Why Shakespeare? Part 2 – The Theatre

In Part 1 of this series I wrote that my answer to ‘Why Shakespeare?’ is about the impact of Shakespeare’s experience as a working actor shines through in his writing. For Part 2 I want to look at the way that Shakespeare harnessed the theatre itself.

Look at the theatres of his day. Here’s a photo of the reconstructed Globe theatre on the South Bank of the Thames.

It is very close to the final site of the first Globe Theatre. Not the original site. That was elsewhere. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men rented land across the river and when their lease ran out in 1599, they snuck onto the site at night, took the theatre apart, shipped it across to the South Bank and reassembled it and gave it a new name. 

But that’s another story… Anyway, back to the theatres. You can see that the stage is set up from ground level, where the groundlings would pay a penny to stand and watch the show, with a beautifully painted heavens above it, and beautifully decorated columns holding the heavens up. Nicely painted, yes. But pretty static. There are no elaborate sets to be had, and costumes would also have been pretty basic. There’s no lighting – you’re performing in the middle of the day. Shakespeare needed the dramatic power of the poetry, because words were his CGI.

Hamlet opens at night upon the battlements of Elsinore Castle. Shakespeare could have used a prologue to tell the audience this (he does sometimes use a prologue to set scene, but emotionally or epically rather than literally). Instead he has one guard, Francisco, on his post. Bernardo then enters to relieve him. It’s dark enough that he can’t quite see, and Bernardo is freaking out. We know all of this because before he even gets to Francisco, he says:

B: Who’s there?

Francisco: Nay, answer me: Stand and unfold yourself.

Bernardo: Long Live the King!

Francisco: Bernardo?

Bernardo: He.

Short, sharp exchanges that tell you all you need to know. 

He can use verse for special effects too. In Act 5 of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth can no longer cope with the guilt of Duncan’s murder. Look at how Shakespeare sets the scene for her display of guilt and madness. She sees spots of blood that are not there, but she sees them, and we see her seeing them. Judi Dench does this so beautifully.

He crafts the speeches that his characters speak, using all the tricks of verse and rhetoric that he needs to deliver emotional impact. Here’s another video, this time of a speech from Julius Caesar. Brutus and other senators have killed Caesar, and Brutus has just explained to the people of Rome why this had to be done. Brutus speaks well, sounds reasonable, and the crowd are persuaded. Yes, Caesar had to die. Brutus then asks them to hear Mark Antony, Caesar’s friend, who has asked to say a few words. Here’s what he says:

Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth
Damian Lewis as Antony

How do you feel about Brutus and his honour hearing that? You don’t need to analyse it for it to work on you. How do you think the crowd is responding now? Shakespeare didn’t have the luxury of casting lots of extras to react in crowd scenes. Companies were small, so the words needed to impact the audience to make the drama work.

Shakespeare wrote primarily for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Their leading man was Richard Burbage, a kind of Liam Hemsworth to Alleyn’s Chris. Not as big a star, but he got some cracking roles from Shakespeare, his resident playwright. All the leading man roles went to him. Kings and heroes. There were a succession of clowns in the company too. First Will Kemp, and then Robert Armin. All those comic roles, from Falstaff, to Bottom, to the drunken gatekeeper in Macbeth to the cheeky gravedigger in Hamlet, were written for one of them. 

Lots of roles were doubled, and that added depth to the characters. What does it say about Hamlet’s state of mind when his Ghostly Father and his Uncle Claudius (one of whom he compares to the god Hyperion, and the other to a goat-legged satyr) are played by the same actor? Might that actor have been Shakespeare himself, facing off in two capacities against Burbage as Hamlet?

And of course, there were the boy apprentices. Having a couple who looked a little alike helped with the comedies that feature the joke of people looking like each other, like The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night. Having a couple of apprentices of differing heights gave Shakespeare a chance to fill A Midsummer Night’s Dream with wise cracks about Hermia’s and Helena’s relative sizes. It’s in the text, which is why it works when the actors are of differing heights and the physicality is played out to emphasis this.

Globe Production 2013

That’s a huge part of engaging with Shakespeare for me. As an actor, or as a reader trying to conjure a production in a theatre of the mind, you have to trust the text. Shakespeare puts in everything you need to make a scene work.

Do you have a favourite example of this? When have you been struck by the text doing to work for the actor or director?

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