Shakespeare’s Plays Were Intended for the Mind, not for the Ears: That Is Why they Don’t Work on the Stage

About the Author
Stephanie Allen read Classics and English at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and is currently researching a PhD in Early Modern Academic Drama at the University of Fribourg.

William Shakespeare

Charles Lamb, man of business, writer and notorious grouch, had presumably watched a lot of terrible Shakespeare by 1811.
In an essay published in The Reflector magazine in November of that year, ‘On the Tragedies of Shakespeare’, he grumbles that numerous awful performances have left him ‘utterly unable’ to appreciate some of Shakespeare’s best-loved writing. A sort of butchery has been performed on Hamlet’s famous meditation on human suffering and suicide in his ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy, for instance. For some the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s literary achievement, it has been ‘so handled and pawed about by declamatory boys and men, and torn so inhumanly from its living place in the play’ that Lamb is now dumb to its intense power, and compares it to a withered limb: ‘it is become to me a perfect dead member’.

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Now, Lamb had an infamously troubled relationship with the stage: at the disastrous opening night of his own farce, Mr. H, on 10 December 1806, one spectator recorded how he, the writer, joined in with the audience’s hissing at the actors [1]. However, his essay on Shakespeare’s tragedies has been incredibly important in shaping how we think about Britain’s most famous poet: it stands at the beginning of a long and interesting line of readings of Shakespeare that seek to show that in performing his drama, we inevitably ruin it. “It may seem like a paradox,” Lamb concludes, “but I cannot help being of the opinion that the plays of Shakespeare are less calculated for performance on stage than those of almost any other dramatist whatever”.

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Image shows Romeo and Juliet kissing, from the Baz Luhrmann film.
Baz Luhrmann’s film Romeo + Juliet retains Shakespeare’s dialogue but otherwise modernises the story considerably. Film still from Romeo + Juliet (B. Luhrmann, 1996).

For Lamb, and for many of the scholars who have written in this tradition, what differentiates Shakespeare from other early modern playwrights is twofold: for one thing, he is simply too good; and for another, his plays contain an (always very hazily defined) ethereal, almost supernatural wisdom that escapes the powers of a mere actor to convey. Lamb argues that ‘the free conceptions of the mind’, the flights of fancy and understanding upon which Shakespeare’s readers are launched, are cruelly curtailed, ‘crampt and pressed down to the measure of a strait-lacing actuality’ by performance. Imagination is fettered by reality. Even an excellent version destroys some of the written text’s magic, because ‘we have only materialized and brought down a fine vision to the standard of flesh and blood’. Here, I’d like to explore the implications of this conception of the Shakespearean oeuvre: is it simply Romantic sentimentalism, attractive and mysterious, but hollow at its centre; or, can Lamb and others help us to identify something brilliant and unique about Shakespeare’s plays, and to understand why we still return to study them again and again?
In our modern world, where Hollywood blockbusters like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet can blast energy into a worn-out narrative, special performances at the Globe Theatre seek to reconstruct as much of the early modern context as possible, and we interview actors for insights into their characters, the idea that performance could be inimical to poetry, or reading preferable to recitation, might seem completely bizarre. But in fact, when we look at the surviving practical evidence of the plays from the period when they were written, there is a very real tension between poetry and performance. Take Hamlet, for example. There were two editions of this play published within a few years of its composition — one, from 1604, looks a lot like the play we read today, but would take more than five hours to act in its entirety. The other, the so-called ‘bad quarto’ of the play, is from 1603, and is generally thought to be reconstructed by actors from a performance — but infamously compromises a huge amount on literary quality. Hamlet’s most famous speech, for example, is completely botched: read the first few lines of the version we know so well:
To be or not to be: that is the question.
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer,
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?
(Hamlet 3.I.55-59)
…against those of the ‘bad quarto’, which look almost comical in comparison:
To be, or not to be, I there’s the point,
To Die, to sleepe, is that all? I all;
No, to sleepe, to dreame, I mary there it goes (…)
(Hamlet Q1 3.1.34-7)

Image shows Troilus and Cressida in Pandarus's orchard, from a black and white illustration by Valentine Walter Bromley.
Troilus and Cressida in Pandarus’s orchard, as depicted by Valentine Walter Bromley.

What’s more, in Shakespeare’s time, a dramatic text could claim status as literary, or intellectual, by distancing itself from the public theatre, which London’s poorest people could visit for the price of a penny, and be entertained by bawdy dumb-shows or outrageous farces. An early publication of one of Shakespeare’s lesser-loved plays, Troilus and Cressida, claims in its introduction to be ‘never stal’d with the stage, never clap-claw’d with the palms of the vulgar’: by eschewing dramatic realisation, it attempts to appeal to a more educated audience.

However, even if we agree that some ‘literary’ qualities of a Shakespearean text might be lost in performance, does that mean we necessarily buy the Romantic idea that Lamb seems to put forward, of Shakespeare as some sort of shaman-magician-poet, writing plays full of near-transcendental wisdom, and inherently different from other dramatic writers of his time? Well, the really interesting thing about the readings of Lamb and others is that they do pick up on something that’s in the texts themselves, and in fact is part of what has come to define Shakespeare in our conception as a unique genius, whose work is still relevant to individuals across all layers of society (and in fact to society as a whole) hundreds of years after it was written. What Lamb and others perceived in Shakespeare’s tragic characters, and what we still believe sets them apart from the heroes of other contemporary tragedies — like Marlowe’s Tamburlaine or Faustus, Kyd’s Hieronimo, or Jonson’s Caesar or Catiline, to name a few — is that they are distinctly inward, fiercely asserting that there is more to their nature than meets an audience’s eye. This, for Lamb, was a problem: the actors he watched on London’s stages at the turn of the nineteenth century couldn’t adequately represent the complex interior worlds of the characters they tried to bring to life. On Hamlet’s introspective meditations, Lamb writes:
“These profound sorrows, these light-and-noise-abhorring ruminations, which the tongue scarce dares utter to deaf walls and chambers, how can they be represented by a gesticulating actor, who comes and mouths them out before an audience?”
Similarly, he finds the actor Charles Macready unsuited to evoke the troubled, shadowy landscape of Macbeth’s mind because ‘sensibility, not imagination is his forte’.
A closer look at Hamlet, tragic hero of a play about grief, self-doubt, and the struggle for human self-assertion, suggests that the Romantic critics were on to something. Hamlet insists that he lives an interior life to which his fellow courtiers at the Palace in Elsinore (and we the audience) are not privy. Chided by his mother for mourning too long over the old King’s death, Hamlet proclaims his own very real grief, and criticises the affectation and pretence he perceives in those that surround him:
If it be,
Why seems it so particular with thee?
“Seems,” madam? Nay, it is. I know not “seems.”
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly. These indeed “seem,”
For they are actions that a man might play.
But I have that within which passeth show,
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.
(Hamlet 2.II.76-86)

Image shows the gravedigger scene in Hamlet, from a 1839 painting by Eugene Delacroix.
The gravedigger scene, as depicted by Eugene Delacroix.

Recognisable signs of mourning, Hamlet here argues, like sighing, weeping, and wearing black, can be feigned; but real despair, something that ‘passeth show,’ cannot be expressed by mere actions or signs. The language of the theatre is present throughout this speech, pointing the contrast between that which is real and that which can be acted; and in fact, when Hamlet defines ‘seeming’ or pretending as ‘actions that a man might play’, the implicit comparison that pervades the passage, of courtiers and nobles pretending grief to actors on a stage, is brought vividly alive.
Elsewhere, Hamlet hints that he is troubled by nightmares: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams” (Hamlet 2.2.67-68). These dreams aren’t performed, and we never find out what they involve — again, Hamlet gestures towards an interior world that can’t quite be realised on stage. Through his tortured prince, Shakespeare does seem to be questioning drama’s capacity to explore and accurately convey the human mind. And this preoccupation does not begin and end with Hamlet — in the space of the next few years we get Troilus and Cressida, a difficult play in part about the yawning, painful distance between human expectation and disappointing realisation; Othello, whose hero goes slowly mad with jealousy; and King Lear and Macbeth (both in 1605) both about lust, the destructive power of ambition, the frailty of relationships and mankind’s complete incapacity to know who we are. I could go on.
The really remarkable thing about Shakespeare, and a large part of the reason that year-on-year we force thousands of fifteen-year-old schoolchildren to trudge through Macbeth, or Lear, or The Tempest, is that this interest in the human interior was completely unique in its time. Nowadays, we expect and in fact demand psychological complexity from our drama and literature. A glance at the names of our most famous and cherished modern writers — people like J.M. Coetzee, Martin Amis, Hilary Mantel, Haruki Murakami — confirms the modern importance of the self as a subject for writing. But when Shakespeare moved to London in the late 1580s, drama was not really interested in our interior worlds. London’s public theatre (the first to exist in England since the Roman amphitheatres) had only been open for just over a decade — the first one was opened by James Burbage in 1576. On the stage for that decade had been a host of terrible farces and worse tragedies — something that was only just beginning to change, notably with Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy. And before that, ‘drama’ had been travelling groups of actors performing didactic pieces known as Morality Plays — Christian allegories about moral dilemmas, in which the main protagonist meets a series of stock figures who try to tempt them to good or evil actions. The characters in a Morality Play are designed to represent different personality traits, or dimensions of the human psyche — they’re given names like Vice, Pity, Perseverance, Imagination, Contemplation and Freewill — and, rather than being complex, are embodiments of their one trait. The Morality Play, one of the two models of drama available to Shakespeare to plunder, was not interested in the complexities of the human mind.

Image shows Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, from a 1889 painting by John Singer Sargent.
Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, painted by John Singer Sargent.

The other, perhaps more powerful force shaping drama in the 1590s was the race to adopt the tragedy of Silver-Age Rome to be suitable for the English stage. Shakespeare was born slap-bang in the middle of the English Renaissance — the rediscovery of the ancient world, with all its literary, philosophical and rhetorical texts, and the invigoration of English literature by incorporating those influences. But since most Elizabethans weren’t really able to read Ancient Greek, the classical tragedies that we now consider best, and the ones that do seem interested in human psychology (Oedipus, Antigone, or Medea, to name a few) weren’t that important for Shakespeare and his counterparts. Instead, early modern English dramatists fixed their imitative energies on the Roman courtier, Stoic and prolific writer, Seneca the Younger. Seneca’s revenge tragedies are in large part about the destructive effect of tyrannical leaders upon society, and like the Morality Play, makes use of stock figures — like the tyrant, for example, or the cautious advisor — to explore this topic.
So, the argument goes that around the same time as people like Marlowe, Nashe, Kyd, Webster and Jonson were busy imitating Senecan rhetorical display and revenge-plots, and the morality play’s didacticism, Shakespeare eschewed the interests of the tragic models available to him and ushered in an age of psychological complexity, interest in thoughts and feelings rather than words and actions. Just 6 years before Hamlet opened in the Globe Theatre, Philip Sidney, the most famous Elizabethan literary critic, had argued that it was the duty of a writer to present one-dimensional, exemplary characters, so that their audience might be educated by them: “If the poet do his part aright, he will show you in Tantalus, Atreus and such like, nothing that is not to be shunned; in Cyrus, Aeneas, Ulysses, each thing to be followed” [2].

Image shows Ira Aldridge as Othello, painted by William Mulready. Othello appears in battle armour.
The renowned 19th century actor Ira Aldridge as Othello, painted by William Mulready.

But what prompted Shakespeare to diverge so radically from the norm? The most probable reason for what we now consider one of the hallmarks of his particular greatness is almost disappointingly prosaic. A unique aspect of Shakespeare’s career, compared to the other dramatists fighting for recognition on early modern London’s stages, was that he wrote exclusively for one company — initially the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, but renamed the King’s Men from 1603, upon James I’s decision to bring the troupe to court. In a book called Shakespeare’s Acting Companies, the scholar and theatre historian Bart Van Es has written about some of the practical and economic factors influencing Shakespeare’s dramatic decisions [3]. One of the most interesting facts of Shakespeare’s career that Van Es discusses is his role as a shareholder in the company; in 1599, along with five other members of the acting troupe, he paid ten per cent of the cost of building the Globe Theatre. But one shareholder owned a much larger percent than the others: the leading actor, Richard Burbage, bought half of the company — as much as an investment in his own career as a business decision. From that point on, Van Es notes, the percentage of a play’s lines that Shakespeare’s main protagonists (whom Burbage would, most likely, have played) are assigned, increases wildly — before 1599, ‘in no play did the lead role take more than a quarter of the line total, and on average the largest part had less than a fifth of the overall lines’ [4]; but all of a sudden, in 1601, Hamlet has around 40% of the play’s total. And this trend persists, through Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, Henry V and Antony and Cleopatra.
In this light, then, Shakespeare’s inward turn looks to be prompted by a need to write increasingly demanding and complex parts for an actor who could carry them off — paradoxically, considering the point at which I started, some of his most interesting and distinctive dramatic decisions were in fact, most likely, motivated by practical concerns. Clearly, there’s a huge amount more to be said, and to reduce the work of an infinitely complex and intriguing dramatist to these dimensions will always be at least a little reductive — but what I hope I’ve done here is offer one (necessarily very limited) way of thinking about what makes Shakespeare uniquely great, and assures his position in our modern conception.


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[2] Philip Sidney, ‘The Defence of Poetry’, in Katherine Duncan-Jones ed. Sir Philip Sidney: The Major Works p.243 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989)

[3] Bart van Es, Shakespeare in Company (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)

[4] Ibid. p. 213
Image credits: banner; Romeo + Juliet; Troilus and Cressida; Hamlet; Lady Macbeth; Othello.