Shakespeare as a Dramatic Artist

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1. There is no authentic evidence to show that Shakespeare’s views on the theory and practice of drama were alike. But, even then, by reading his plays we can know the methods generally adopted. We can arrive at certain deductions and build up our picture of Shakespeare as a dramatic artist.

In the first place, there is not a particle of evidence to prove that Shakespeare held any views on the theory of drama and the question was alive one in his mind. The species of play that he most affected in practice has been well described by Polonius: it is the
“tragical-comical-historical-pastoral scene
Undivided, indivisible or poem unlimited.”

2. His first concern seems to have been to get hold of a suitable story that might be shaped to the needs of the theatre. It is possible for a dramatist as it is for a novelist, to go another way to work. He may conceive living characters, and devise events to exhibit them, or he may start with a moral, a philosophy of life, an atmosphere, a sentiment, and set his puppets to express it. But Shakespeare kept to the old road, and sought first for the story, as characters are made by the events of life. Others he permits to intrude upon the story, as old friends, or a new visitor, intrude upon a plan and disorder it. His wisdom of life grew, a rich instruction, upon the events and situations of his fable. But the story came first with him, as it came first with his audience, as it first came with every child.

3. Shakespeare spent no care on the original choice of a theme, but took it as he found it, if it looked promising. Then he dressed his characters, and put them in action, so that the opening scenes are often a kind of postulate, which the reader or the spectator is asked to grant. At this point of the play improbability is of no account; the intelligent audience will become alert and critical only when the next step is taken, and he is asked to concede the truth of the argument – given these persons in this situation, such and such events will follow. Shakespeare seems to say:

(1)   “Let it be granted that an old king divides his kingdom among his three daughters, demanding from each one of them a profession of ardent affection.”

(2)   “Let it be granted that a merchant borrows money from a Jew on the condition that if he fails to repay it punctually he shall forfeit a pound of his own flesh.”

(3)   “Let it be granted that a young prince sees a ghost who tells him that his uncle, the reigning king, and second husband of his mother, is a murderer.”

The hypothetical preambles of King Lear, The Merchant of Venice and Hamlet are really much more elaborate than this, but this may serve to illustrate Shakespeare’s method. Before appealing to the sympathies and judgements of his audience he has to acquaint them with the situation. Until the situation is created he cannot get to work with his characters. His plays open with a postulate; then the characters begin to live, and as Act follows Act, come into ever closer and more vital relation to the course of events; till, at last, the play is closed, sometimes triumphantly and inevitably, by exhibiting the result of all that has gone before; at other times feebly and carelessly, by neglecting the new interests that have grown around the characters, and dragging the story back to its pre-destined shape.

(4) If this be so, it makes some kinds of criticism idle. Why, it is asked, did not Cordelia humour her father a little? She was too stubborn and rude, where tact and sympathetic understanding might, without violation of truth, have saved the situation. It is easy to answer this question by enlarging on the character of Cordelia, and on that touch of obstinacy that is often found in very pure and unselfish women. Btu this is really besides the mark; and those who spend so much thought on Cordelia, forget Shakespeare. If Cordelia had been perfectly tender and tactful, there would have been no play. The situation would have been saved, and the dramatist who was in attendance to celebrate the sequel of the situation might have packed up his pipes and gone home. This is not to say that the character of Cordelia is drawn carelessly and inconsistently. But it a character invented fro the situation, so that to argue from the character to the plot is to invert the true order of things in the artist’s mind.

In the great tragedies, story and character are marvelously adapted to each other. Hardly anything is twisted or forced to bring it within the limits of the scheme. By the time he wrote Lear and Othello, Shakespeare was a master-craftsman, deeply acquainted with life, which had to be portrayed, and thoroughly exercised, by long practice, in the handling of all those dramatic patterns which had to be fulfilled. There is thus in the mature plays of Shakespeare an inextricable intertwining of plot and character. Hence, for the study of Shakespeare’s plays, simple character study is not sufficient. The character study, necessary as it may be, must be related to the larger whole, to the emergencies of the drama, before it can prove of any value. Merely to explain Hamlet’s character tells us nothing, for after all we are not dealing with a man but with a play. Before we can learn anything of Shakespeare’s larger purpose we must pass beyond and see, first, how that character influences the dramatic construction, and secondly, how far it is itself determined by the pre-conceived plot or story of the play. Thus Hamlet’s nature and Othello’s nature seem both to have been conceived in their special terms in order to make possible the dramatic presentation of the past historical narrative of Belleforest and the fictional tale of Cinthio respectively. The construction of King Lear, on the other hand, betrays evidence of having been determined by the character of King Lear himself. Misled by romantic critics with little flair for the theatre, a number of 19th century and 20th century critics have failed to understand that the author of Hamlet, King Lear, and Othello was more than a mere creator of characters. Equally misled by the enthusiasm for the stage, a number of most recent critics have apparently regarded Shakespeare purely as a weaver of finely constructed dramas. The truth lies in the higher harmony. For Shakespeare character is interwoven inextricably with plot. Only by an exhaustive examination of both, not separately but together can we hope to reach even the fringe of his final aim.

(5) Shakespeare’s plays are works of art, and not mere chronicle of facts. He applies certain measures in order to secure unity in each of his plays, so that none of them is a chaos or a patchwork. The Greeks secure unity by means of the chorus, which mediates between the actors and the spectators, bespeaking attention, interpreting events and guiding the feelings. Shakespeare had no chorus, but he attains the same in another way. In almost all his plays, there is a clear enough point of view; there is some character, or group of characters, through whose eyes the events of the play must be seen, if they are to be seen in the right perspective. Some of his characters, he keeps nearer to himself than others. The meaning of Love’s Labour’s Lost cannot be read through the eyes of Arnado, nor that of Twelfth Night through the eyes of Malvolio. Nothing would come out of the play of Hamlet from the point of view of Polonius.  Moreover this point gradually shifts as the years pass by. It would be a vain attempt to read Romeo and Juliet from the stand point of Lady Capulet; even no calm and experienced a guide as Friar Laurence can lead us to the heart of the play. On the other hand, The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale cannot be read aright by those who sympathies are concentrated on Miranda and Ferdinand, or on Perdita and Florizel. We sympathize with Ferdinand and Miranda, but it is not their passion that we fell, rather it is the benevolence and wisdom of Prospero rejoicing in their passion.

(6) There is always a center of interest in the plays of Shakespeare. Some of the characters are kept in the full light of this area of perfect vision. Others moving in the outer field of vision have no value save in relations to this center. His habit of over-crowding his canvas is sometimes detrimental to the main impression. Edmund’s love-intrigues, for instance, in King Lear – who does not find them a tedious piece of machinery? They belong to the story, but do not help the play. For the most part, and in the most carefully ordered of the plays, the subsidiary characters and incidents (events) are used to enhance the main impression. They have no full and independent existence; they are seen only in a limited aspect, and have just enough vitality to enable them to play their allotted part in the action.

(7) (a) Shakespeare in his plays shows a perfect sense of the stage. Rarely, if ever, in his maturer plays does he leave an actor purposely with nothing to say or do. Frequently, however, he left an actor stand throughout a scene without speaking, for a definite purpose; to show a certain mood working within him.  That mood is generally reflection or watchfulness. When Hamlet stands silent at the ghost’s speech and then bursts into a rodomontade of furious bombast, we feel that Shakespeare wished to show the hero plunged in reflection and suddenly awakened out of that reflection as out of a trance. So, too, when Hamlet listens to Horatio’s account of the ghost’s appearance, and replies with inconsequential nothings, he is intended by Shakespeare to be in a profound or bewildered meditation. In the same way, Horatio’s silence, while hamlet speaks to Osiric or while the prince raves over Ophelia’s grave, betrays his watchfulness as does the silence of Banquo when Duncan is discovered lying in his grave. Indeed, it may almost be accepted as an axiom that when some main character breaks from loquacity to a silence broken only by monosyllables, or by piercing or inconsequent questions, that that character is intended to be either in a state of reflection, meditation or of extreme watchfulness.

(b) Besides this there is the silence of a character off the stage, not revealed on Shakespeare’s part by any direct allusion or reference. Horatio disappears from the scene of Hamlet  for over two acts, but when he re-appears it is in the guise of a trusted confidant, and moreover, as a slightly skeptical deterrent upon Hamlet. This is one type of silence. Another type of silence is the silence of the hero. Quite frequently, so frequently as to become a ‘law’ with Shakespeare, when one of then heroes is cut out of the drama for any length of time, it is to reveal a change I n his character. Thus Hamlet, after departing for England and leaving the stage free for Laertes, Ophelia, Claudius and Gertrude reappears in an entirely altered spirit. His continual harping “It is no matter” reveals a changed mood in him which coincides with, and is partly caused by, Ophelia’s death. Macbeth, too, vanishes for a time, and he is altered. His consciousness of wasted effort, his wistful looking back on things that were or might have been, display the tremendous torment through which his soul has passed. Lear in the same way disappears after death scenes, and his re-entry coincides with his awakening to sanity; another absence from the stage is followed by his altered spirit at the close of Act V. hamlet’s soliloquies on board the ship are not spoken for us with audible voice; Macbeth’s crimes are not shown to our sensual eyes; Lear’s soul-tormenting madness is not openly revealed. Our imagination, as with all works of art, must supply the many gaps between the known and the unknown.