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The image of the theatre in Shakespeare Rytell, Geoffrey

Abstract

The purpose of this thesis is to suggest something of the extent to which the image of the theatre is reflected in Shakespeare's plays. By image is meant a variety of things — the physical theatre, its stage, its actors and its audience, and their metaphysical concomitants. The image of the theatre involves Shakespeare's attitudes towards the theatre itself; his comments upon the nature of dramatic illusion, life as an illusion, the inadequacies of stage representation ,and his methods of overcoming such difficulties. I have also been interested in Shakespeare's significant playing with the spectator's sense of dramatic illusion. Also included under this general heading of image are his ideas about the nature and function of drama as mirror, and the significant ways in which he uses the play-within-the-play as a reflector. Other aspects of the image are the way in which Shakespeare's characters describe themselves, or are described, as role-players, in the sense that they voluntarily adopt or are forced by circumstances to assume, a particular part; and also the theatrical imagery which permeates the language of the plays throughout the canon. As I have indicated in the introduction, recent criticism touching on this general area has proved to be quite extensive, and often most illuminating. Such writers as S. L. Bethell, Muriel Bradbrook, Una Ellis-Fermor, Bernard Spivack, Robert Heilman, John Lawlor, to mention only a few, have much to say on Shakespeare's characters, their role-playing, and other aspects of the image, which I found invaluable. Most of the critical commentary, however, though substantial enough and extremely useful in points of detail, was not concerned with the particular approach adopted by the present writer. To the best of my knowledge, none of the authors quoted has been consistently concerned with suggesting the way in which the theatre pervades Shakespeare's work; how it is reflected in his overt concern with the problems of the theatre, in his language and his view of life itself. There are a number of conclusions to this general, and by no means exhaustive, study. Shakespeare's remarks on dramatic illusion, as given in the prologues to Henry V and Pericles, suggest that he considers the matter of realistic stage presentation as of a somewhat peripheral concern for the dramatist. The true reality of a play lies in the substance which underlies the shadow, or vision, which is presented to us. Shakespeare, particularly in the comedies, often breaks the illusion, reminding us that we are watching a play. Yet for all this juggling with the audience's sense of illusion — often done subtly and less self-consciously in the tragedies — the truth which is reflected in the fiction remains unaffected. The inner play in Shakespeare, like the play itself, also serves to mirror truth, as in "Pyramus and Thisbe," "The Mousetrap," and others. The relation of the image of the theatre to character is particularly interesting. I concentrated especially upon certain groups of characters, the lovers, the villains, the fools, the kings, the tragic heroes. Of these groups, some characters are aware of their role-playing, others are not. The interesting and significant point is that the image of the theatre manifests itself in Shakespeare's conception of character. It also manifests itself in his language and his view of life. Prospero's famous speech in The Tempest, "our revels now are ended," provides perhaps a fitting climax to this study. As spectators to this last play, our own perspective, which encompasses the fiction of the masque and the "real" spectators Ferdinand and Miranda, themselves a part of the larger fiction The Tempest, is itself displaced and made fictive. We too become as figures in the play of life, the vision of reality.

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