“That’s What He Said”: Shakespearean Asides on "The Office"

Curator's Note

Perhaps nowhere more prominent in contemporary media is William Shakespeare’s use of the theatrical aside than in the confessional techniques used by television shows such as NBC’s mockumentary sitcom The Office.

Shakespeare frequently employed the use of asides to share his characters’ innermost thoughts with his audiences. Through these direct addresses, characters divulge important plot points, provide insight into their motivations, and share their true personalities with audience members. Take Othello’s Iago for example. Arguably Shakespeare’s most villainous character, Iago thrives on manipulating the play’s other “fools,” wearing a different personality “mask” with each interaction. Audience members may recognize Iago’s persona as being disingenuous using only dialogic materials, but the character’s numerous asides throughout the play reveal to the audience the motivations behind his deception (Crowther, 2011).

Though not a traditional vehicle for the Shakespearean aside, the television sitcom is an appropriate venue for the use of such a direct address technique. Having just wrapped its ninth and final season, the American adaptation of The Office depicts the daily goings-on of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company. Manager of Dunder Mifflin Scranton, the loveably inept Michael Scott (played by Steve Carell) is a good-hearted but incompetent employer who lacks social aptitude, is professionally inappropriate, and appears to be of slightly subpar intelligence. In “Cynics Encouraged to Apply: ‘The Office’ as Reality Viewer Training,” Christopher Kocela describes the contribution of Scott’s personality to the show, stating that “Michael’s faulty logic, malapropisms, and factual errors almost always undermine his efforts to justify himself, deepening the comedic effect” (2009).

Like Iago, The Office’s Scott frequently takes advantage of the Shakespearean aside, explaining his way out of awkward situations and sharing his faulty logic with the audience. Though Scott’s persona is transparent to most of his employees and to audience members, his asides often reinforce suppositions of his inadequacy.

In theater and in television, Shakespearean asides successfully give viewers greater insight into the personal lives and internal motivations of characters. Such direct audience addresses transcend mediums, enhancing viewers’ experience and participation no matter the outlet.


  • Crowther, John, ed. “No Fear Othello.” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. 2005. Web. 13 '
  • Kocela, Christopher. "Cynics Encouraged to Apply: ‘The Office’ as Reality Viewer Training." Journal of Popular Film and Television 37.4 (2009): 161-68. Print.




Thanks for this: Interesting to consider the elaborations of the aside in the context of Restoration theater. The aside was a meta, mega production in the later seventeenth century. The spatial framework of the aside-- often very close to the stage action -- drew such affective, linguistic, and social interaction into theatrical time. Theatrical time thus becomes a kind of spacetime hypothetical, mashing and remixing social and theatrical space with the "as if/ what if" of a more open ended, experimental time image. In The Office context, it is fun to imagine the ways in which this same apparatus dislocates and disorients the spatial citations of office space (often explicitly understood in spatial terms; in some instances seemingly as a resistance to "clock time," at others as a re-doubling of as much: "the cubicle").

One of the more difficult moments I have in getting literature students to engage with drama as a set of instructions for recreating a real-time performance is in situating multiple perspectives within the stage frame. It's often difficult for them to intuit how the aside works when there are other characters on the stage that could overhear; The Office's similar breaking of the 4th wall by having characters look directly at the camera is a much more recognizable trope, and I look forward to discussing it in future classes. Thank you for your post!

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