If you have been following along for the last few posts, you may have noticed that I’ve been talking a lot about literature and reality, and how the two mutually influence another in different ways. In poetry, there are certain forms, like the ekphrastic poem and the concrete poem, that use language to represent and recreate objects in the material world. In the novel, techniques such as internal texts – letters and diary entries in the epistolary novel, for instance – and narration from first-person memory generate self-contained realities that mirror the one we occupy as readers.
So what happens in drama? We all know that plays and performances create internal worlds in much the same way that other literary forms do. But drama sets these worlds in motion, so to speak, before our eyes – and before the eyes of the people who ‘play’ in the world of the…er, play. How does that dynamic work?
The issue I’m trying – and trying, I’ll admit, is a big word – to talk about here is one of audience, and the ‘levels’ of audience that a play can generate within and beyond the text or performance. One of the most famous plays in the English language, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is a striking example because it actively creates three audiences, each of whom possesses a different ‘authority’ in relation to the play itself.
Why three? One of the audiences is clear enough: it’s us, the contemporary audience who experiences Hamlet in plush seats (or in whatever stance we choose to enjoy the play). Every text has this audience by default, simply because no text can be recognized if there is no one to read it. The second audience, on the other hand, is a bit trickier to detect at first, and that’s what I’ll call here the historical audience, for lack of a better word. It’s the set of people to whom a text was originally addressed, directly or otherwise; the first production and publication of Hamlet, for instance, would have been targeted for early 17th-century England. Modern literature blends the contemporary and historical audiences smoothly, though only insofar as it ‘remains modern’ – otherwise the two audiences start to separate from each other.
There is also a third audience at play (pun intended) in any given text, and that’s the dramatic audience – a term I’ve borrowed from R.M. Lumiansky, who defines the term as “an audience made up of functional onlookers for the narrative event.” Lumiansky’s particular definition gets applied specifically to Beowulf, but the term is useful enough here: in effect, Hamlet‘s dramatic audience consists of the people who observe his performance, namely the members of the royal Danish court – his mother Gertrude, his king and uncle Claudius, his lover Ophelia, etc.
What makes Hamlet so interesting to me, though, is how it also deliberately exposes – and ultimately damns – its dramatic audience using a cool tactic: creating a play within the play. This happens in Act III, scene 2, by which point Hamlet has suspected foul play in his father’s death as well as in his mother’s hasty marriage to Claudius. (I hope these aren’t spoilers, though I’d imagine any native learner of English – and probably most second or nth-language learners – will have read or been familiar with the plot.) The crown prince hatches his plot to test his own suspicions, as well as Claudius’ conscience, by staging a play – The Murder of Gonzago – before the royal court. Here’s an excerpt from Hamlet’s soliloquy at the end of Act II, scene 2, in which he reasons the effectiveness of his ploy:
…………Hum, I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have, by the very cunning of the scene,
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaimed their malefactions.
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ……
Hamlet decides that a play crafted with enough “cunning” or skill can evoke “guilty creatures” into confessing to their “malefactions.” The analogy to “murder” is also clear enough – confessing one’s guilt to someone else is the equivalent of psychological death at the hands of another. Of course, these reactions aren’t limited to guilt alone (a well-written sitcom, for instance, can and should provoke us into laughter most of the time), but the point is that any good play, to Hamlet at least, must connect with its audience on some emotional level, and then draw those emotions out into some form of response. Clearly the response that the prince is looking for from Claudius is guilt or horror, as that would confirm some link between the king and his predecessor’s (i.e. Hamlet’s father’s) death. Conveniently enough, that happens in the following act, during the performance of The Murder of Gonzago – in which Lucianus, the nephew, pours poison into his uncle’s (and king’s) ear:
Thoughts black, hands apt, drugs fit, and time agreeing,
Confederate season, else no creature seeing,
Thou mixture rank, of midnight weeds collected,
With Hecate’s ban thrice blasted, thrice infected,
Thy natural magic and dire property
On wholesome life usurp immediately.
Claudius subsequently rises and screams for “light,” and the (internal) performance ends. You probably know the rest.
In terms of plot, Hamlet has become familiar enough such that the unfolding of the action no longer seems revolutionary (though any given performance can still ‘wow’ us if done well enough). But something strange happens when all of those “audiences” of the play come to mind – contemporary, historical, dramatic. Two of them can be said to be “real” whenever Hamlet is performed: everyone who watched it in 1623 in London was alive if they were to watch those actors perform their roles, and everyone who watches it today makes up a living contemporary audience to the performance. But it’s the dramatic audience that operates on a different level, because clearly if they – that is, the characters and not the actors who perform their roles (the actors have to perform more than once, after all) – are the ones who witness the plot unfold, then their relation to what’s happening can’t be the same as ours. The formal term for this effect is dramatic irony, which grants us an awareness and foresight that no else within the play can ever have.
That’s all fine and dandy for a play like Hamlet, or any other play where such circumstances are discernible (see also Oedipus the King). But what about the realities that arise once we take the element of “performance” into consideration? As a contemporary audience of Hamlet, for example, we get direct access to two levels of audience (contemporary and dramatic) and indirect access to the third (historical, if we have enough awareness of the play’s original context). In effect, though, our experience with the play exists on two planes of reality – there’s the ‘version’ where we’re actively watching people perform dialogue and gestures on a stage, and then there’s the reality of the world we’re watching. Both of these realities are simultaneous, yet they’re separated by that dramatic-ironic time delay. It’s a strange paradox that somehow creates different levels of experience and response to the same single performance.
Last but not least, there’s the element of response to consider: if “murder, though it have no tongue, will speak / With most miraculous organ” a dangerous truth to its target, then where are we situated in this murder? Are we a contemporary audience watching a mad prince stage a play to provoke his specific audience – the Danish royal court – to express guilt over a coup d’état? What about the historical audience of 17th-century Englishmen (and other peoples thereafter) to whom Hamlet was performed? Finally, Hamlet’s revelation comes in the middle of a soliloquy, a private on-stage monologue that’s clearly visible to at least one audience. So who is really the target of his rage?
I don’t have enough critical sophistication to offer a thoughtful response, but I think it’s fair to say that Shakespeare’s way of problematizing audiences in Hamlet gives the play – and the play within the play – an extra dimension that compels us to be “[stricken] so to the soul,” or at least consider our reactions to it. All drama before and after Hamlet incorporates that performance-audience dynamic by definition; but there’s something to the structure of this particular play that makes this relationship particularly vivid. Maybe it’s the fact that we see two plays for one (let’s face it, we’re still not in the best of times). Maybe it’s the complicated and complicating realities that get played out before us. Maybe it’s the language of the play itself, like Shakespearean language in general, which creates that particular quality.
Perhaps it’s one, or some, or all, or none of these things. But I’d wager that no matter what the circumstance, Hamlet will always have its audience – and then some.