The term "metatheatre", coined by Lionel Abel, has entered into common critical usage; however, there is still much uncertainty over its proper definition and what dramatic techniques might be included in its scope. Many scholars have studied its usage as a literary technique within great works of literature.
Abel described metatheatre as reflecting comedy and tragedy, at the same time, where the audience can laugh at the protagonist while feeling empathetic simultaneously. The technique reflects the world as an extension of human conscience, not accepting prescribed societal norms, but allowing for more imaginative variation, or a possible social change. Abel also relates the character of Don Quixote as the prototypical, metatheatrical, self-referring character. He looks for situations he wants to be a part of, not waiting for life, but replacing reality with imagination when the world is lacking in his desires. The character is aware of his own theatricality. Alva Ebersole adds to the idea of metatheatrical characters saying that the technique is an examination of characters within the broader scheme of life, in which they create their own desires and actions within society. He adds that role-playing derives from the character not accepting his societal role and creating his own role to change his destiny.
The word "metatheatre" comes from the Greek prefix 'meta', which implies 'a level beyond' the subject that it qualifies; "metatheatricality" is generally agreed to be a device whereby a play comments on itself, drawing attention to the literal circumstances of its own production, such as the presence of the audience or the fact that the actors are actors, and/or the making explicit of the literary artifice behind the production.
Some critics use the term to refer to any play which involves explicit 'performative' aspects, such as dancing, singing, or role-playing by onstage characters, even if these do not arise 'from specifically metadramatic awareness' ; whereas others condemn its use except in very specific circumstances, feeling that it is too often used to describe phenomena which are simply 'theatrical' rather than in any sense 'meta'.
Richard Hornby gave five distinct techniques that may be found in metatheatre. These include ceremony within a play, role-playing within a role, reference to reality, self-reference of the drama, and play within a play. In 'metatheatre' the inclusion of the play within a play provides an onstage microcosm of the theatrical situation, and such techniques as the use of parody and burlesque to draw attention to literary or theatrical conventions, and the use of the theatrum mundi (world theatre) trope. Two other scholars described these aspects, as well. First, Mikhail Bakhtin defined the burlesque and the use of carnival in literature, using folk humor as parody and the carnivalesque to depict comedic rituals and festivals, both secular and religious. Jose Antonio Maravall adds to the idea of microcosm stating that such a place, such as an inn, is where everyone joins in for reunion, lunacy, deceit, disorder, and confusion. Maravall shows that parties and festivals within such microcosms display the possibilities of society.
Stuart Davis of Cornell University suggests that "metatheatricality" should be defined by its fundamental effect of destabilizing any sense of realism:
- " 'Metatheatre' is 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 begins by sharpening 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. By calling attention to the strangeness, artificiality, illusoriness, or arbitrariness — in short, the theatricality -- of the life we live, it marks those frames and boundaries that conventional dramatic realism would hide."
Shakespeare employs metatheatrical devices throughout his plays. Some examples include The Taming of the Shrew, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and The Tempest. In each of these plays, there is a play or masque presented as part of the larger plot.
Hamlet: [...] My lord, you played once i'th'university, you say.
Polonius: That I did my lord, and was accounted a good actor.
Hamlet: And what did you enact?—Hamlet (3.2.95-100).
If the only significance of this exchange lay in its mentioning of dramatic characters within another play, it would be called a metadramatic moment. Within its original context, however, there is a greater, metatheatrical resonance. Critics assume that the roles in each case were played by the same actor in their original productions by Shakespeare's company; Polonius and Caesar by John Heminges and Hamlet and Brutus by Richard Burbage. Apart from the dramatic linking of the character of Hamlet with the murderer Brutus (and Hamlet as a murderer of Polonius in particular, as will occur in 3.4), the audience's awareness of the actors' identities and previous roles is being triggered.
- Abel, Lionel. Tragedy and Metatheatre: Essays on Dramatic Form. New York: Holmes y Meier Publishers, 2003.
- Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1968.
- Ebersole, Alva V. Sobre Arquetipos, Símbolos y Metateatro. Valencia: Albatros Hispanofila, 1988.
- Edwards, Philip. 1985. Introduction. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare. The New Cambridge Shakespeare Ser. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-29366-9. p. 1-71.
- Definition of “Metatheatre,” originally created for Stuart Davis' Shakespeare class at Cornell University, Spring 1999: 
- Hornby, Richard. Drama, Metadrama, and Perception. Cranbury; London; Mississauga: Associated U P, 1986.
- Maravall, José Antonio. La Cultura del Barroco : Análisis de una Estructura Histórica. Esplugues de Llobregat: Ariel, 1975.
- Abel 2003, p. 172.
- Abel 2003, p. 183
- Abel 2003, p. 139
- Ebersole 1988, p. 8.
- Ebersole 1988, p. 35.
- Hornby 1986
- Bakhtin 1968, p. 4.
- Bakhtin 1968, p. 5.
- Maravall 1975, p. 319.
- Maravall 1975, p. 488
- Stuart Davis, “Metatheatre”, Spring 1999
- Edwards (1985, 5).