« ZurückWeiter »
in Shakespeare's rôles, which no acting can wholly obscure. Here's a man that studies Benedick till he conjures a modern clubman out of an old cavalier. Here's a Katherine who is at heart a soft, gentle creature, and dead in love with Petruchio all the while.
I once saw Hamlet played in German, by a Pole, a Jewish youth five feet high, desperately excitable, and more determinedly out of his mind than is possible outside of Poland. And yet unexpected sparks shone in the performance, and new demons danced. Certainly these plays overstimulate humanity; and inasmuch as they have driven many learned men mad in all ages, we ought not to be surprised if they excite the actors. The “judicious” may “grieve,” as they sit in the best seats watching some termagant splitting the ears of the groundlings; but the judicious get an amusement of their own from the performance; for grieving is the chief joy of the judicious.
Ever since Charles Lamb's time there have been people who were so enraptured by reading Shakespeare to themselves and so pained when they saw him on the stage, that they thought the plays ought not to be acted at all. “I mean no disrespect to any actor,” says Lamb, “but the sort of pleasure which Shakespeare's plays give in the acting seems to me not at all to differ from that which the audience receives from those of other writers; and they being in themselves essentially so different from others, I must conclude that there is something in the nature of acting that levels all distinctions.'
Lamb develops the paradox with his usual sprightliness. This class of Shakespeare-lovers regard literary beauty as the main end of drama. They have known the text by heart since childhood; the romances already inhabit their imagination. When at a play they either shut their eyes, or open them upon what looks to them like a
new and ugly world.
It is true that there are meanings in Shakespeare that cannot be gleaned in the theatre; for the drop scenes, furniture, lights, and music interrupt his ceaseless, intimate, bubbling, flashing exuberance. Nevertheless, the man in the playhouse, who receives his impressions through his eyes and ears, is the best judge of the story as drama, because he sees it as drama. There are, in fact, two techniques in Shakespeare, the literary and the dramatic, - and the expert in one of these arts is apt to be inexpert in the other. Each of these interwoven arts is done with such mastery that the devotees of one hardly suspect the existence of the other. The dramatic interest is carried by the operation of sunken batteries and dynamos of dramatic appeal, whose power is lost upon those who, when they see a play, are really trying to re-read the play in a theatre.
Whether he was quite aware of it or not, Shakespeare wrote for a reading public as well as for the stage; and, indeed, in his day the passion for reading plays was as strong as the passion for seeing them acted. It must be confessed that some of his work is so subtle that it can be seen only in a half-light and does not carry on the modern stage. For instance, in “Antony and Cleopatra” a messenger enters. Cleopatra greets him with,
How much unlike thou art to Antony, Yet, coming from him, that great medicine hath With his tinct gilded thee. For the fraction of a second Cleopatra almost sees Antony, and Shakespeare records the impression. This sort of intimate thought-reading runs throughout the plays. The speeches are ripples on the surface. The characters are in mesmeric communication with one another; the creator has seen the drama, byplay and all, and much occurs in penumbra, which we grasp by instinct in the reading, but which fails to cross the footlights in the theatre. If a spectator, at the moment of Cleopatra's exclamation, happens to be wondering where the devil the stage decorator found his model for the glaring lotus capital, and whether Cleopatra really lived in the temple of Karnak, the point of her speech will be lost.
One of Shakespeare's greatest talents is his power of giving what passes in the minds of uneducated persons, of very old people, of drunken people. He catches the incalculable half-thoughts that glimmer in confused and ignorant minds. In his clowns and gravediggers, his Audreys, Dogberrys, and Pistols, he generally touches up the language into stage exaggeration : the misuse of words is dramatized. But there are places in which he leaves nature naked, as when the Hostess describes the death of Sir John Falstaff in “Henry IV, Part 2.” This page is one of the greatest that Shakespeare ever penned; but the scene is not effective on the stage. Nor is Justice Shallow, in the same play, effective on the stage, when he gives that exhibition of the faint garrulousness of extreme old age. He must be thought of as standing on the green before his country house in remote Gloucestershire. In his babble there sounds a note of the lyre that no hand but Shakespeare's, whether Christian or pagan, ever struck. Such scenes are unstageable, and, if you point them up in the production, they lose their charm.
Sometimes a reader like Lamb will get an incommunicable joy from a single word ejaculated by one of Shakespeare's clowns; as where Andrew Aguecheek cries out against Malvolio, “Fie upon him, Jezebel !” Now, Sir Andrew has at some time in his early education heard the Bible story about Jezebel, and remembers the name vaguely as that of an impious, intolerable character. In the excitement of his shrill and feeble mind, Jezebel comes to him as the strongest word he can think of. There are, moreover, scenes in Shakespeare, and sometimes long scenes, which are brilliant as literature but not as drama; as, for instance, the Tavern scene, during which Pistol is thrown downstairs, in “Henry IV, Part 2.” This belongs to the world of Fielding, Smollett, and Dickens, and as fiction it is greater than any of them; but it does not show in its best colors when staged. Let any reader turn to the “ Two Gentlemen of Verona” and read the speech of Launce to his dog, in Act IV, Scene 4. Shakespeare wishes to amuse the audience between two poetic scenes, and gives us a little gem, a masterpiece; but it is literature, not drama.
For a generation all the fine arts have been languishing, and among them the poetic drama. We used to take Shakespeare for granted, because there had always been players in the offing, actors and companies, who drifted in and could recite “Lear” or “Macbeth” as readily as the player recites the speech about rugged Pyrrhus before the young Hamlet. So living was the tradition of Shakespeare, that we never stopped to think that the mere delivery of his lines was an art whose origin was to be traced to the age when the plays were written, and to a time when all the fine arts were taught in workshops and learned by apprentices under a master's eye. So unbroken has been the succession of great actors and of their companies, that we never pause to remember that we possess in them a living example of the mediæval system, that system which certain modern enthusiasts have sought in vain to revive in connection with painting and the handicrafts. The actor has always begun work as a member of a household academy which he entered as a youth, like the apprentices of old. When, in mature life, the actor detached himself from his troupe to found a company of his own, he merely floated off from the organism of a living tradition, and continued to perfect it under forms which had become second nature to him.
The craft and guild of acting have been preserved, as it were, by Shakespeare's stage family. The tones of the first actor who ever played the Ghost in “Hamlet” still sound upon our stage, and the actor is supposed to have been Shakespeare himself. Every actor of prominence, since the times of Elizabeth, has received his schooling in the whole cycle of the Shakespearean plays through this domestic system, and by being steeped in their atmosphere in early life.
It may be doubted whether, in teaching the fine