrayed. He is always aloof from the rest of the performers and occasionally comments on their actions and in some places his own. He manipulates other characters on the stage and then demonstrates how the theatrical illusion influences them. This is particularly visible in Richard's supposed piety. In Act three, Scene seven Shakespeare incorporates another aspect of metadrama into Richard III. The idea of a play within in a play is created here. This inner play shows Richard's ability to play more than one role with dexterity. Here it is shown how the audience can only perceive what is shown to them, "nor more can you distinguish of a man/ that his outward show" (3: 1: 8-9). In previous acts, Richard direction of the play is shown and it is never more important than in this scene. This is where Richard claims the throne, having already twice declined it. He is shown by his actions to be worthy of the kingship. He is a pious Christian by his outward show, and as stated in Act one what can a person take from his outward appearance other than what he shows them?

"Two props of virtue for a Christian Prince

To stay him from the fall of vanity.

And see, a book of prayer in his hand-

True ornaments to know a holy man" (3: 7: 96-98).

However the metadramatic mode of self-reference moulds the character of Richard. It characterizes his role and "with self-reference, the play directly calls attention to itself as a play, an imaginative fiction" (Hornby: 1986: 103).

Richard's last soliloquy occurs in the fifth Act and while it takes the form of a soliloquy it is more an act of self-revelation, one that has not been seen before in the play. Up until this point Richard has never examined himself, how he works, thinks or acts. His only care has been the successful completion of his plans. What he has revealed of both his plans and himself has up until now been utterly in his control. The appearance of the ghosts of the people he has killed has a devastating impact on Richard, shaking him to his core and causing him to question himself. The transition from the dream to wakefulness is shown in Richard's tone and words, "Give me another horse". It also puts forward his defeat, "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" (5: 4: 13).It is in this soliloquy that Richard's questioning of himself comes to light. He has never questioned his role as villain throughout the play, content to stick to it. The role he plays has been laid out for him not by the playwright but by history itself, and deviation from the role would not have been allowed if not for metadrama. The self-talk Richard indulges in allows Richard to become a real character rather than a facsimile of a tyrant king (Shapiro: 1981: 149). He calls his actions 'sins'. He has no one to love him, and his self-reliance leads to his lonely death. The role that he has held true to throughout has now collapsed and he is presented to the audience as pitiable. His despair is not shown in feelings but in thoughts that he speaks aloud (Clemen: 2005: 21-22).

Point Five- The 'Aside' in Titus Andronicus and Richard III:

Considering that both plays are engaged with power struggles and revenge, the asides display information about the intentions of each play's primary characters. Furthermore the characters' evil intentions are revealed in their asides. This prompts the audience's interest in the character, especially in the case of Richard of Gloucester as he was a well known historical figure. The soliloquy places the audience in the position of confidante and while engaging the audience this tactic also highlights the plays' fictional status. The aside, unlike the soliloquy, has an immediate effect; it ties the audience to the character. The soliloquy gives the opportunity for the playwright to engage with the audience, capturing their attention by addressing them directly. Considering that all the asides make reference to vengeance at some point the Elizabethan obsession with the idea of revenge is noteworthy. The motive of revenge is put in another context when one takes note of the society into which the plays emerged, "Elizabethans were conscious of the earlier periods of lawlessness when revenge was a right…blood revenge for the murder of a close relative" (Bowers: 1959: 11).

As mentioned earlier, the aside is one of the places in which the power struggle between male and female is evident. One of the most prominent power struggles between characters is visible in Queen Margaret's antagonism towards Richard while he speaks to his mother Queen Elizabeth. Every time Richard speaks Margaret indulges in an aside, bringing the audience to her side instead of Richard's.

QUEEN MARGARET: "Thou kill'dst my husband Henry in the Tower, (Aside)

And Edward, my poor son, at Tewkesbury"

RICHARD: "Ere you were queen, ay, or you husband King… (To Queen To royalize his blood, I spent mine own." Elizabeth)

QUEEN MARGARET: "Ay, and much better blood than his (Aside)

Or thine."

(1: 3: 117-124)

As a result of her asides Queen Margaret is made accessible to the audience, she reveals her hatred of Richard and despite the conversations being made between Richard and his mother, attention is constantly drawn back to Margaret and her plight. She is made to be an empathetic character. Her asides also undercut Richard's character. Richards speaks "What I have been, and what I am" is followed by Margaret's "Murd'rous villain, and so still thou art" (1: 3: 131-133). However this is Margaret's pivotal scene, she does not make another major appearance in the play and her curse is placed here while she is speaking to Richard directly. After this curse, the use of the asides switches back to Richard evidence of the power struggle.

It is Titus Andronicus with Titus and Tamora however that the discrepancy between men and women in the use of Shakespearean asides is more evident. The solo aside or the soliloquy is never once given Tamora, these belong solely to Titus. Tamora is left to use the conversational aside, which can be overheard by other characters. This lack of the solo aside is proof that she is dependant on the male characters to achieve her aims, obvious in her asides to Saturninus throughout the play (Green: 1989: 320). Tamora's control is seen through Aaron's control of her children. It is Lavinia's inability to talk after her rape by Chiron and Demetrius however that indicates how strong the patriarchal society is. She is not able to utter an aside; she is not even able to speak directly to anyone. It in this that the ritual and ceremony of metadrama become important. Lavinia can only motion her feelings. Titus has no need to rely on others to achieve his revenge, unlike Tamora he is capable of achieving it and does so by deceiving the Queen of the Goths. Both plays set the female character in a derogatory position. They are 'forbidden' to participate in the soliloquy and are left only with the aside as a means of expressing themselves, they are subservient to the male characters as a result.

Point Six- Titus Andronicus as a play within a play/ceremony and ritual:

Titus Andronicus can be considered to be a play within a play in own right. Structurally it draws from more than one classical source but the most obvious is that of Seneca's Thyestes tale that discusses the rape of Philomela, which mirrors Lavinia's rape by Chiron and Demetrius. The play is a composition of revenge and criminal activity collected from Roman lore (Law: 1943: 146). These references to Roman origins weaken the play and the constant actions of the characters that mirror the Roman tales enhance this. The metadrama present in Titus Andronicus therefore has more of a metadramatic effect when it comes to the topic of ceremonies and rituals because of the constant Roman references. The first act sees Titus consecrating his sons' burials with the sacrifice of Alarbus, Tamora's oldest son. The act of sacrifice in itself is ritualistic; having origins beyond Shakespeare's writing (Calderwood: 1971: 37). Revenge is a ritual in Titus Andronicus and the scene that perhaps shows this off is in Act three. In the first scene of this act, Titus promises revenge in the most extended ritual of the play. Violence, which is often paired with revenge, is present on the stage with Titus in the presence of Lavinia, Titus' own dismembered hands and the heads of Martius and Quintus, all remnants of earlier rituals and vows that have been broken. Titus gathers his remaining family into a circle with these indicators of violated promises and speaks of vengeance.

"You heavy people, circle me about,

That I may turn me to each one of you

And swear unto my soul to right your wrongs.

(They make a vow)

The vow is made."

(3: 1: 277-280)

His vow is now entangled with these remnants of violence. These body parts are now part of the ritual and must be cared for. The vow of vengeance had been enacting in this promising ritual and Titus then asks his family to gather up the body parts, even Lavinia must carry a hand between her teeth, to confirm the sanctity of their vow (Anderson: 2006: 19).


Metadrama can be seen as a type of self-examination of the theatrical arts. The metadramatic performance only makes sense when it is merged with the rest of the performance, demonstrated aptly in the soliloquy. With reference to the theme of this paper, can Titus Andronicus and Richard III be considered metadramas, the aspects of the play that have been discussed would seem to argue that they are metadramatic plays. Metadrama challenges the audience's perception of a character from his or her first introduction, visible in Richard and Aaron. Metadrama adds a layer to a play that does not affect the characters but allows for the audience to be drawn in by the characters, into the play itself. The audience member becomes a character on the stage, vulnerable to the actions of other members of the play and the fate of those characters. Without metadrama in both Richard III and Titus Andronicus the impact of both would have been drastically reduced, in Shakespeare's Elizabethan period and in the modern world of drama.

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