Shakespeare’s Theatre

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/ That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/ And then is heard no more.  It is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing” (5.5 23-27).  This is one of Macbeth’s most famous quotations, and for a good reason.  I’d like to analyze this passage because it says a lot not only about life, but about Shakespeare’s continuous theatrical themes and his own views on life and theatre. 

When Macbeth speaks these words, it reminds the audience that they are in a theatre watching a play because it mentions a “player” acting “upon the stage.”  This idea is reoccurring in Shakespeare’s plays, where he brings theatrical language into the dialogue to remind us that we are watching a performance.  Portia, in The Merchant of Venice is “acting” when she dresses as a man and gives a speech to the crowd in the court scene, Sly sits in the back in The Taming of the Shrew and watches the action like an audience member, and many of the kings in the history plays have to put on a type of “mask” to seem brave and in control.  All of this directly relates to the theatre itself and the process of putting on a performance. 

When Shakespeare writes this, he is not only referring to the triviality of life, but also to plays themselves.  He reminds the audience that they are not viewing reality, but merely “a tale/ told by an idiot” which “signif[ies] nothing.”  The audience members will leave this theatre and nothing will have been changed in their lives.  Maybe they will get something from the performance, but it won’t be much and will maybe even be forgotten in the future.  This is a very interesting way to view Shakespeare’s opinion on theatre.  He seems to be more interested in the immediate and short-lived emotions that acting gives the audience and not concerned with the long-term impact it would have.  Theatre during Shakespeare’s time was all about pure entertainment, rather than giving a message.  Even if Shakespeare’s plays end with a clear moral message, who knows how many people it would have reached in the actual audience.   


2 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s Theatre

  1. Jacey Lawler

    I liked how you mentioned Shakespeare’s metafictive handling of this play. What Macbeth and other Shakespeare characters accomplish by referencing the stage, costumes, and other theatre allusions is alert the viewer that what they see is not reality. This reveals Shakespeare’s absolute genius in his writing style. I do not know how it can be said that “the audience members… [might] get something from the performance, but it won’t be much and will maybe even be forgotten in the future.” Now I’m not a Shakespeare scholar, but if Shakespeare’s works were purely for entertainment then I doubt these plays would have the amazing longevity that they indeed possess.

  2. molly

    Whoa! So cool how you relate Macbeth's speech about brevity of life to putting on a play. I always think of reading Shakespeare as somehow inferior to seeing it performed, but now I'm not sure how true that is. I've seen two Shakespeare plays performed, and I can tell you it's pretty difficult to know what's going on. The language is tough and the action isn't always compelling. It's the same with other, non-Shakespeare plays I've seen. There's one or two memorable parts but that's about it. I always remember how I felt while watching a play (or a film, or a concert…) but I don't always remember what made me feel that way.


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