You know those moments when a character seems to step off the page or outside the scene they’re in and know an awful lot more than they should? There are technical names for it, like metatheatre and breaking the fourth wall, but they are routinely startling. They creep up on you. And they are part of what makes unravelling Shakespeare about as complex as getting to the bottom of a strand of DNA. Here are five of the best.
1. Fabian in Twelfth Night:
‘If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.’ (III.iv)
Shakespeare’s smaller characters get some wonderful little lines, and Fabian is no exception. There is no actor who has not relished turning directly to the audience, forgetting about the other actors on stage and helping Shakespeare hurl a brick through the theatrical illusion, shattering it into a million fragments using only fifteen words. Whilst this gets a laugh, it might also be said that Fabian acts as a pressure-release valve, letting off the steam from Malvolio farcically prancing around in yellow stockings a few moments before.
2. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in Henry VIII:
‘This royal infant--heaven still move about her!--
Though in her cradle, yet now promises
Upon this land a thousand thousand blessings…’ (V.iv)
He’s prophesying whilst cradling Princess Elizabeth, who will go on to become Queen Elizabeth. Call it Jacobean propaganda if you like, but it’s still an extraordinary moment. A prophesy that’s actually a history lesson.
3. Cassius in Julius Caesar:
‘How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!’ (III.i)
Standing over the body of the assassinated Julius Caesar, Cassius has a sudden moment of cosmic lucidity and knows that their actions on that day will be retold and retold and retold. The model of Julius Caesar’s assassination was a framework for discussing the deposition of monarchs throughout the Renaissance, and Shakespeare makes Cassius a prophet of his own fame. It’s also a brave moment, though; Shakespeare is drawing explicit attention to the illusion and to the narrative tradition in which this play lies.
4. The Porter in Macbeth:
‘This place is too cold for hell. I'll devil-porter it no further.’
It’s getting a shade tenuous with this one, I’ll admit it, but the Porter is one of the very few characters in Shakespeare who has any sense that he is symbolic of something. Without knowing anything about the fact that the king has been murdered by Macbeth overnight, his drunken ramblings still imply that he is the Porter of Hell-Gate, a theological concept, and that he is about to admit Macduff (the knocker) to a world of torture.
5. The Fool in King Lear:
‘This prophecy Merlin shall make; for I live before his time.’
Right, so a fictional character refers to a prophecy that in their time he cannot know because the prophet, who is also mythical, has not been born yet. The prophecy itself refers to a time that is later even than the second fictional character. All of this refers to events in our past, though the first fictional character can only know what happens after his death because his author is writing later than everything that he refers to. Well, I’m glad we’ve cleared that up…