English Theater in the Mid-Sixteenth Century

      When its greatest playwright was born, in 1564, the English theater hardly existed at all as an organized commercial or artistic institution. Troupes of actors roamed the countryside, performing in courtyards or in the great halls of noble houses; little better than vagrants in the eyes of the law, they lived precariously by presenting crude native tragedies, bawdy interludes, or adaptations of the classics, in exchange for a meal, a bed, or a few coins. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, however, the stage was one of London's thriving industries, supporting at least three successful repertory companies of which one--the Lord Chamberlain's Men--boasted the services of William Shakespeare as a resident actor, playwright, and shareholder.

Shakespeare's Stage

      The Chamberlain's Men (who changed their name to the King's Men after James I took the throne in 1603), performed most of their plays on the multi-leveled spaces of the Globe Theater. Many of us are familiar with a different kind of theater altogether; the "modern" stage consists of a single flat playing surface separated from the audience by a proscenium arch, artificially lighted, furnished with sets and props and peopled by actors whose costumes, gestures and speech suggest a world that corresponds closely with our own. Shakespeare's stage also held, as Hamlet put it, a mirror up to nature, but it did not do so by the same means, and its reflection tended to be less realistically detailed. Perhaps the greatest difference is that what contemporary plays often accomplish through sets, props and costumes, Shakespeare gave his audiences almost entirely through language. We know that we are in the Forest of Arden, for example, or on the battlements of a Danish castle, or on the seacoast of Bohemia, because the characters tell us so, not because we can see or hear for ourselves that we are; there are no trees or battlements or roaring surf but only a bare stage jutting out among the spectators, flanked by galleries and balconies and backed by an inner recess into which the action might move. Visual spectacle, though not unimportant, was secondary to dialogue; we speak of going to "see" a play where audiences up to the nineteenth century spoke of "hearing" one.

Shakespeare's Language

      We must not think of Shakespeare's stage as impoverished because it lacked the technical resources of our own, for the richness of his dramatic speech more than compensates us. Shakespeare did not invent those unrhymed lines of iambic pentameter known as blank verse, but he perfected it; he shaped the stiff, stilted, and oratorical meter that he inherited into a rhetorical instrument that could range from the most colloquial and realistic dialogue to discourse of an almost operatic grandeur and eloquence. And perfectly complementing and counterpointing Shakespeare's verse was his prose, a vehicle capable of distinguishing the commoners from the noble characters, the subplots from the main plot, the comic from the tragic.

Shakespeare's Genres

      The distinction between tragedy and comedy, still useful in our age, was particularly important in Shakespeare's time. Elizabethan tragedy was the still familiar tale of a great man or woman brought low through hubris or fate (though some of Shakespeare's tragic heroes--Romeo, say, or Timon, or Macbeth--do not easily accomodate Aristotle's definition of the type). Shakespearean comedy, like much of our own, was descended from the Roman "New Comedy" of Plautus and Terence (an influence seen most clearly in The Comedy of Errors), crossbred with fairy tale and Italian romance and sometimes undercut by bitingly ironic satire. Tragedies and comedies are two of the genres into which the First Folio of Shakespeare divides the plays; the third category is Histories, comprising plays that chronicled the lives of English Kings, but these plays themselves often tended toward the tragic (Richard II or Richard III, for instance) or the comic (the Falstaff subplots of both parts of Henry IV and the Pistol-Fluellen encounters of Henry V). Thus almost from the start, Shakespeare's method was to mingle the heretofore antagonistic visions of comedy and tragedy in ways that still seem novel and startling. There is more to laugh at in the tragedy of Hamlet than there is in a comedy like The Merchant of Venice, and some modern critics go so far as to consider King Lear at once the pinnacle of Shakespeare's tragic achievement and a kind of divine comedy or even absurdist farce. Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy assembled from comic materials (a story of young lovers struggling to overcome the obstacle of parental disapproval), and in Shakespeare's later tragedy of romantic love, Antony and Cleopatra, there is much poignant humor at the expense of middle-aged lovers attempting with difficulty to sustain the passion usually associated with adolescence. Indeed, some of Shakespeare's comedies--Measure for Measure and All's Well That Ends Well are the most notable--seem so far removed from the optimism usually associated with that genre that they have acquired the qualifying title of "problem comedies."

Shakespeare's Multiple Perspectives

      In other ways besides the generic, Shakespeare's theater presents to us a mixed, even a contradictory aspect. The Aristotelian tradition demanded of serious playwrights that their plays be unified in the continuity of their action. But instead of telling us a single coherent story, Shakespeare sometimes tells us two or even three, alternating among them or even (through his favorite device of the play-within-a-play) placing one inside the other. Instead of limiting his casts to a few characters, he gives us so many that his actors are forced to "double," racing offstage as a page or messenger to reappear the next moment as an old man or a flattering courtier. The plays do not hold a single mirror up to nature, then, but many mirrors at once--like the characters whose function it is to parallel and reflect each other, and so comment upon each other; thus, in King Lear, we are given not a single father mistreated by his children but two, and in Hamlet, not one son of a slain father but three. Multiple perspectives, actions, and characters looked at from different and even contradictory points of view, abound in the plays, which themselves, by setting the subjective beside the objective and the real beside the illusory, become instruments for investigating the nature of reality itself.

How NOT to Read Shakespeare

      The above may make Shakespeare sound like a philosopher or a scientist, and many people have thought of him in this way: as a writer whose most valuable contributions are to the history of ideas, to psychology, to theology, to sociology. But this is a way to misread Shakespeare and to ignore what he did best; it has even been the basis for those now largely discredited claims that not Shakespeare but some better-educated or more aristocratic writer must have written his plays. Shakespeare is not so much a "thinker" as a writer capable of bringing thoughts to life. Every one of his plays, like those of his contemporaries, is an adaptation of some story, history, or other play; many of the "ideas" for which Shakespeare is now given credit are part of the intellectual commonplace of his age. We should not read or attend his plays to find out how people lived in Elizabethan London, or what true love is, or whether God exists, though such matters are debated in them. The nineteenth century, in particular, tended to regard the plays as slices of life and to remove characters from their dramatic context to argue their motives, speculate upon their childhoods, or predict their futures. But they are not real people who live in our world; each of the plays is its own world in miniature: the happy-go-lucky farcical world of The Comedy of Errors or The Taming of the Shrew, the romantic, fairy-tale world of Cymbeline and The Tempest, the darkly ironic world of Troilus and Cressida and the tragic world of Lear or Othello are all places different from each other and from our own. The thirty-seven plays of Shakespeare are not moral sermons, not handbooks of etiquette, not philosophical treatises, not documentaries of English life in the Renaissance. They are exercises in dramatic imagination, demonstrations of mimetic magic, celebrations of the power of illusion over reality; and, if we come to them in the right spirit, they will move and entertain us as the works of few other writers can hope to do.

Adapted from A Guide to the Study of Literature: A Companion Text for Core Studies 6, Landmarks of Literature, ©English Department, Brooklyn College.

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