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8 The World of Shakespeare
While realism remains the dominant mode of performance today, William Shakespeare remains, by far, the most-produced playwright in the world. He has had the most significant, if not overriding, presence in English-speaking theatre since his work as a playwright, actor, and theatre company co-owner in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Many consider Shakespeare to be the greatest writer and dramatist in the English language. In English-speaking countries and the West, experience with Shakespeare signals a kind of “mastery” of theatre, for both companies and practitioners; in many places, performing or seeing a Shakespearean production means one is participating in the most essential or highest form of theatre.
In addition to being a major theatrical presence, Shakespeare is also an object of great cultural fascination, whether part of a high school curriculum, a slate of shows at a local theatre, or the subject of a major Hollywood fi In many respects, he represents a kind of ideal about what it is to use language, make art, create story, and invent character—all expressions we value as part of the way we express ourselves in theatre and culture.
Of course, Shakespeare’s influence and permanence can also be problematic: Shakespeare was male, white, and Anglo and has come to represent, for some, a kind of colonial takeover of Western cultures and values. For better or worse, Shakespeare’s emergence as a cultural icon—a great writer who has come to represent the good and bad values in Englishspeaking societies and the West—means that by looking at Shakespeare and his plays, we are looking at ourselves and our roles in Western life. Therefore, we can consider Shakespeare in two main ways: one, as a
Shakespeare the man represented by art, film, and theatre. (center) Title page of Heminge and Condell’s 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare’s work, engraving by Martin Droeshout, considered the closest representation of William Shakespeare. (bottom left and right) The Chandos and Cobbe portraits, c. 1610. Named for the painting’s owners, both works are believed to be Shakespeare by some, disputed by others. (top left) Joseph Fiennes as the bard in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love, a fictional love story set during the writing of Romeo and Juliet. (center left) Rafe Spall in the 2011 film Anonymous plays an illiterate Shakespeare who is a front for Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford. This imaginary account is derived from the “authorship question,” a position taken by some who believe that only someone with aristocratic ties and education could have penned Shakespeare’s plays. (top right) Patrick Stewart in the 2012 revival of Edward Bond’s play Bingo, where an unhappily retired Shakespeare deals with his personal life. (center right) Simon Callow’s 2010 performance in Jonathan Bate’s play The Man from Stratford creates a picture of the playwright through snippets of his plays. Sources: Cobbe portrait © Corbis. Chandos portrait © National Portrait Gallery. Shakespeare in Love © Bureau L.A. Collection/Sygma/Corbis. Anonymous © Sony Pictures. Bingo and The Man from Stratford © Robbie Jack/Robbie Jack/Corbis.
historical presence, a master of the predominant dramatic form prior to the twentieth century, and two, as a contemporary presence, a figure whose work sits at the heart of today’s theatrical and cultural practices.
Who Was Shakespeare?William Shakespeare, a product of the English educational system and a middle-class family, spent his career as a professional playwright, poet,
actor, and company sharer, or co-owner of a theatre company, from the late 1580s until at least 1612. Born on or around April 23, 1564, he was the son of John Shakespeare, a glove maker and sometime city official, and Mary Arden, the daughter of a landowner. He grew up in Stratfordupon-Avon, a town in the vast countryside of Warwickshire, a county well to the northwest of London and Oxford. Few records exist of William’s early life, but scholars believe that he benefited from the economic and cultural engagement resulting from Stratford-upon-Avon’s status as a market town and from a robust curriculum at the grammar school in town. Shakespeare received no other formal education of which we are aware. At age eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway, about eight years his senior.
A few years later in the early 1590s, he appeared in London having recently written at least a small handful of plays. The historical record is unclear about the reasons for Shakespeare’s departure from Stratfordupon-Avon, his decision to seek a trade outside the family business, and his apparent choice to leave his wife and children to pursue a career in London. There is evidence that Shakespeare was surrounded by personal and family dramas such as his father’s descent into debt and loss of his city office, his own marriage to a then-pregnant Anne Hathaway, and his
The house in Stratford-upon-Avon where Shakespeare was born and spent his childhood years. Photo by Richard Towell.
coming of age in a time of great political and religious upheaval in and around England.
Though it is not known when exactly he started writing, scholars widely acknowledge his arrival on the London theatre scene in 1592 when another playwright, Robert Greene, referred to Shakespeare as an “upstart crow, beautified with our feathers,” possibly referring to Shakespeare’s lack of a university education. Shakespeare’s writing career began modestly with plays such as The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Titus Andronicus, and The Taming of the Shrew but seemed to hit commercial success—and gain the attention of Greene—with a string of plays about the English civil wars of the prior century. These plays, the three parts of Henry VI, catapulted Shakespeare to the top of the London theatre world. By 1594, his reputation as a playwright made him such a commodity that he formed a company with Richard Burbage, one of London’s leading actors, and several other stars of the London stage. This company was co-owned by Shakespeare and his fellow sharers and sponsored by the Lord Chamberlain, a highly placed government official responsible for Queen Elizabeth’s household. Such patronage indicates the high level of attainment the company and its chief playwright, Shakespeare, had reached by the mid-1590s.
Kelly Kilgore (Lavinia) and Justin Baldwin (Bassanius) in the background; Greg Jackson (Satturinus) and Jean Tafler (Tamora) in Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s 2013 production of Titus Andronicus. Photo by Tony Firriolo.
The 2012 production of The Taming of the Shrew at the Globe Theatre (featuring Samantha Spiro and Simon Paisley Day; directed by Toby Frow). © Robbie Jack/Robbie Jack/Corbis.
By 1599, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men had relocated its operation to the Globe Theatre in the south suburbs of London and was performing new plays like Hamlet and As You Like It. In 1603, after Elizabeth’s death, the company received a royal patent, a kind of official license and recognition reserved for achievement with special value to the crown, from Elizabeth’s successor, King James. The company was now the King’s Men, and this heightened status, along with plays like Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, cemented Shakespeare’s and the company’s legacy at the top of the London theatre.
In 1608, the company established a second theatre, this one indoors in London’s Blackfriars district, which allowed them to perform at a higher ticket price and for a typically wealthier clientele. The company performed at both Blackfriars and the Globe after 1608. Between this time and 1612, Shakespeare undertook several collaborations with other writers, most notably John Fletcher, who succeeded him as the chief playwright upon Shakespeare’s retirement. Shakespeare died on or around April 23, 1616, and was buried in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-uponAvon. After his death, the King’s Men remained the leading company in London until the closure of the theatres in 1642. In 1623, two of Shakespeare’s fellow actors and sharers, John Heminges and Henry Condell,
Detail from The Long View of London from Bankside, 1647. This etching by Czech artist Wenceslaus Hollar provides an invaluable representation of London before the Great Fire of 1666. However,
the labels of the Globe Theatre and the “Beere bayting” ring (also known as the Hope Theatre) are reversed. Bearbaiting was a popular sport in which a bear was chained to a post and attacked by bulldogs. Gamblers placed wagers on the winner.
collected his plays, some never before published, into a Folio meant to represent and honor Shakespeare’s work.
We often overlook many of the conditions that created Shakespeare— or rather that allowed Shakespeare, the son of a glove maker, to become Shakespeare, the successful playwright and cultural icon. He began his writing career at a time when theatre enjoyed an especially prized position in English society. In the century before Shakespeare’s birth, Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, a German invention that allowed for movable type and mass printing of all kinds of writing, made its way to England. A society that had been largely illiterate—outside the nobility, the church, and some in the merchant class, most citizens could not read—suddenly had access to printed texts of all sorts. This access to the printed word created an atmosphere of excitement and interest in the English language among the many social classes that could now afford the printed word and the education necessary to read it. As part of this atmosphere, writers were inventing new words, style, and grammar. New verse forms were emerging. Readers were soaking up the novelties of the language and a sense was growing about what it meant to speak, and be, English.
This cultural identity was emerging in other areas of English life as well. The political landscape in England in the half-century or so prior to Shakespeare’s theatrical career had changed radically as the English
church split off from the governance and authority of the Catholic church, headed by the pope in Rome. Henry VIII, the English king who instituted the split and made himself the head of the church in England, set off a decades-long reimagining of English spirituality and religious life that began to further shape England’s cultural identity and put it at odds with the rest of a largely Catholic Europe. In 1588, the English defeated the Spanish Armada in what was widely regarded as a major military upset. Catholic Spain was the chief foreign threat to England; as a result, England’s reaction to the victory was profound. After England had spent more than half a century discovering its Englishness, the defeat of Spain cemented the English national identity.
The theatre was a place where the English theatre language, still in flux, could be experimented and played with, and it was accessible to all—both those who could and could not read. English playwrights thrived during this time and together created one of the most vibrant and productive periods in theatre history. Christopher Marlowe, John Lyly, Robert Greene, Thomas Middleton, Ben Jonson, Thomas Kyd, John Fletcher, Francis Beaumont, and a host of other playwrights, along with Shakespeare, produced dozens of new plays each year, written predominantly in verse, that were performed at playhouses in and around the city of London. These new plays were ostensibly “read” for the audience— notice the audio part of audience—each with new words, turns of phrase, or rhetorical flourishes that made each playhouse a kind of spoken printing press. These spoken presses were cheap—it cost one penny to see a play on the ground floor of the Globe—and one did not need to be able to read to appreciate the play or its language.
The plays also focused on what it meant to be English. As mentioned, Shakespeare’s first commercial successes were plays about the English civil war. Many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries wrote similarly about events in English history. Many others focused their work even more locally, in what we now refer to as “city comedies”—plays set in and around London proper. Virtually all playwrights referred to or used current events within their English and London society as material for their plays, from the latest ballads sung on London street corners to the exploits of noteworthy Londoners to both significant and insignificant bits of news. In this regard, playhouses in England at this time were not merely spoken presses; they drew upon London, the entire country, and
the emerging national identity as they presented plays to the audiences of London.
In this marketplace primed for theatre, playing companies of the period built sophisticated enterprises aimed at negotiating the challenges of making theatre in London while making a profit. All companies in this period used a repertory model when producing plays, which meant that a different play was performed each day, with repeated performances of the same play coming days, weeks, or even months apart. The rapid shift from show to show meant that companies did not have time to build elaborate sets or costumes, which helped keep costs down, and could not rehearse more than a few hours on a single play. With no sets, plays were performed largely on a bare stage, possibly with a couple of doorways, an upper-level balcony, and perhaps only a few props, such as a throne or a bed—used when needed. Sensitive to the cost of paying actors, companies kept their cast size relatively small—usually only twelve to twenty actors for a single performance, with several actors playing more than one role in the course of the performance. Companies, composed exclusively of men because of a combination of aesthetic and cultural preferences and common theatre practice that eliminated women on the
stage, used young boys to play women’s roles. In the absence of meaningful copyright laws, playing companies kept only one complete copy of the script for a play, fearing that an actor might take a full copy of the script and have it published for profit. Instead, actors learned their lines using “parts” or “sides” with only their lines written. Without electricity and effective lighting, companies performed either outdoors during the daylight hours or indoors under candlelight.
The playing conditions of the time—repertory, actor doubling, limited rehearsal time, bare stages, minimal props, men and boys playing all roles, working from sides—presented unique challenges to the playwrights and audiences of the period and allowed Shakespeare to emerge both uniquely English and theatrical. As he responded to the atmosphere of writing and culture around him, Shakespeare likewise responded to the conditions around him in the playhouse. With a bare stage, he is able to shift from Egypt to Rome, or from Sicilia to Bohemia, or England to France with simple word craft. With a balcony, he writes the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet. With boys playing women’s roles, he invents lasting characters like Rosalind in As You Like It or Viola in Twelfth Night—women who disguise themselves as young men in the course of their respective plays. This adaptability and creativity enabled him to cement a career, along with his playing company, at the top of the theatre world.
After ShakespeareShakespeare’s plays resonated in the generations after his death in 1616 and the demise of the King’s Men in 1642 and came to define how theatre has been made in English-speaking countries and much of the West since that time. In 1642, after several decades of a highly productive English theatre in which Shakespeare, Jonson, Middleton, and others were able to thrive, the English Parliament voted to close all theatres in England, believing them to perpetuate lies and attract sinful behavior. This move was part of a major religious upheaval between a religiously conservative parliament and King Charles I, which resulted in a bloody civil war and, ultimately, Parliament’s victory and long period of rule in England. After eighteen years and the restoration of Charles’s son, Charles II, as king, new theatres and theatre companies opened to a society hungry, once again, for “English” theatre. The work of Shakespeare
was performed and adapted by dramatists like William Davenant and Nahum Tate who, along with their audiences, saw Shakespeare and other early modern playwrights like Beaumont and Fletcher as cultural touchstones harking back to the prewar days. Davenant, who had been a playwright for the King’s Men prior to 1642, and his rival playwright and company manager, Thomas Killigrew, each received patents, or licenses, to form new theatre companies after Charles II’s restoration to the throne. Killigrew’s company even reconstituted the title of the King’s Men for his new company. Davenant, Killigrew, and Tate performed Shakespeare but usually only after major adaptation. The postwar, postPuritan London audiences did not, for understandable reasons, have quite the same taste for violence and tragedy as their prewar predecessors, so even Shakespeare’s starkest tragedies were reimagined for the Restoration audience. Whereas Shakespeare’s King Lear is unrelenting in its tragic conclusion—Lear and his beloved daughter, Cordelia, both die in the play’s final moments—Nahum Tate’s King Lear reads as much more of a dramatic comedy. In Tate’s version, Cordelia and Lear both live, Cordelia marries, and Lear contemplates a quiet retirement. These two starkly different versions of Lear signal us how early practitioners and audiences regarded both Shakespeare and his plays as something to be preserved and a canvas onto which more contemporary values, tastes, and styles could be painted.
In some respects, this early reaction to and use of Shakespeare’s plays has continued to characterize how we have approached Shakespeare since. The initial impulse to see the plays as something of value—deeply resonant poetic dramas, reflections of England’s politics and culture, current events, frontiers of a freshly emerging language, pieces of art or literature—continued. Shakespeare was at the heart of theatre in England throughout the remainder of the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth century, championed from the London stage by actor-managers like David Garrick and in writing by diarists and critics like Samuel Johnson, each of whom held special positions as cultural tastemakers in Britain. Shakespeare was also exported to Europe, with plays like Ham- let being adapted and performed in France and Germany, and even as puppet shows in Italy and America, where his plays were among the first performed in English.
In this period, responses to Shakespeare’s work developed into new traditions of academic study, theatrical performance, and cultural expression.
Three characters from Hamlet. These antique marionettes were found in the attic of a church in what used to be a predominately Czech neighborhood in New York City. Today, they are used by the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre.
Each of these traditions had its roots in his plays and stagecraft, but also adapted to the new conditions and needs of practitioners, audiences, and cultures. Some practitioners and audiences continued to see the plays in much the same vein as their predecessors: Shakespeare was about being English and celebrating Englishness. By performing Shakespeare, an actor or company was performing the work of the great master of the English language in a way that bought it some legitimacy with its audience. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as a unifi Britain was emerging as a major world power, building its empire, and colonizing America, Australia, Africa, and parts of Asia, the assertion of this Englishness became even more important. At home, Shakespeare’s plays and language allowed audiences to celebrate themselves and their great cultural heritage with Shakespeare right at the center of this expression, the literary persona responsible for the culture’s crowning achievements. Abroad, in colonies like those that would become the United States, Canada, and India, Shakespeare was simply part of a way to connect to and assert what it meant to be English, to be civilized, and to be Western; volumes of Shakespeare’s
plays became what English speakers placed on their shelves right next to their Bibles.
In all, Shakespeare’s poetic drama had become the predominant theatrical form of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and this preoccupation with him extended beyond the stage into societies that were increasingly literate and increasingly literary. In some respects, Shakespeare had become both a dramatic and a literary ideal, representing the highest, most essential mode of theatrical performance on stages throughout the West and serving as the singular literary and artistic figure in the culture. At its most benign, thinking about Shakespeare as a genius meant that Britain could assert its position at the apex of Western civilization; as the producer of the world’s greatest poet and greatest artistic mind, Great Britain could be articulated as more refined, smarter, or having achieved more than others. As Britain’s influence expanded in North America, southern Asia, Australia, and Africa in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Shakespeare’s role at the forefront of cultural expression meant that both he and his work were valued not only on their own merits, but as representations of the nation, of cultural superiority, and of genius itself.
This new position meant that Shakespeare’s plays were no longer being encountered as the fresh, relevant reflections of England and its language, but as the basic material used for making the best theatre and defining a cultural ideal. Shakespeare’s plays were, for actors, audiences, readers, and scholars, part of a canon—must-read, must-watch material that defined what it meant to see theatre and be English. This idea of “canon,” a notion that the greatest artistic and cultural works of Europe could be thought of as a collective achievement of a civilization, put Shakespeare’s plays into a more integrated role in society. In the schoolhouse, the plays became part of organized curricula. At universities and among the scholarly community, the plays became the subject of scholarly study and writing. Scholars like Edmund Malone began to dig into Shakespeare, both in essays and in newly edited versions of the plays, meaning that Shakespeare was taking his place alongside the great classical and Renaissance writers worthy of serious study. On the stage, stars were made based, in large part, on their achievements in the great Shakespearean roles like Hamlet, Othello, and Richard III. Many actors became “great” only after performing Shakespeare well. For actors such as David Garrick, Sarah Siddons and the Kemble and Booth families,
Shakespeare was a staple of performance. Stars also helped to generate new excitement around Shakespeare’s plays. With great actors in Shakespeare’s leading roles, theatre in England and the emerging United States reached its heyday—Shakespeare was being reinvented and made relevant again in the performances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This newness was expressed not only in the performances of the stars, each with their own “brand” of doing Shakespeare, but also in how audiences identified with the Shakespeare they saw.
In Europe, Shakespeare’s plays were translated into German, French, and Italian as Romanticism emerged—a movement that, for the first time, put Shakespeare and other Renaissance writers and artists at or above the level of classical authors like Euripedes, Seneca, and Virgil—and composers like Giuseppe Verdi, Hector Berlioz, and Richard Wagner adapted Shakespeare for the opera. In the United States, Shakespeare’s plays were becoming part of the cultural landscape for African Americans, with popular black actor Ira Aldridge playing roles like Hamlet and Othello. More broadly, Shakespeare’s work represented an ideal mode of performance and of literature; to perform Shakespeare, see it performed, or read or study it was to play a part in the mainstream of cultural life. For Aldridge and others who existed, at least in part, outside
The 2011 production of Richard III by the Propeller Theatre Company. Photo by Manuel Harlan.
Ira Aldridge as Othello, c. 1830. Oil on canvas. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
the cultural mainstream, Shakespeare may have been seen as a catalyst or gateway for blacks, Jews, immigrants, women, colonized populations, and other cultural minorities to converse with and contribute to the otherwise English-speaking, white, male cultural norm.
At the same time, Shakespeare’s plays could become the mechanism for distinguishing oneself or one’s group from that norm. One such example of this was in the 1849 Astor Place Opera House Riot in New York City. Here, rival actors Edwin Forrest, an American, and William Charles Macready, an Englishman, had presented competing interpretations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The rivalry between the two men was primarily a stylistic one, with each representing a different way of acting the title role in the play. Audiences, however, saw in the two interpretations a break along other, more deeply seeded, lines of social class and status. Many in the American audience, primed with anti-English sentiment that saw Macready and other English as socially elite, turned on Macready and his supporters, and violence erupted, leaving several dead and scores wounded.
Though this example is by far the most extreme, it demonstrates what Shakespeare’s plays were becoming by the dawn of the twentieth century, both in the theatre and in society: material that, on one hand,
Engraving of the Astor Place Opera House Riot in New York, 1849. Library of Congress.
represented a kind of cultural continuity—touchstones that signified connectedness and commonality and, on the other hand, could reflect the endless values and conditions with which they came into contact. In this way, Shakespeare’s plays were paradoxically both a connection to the larger English-speaking world, a nod to a particular country’s—or culture’s—English heritage, and a means of asserting a separation or adaptation of that heritage.
What Was Shakespeare?For theatre practitioners, the ideal Shakespeare encountered in the dynamic, heightened performance in some of today’s theatres can be at odds with the educational or academic Shakespeares whose treatment can be comparatively static. Our first engagement with Shakespeare is likely to be reading the play as a literary object rather than a text for performance. For some potential audiences, this notion of Shakespeare as a bookish enterprise—a static, printed thing rather than an enacted, embodied thing—can be intimidating and off-putting. At the same time, some readers who like Shakespeare as something to be read and closely studied might find the theatrical Shakespeare too loud, too garish, or, as with many film adaptations we see today, not as good as the book.
Our responses to Shakespeare can often fall along cultural lines. Shakespeare’s identity, his style, the cultural changes that have passed since his career in London theatre, and the role he plays and has played in the culture each allow for different responses based on who we are and what role we occupy in the culture. In some sense, this means that Shakespeare, no matter how ideal, must always answer for the agendas and traditions that have appropriated the playwright and his work over time. If Shakespeare can be identified as a heady poet, a bawdy writer, a male, a symbol of colonial power, an English speaker, a white person, a Catholic or Protestant, a member of the middle class, or any other thing that Shakespeare was in his own day or has become since, our responses will be vastly different depending on who we are. These responses enable our exchange with Shakespeare and ultimately put us into conversation with and about Shakespeare’s work. Common critical responses—lenses for looking at Shakespeare in close study—include feminist criticism, performance criticism, and consideration of the historical contexts that influenced Shakespeare’s work.
The presence of the many traditions, responses, and understandings of seeing, reading, studying, and performing Shakespeare—and it can be argued easily that there are more to consider—signal how we would think of him in the twentieth century and how we continue to consider the playwright-poet and his work today. Each Shakespearean tradition—theatrical, literary, educational, cultural—is a way of appropriating Shakespeare and aligning the ideals of that tradition with perceived ideals of Shakespeare. For the scholar of English, Shakespeare can be the master poet or the timeless, even universal, artist. For the schoolteacher, Shakespeare can be the “safe,” “proper,” or “authorized” subject of study. For those in society, literacy in Shakespearean plays and poems can serve as a badge of cultural achievement, a ticket to sophistication. In the theatre, Shakespeare can be an ideal mode of performance—a heightened way of approaching the theatre craft that carries with it a sense of seriousness, authenticity, classicality, or heightened expression.
The Values of Poetic DramaThough there are hundreds of Shakespeare brands—methods of doing theatre that differ from theatre to theatre and country to country—the Shakespearean theatrical tradition is a rich one, and one that is distinct
from the primarily realistic modes of performance we see in many plays and films today. Shakespeare’s poetic drama has different values than its counterparts in realism and therefore is a different kind of theatrical expression, one that requires different tools in rehearsal and performance. The following are among the values that set poetic drama apart:
Language as the Primary Means of ConveyancePoetic drama puts a premium on language in performance. Though language is an important part of most kinds of theatre, poetic drama uses language as the primary means of revealing characters and story. In realism and other modes of making theatre, other means of revelation might be used, from spectacular effects, to dance or movement, to physicality, behavioral acting choices, or subtextual discoveries. One example of language as the primary means of revealing the characters and story is in this speech from Hamlet as Hamlet happens upon his uncle, Claudius, the play’s villain, who is praying and debates whether or not to kill him:
Now might I do it pat, now he is praying; And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d: A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send To heaven.
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge. He took my father grossly, full of bread;
With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May; And how his audit stands who knows save heaven? But in our circumstance and course of thought, ’Tis heavy with him. And am I then revenged,
To take him in the purging of his soul, When he is fit and season’d for his passage? No!
Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent: When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed; At game, a-swearing, or about some act That has no relish of salvation in’t;
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven, And that his soul may be as damn’d and black
As hell, whereto it goes. My mother stays: This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.
Here, Hamlet is revealing to the audience everything happening in this moment through his language: He has an opportunity to kill his uncle, but his uncle is praying, maybe for forgiveness; if Claudius is forgiven, Hamlet’s choice to murder him would be an act of grace, not of revenge; Hamlet wants to kill Claudius anyway and tells us he is raising his sword to do it; ultimately he relents, promising to find another, more opportune moment to kill his uncle, preferably while Claudius is engaged in some sort of sin.
Though there are notable exceptions in realistic drama, Shakespeare’s use of language to convey the dramatic moment, the plot, and even the character’s thoughts and actions is an essential element of poetic drama. In realistic drama, we might expect to get all of this information but by an array of different means: Hamlet might raise his sword but not necessarily tell us he is doing so. We might see the character struggle psychologically or physically with the idea of killing his uncle but not necessarily reveal that thought process to the audience. Lighting cues, sound effects, or musical underscoring might help tell the story of this suspenseful moment of reluctance. In contrast, in Shakespeare’s poetic drama—not only in speeches like this but also in dialogue—the spoken language becomes the primary means of making the theatrical moment.
Heightened Language Leads to Heightened ExperienceEspecially as compared to realistic drama, poetic drama simply sounds different than realistic dialogue. One of the ways we might describe this difference is that realistic dialogue sounds more or less the way we speak to each other as part of our everyday lives, while in poetic drama, there is a heightened sense to the language—it operates in a special, more intense way. This heightened language is directly tied to the poetry: Shakespeare’s language, for instance, does not merely convey ideas, as it might in realism, but conveys rhythm, structure, rhetorical patterns, linguistic flourishes, and image in a complex way. Take the first part of Richard’s speech from the opening of Richard III:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York; And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths; Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums chang’d to merry meetings, Our dreadful marches to delightful measures. Grim-visag’d war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front; And now,—instead of mounting barbed steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,— He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
In this speech, the language works differently than it would if Richard III were a realistic drama. First, the language is poetic: each line has a certain number of syllables and a certain rhythm, the sentence structure is occasionally manipulated to fit a better rhythm or to make for a more beautiful line reading, the images are especially rich (e.g., “grim-visag’d war,” the idea that war could be a stern-looking person), and there are patterns built into the language that give the speech its heightened sense. In another mode of drama, this speech could just as easily be:
We’re really glad the York family just won the civil war. The sad days for us are over and we’re going to trade in our days of war for music and parties.
Instead, Shakespeare’s speech has a lot more going on in it—contrasting images (summer and winter), recurrent sounds (the assonance in “clouds,” “lour’d,” and “house” and the consonance in “bosom,” “buried,” “brows,” and “bound”), the setting up and breaking of rhetorical patterns (the three lines beginning with “Our . . . ”), and the expansive word choice (lascivious, lour’d, and barbed).
This heightened approach to the language in the Shakespearean the-
atrical tradition calls for a heightened experience, both for actors and audience. For actors, speaking poetic drama might mean matching the heightened, more intense, more lyrical nature of the language with a heightened approach to physicality, vocal delivery, or emotional payout.
Certainly not all of the patterns have been identified in this selection. Shakespeare’s language is full of these and many other rhetorical elements. What other patterns can you identify in this speech?
For the audience, the heightened language can mean a more demanding, more complex theatrical experience.
Language Prompts the Imagination in a Special WayIn part because of the heightened language and experience associated with it, and in part because of its literary nature, poetic drama calls upon both the practitioner and the audience to engage their imaginations in ways that may be less common in realistic drama. In Shakespeare’s plays, we can be called upon to imagine the setting; to stretch our imagination to account for a magical character or a fantastical, unrealistic element; or to believe that the woman in the play who is dressed like a man passes muster.
The requirement of imagination is a key element of Shakespeare’s plays in particular. One example is spoken décor, settings that are described rather than demonstrated, as in this example from Macbeth:
Duncan: This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself Unto our gentle senses.
Banquo: This guest of summer,
The temple-haunting martlet, does approve,
By his loved mansionry, that the heaven’s breath Smells wooingly here: no jutty, frieze,
Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird
Hath made his pendent bed and procreant cradle: Where they most breed and haunt, I have observed, The air is delicate.
Here we do not see Macbeth’s castle, which Duncan and Banquo describe, but rather we hear about it through descriptive language—spoken décor. For Shakespeare and other dramatists in early modern England, spoken décor proved an economical means of creating setting for a particular scene. Rather than building a new set for each scene, or even a new set for each play, both of which were very expensive and impractical options for the playing companies of the day, spoken décor called upon the actors to paint a world—Scotland, Rome, Egypt, Italy—that audience could imagine together.
In addition to spoken décor, Shakespeare’s plays stoke the imagination in other ways: a few actors might have to represent an entire army, weeks might pass in just a few moments on the stage, or a character might hide in plain sight or adopt what is, to the audience, a very transparent disguise. The Chorus in Henry V points to some of the ways audiences might be prompted to imagine:
. . . can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram Within this wooden O the very casques That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt, On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts; Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth; For ‘tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings, Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times, Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply, Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray, Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.
For audiences, imagining and filling in the world of the play is a cue to take a more active part in how the play is made and, ultimately, in its successful performance. Because Shakespeare’s poetic drama asks us to imagine that Rosalind, a beautiful young woman, is instead a young man named Ganymede, the ultimate success of Rosalind’s disguise depends on whether we allow it to work over the course of the play, As You Like It. This stretching or testing of our imaginative will is key in Shakespeare’s plays and represents a clear distinction from what can often be a more literal and more plausible way of making theatre in the realistic mode. Though there are myriad exceptions among plays in contemporary theatre—Angels in America, Parts I & II, for instance—poetic drama, particularly that of Shakespeare, seems to make these special demands on the audience as a rule.
Interpreting ShakespeareIn the theatrical tradition, the imagination required to engage Shakespeare’s plays prompts practitioners—particularly directors and designers—to realize, in production, their own imagined responses to the play. Because Shakespeare is such a presence in the theatre and the culture, the plays can become a bit like a blank canvas onto which modern practitioners can invent new worlds around the play. Directors and designers of modern Shakespeare productions might do this with a stylized
Emily Plumtree as Nerissa and Susannah Fielding as Portia in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2011 production of The Merchant of Venice, which takes place in present-day Las Vegas amid a television dating game in which a blond wig-wearing Portia hosts. Photo © Robbie Jack/Corbis.
Sir Ian McKellen as the titular role in the 1995 film Richard III, reset in midtwentieth-century fascist England. Director Richard Loncraine brings the reality of World War II into the Shakespearean world. Photo © United Artists.
production design or “concept.” In some of these concept productions, a given play can be reimagined in a different era or setting that resonates with the play’s central themes, helps the audience connect the play to other ideas, or makes the play look or feel fresh and contemporary.
These concepts are mostly sensorial adaptations that fill in the imagined setting with an actual one and create a fuller theatrical experience for audiences that have come to expect plays with compelling lighting, sets, and effects while keeping Shakespeare’s original texts largely intact. Other concepts might include rewriting or reorganizing the texts, using a limited number of actors (say, in a four-person production of Romeo and Juliet), or using a play as the basis for a much more highly stylized performance.
Concept productions are one approach to these imaginative texts, but there are others. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London and the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, both reconstructions of two of Shakespeare’s original theatres, often attempt to present Shakespeare’s plays in an “original” setting with bare stages, live music, “universal” lighting (lighting of actor and audience together with no blackouts as one might see in a conventional theatre), and early modern costuming. Though not all productions at the Globe or the
This 2010 production of Much Ado About Nothing featured a cast of eight actors playing multiple roles, including gender-, race-, and age-nonspecific casting. Burning Coal Theatre Company (directed by Emily Ranii). Photo by Jerome Davis.
The Globe Theatre. Built in 1599 and demolished in 1644, it was recreated based on historical evidence and opened in 1997. Photo by Heidi Blanton.
Interior of the Globe Theatre. Photo by David Welch.
Blackfriars are performed with all of these elements, these companies attempt to respond to the poetic drama with simple concepts and relatively few trappings in an effort to return some of the business of imagination to their audiences.
Our imaginative response to Shakespeare—taking our cue as practitioners and audiences to engage these plays in ways that make sense and speak to us—and our awareness of the agendas and traditions that
have informed and will continue to inform how we make and remake Shakespeare is ultimately a way of keeping the plays and their ideas and language fresh, contemporary, and alive. Because Shakespeare’s words still resonate today, practitioners and audiences are in a unique position to say something back to him and to each other.
LanguageShakespeare wrote primarily in blank verse. Verse means that the lines have meter—a regular pattern of stressed syllables that occurs in the poetic line. Blank means that the verse is unrhymed. Therefore, blank verse is unrhymed, metered verse. The meter Shakespeare uses—for the most part—is called iambic pentameter. An iamb is a kind of metrical “foot” with one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, like:
Penta (of pentameter) means “five.” So in iambic pentameter, there are five iambs (five feet) in a regular line of verse:
/now, FAIR/ hiPPOL/yTA,/ our NUP/tial HOUR/
Say that out loud and you will hear yourself naturally speak five iambs (/unstressed-STRESSED/). Even if you do not know the identity of Hippolyta, or the definition of a nuptial, this line sounds relatively normal. However, there will be some lines in Shakespeare that sound very strange by comparison. They may be strange for one of two reasons: (a) you may be pronouncing or stressing the words incorrectly (Shakespeare’s language does have some oddly pronounced words, like “commendable”— pronounced a bit like “common double”) or (b) the line isn’t regular. Here is an example of a slightly irregular line:
/to BE/ or NOT/ to BE/that IS/ the QUEST/ion/
This line has five perfectly normal iambs followed by an extra, unstressed, syllable (“ion”). This is called a weak ending and it occurs quite a lot throughout Shakespeare’s poetic verse. This is still technically a “regular” line. In Hamlet’s speech that follows, however, he has a lot of these
weak endings right in a row—and this string of weak endings becomes a pattern unto itself. Patterns like this one are important to notice. In a play about a prince who cannot decide whether to go through with killing his uncle, this series of weak endings makes Hamlet sound like he is waffling (which is true). This is a pattern the actor can use to think about, and perhaps unlock, a choice about how to play this particular moment.
Verse may cause the actor to pronounce words irregularly so that they better fit the verse line. Take this speech from Macbeth:
If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch With his surcease success; that but this blow Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time, We’ld jump the life to come. But in these cases We still have judgment here; that we but teach Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice To our own lips.
The lines are mostly regular, but to make them so, Shakespeare had to elide some words. Examples of elisions from the preceding speech include ‘tis, ‘twere, We’ld, and poison’d. This short speech contains a relatively high percentage of elisions and therefore might be a pattern to notice and then address as a potential acting choice, simply: why is Macbeth rushing through his words? Is he anxious? Hurried? When the actor begins to address those questions brought on by the language, he or she has a potential character choice.
Sometimes actors may have to elide words themselves to make the words fit the verse line—she might have a two-syllable “TROYlus “in one line and a three-syllable “TRO-ih-lus” in another, for example. On the printed page, both pronunciations simply appear as “Troilus.” The actor must expand or overenunciate the pronunciation of some words, too, to fit the verse line:
And change misdoubt to resolution
To scan correctly, you have to expand the word “REsoLushun” to “REsoLUsheUN.” Or here:
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes
“Galled” becomes two syllables: “gall-ed.” For modern actors and audiences, these pronunciations can seem antiquated and can actually obscure, rather than reveal, a moment in the play. The idea with verse is to notice how it is working, particularly the places where it works differently, and then use the observations as a basis for performance choices.
As the actors begin to do all this analysis, they may find that in the verse line, this “pulse” throughout the poetry often highlights a point—a kind of “thesis” for the character in a given moment. Here is another example from Macbeth:
/toMOR/ow AND/to MOR/ow AND/to MOR/ow
This is just a regular line with a weak ending. Now just try to say the STRESSED syllables:
For a character giving this particular speech in a play about ambition, and who has just learned his wife is dead and enemies are on the way to kill him, a line like “MORE AND MORE AND MORE” speaks volumes—he wanted more and more and more, and now more and more and more bad news keeps coming. Very often, irregularities do not mean nearly as much as this example. The point is to notice them and account for them as an actor by making a choice.
In addition to verse patterns, variations, and rules, Shakespeare’s poetic drama is also rich with other kinds of patterns that have more to do with how ideas are constructed. We examined rhetorical patterns earlier in the speech from Richard III. Rhetorical patterns are what you notice happening in the language that sound like something organized is happening. Alliteration, consonance, assonance, repetition, antithesis— all these are rhetorical devices that, like verse patterns, can help the actor and the audience navigate how a particular character thinks or sounds.
In part because of the unique role of theatre in the early modern period, audiences came to the theatre to hear new words and new uses of the language—Shakespeare was meeting that demand in many ways by offering new words or new uses of existing words. Encountering words that are unfamiliar to us was also experienced by the earliest listeners of Shakespeare. For the actor both in Shakespeare’s day and today, the task is to reveal the meaning of those words through gesture, clear acting choices that help to convey meaning, and careful listening to the context of the moment.
Printing Conventions and Modern EditionsFor most actors—and for those of us who read Shakespeare—we encounter more than just spoken words, but also punctuation, spelling, typography, and stage directions. Though most of us encounter Shakespeare in an edition that has modern, consistent spelling and punctuation, offset stage directions, clear breaks between scenes, and so on, printed texts from the early modern period are very different.
For most actors and readers today, this text from The Tempest in Shakespeare’s First Folio is difficult to navigate; there are variations in spelling, some older and out-of-use; inconsistent line arrangements; abbreviations
for character names; and older uses of punctuation. As practitioners and readers of Shakespeare today, we need to know that the modern, clean, edited versions of the play we might use in production or study in class are different from those used by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. These differences are editorial choices that may illuminate or obscure meaning for the actor, director, or reader. One example from The Tem– pest, earlier, is that a modern edition might say either “ducks” or “docks” instead of “dockes” in an attempt to provide clarity, potentially obscuring the definition here, which is that a “docke” or “dock” is a kind of weed. Other editorial choices in the preceding passage might be to convert some of the many colons to semicolons, periods, commas, or exclamation points so that the passage might read as this one does:
Sebastian: Very well.
Antonio: And most chirurgeonly.
Gonzalo: It is foul weather in us all, good sir, When you are cloudy.
Sebastian: Foul weather? Antonio: Very foul.
Gonzalo: Had I plantation of this isle, my lord,— Antonio: He’ld sow’t with nettle-seed.
Sebastian: Or docks, or mallows.
Gonzalo: And were the king on’t, what would I do? Sebastian: ‘Scape being drunk for want of wine.
Gonzalo: I’ the commonwealth I would by contraries Execute all things; for no kind of traffic Would I admit; no name of magistrate; Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession, Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none; No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all!
And women too, but innocent and pure; No sovereignty;—
Sebastian: Yet he would be king on’t.
For most, the updates to the punctuation, formatting, and spelling on the page can be helpful in providing clarity and in making the text
readable but, depending on the editor, meaning can be changed—sometimes very slightly, as in the preceding example, but sometimes much more substantially—and can affect both performance and reception. Here is an example of how editors might affect our understanding of Romeo and Juliet. We see three source texts (Q1 and Q2 are the fi two “quarto” editions of the play, and F1 is the “folio” edition of the play) that are later negotiated, shifted, and confl in the modern (Norton) edition.
Romeo and JulietQ1 (1597)
Juliet: Whats Mountague? It is nor hand nor foote, Nor arme, nor face, nor any other part.
Whats in a name? That which we call a Rose, By any other name would smell as sweet:
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo cald,
Juliet. Whats Mountague? it is nor hand nor foote, Nor arme nor face, o be some other name Belonging to a man.
Whats in a name that which we call a rose, By any other word would smell as sweete, So Romeo would were he not Romeo cald,
Juliet: What’s Mountague? it is nor hand nor foote, Nor arme, nor face, O be some other name Belonging to a man.
What? in a names that which we call a Rose, By any other word would smell as sweete,
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo cal’d,
Norton Shakespeare (1998)
Juliet: What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot, Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other word would smell as sweet.
Obviously there are major editorial differences between the source texts and the modern edition. These differences range from spelling to punctuation to word choice. The editors of modern editions like the Norton shown here are negotiating the text for the modern reader and making judgments about what should and should not be included based on preference. No editorial choices made to update the text for the modern reader are malignant, but they can affect our understanding of the text, obscuring or clarifying in different ways. For the actor or director, having at least a connection to how the older, original texts look and function can provide helpful insights for performance.
StagecraftIn addition to understanding Shakespeare’s language and how modern editions can affect how we read and perform his plays, it can be helpful to understand how Shakespeare made theatre, and how that stagecraft can provide insight for performance. Though there were many conditions for which Shakespeare wrote, we will focus on a few that can strongly affect production choices.
Universal LightingShakespeare’s playhouses—the Theatre, the Globe, the Blackfriars— were lit by a combination of daylight and candlelight. In the absence of electricity and the ability to control lights, as we might in a blackout in the theatre today, both actors and audience were lit together. Perhaps because of this condition, plays from these periods—Shakespeare’s and others—almost without exception feature characters that talk to the audience. Though there are exceptions in today’s theatre and film (Fer- ris Bueller’s Day Off is a classic example), the frequency with which it happened in early modern drama made this direct address a common convention in Shakespearean performance and presents a different kind of challenge for today’s actors and directors who may be more used to dealing with audiences in the dark. The challenge of a seen audience is that they move, they occasionally talk back, and they may or may not
be paying attention—and so the actor has to account for a number of variables besides his or her own performance.
Song and DanceShakespeare’s plays have much more song and dance than we might expect in a modern, realistic, play, putting Shakespeare’s work somewhere between what we might think of as a play and what we would consider a musical. The presence of song and dance in Shakespeare can enliven the piece, set a certain emotional tone, or convey the nature of a particular moment such as the entrance of a king or queen. While we have some of the original music for many of these songs, other tunes have disappeared. Even with the ones we still have, directors and designers may find that the songs or tunes do not fit an updated concept. These songs, signals, and dances present challenges to actors, directors, designers, and technicians who have to navigate them in performance.
CastingShakespeare wrote for a small company composed exclusively of males. Women were forbidden to take the stage in early modern England, so boys who had not yet gone through vocal changes of puberty played the parts of younger women. The economics of playing companies prevented them from hiring more than usually twelve to eighteen actors. These casting conditions have two major impacts on performance today. First, since women were not allowed to perform in Shakespeare’s plays, there are fewer women’s roles in Shakespeare, meaning practitioners often choose to break conventional casting rules to accommodate their desire for more women in the cast, often either by putting women into “breeches” roles (where women play men) or by making a given character a woman instead of a man.
Second, as a result of the small companies, one actor played potentially several small roles in a given production. In performance today, companies may choose to adopt this Shakespearean practice or cast a fuller company based on the named characters in a script. The latter option is a common one but can often lose what may have been a clever or compelling second layer to the performance. If one actor plays a role, say Banquo in Macbeth, who is killed about halfway through the play and returns to the stage later on in the play as Siward, we see an actor who is, in a sense, taking revenge for his own death.
Understanding some of the conditions for which Shakespeare wrote, and the conventions at work in the plays—internal cues, casting considerations, and the like—may help some modern practitioners navigate what can sometimes be a daunting, or obstructed, text. At the same time, there are plenty of other resources—new understandings of the text that scholars or previous productions have unveiled, longstanding performance traditions, critical essays on a given play, careful study of original texts, examination of derivative works, training in classical acting techniques, performance itself, and so on—that can help inform directorial choices and acting approaches. Our own imaginations, dispositions, and ideas can also help unlock Shakespeare, both for ourselves and for potential audiences. While we, as audiences or practitioners, can work to better understand Shakespeare, ultimately the quality of the exchange between Shakespeare and ourselves and with each other does not rely solely upon whether we understand how Shakespeare is supposed to work, but simply whether he does work as we enact the plays, speak the language, and engage in the performance. In this sense, Shakespeare is not Shakespeare, the imposing, weighted (and weighty), antiquated, supposedly perfect, monolith we have come to consider, but rather the fresh, sometimes bad, sometimes very good, “new,” alive Shakespeare we can help to create.