Shakespeare’s Breaking of the 4th Wall

We are bound to come across events like these. The camera zooms to the actor’s face, and for a split second, he/she says “Can you see what I am seeing?” or when a non-playable character (NPC) remarks, “Select WASD to move”. These are not newly invented techniques or ideas, but actually all fall under a term known as ‘breaking the 4th wall’. 

From Deadpool to Shakespeare

Breaking the 4th wall, commonly seen in modern productions such as Deadpool and Spongebob, is a device used to invoke a deeper connection with the audience to the actors by having them being acknowledged. This can take the form of having the actors speak directly to the audience or the characters realising that they’re in a movie. Moreover, this technique was not founded in recent years, as it can be seen in a play by William Shakespeare, titled “Twelfth Night”. 

Depiction of Act 5 Scene 1 from Twelfth Night which involves a case of mistaken identity (source).

“Twelfth Night”, is a romantic comedy where incidents of mistaken identity, unrequited love and general confusion is generously sprinkled into the plot. A scene where the audience can spot a break in the fourth wall takes place during the last few lines of the play, where Feste, a jester delivers the play’s last song, containing the lines:

“But that’s all one, our play is done,
And we’ll strive to please you every day.”

The first line shows that Feste is aware that he is in a play and that it has ended, along with the second line acknowledging the events which have taken place being done for the entertainment of the audience. Shakespeare’s usage of this method in the last 2 lines delivers a revelation which involves the audience into the actions that the characters have done. Examples of such events include the main focus of the play, Viola, who upon assuming her brother’s death in a shipwreck decides to crossdress and take on the identity of Cesario along with seeking employment from the Duchess as a Page. The audience may question why she decides to delay her journey home and seeks employment as a Page, which is a fall from her standing in the social hierarchy as a noble.

Therefore, the audience may feel implicated in the events which takes place in the play along with being more invested in it overall as the actions which characters, such as Viola, take may have been influenced by the want to entertain the audience. 

‘So goodnight unto you all’

Midsummer Night’s Dream, where a character turns into a donkey (source).

In “Midsummer Night’s Dream”, another comedy which involves a love triangle, a character having his head transformed into that of a donkey, love potions and fairies, also contains an element of a character breaking the fourth wall at the end of the play. This scene can be found in Act 5 Scene 1, where Puck also known as Robin Goodfellow, a servant of Oberon, delivers the closing lines from which an excerpt is:

“So good night unto you all./

Give me your hands if we be friends,/

And Robin shall restore amends.”

These lines are just part of the sixteen, fourth- wall-breaking lines that Puck delivers at the end of the play which directly addresses the audience and asks for their forgiveness if any actions done by the actors have offended them. With these lines from both plays, Shakespeare serves to minimise any backlash towards his plays and himself due to the inclusion of themes such as crossdressing, use of magic, and the supernatural, which could have caused it to get flak due to the conservative nature which existed during Shakespeare’s era. Therefore, these lines eases the audience while serving as an apology at the end that may placate them. 

A timeless technique

In conclusion, breaking of the fourth wall is not a modern invention but was present hundreds of years before the 21st century, and not used to just inject humor as shown through the famous movie of “Deadpool” but also to soothe as well as to provide a way of circumventing society’s constraints on the portrayal of subjects that may be deemed taboo. This dramatic technique has been invoked for centuries by dramatists, writers, storytellers and directors, in an effort to bridge the gap between creators and their audiences which creates a link between them that contributes to the suspension of disbelief.

Written by Yap Hor Yee