Why Shakespeare? Part 3 – What he leaves out

See Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.

We’re very fortunate to have the plays in complete form at all. They certainly didn’t exist like that in his day. Shakespeare’s plays existed like the parts for a concert band. Every actor had their own part (or parts) with their cues, so they knew when to come in. They could learn their lines by themselves beforehand, but not a whole scene. It meant they had to listen hard to the other actors on stage and their acting would be reacting. 

Shakespeare liked to be metatheatrical. He would often invoke images of the world as a stage, the life of his characters as a tale told by an idiot, and he would slip in references to cues too. In Much Ado About Nothing, when Claudio is dumbfounded by the seeming return of Hero from the grave, Beatrice prompts him:

“Speak, count. ‘Tis your cue”

This is how Shakespeare’s plays remained, for the most part, until long after his death. Plays were written to be performed, not to be read, analysed and picked apart. 

Shakespeare himself didn’t publish his plays, but years after his death his friends (Heminges and Condell, who were also members of his company, which had become the King’s Men on James I’s accession to the throne) published them in his memory. By that time, there were enough counterfeit and incomplete pirated copies doing the rounds and Heminges and Condell thought it was better to preserve the plays as a whole rather than allow them to exist as poor imitations. Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, wrote an introductory poem to the collection, which pokes gentle fun at Shakespeare’s imperfect (by Jonson’s standards) classical education, contrasts him with other playwrights of the day and poets of the past, and concedes in a brief line: 

“He was not of an age, but for all time!”

First Folio Image from the Folger Library https://www.folger.edu/publishing-shakespeare

That’s ‘Why Shakespeare’ for me. Or at least in part, all the stuff he put into his plays to make them sing, to make them thrill an audience, to use only language as rough magic to create worlds and destroy tragic heroes. 

And the final part of ‘Why Shakespeare’ for me? It’s what he leaves out. 

He leaves out simple reasons and explanations for why characters do things. While Jonson and others gave characters names like “Abel Drugger”, “Lovewit”, “Spurio” (Spurious) and “Vindice” (vengeance), Shakespeare gave his characters actual names. 

Shakespeare also dispenses with simple motivation. He gives Iago ample opportunity to tell the audience why he is doing what he is doing, and Iago offers a number of reasons, but we can’t just say, this is why. It’s complicated. Because people are complicated. And Shakespeare gets that.

Othello from National Theatre at Home with Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear – Still my favourite production.

Shakespeare leaves us space. He can give you clinical description of a person or situation when he wants to, but often doesn’t. He is ambiguous. Let’s go back to Hamlet for a moment. We see the ghost. His torments are described viscerally. But where does he come from? Does he enter from under the Globe stage, up through the trapdoor from hell? Does he descend from the heavens? Does he just enter from the tiring house, coming from purgatory? What he says about his torments suggests purgatory, but that was a very Catholic concept to put on stage in Protestant England in a play about Denmark (also Protestant) blowing the mind of a Prince being educated at the home of the Reformation in Wittenburg, Germany. Is there a struggle going on in Hamlet between Catholic and Protestant world views and is that why he finds it so hard to act? How old is he anyway? Is he a teenager or around 30? 

Don’t know. Not clear. Work it out. 

And we do, over and over, in our own culture and context around the world, in all languages, we grapple with Shakespeare’s ambiguities. He gives us complex human beings, with space for each actor to do something new and personal in each role. 

And that’s ‘Why Shakespeare?’. Because the questions are never wholly answered unless we answer them, and the answers change and evolve each time we engage. 

This is the last in the series for ‘Why Shakespeare?’ So, why Shakespeare for you? Why do you think it’s worth revitalising his work in Australia. Why is it important to you to ‘Let Him Roar Again’?

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