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Theatre began as a presentation of stories and ideas, mostly revolving around festival times in the calendar of the church year. This concept was carried on in Shakespeare’s times and is exemplified in his plays Twelfth Night, or What You Will and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. These plays express a “carnival” theme, implying a mixed-up time a time when “anything goes” and many things that would not be tolerated in normal life are easily overlooked and maybe even encouraged. Even though many of the ideas and emotions that occur in Shakespeare’s plays are common to everyone, it is still not representational because it does not even attempt to present it in a way that reflects real life. The language is artificial (though beautiful), the sets are sparse, the plots include illogical twists and turns we must simply accept, and the settings themselves are often fantastical.
The theatres where Shakespeare’s plays were performed were built according to a common general design. Very briefly, there was a rather large playing area, with a trap door in the center of the stage. This was partially covered by a roof which supported a platform that served as a balcony and, possibly, as seating areas for more wealthy patrons. This may also have been used for musicians when necessary. Above this was the “hut” which allowed special effects to be performed (McDonald 116-117). There were no elaborate sets or backdrops used to create the surroundings. The setting was established using sparse furnishings, such as a table or a bed, or props that would only be used in an outdoor setting, such as torches or weapons (McDonald 110). These scanty accoutrements allowed great freedom in the pacing of the plays (because of ease of set changes) as well as requiring that the location be stated in the dialogue and substantiated through the imagination of the audience. This feature of Renaissance theatre contributed to the presentational quality of Shakespeare’s works because it did not detract from the language of the plays it did not distract the audience from the ideas and concepts that were presented. At the same time, it forced the spectator to create the missing pieces of the set in his mind, and it made it necessary for him to follow the action and dialogue very closely. Some things that were included in the production were often incorporated with the express purpose of keeping the audience’s attention. Music was used as a device to accomplish this as well as to provide a neat beginning or ending to a scene.
Shakespeare used his characters and settings to create wonderfully twisted comedic plots, but we must actively employ “the willing suspension of disbelief” in our analysis of them. In Twelfth Night, or What You Will, we are expected to believe that brother and sister, (who are twins) are, in fact identical twins and when dressed alike, are indistinguishable from each other. In The Comedy of Errors, we must not only believe that the twin brothers are identical, but that the two servants that serve them are identical as well. The action of Twelfth Night takes place in Illyria, which seems to be a place where magical things can happen. While A Midsummer Night’s Dream is set in Athens, much of the action occurs in a nearby wooded area peopled with fairies and full of darkness and mythological inferences.
One element of Shakespeare’s plays that is often unrealistic is time. This is due in part to the fact that there were no electric lights to establish the time of day or season, and the plays were performed by the light of day or (when performed at an indoor playhouse) by torchlight. Thus, it was necessary to establish the hour, as well as the scene, in the dialogue and/or the action itself. As night falls in Romeo and Juliet, torches are used to create the impression that the Montagues who pursue Romeo after the party scene are doing so in darkness, and when morning comes, Friar Lawrence remarks, “The grey-ey’d morn smiles on the frowning night” (McDonald 111).
Shakespeare is also known for manipulating time to fit the action, or to emphasize a certain point. Twelfth Night, or What You Will has an example of this when, at the beginning of Scene 4, Valentine states that Viola has been in the service of Orsino for just three days. However, at the end of the play, Orsino attests that “Three months this youth [Cesario] hath tended upon me?” (Shakespeare 470). This could, however, be more rhetorical than literal: the three days could be meant to highlight the bond that has grown between Orsino and his new servant so quickly, and the three months emphasizes the many changes that have occurred in the time that has passed. In addition to this apparent discrepancy, time seems to cease after its mention in Act II, until Act V, when Antonio is asked when he arrived. He replies, “Today?, (Shakespeare 470)” implying that all the action to that point through the end of Act V took place in one day. Another example of Shakespeare’s apparent distortion of time occurs in The Comedy of Errors, when all of the action of the play must lead to a climax at 5:00 in the afternoon. This is when Egeon is scheduled for execution, Angelo must pay the Second Merchant his money, and the meeting of Antipholus of Syracuse and the merchant is supposed to take place. This allows a great deal of comedic tension and provides for a particularly effective climactic scene when all the misunderstandings are cleared up for the audience as well as the characters.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is possibly Shakespeare’s most fantastical play in its plot, as well as in the fact that there are actual fairies in the cast. It contains a play within a play that closely mirrors the “real” action, but differs in that it shows the tragedy that might have occurred if the fairies had not done their part to remedy the situation. It also illustrates the theme of reality versus theatre. Nick Bottom insists that the ladies will be frightened by the appearance of the lion and convinces the writers of Pyramus and Thisbe to include in the prologue an explanation of the lion as being just an actor, and also to clearly inform the audience that his suicide is not real, but is only acting. Thus Shakespeare is making a not-so-subtle point that in reality, the theatre is only acting, and is further trying to convince the public that what is presented is inconsequential because it is merely a façade; and, then again, at the end, Puck apologizes to the audience, saying, “If we shadows have offended, Think but this, and all is mended, That you have but slumb’red here While these visions did appear. And this weak and idle theme, No more yielding but a dream?”(Shakespeare 280). This is partly due to the fact that if anyone was offended who may have been particularly powerful, the possibility existed that the work may be censored, or there may have been consequences for the actors themselves, even though they were only playing a part.
While Shakespeare often mimicked life and even mirrored many things that are true in our human experience, he was always aware that he was presenting a picture. The audience always was, and still is, conscious of the fact that what they were watching was not a true representation of life as it is lived. It is theatre. Many of the ideas and emotions that Shakespeare expressed are, no doubt, common to most of us, but they are expressed in a necessarily dramatic manner. The very nature of Shakespeare’s work defines it as art, which is, was, and ever shall be a reflection and a result of, and, possibly, a changing force in the world around it.
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