A theatrical audience is basically conscious of two things when watching a show: the world of the play and the world of the stage. By juxtaposing narrative information with staging techniques, it is possible to meld these two perceptions and use them to feed each other, giving the audience a more complete understanding of the world of the play. During the gravedigger scene in Hamlet, one of the clowns unearths the skull of “Yorick”, the king’s former jester, who had been dead for two decades. The role of Yorick doesn’t exist in the play, but the audience’s sense of his character is informed by Hamlet’s response to the skull. His words and reverence don’t paint a complete picture, but it is certainly sufficient to have an understanding of who this clown was, and how Yorick’s death symbolizes Hamlet’s own journey, his memories of youthful happiness, and his current emotional despair. Conveniently, it also serves to set the scene both physically and emotionally for Ophelia’s funeral. But Shakespeare’s audiences would have certainly recognized in Yorick’s description the character of Tarlton, a popular clown with strong associations to Shakespeare’s company who died some two decades before. This alone would have given an attentive audience cause to wonder about Shakespeare’s friendship with Tarlton, and consider that in addition to being Hamlet’s in-the-moment ode to Yorick, it was Shakespeare’s out-of-the-moment ode to his friend.
But there’s another aspect, often lost on contemporary audiences. In the original production, the skull was just that – an actual skull – and the physical memento mori calls meta-theatrical attention to itself, thereby taking the audience’s attention out of the play (“That’s an actual skull! Whose skull is it?”) Normally in theatre being taken out of the world of the play is considered a bad thing, but if in that moment of disconnect the nature of the real world matches the narrative world (“The actors are reflecting on death, and now I am reflecting on death”), it reinforces the audience’s experience of the narrative, making that moment visceral and personal for them. This allows the production to re-engage the audience on a deeper and more meaningful level, without ever compromising the world of the play.
The Elizabethans didn’t consider drama as literature not because they didn’t recognize its literary merits, but because the layers of meaning inherent in the artform depend upon the physical act of watching it.