Thou met’st with things dying, I with things newborn.
Old Shepherd, The Winter’s Tale (III.3)
Of the four genres that Shakespeare’s plays can be broken into, it is the final group that is perhaps the most maligned and misunderstood. Yet it is this very same group that perhaps holds the keys to unlocking the humanism at the heart of Shakespeare’s oeuvre. These four plays, the ‘Romances’ – comprising Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest – are generally believed to have been written between 1608 and 1612. When viewed together, they form a valediction to one of the most consistently human and moving bodies of work in the modern-English literature canon, and are characterised by their almost fairytale-like plots and structures, and almost-absurdly contrived turns of events that carry them from one incredible scene to the next. Read as a progressive series of Chinese boxes, this quartet (or quintet, as I shall suggest) forms a coda to the plays, poems and sonnets that have come before them. There is a restoration of balance at their heart, a distinct sense of regaining an inherent aesthetic equilibrium, one that sets out to right wrongs; like Prospero at the conclusion of The Tempest, they seem to be asking readers and audiences alike, “As you from crimes would pardon’d be, Let your indulgence set me free.”
This is an edited version of an essay originally
written for ‘ENGL394 – Popular Theatre: Polemic, Mirror, Satire’ at MacquarieUniversity in April 2011.
T’will vex thy soul to hear what I shall speak;
For I must talk of murders, rapes and massacres,
Acts of black night, abominable deeds…
Andronicus has been maligned
and derided for its excessive depiction of, and reliance upon, violence and
brutality since its writing and performance in 1594. Despite Shakespeare’s age
at the time of writing Titus Andronicus,[i]
the play displays a markedly youthful brashness and sensationalistic attitude
which highlights his knowledge of classical authors and sources, as well as a
desire to create a work which appealed to a wide audience[ii].
Throughout the play Shakespeare harnesses the conventions of a revenge tragedy
to his now-trademark sophistication of language, humour and rhythm, and
challenges the established perception and tolerance of violence and abuse, as
well as its implications and consequences. In doing so, Shakespeare shows how Titus Andronicus is “as much about how
the audience experiences violence as entertainment as it is about the tragedy
of the endless cycle of violence itself,”[iii]
and thus demonstrates how popular theatre avoids adhering to the status quo of
the period and, in this case, for all time.
But the proper,
longer – real – answer goes a little something like this.
and fifty years ago, a boy was born in Stratford Upon Avon, the son of a glove
maker and wool merchant. He studied a little Latin (and less Greek) at the
local grammar school, and discovered the power of storytelling, the joy in making
things up and sharing them. After marrying and becoming a father to a daughter,
Susannah, he disappears from history for about a decade – what he was doing or
where he went no one really knows. Theories abound, but they’re just stories
when it boils down to it, his very stock in trade. We can only guess, but we
know what happened next.
He wrote plays,
sonnets, poems. He loved and learnt, listened; lived. Within the wooden O of
the great Globe itself, he created kingdoms for a stage, had outcasts to act and monarchs to behold his swelling
scenes. He captured the soul of the age in such a way no one before
or since has ever come close.
He wrote before
dictionaries in their strictest sense were a dream, though books of words were
being compiled in their own respective manners. He created words as he needed
them, and we still use them. Spellings were erratic at the best of times,
because there was no accepted way of spelling any one single word. Spellings were
influenced by accent, dialect, speaker and the ear of the person writing it
down, hence the reason his name is spelt diversely in various records.
contender for the authorship theory falls flat on their face when you realise
that Shakespeare wrote for a group of actors – the Chamberlain’s (and then
King’s) Men – and every role was specifically tailored to an individual’s
talents. There are no small roles, the old adage goes, only small actors, and
for Shakespeare’s troupe, there was no such thing as a small actor. Forget
unimaginative theories like the necessity for him to have been learned at
university, a soldier, a merchant, a Moor, a braggart, a thief, a king; forget the
need to have travelled to the continent and further abroad: he had every bit of
knowledge he could ever want at his finger tips, the most powerful repository
for every scrap of recollection he could ever collect. He had two ears and an
incredible memory, and learnt at a young age to listen, to savour details, to
remember and save and scrounge scraps wherever you could find them. He
listened, and in doing so, created worlds from words.
He was a
genius, but only insofar that geniuses are merely a focussing lens for a
collective group of dreamers, thinkers and practitioners. Each role was
tailored to a specific actor because they created their role from the ground
up, everyone making scenes from scratch, while Shakespeare beautified them,
clarified their dramatic arc and rhythm.
He wrote for a
blank stage, devoid of any decisive elements of set, yet his worlds are as rich
as Breughel’s or Hogarth’s. He used words words words to create his pictures,
and if you can’t imagine them, then perhaps it’s not his fault.
He wrote before
dramaturgy was a thing, before there was any modern – let alone post-modern –
way of seeing theatre. We may see holes in his characterisations, his plots
perhaps seem implausible, and his endings often leave us feeling confounded,
but that is because we are looking at his plays four hundred and fifty years
later. After four hundred and fifty years of dramaturgical thinking, as ways of
thinking about dramatic forms and principles have changed and evolved.
He did not
write roles for exclusively male actors. Some of his greatest roles are his
Cleopatra and his Lady Macbeth, who both make their male foils look rather weak
in comparison. His Rosalind is a joy, while his Juliet is naïvely worldly. He
was writing in a time when women were not allowed on stage. It wasn’t so much
that there was a law explicitly forbidding it (that had, in time, been lifted);
it was just the convention. Boy-apprentices played female roles, while the
share-holding members of the troupe played the other meatier roles.
and fifty years ago, there was no such thing as racially prejudiced casting, or
gender-biased casting. There were simply a group of actors in a troupe – typically
white men – and roles were created for them. There is nothing in the world stopping
gender- and racially-blind casting from being implemented across the globe
today in every production. Nothing, except perceived ‘convention’, absurdly-ingrained
tradition, and small-minded didacticism.
wrote humans, not characters. He understood human psychology better than perhaps
any dramatist or writer before or since. He understood jealousy, love, madness,
sickness, health, youth, old age, beauty, truth, deceit; humans. Us.
bulletproof, foolproof, idiot-proof; indestructible. You can cut up his works,
rearrange them, bowdlerise them to buggery and back; you can adapt them,
conflate them, transpose them, savagely edit them down, but they still bounce
back. In the eighteenth century, English theatre adapted (or Bowdlerised) every
Shakespeare play they could lay their hands on to fit their accepted
conventions of dramatic form: tragedies were rewritten to have happier endings,
comedies were conflated and edited, histories were sidelined, and the great
tragic roles were reprised time and time again by the same actors, well into
their old age. What we are doing to Shakespeare now is nothing new. We can edit
and adapt his plays until our heart is content, but we have to remember it is
not new. Shakespeare did it himself.
is not a brand name; his is not an icon synonymous with, nor a byword for,
quality. Each play needs to be renegotiated and tackled head-on with every new
production, with every passing day. ‘Shakespeare,’ as a catch-all term for his
collected works, cannot be left on a shelf or revered on a pedestal otherwise
he and it will become stale, a museum piece; his importance will not be
Like the other
great masters of Western culture, be it in art, literature, science, music,
history, there is a reason why they are the masters. No one before or since has
done what Shakespeare did in such a short space of time. No one. In just
twenty-odd years, Shakespeare wrote thirty-seven plays, one hundred and
fifty-four sonnets, and several poems (and that’s just what we are certain of).
Like it or not,
Shakespeare is responsible for much of the dramatic ancestry which informs our
contemporary theatre practices today. He changed the way we think about
characters, about plots, about stories; about cause and effect, about
motivations, scenes, dramatic arcs, beats and moments. He gave actors advice
and mercilessly parodied his own contemporaries, and he never shirked away from
challenging the status quo, though he was always careful to do it at one or two
removes, often in a place calling itself Rome.
Shakespeare, you’ll ask me. Because he was human, I’ll answer. Because he
understood what it is to be human, what it is to be mankind in all of our
crazy, passionate, fluctuating, contradictory and compulsive moods. He
understood what motivates us, what rash deeds we may do when we let our
instinct overtake our senses. He understands us, because he was one of us. He
lived four hundred-odd years ago, yet he understands us better than we sometimes