Breaking the Fourth Wall

In Shakespeare’s comedies, there is a reoccurring theme of narrating a play within a play, creating a multi-layered production that engages the audience. One of the main ways that this distinction between reality and fantasy can be heightened is for a character to “break the fourth wall” and directly address not only the stage audience, but the real audience as well. This not only grabs the audience’s attention and makes them feel as if they themselves are part of the play, but it also blurs the lines between the actors in the play and the actors in real life. An example of this rare but important idea is in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, regarding Snug the Joiner, who addresses the audience directly at least once, and in other stage productions is even given an interactive speech at the beginning before Act I scene I where he physically introduces himself and weaves through the spectators, shaking their hands while making commentary. By acting as a tie between the real world and the fictional world of the play, Snug’s actions and speech represent Shakespeare’s feelings about the topic of his play, “true love,” and how he did not take it seriously, but merely saw the whole plot of how lovers interact to be entertaining and comical.

The main example of Snug breaking his “character(s)” is in Act V scene I, as he is acting out his part of the lion in the play they had decided to do for the wedding day. Before roaring like a scary creature, he turns and reassures both his fellow “actors” and the audience, “Then know that I, one snug the joiner am/a lion-fell or else no lion’s dam/For, if I should as lion come in strife/Into this place ‘twere pity on my life.” The play in which he is pretending to be a lion is a sort of “spoof” of the whole play itself, regarding how two people act so desperately in love and then take extreme measures when they cannot be together (such as killing themselves when separated by a wall). Since Shakespeare incorporates Snug’s lines seamlessly into this play within a play, it calls the audience’s attention to the superficiality and trivialness of the whole plot; Snug’s effort to spare them from fear is a comic relief to the chaos and confusion surrounding the lovers and makes it known that the people are acting, that they play is meant to be taken light-heartedly. Even the other characters such as Thesesus’ comments reflect the light-hearted humor (“A very gentle beast, of a good conscience”). This overlap between the pretend world and that play also leads the readers and audience to question another element of Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fairies and fairy world. If Shakespeare takes the play within a play so light-hearted, is the mystical realm meant to be taken that way as well?

Overall, Shakespeare’s ingenious use of stage directions and directing the speech of the characters at times to not just the actors on stage, but the audience as well, adds much of the humor that a Shakespearean comedy needs, and implies that, rather than taking the course of true love seriously in this play, he sees love and lovers as “quick bright things” that easily “come to confusion.”

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