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Dynamic Fluctuations of Acting and Spectating in Hamlet and A Midsummer Night's Dream

By Alexandra Robinson, Polyphony Volume 5, Issue 1. First published on 7th of March 2023.

Mutability, defined as a ‘disposition to change’, was a frightening concept in Renaissance England. As Queen Elizabeth aged and uncertainty emerged regarding her successor, England’s long-established body politic was disintegrating, consequently destabilising the nation’s perception of itself. As the macrocosmic England’s previously fixed and immutable identity was contested, anxieties about changeable identities began transpiring on a microcosmic, individual level as doubts arose as to whether upholding a stable, ‘God-given’ identity was possible. The Renaissance public stage, then, proved doubly alarming: it provided a setting where actors’ ‘[identities were] blurred, confused, and adulterated’ as they offset their presupposed ‘fixed’ identity with their characters’, but through performance, also depicted the manners through which identity could be reshaped. Onstage acting was not only performance to the theatre audience, but also a portrayal of the characters ‘performances’ within the context of the drama on the stage. This bifold theatricality is integral to Shakespeare’s plays A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c.1595) and Hamlet (c.1601), enabling a multi-layered scope for mutability: acting being a ‘[denial] of one’s God-given identity’ as Andrew Gurr argues, but also that theatricality and performance are necessary to these dramas, and thus mandate that identity has to be capricious. This essay’s aim is therefore twofold: it will argue that, in these plays, the characters’ theatricality and performance not only occur as a result of identity being inherently mutable, but also facilitate mutability in the identities of both the onstage and offstage audiences through theatrical and metatheatrical dynamics established by the notion of performance.

Since it pivots on mutability, theatricality in the Renaissance period was inseparable from anxieties surrounding effeminisation. Jyotsna Singh identifies a clear binary within the period, where ‘authentic human identity [was] the prerogative’ of a ‘coherent’ and stable male self which ‘[resisted] being seduced and “feminized”’ by mutability. By rendering inconstancy of identity feminine, then, demonstrating the consequent theatricality was therefore also effeminising. Integral to Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, however, are male characters who perform the changes of their ‘authentic’ emotions throughout the narratives, openly challenging the Renaissance doctrine of masculine stability Singh identifies. Shakespeare’s acknowledgement of the performative scope of emotion is explicit: the verb and preposition of Hamlet’s resolution ‘[t]o put an antic disposition on’ denotes his choice to perform such ‘antic’ emotions. The distinction between what is ‘put on’ and what is ‘authentic’, though, subsequently dissolves: by imbuing his later soliloquies with genuine pathos stemming from his ‘thinking too precisely on th’event’, Hamlet’s performance of changing emotion destabilises and thereby ‘effeminises’ his identity. Despite their ‘performances’ of emotion being unintentional, Lysander’s and Demetrius’ rhetoric similarly alters following their emotional transformations. Their previously unrhymed dialogue mutates into exclusively rhyming couplets: Lysander ‘[repents]’ the ‘minutes’ he ‘[has] spent’ with Hermia, while Demetrius wants ‘none’ of her after his ‘love is gone’. This rhetorical shift is the ‘effeminate’ performance dependent on their new attractions to Helena and the rejection of the ‘authentic’ and fixed masculinity they embodied while desiring Hermia. Theatricality, therefore, is here presented as the effeminising, inevitable consequence of the ability that emotions, themselves mutable, have to alter identity.

In both plays, the performance by, and resultant effeminisation of the male character, constructs a theatrical actor-spectator dynamic with the observing characters. Robert Weimann argues that the ‘ensemble effect’ of the theatre audience’s responses to the actors’ performances is the ‘epic work of the theatre’, but this occurs within Shakespeare’s playscripts too: the emotions and identities of the observing characters shift in response to the ‘acting’ character’s theatricality. Hamlet chooses to depict his effeminate mutability hyper-sexually; both his clothes and demeanour denote his changed identity as he enters Ophelia’s closet with ‘his doublet all unbraced’ and ‘[takes her] by the wrist’. Ophelia is consequently ‘affrighted’ by these sexual euphemisms, but her identity also becomes destabilised: the ‘affright’ causes her to doubt the authenticity of her assumed status as the object of Hamlet’s desire. The Lovers’ actor-spectator dynamic is complicated by the four-way manner of performance and response; the theatrics of the men elicit performative reactions from both Helena and Hermia, who perform responses to each other too. Helena’s preconception that she is ‘as ugly as a bear’ is opposed by the men’s effeminate, poetic affections, but their undermining of her perceived identity only warrants a suspicious, ecphonetic protest that the others are ‘set against [her] for [their] merriment’. Her performance of emotion, however, has already ‘[driven]’ Hermia’s ‘maiden’s patience’ ‘past the bounds’, signifying the threat that annoyance poses to Hermia’s identity as a ‘patient maiden’. Witnessing performances of others, then, elicits emotions that undermine characters’ self-perceptions as they become aware that their ‘fixed’ identity within society is actually not stable at all.

Shakespeare’s construction of actor-spectator dynamics overlaps between Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream: theatricality mandates that characters cannot stably affix themselves to one identity, instead vacillating between acting and spectating in their relationships with others. This mutability is particularly evident in both plays’ metaplay scenes. The emphatic claim that the play-within-a-play will enable Hamlet to ‘catch the conscience of the king’ renders Claudius an actor; Hamlet will spectate the subconscious performance Claudius gives as a spectator of the metaplay under the guise of watching the play himself. As Anna Fluvià Sabio argues ‘the characters automatically become the audience’ during Hamlet’s metaplay, she claims that they cannot be performing at that moment, but this is incongruous with Hamlet’s motives and behaviour. To enable a performance from Claudius that would ‘catch [his] conscience’, Hamlet must also act. He assumes the role of a ‘chorus’ to commentate the dumb-show, which initially appears to the other characters as a sign of madness, but actually simultaneously becomes part of the players’ performance and spectates Claudius. Both fluctuate along the actor-spectator continuum, as Hamlet’s mutability subtly ‘unfixes’ Claudius’ identity in turn. The actor-spectator dynamic is ironically reinforced through its parodic lack in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Bottom claims the metaplay will be a ‘true [performance]’ and ‘move storms’, but the potential of authentic audience emotion is eradicated by his later insistence on a ‘prologue’ that ‘[says they] will do no harm’. The Mechanicals’ metaplay, then, never attempts to be ‘true’ theatrical mimesis, and instead can only be deemed humorously ‘mechanical’. Stephen Smith argues Pyramus and Thisbe’s inevitable failure stems from Bottom ‘[denying] the others […] their own imagination’, but this is not all Bottom’s insistence on exposition denies. The actors’ identities are deprived the necessary mutability for ‘true performance’, preventing the spectators from being able to ‘truly spectate’, as the absence of ‘true’ theatricality prevents the actor-spectator dynamic’s construction. Metaplays, moreover, extend the actor-spectator continuum to the theatre audience. Metatheatrical reference to ‘guilty creatures sitting at a play’ reiterates their presence at the theatre; the offstage audience are cast as actors of ‘guilty creatures’ in the play, thus shifting from spectator to spectated. Metaplays, then, prove both a theatrical and metatheatrical depiction of how true theatricality can destabilise identity in the contexts of both emotion and social status.

The presence of theatricality is affirmed by Shakespeare’s inclusion of auditors, characters who metatheatrically orchestrate the performances, and consequently identities, of others. For male characters in both plays, revenge is a primary motive for this onstage playwrighting. Sarah Outterson-Murphy, in arguing the Ghost ‘[reaches] out’ to ‘shape the beliefs of [his] spectators’, reads his performativity as acting, but his imperative rhetoric proves inherently directorial. Instructing Hamlet to ‘[r]evenge his foul and most unnatural murder’ to ensure ‘the royal bed of Denmark [is not a] couch for luxury and damnѐd incest’, the Ghost legitimates Hamlet’s contempt for Claudius and Gertrude. The Ghost ‘unfixes’ Hamlet’s identity by undercutting his conceptions of Denmark’s political structure, with his rhetoric enabling the performance of the ‘antic disposition’ as a fulfilment of filial obligation. Oberon’s intent on revenge elicits similar mediation: he ‘shapes [Titania’s] beliefs’ by ‘streaking her eyes’ to ‘make [her] madly dote’ on the next living creature she sees. Without her consent, Oberon changes Titania’s identity both physically and emotionally: her eyes are altered, facilitating a shift in her expression of desire. By exposing the mutability of Titania’s identity, Oberon incites her comic, humiliating performance of ‘mad’ affection. Although Oberon and the Ghost are immediately characterised as auditors, Shakespeare also depicts the position of the metatheatrical auditor as a role that mutable characters can slip into. Despite his predetermined penchant for mischief, Puck’s first act of interference is sanctioned by Oberon, but he later invokes theatrical terminology to cast himself as ‘an auditor’ and elicit performances from the Lovers and Bottom. His fluid identity, furthermore, authorises him to ‘audit’ the play’s metatheatrical influence on the theatre audience: in deeming the play ‘but a dream’, Puck’s final monologue forcibly reiterates both the play’s and his own fictionality. His performance has only occurred because he himself is mutable. The auditor character, then, not only alters other characters’ identities to facilitate their performances, but can also perform theatricality themselves to reinforce the presence of mutability.

In both plays, the power inherent to the auditor role is restricted to the male character, but Shakespeare depicts that auditing women ultimately causes the performance of hypersexualised theatricality. Despite the initial disparity in their acquiescence to their fathers’ authority, which strictly conforms to patriarchal social constructs, both Ophelia’s and Hermia’s subsequent actions denote the continued influence of the auditors’ control. To evoke a desired reaction from Hamlet, Ophelia receives stage directions to ‘walk you here' and ‘read upon this book’ from Polonius; she is merely an actress performing the feminine innocence her father deems appropriate. Sandra Fischer argues Ophelia’s ‘self-image’ is determined by the ‘external pressures’ of ‘[male] expectations’, but Hermia’s actions depict this form of patriarchal control as a wider Shakespearean trend. The Forest seemingly provides a rendezvous for sexual liberation, but Lysander’s advances only warrant a performance of resistance from Hermia, who commands him to ‘lie further off’. She still views herself as the ‘virtuous maid’ she must be within Athens, as the ‘external pressure’ of the city’s society mandates her refusal of her desires. Under the auditors’ control, the women retain Fischer’s perception of restriction. Fischer, however, ignores the later repercussions of auditing: the changes of the women’s identities and attitudes illustrated by newfound sexual theatricality. Hermia’s identity becomes unfixed due to a clash of auditors: she is caught between performing responses to the men’s Puck-enabled theatricals, and the influence of the spectoral Athenian society. The clash is resolved when Athens approves her marriage to Lysander, but as her identity has been fundamentally altered, her behaviour has also changed: her former ‘virtue’ gives way to a performance of sexual desire as she is sent ‘to bed’ intending to consummate. The control over Ophelia disintegrates due to Polonius’ death, Laertes’ absence, and Claudius’ preoccupation with Hamlet, resulting in Ophelia dissolving into hypersexualised histrionics. These actions, though, are metatheatrically ironic: as she gives away ‘rue’, implying a sexual deflowering, her emotions are disregarded as ‘nothing’ but theatrical performance. As she is uncontrolled for the first time, however, it becomes clear that she is not acting, with her sexualised ‘theatricality’ actually a final attempt at displaying the authenticity Claudius assumed was inherent to her earlier innocence. Sexualisation for Ophelia, then, is the desperate consequence of both mediation and its subsequent absence. The emerging, comic sexuality of female characters, therefore, portrays how the control of performance can lead to a fundamental and quasi-inappropriate shift in identity.

The significant extent to which performance influences identity is embodied when theatricality is misinterpreted by the onstage spectator, but their perception of authenticity is still undermined. Bottom’s understanding of acting is purely theoretical: in demanding to ‘play Thisbe’ and ‘play the lion’ alongside his role as Pyramus, he perceives character and performance as disguises that are simply surface-level. While the verb ‘play’ does connote acting, it also foreshadows Bottom’s theatrical ineptitude: for him, ‘play’ is synonymous with removable ‘disguise’, but he does not ‘play’ when he is ‘disguised’ as an ass. His physical mutability exposes his lacking performative scope; his ‘performance’ of the ass’ role is identical to his performance of his human self, asking only to ‘munch [on oats]’ and ‘sleep’. For Marie Plasse, Titania is enthralled by this ‘theatrical self-presentation’, but Bottom’s inability to behave theatrically even after his physical mutation renders, deeming this presentation ‘theatrical’ impossible. Plasse, however, inadvertently references that, through being enthralled by perceiving performance, Titania’s identity becomes that of a spectator regardless, embodying a potential dichotomy between what is ‘performed’ and what is ‘spectated’. Shakespeare establishes this disparity in Hamlet too. Through oxymoronic hendiadys, Claudius’ first monologue presents simultaneous performances of ‘mirth’ and ‘dirge’, ‘delight and dole’ within Elsinore. It appears merely metaphoric for the juxtaposed but temporally closely-occurring death and marriage, but actually enables theatrical and metatheatrical misinterpretation as neither Hamlet nor the theatre audience are aware of Claudius’ prior actions. It is not until Hamlet, and consequently the theatre audience, receives the Ghost’s censure that Claudius ‘[smiles] and [smiles] and [is] a villain’ that Claudius’ theatricality is exposed: he ‘smiles’ to convey both ‘delight’ and sympathetic ‘dirge’ and masks this as genuine. The metatheatrical disclosure of theatricality destabilises Hamlet’s conception of the throne, Denmark, and Claudius, forcing a change in his identity to counteract such performance. Shakespeare, then, presents theatricality’s mere presence as sufficient to sanction fluidity in identity, even if the interpretation of performance is misplaced.

The construction of early modern theatres enabled theatricality to depict both the potentials and limitations of mutability. Pascale Aebischer explains the two primary levels on the stage: the locus, ‘the self-contained, fictional world of the higher-ranking characters’, and the platea, ‘the liminal zone […] [where] lower-class characters could step forward to address the audience. She subsequently argues that on the platea, the character could ‘manipulate […] and engage in a relationship with the audience’, denoting that this lower level enabled the characters’ performances to shift the theatre audience’s perceptions of the drama. As characters of varying moral or political orientation utilise the platea, the audience’s sympathies and identities vacillate accordingly. This identification, however, implies a further metatheatrical effect inherent to both plays which Aebischer overlooks. Hamlet’s soliloquies, located on the platea, exclusively perform to the audience: the existential pathos of ‘[t]o be or not to be’ encourages the audience to question their own existence and emotion. But unlike Hamlet, the theatre audience is also aware of Claudius and Polonius, both ‘behind an arras’ and on the locus, observing the platea. The observation of the offstage audience is represented in the plot, undermining their perception that they are removed from the drama and deeming them active interlocutors. An identical dynamic is evoked as Theseus instructs the ‘ladies’ to ‘take [their] places’: the ‘higher-ranking’ women’s ‘place’ is on the locus, and the Mechanicals perform on the platea below. This segregated staging, moreover, visually represents the limits of mutability. Singh’s argument that the Renaissance actor, through performance, could ‘freely’ ‘[transgress]’ hierarchical boundaries is doubly rebuked by the Mechanicals: their performances of aristocratic characters are not only derided and equated to ‘a child on a recorder’, denoting their lack of ‘free’ transgression of identity, but they are also physically separated from their hierarchical superiors. They both refuse to allow themselves, and are refused, mutable identities, and so their performance cannot be transgressive. Through staging, therefore, Shakespeare metatheatrically demonstrates how the scope of performances within dramas encourage a fluidity of identity in its spectators, but also reiterates that a true performance cannot manifest if the mutable potentials of identity are denied.

Mutability and theatricality, ultimately, prove mutually reinforcing in Shakespeare’s dramas. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet both portray that mutability can both bring around and be brought around by performance, which itself is exposed as integral to interpersonal relationships. This bifold tendency, then, cannot be congruous with the Renaissance perception of identity as fixed. As these two plays span Shakespeare’s dramatic repertoire as comedy and tragedy respectively, their congruent depiction of identity being externally mediated by both humans and social constructs, and consequently causing performance becomes integral to his depiction of theatricality itself. It would also, finally, benefit this argument to consider the actual actor on the Renaissance stage, and the impact the mutability inherent to performance could impact him too.


1- ‘mutability, n.’, OED Online (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022), <> [accessed 16/05/2022].\\

2- Jyotsna Singh, ‘Renaissance Antitheatricality, Antifeminism, and Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra’, \textit{Renaissance Drama}, 20 (1989), p. 104.\\

3- Andrew Gurr, ‘Metatheatre and the Fear of Playing’ in \textit{Neo-Historicism} (Woodbridge: Boydell \& Brewer, 2000), p. 93.\\

4- Singh, p. 101.\\

5- William Shakespeare, \textit{Hamlet}, Prince of Denmark, ed. Philip Edwards (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019) [c.1601], I.5.173. Further references to this edition are given after quotations in the main text. \\

6- William Shakespeare, \textit{A Midsummer Night’s Dream}, ed. R. A. Foakes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) [c.1595], II.2.117-118, III.2.169-170. Further references to this edition are given after quotations in the main text.\\

7- Robert Weimann, ‘Bifold Authority in Shakespeare’s Theatre’, \textit{Shakespeare Quarterly}, 39:4 (1988), p. 413.\\

8- Anna Fluvià Sabio, ‘The Mask of Madness: Identity and Role-playing in Shakespeare’s Hamlet’ (Barcelona: Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona) (2016) DOI: <>, p. 6.\\

9- Stephen Smith, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Shakespeare, Play and Metaplay’, \textit{The Centennial Review}, 21:2 (1977), p. 200.\\

10- Sarah Outterson-Murphy, ‘“Remember me”: The Ghost and Its Spectators in Hamlet’, \textit{Shakespeare Bulletin}, 34:2 (2016), p. 262.\\

11- Sandra K. Fischer, ‘Hearing Ophelia: Gender and Tragic Discourse in Hamlet’, \textit{Renaissance and Reformation}, 14:1 (1990), p. 3.\\

12- Marie A. Plasse, ‘The Human Body as a Performance Medium in Shakespeare: Some Theoretical Suggestions from A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, \textit{College Literature}, 19:1 (1992), p. 38.\\

13- Pascale Aebischer, ‘Introduction’, \textit{Shakespeare, Spectatorship, and the Technologies of Performance} (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), p. 14.\\

14- Aebischer, p. 14.\\

15- Singh, p. 116

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