Form, Setting, and Metatheatre

Table of Contents


Form refers to the style in which a piece is written. For example, you can have short stories, plays, scripts, sonnets, novels. The Tempest is a tragicomedy, and Hag-Seed is a post-modern appropriation.

Contextually breaking down a tragicomedy

In the Renaissance, tragicomedy became a genre of play that mixed tragic elements into drama that was mainly comic. The Italian writer Battista Guarini defined tragicomedy as having most of tragedy’s elements—e.g., a certain gravity of diction, the depiction of important public events, and the arousal of compassion—but never carrying the action to tragedy’s conclusion, and judiciously including such comic elements as low-born characters, laughter, and jests. Central to this kind of tragicomedy were danger, reversal, and a happy ending.

Common character tropes

Conventional RoleSummaryCharacter
Gallant / protagonist:The one who embodies the ideal of classic hero. A young man, brave and of good social class who is in love or who has a relationship with a woman, also, idealized. He is the character who usually lives situations of tragedy with a happy destiny that will be difficult to reach.Prospero
Second gallant / Antagonist:Another gallant who also meets the peculiarities of the hero’s ideal but has negative motivations. Revenge, envy or jealousy are usually the engines that move the heartthrob who, in these cases, would represent the “vile” of the work.Prospero and Alonso
Lady:She is the main woman of the tragicomedy and usually fulfills the ideal of woman. Young, beautiful, innocent and of a good family.Miranda
Wise:Normally, he is usually an older man and may be the father or relative of one of the protagonists. It is the voice of wisdom that helps the story to develop and end happily.Ariel
The servants:Usually the companions of the protagonists of the play, both the gallant and the lady. They are their advisors and are normally represented in their own class language.Caliban
The funny:Many times he is represented by the servants and is responsible for giving a funny touch to the work with jokes and fun situations.Stephano and Trinculo



  • There is typically at least one death (real or metaphorical), and there are frequently tragedies in which one or more of the characters are dead by the end.

  • Errors are a big part of tragedy as well, but they and their consequences are much more severe. Most tragic errors are a result of some human vice, such as pride, anger, or irreverence of divine authority (hubris).

  • Many tragic consequences are not only irreversible but also applicable to future generations (i.e., via curses, failed treaties, or military campaigns, etc.).


  • Historically, comedic drama tends to end either with a marriage or a birth. Either way, there are typically some romantic or erotic aspects present.

  • Much of the comedy from ancient Greece to Shakespeare is what is known as comedy of errors, which generally uses devices such as mistaken identity and slapstick for comedic effect.

  • Comedies are usually rich in puns and other forms of wordplay.


Metatheatre, and the closely related term metadrama, describes the aspects of a play that draw attention to its nature as drama or theatre, or to the circumstances of its performance.

I.e. self-awareness of the qualities and characteristics of a play.


- The direct address of the audience (especially in soliloquies, asides, prologues, and epilogues); expression of an awareness of the presence of the audience (whether they are addressed directly or not).

- An acknowledgement of the fact that the people performing are actors (and not actually the characters they are playing).

- An element whose meaning depends on the difference between the represented time and place of the drama (the fictional world) and the time and place of its theatrical presentation (the reality of the theatre event).

- Plays-within-plays (or masques, spectacles, or other forms of performance within the drama)

- References to acting, theatre, dramatic writing, spectatorship, and the frequently employed metaphor according to which “all the world’s a stage”.

Because metatheatre was the most confusing for me, here is a more specific analysis using examples from the Tempest.


A setting (or backdrop) is the time and geographic location within a narrative, either nonfiction or fiction. It is a literary element. The setting initiates the main backdrop and mood for a story. Elements of setting may include culture, historical period, geography, and hour. The setting allows you — the viewer — to suspend disbelief when the unexpected happens. You have to believe, and believe earnestly, that this is a place where miracles happen (or alternatively, where all your nightmares come true), where fairies and monsters walk the earth, and where forces of nature overwhelm and subdue human enterprise.

Additionally, a setting which is physically and psychologically removed from everyday life — such as the island of The Tempest — can provide the writer with an opportunity to comment on society (and social structures) free from the constraints of the real world.

There is not much to explain, so instead I will provide some examples of setting analysis:

In The Tempest, Shakespeare abandons the three familiar milieux in which most of his plays are set (classical antiquity, medieval England, and Renaissance Europe) for a nameless island which is remote even from that Tunis which is itself, according to Antonio, “ten leagues beyond man’s life.” This island is not only uncharted, it is one on which anything can happen: “All torment, trouble, wonder, and amazement Inhabits heere.” The poet places his characters in a world which seems to be purely of his own creating; it seems in this respect significant that, in spite of prodigies of Quellenforschung, no satisfactory source of The Tempest has yet been identified.

In the so-called “romances” of Shakespeare’s last period, there is an accelerated flight from probability; it is a movement beyond the “probable impossibility” to the complete impossibility. In The Tempest, the laws which govern objects existing in space and time as we know them are imperiously suspended. Until the solemn moment when Prospero abjures his rough magic, the action develops in a world which defies nature: “These are not naturall events, they strengthen From strange, to stranger.” One wonders how Prospero can keep his promise to the bewildered Alonso — “I’le resolve you (Which to you shall seeme probable) of every These happend accidents.”

Late 20th century saw a rise in post-colonial readings of The Tempest, inspired — in part — by the decolonization of Asia and Africa. (Notably, between 1945 and 1960, three dozen new nations achieved independence from their colonial rulers.) Imperialist criticisms have stressed upon the similarity between Prospero and European colonial powers on one hand, and Caliban and the dispossessed natives on the other.

The remoteness of the island probably served to emphasize this contrast between ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’ in the minds of Shakespeare’s audience. The island provides refuge to Prospero in times of crisis. Nevertheless, it will always be a lesser abode than Naples, for it is a land of “fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile (1.2.339)”, and is populated by goblins and monsters. In the same vein, Caliban and Ariel may be humanoid, but they are not humans. They are extensions of the island itself — Caliban is associated with fire and earth, while Ariel represents water and air. In Act II, Trinculo, on seeing Caliban, remarks that:

“What have we here, a man or a fish? Dead or alive?”

“A fish: he smells like a fish, a very ancient and fish — like smell, a kind of — not of the newest poor John.”

He might as well be saying: This island is a strange place. An oddity, which might be a trifle amusing, but is not a place where civilized life can flourish.

While it is more or less customary to equate the island with Africa and/or the Americas, there are some who hold that the island stands for Ireland, whose people were depicted as uncouth, uncivil, and prone to violence by the contemporary English writers. This is what Virginia and Alden Vaughan have to say about it:

Although Ireland as an analogue for Caliban’s/Prospero’s island may have been readily apparent in 1611, the case was not articulated until the late twentieth century. The most comprehensive account is offered by Dympna Callaghan, who posits several specific and significant affinities between the play and English accounts of Ireland, besides the general circumstances — an overseas island, dispossession, exploitation of the natives, and their profound resentment and resistance.

Some specifics, according to Callaghan, reflect the imperialists’ vision of Caliban: their fear of his attempted miscegenation; their contempt for his language (‘gabble’, a word of Irish provenance, first appears in a sixteenth-century Anglo-Irish description of Irish speech); their efforts to displace his culture; their curtailments of his freedom and territory. Some English descriptive literature even accused the Irish of cannibalism. More significant are several persistent parallels between Ireland and The Tempest: the importance of music in Irish folk life and in Shakespeare’s most musical play; the English imperialists’ efforts to control memory and to reshape the narrative to reflect their (in The Tempest, Prospero’s) perceptions; and the patriarchal quality of the imposed colonial rule on Ireland and on Shakespeare’s imaginary island. Ireland, in sum, “might be understood as the sublimated context for colonial relations in The Tempest’ (Callaghan).”

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