Metatheatricality is defined by Stuart Davis as “a convenient name for the quality or force in a play which challenges theatre's claim to be simply realistic -- to be nothing but a mirror in which we view the actions and sufferings of characters like ourselves, suspending our disbelief in their reality.” (Metatheatre). It is present in many Renaissance dramas, yet it is analysed, understood and critiqued in a vast variety of ways. Davis claims that metatheatre awakens our minds to life’s “uncanny likeness” to art, theatre and forms undefinable. Metatheatre begins by sharpening our awareness of the unlikeness of life to dramatic art; it may end by making us aware of life's uncanny likeness to art or illusion. This is a term difficult to analyse, and as a result even Nellhaus describes the analysis of plays-within-plays and self-consciously theatrical characters as “problematic” (3). However, an attempt can be made to critically understand the significance of the epicene in Jonson’s Epicoene. This drama shatters many illusions of typical social conventions, particularly during each revelation of Epicoene’s true character, and most notably in the final scene, where Morose finally learns of the truth surrounding his new bride. Bel-Imperia, Kyd’s creation of a manipulative woman in The Spanish Tragedy, can also be argued to be a social deviant, as she challenges the illusions of performance versus reality throughout. We do not know where her loyalties lie, and she seems to often contradict her own feelings and ideas. Social dynamics are a focus of metatheatre, particularly in these plays, as the pretence of the characters is misleading, yet is a formative aspect upon the play as a whole.
Kyd explores the concept of metatheatricality and women, to an extent, in The Spanish Tragedy. This is evident from the outset, as, at the very opening of the drama, the ghost of Andrea introduces Bel-Imperia to the audience as “sweet Bel-Imperia” (1.1.11), a pleasant illusion that is soon shattered not long after we meet our female protagonist, Bel-Imperia, and learn of her plot for revenge. She is an interesting example of a self-conscious theatrical character. Her manipulative, devious self is performing a role throughout the entirety of the play, as she so states herself, “Although I bear it out for fashion’s sake” (4.1.24). She does not appear as a victim amongst the misfortune occurring in the play, she appears calculated, logical and most definitely conniving when executing her revenge, and no qualms are expressed when exerting revenge on “[her] Andrea’s” murderer. The decision to leave his death “unreveng’d by me” is misleading (4.1.23), and where metatheatre and the revenge plot intertwine. She convinces the audience, momentarily, that she is withdrawing from revenging any death. Yet, in the same scene she agrees to, “consent, conceal; /And aught that may effect for thine avail/Join with thee to revenge Horatio’s death” (4.1.46-48). She, acting as the lover that lost another, convinces Hieronimo, with ease, to allow her to join him in avenging Horatio’s death. Her conscious efforts to mislead and manipulate, while acting the part of the broken-hearted lover, “Don Andrea’s death, /Who, living, was my garland’s sweetest flower, /And in his death hath buried my delights” (1.4.4-5), encourage the audience to consider the theme of performance verses reality.
Bel-Imperia is, most certainly, not a typical female character in a Renaissance drama. She has a significant level of control over the male characters, as, even early in the tragedy, she manages to manipulate, mislead and deceive. She makes full use of her new lover, Horatio, as an unknown pawn of her revenge, while apparently still mourning Andrea,
“Ay, go, Horatio, leave me here alone;
For solitude best fits my cheerless mood […]
Yes, second love shall further my revenge!
I’ll love Horatio, my Andrea’s friend,
The more to spite the prince that wrought his end”...
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