William Shakespeare As Dramatist (Criticism and Theatrical History)


Information on William Shakespeare as dramatist. William Shakespeare criticism, theatrical history and dramas.

It is fortunate that the greatest of English poets flourished at a time when it was possible to write poetic drama for the popular theater. And Shakespeare above all was a man of the theater. He solved the problems confronting him as a playwright as brilliantly as he wrote poetry.

The Elizabethan Stage.

The stage of Shakespeare’s time was more plastic than ours. Spectators surrounded it on three sides, and there was no scenery in the modern sense. At the Globe, an outdoor theater, the stage was quite simple. It was a platform in front of a wall, with a door on either side leading to the tiring-room. Curtains were used to cover the doors or to enclose a space on the stage. A balcony above provided another level for acting. Posts held up a roof that partly covered the stage, and these could represent trees. There was a trapdoor for acting below the level of the stage, as in the graveyard scene in Hamlet. Properties were carried on and off stage in full view of the audience (bodies had to be carried off also).

William Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s audiences were not given printed programs listing the time and place of each scene. The notation of time and place in modern editions is the anachronistic contribution of modern editors. If the location is important, it is mentioned in the lines, as in the first forest scene in As You Like It. But many scenes are unlocalized and may be imagined as taking place anywhere. Because of this and because there was no scene shifting, the pace of the play could be very rapid. This generalization of location created difficulty for the dramatist in the indication of dramatic time. But Shakespeare made of difficulty an opportunity, so that in Othello, for example, he is able to have two time schemes, contradictory but not noticeably so to the spectator, each of which has its subtle effect on the feeling and tension of the drama.


The closeness of the audience to the actors made the soliloquy and the aside much less artificial than they seem on the less intimate modern stage. These conventional devices were also means of achieving swiftness and directness, since conveying the same information by dialogue, however “natural” it might seem, would take much longer. But Shakespeare was not content with the soliloquy merely as an economical device: witness Hamlet.

The makeup of an Elizabethan repertory company was another source of limitations and opportunities for the playwright. Actors naturally specialized somewhat in such a company, and their individual peculiarities had to be allowed for. Happily, in Richard Burbage, the Chamberlain-King’s Men had an actor of great versatility and talent for the leading roles, and in Will Kemp and Robert Armin, Shakespeare seems to have had two extraordinarily good clowns. The most peculiar aspect of the company to modern eyes was the necessity of using boys to play female parts. How could a heroine of any greatness be portrayed adequately by a boy? Shakespeare seized enthusiastically upon the romance device of a girl disguising herself as a boy, and in the comedies where the heroine is most important, Rosalind and Viola project their charm in disguise. Furthermore, his heroines derive their attractiveness not from physical charm but from wit and modesty, gaiety and gurity. Even Cleopatra, the “serpent of old Nile,’ conquers Antony by keen insight and sensitive and brilliant dexterity of mind and temper rather than by elementary physical appeal.

There is little protest in Shakespeare at the limitations of his medium. In the Prologue to Act I of King Henry the Fifth, he refers to the theater as “this unworthy scaffold . . . this wooden O” and asks how it can represent the vast fields of France where Harfleur and Agincourt were won. And in Caesar’s triumph (Antony and Cleopatra, Act V, Scene 2), Cleopatra imagines seeing some boy player with a squeaking voice acting the part of Cleopatra, but this is rather a fear of parody than of representation. In As You Like It, Macbeth, and The Tempest, Shakespeare uses the old idea of the world itself as a bare stage, with the actions of men and women merely the plot of a play, and he apparently felt that it was as futile to complain of the limitations of the theater as it would be to complain of the* limitations of life itself.

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Mind and Opinions.

Shakespeare’s mind and opinions are not so inscrutable as some 19th century critics supposed them to be. Matthew Arnold was summing up a romantic point of view when he wrote of Shakespeare:

Others abide our question. Thou art free.
We ask and ask: Thou smilest and art still,
Out-topping knowledge.

Modern investigation and a somewhat more skeptical approach have yielded a credible picture of the man Shakespeare, however elusive the explanation of his genius remains. “He was not of an age, but for all time” wrote Jonson of him, and the statement is true in more than one sense. Shakespeare shows remarkably little interest in purely contemporary aspects of his age. It is surprising to find in all his works no reference to the watermen who plied their boats for hire across the Thames and were a common and colorful feature of London life, especially to one whose place of business was on the Surrey side. And it is even more curious that he never mentions tobacco.

The plays have been combed for references to contemporary events and persons, with meager results. There is a reference to Queen Elizabeth in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but Shakespeare does not comment on her death in 1603. There is a reference to Essex in one of the choruses of King Henry the Fifth, but it expresses a hope that was sadly disappointed. A passage in The Merry Wives glances at some farcical difficulties of a German traveler, Count Mompelgart, in securing horses when he was on a visit to England. Macbeth includes a prophesy intended to flatter King James. There may be other topical references not now recognizable, but even so, Shakespeare in comparison with his fellows is remarkably indifferent to the news of the day. Perhaps he shared the disdain of Rosencrantz, in Hamlet, who told how the boys’ companies acted topical plays to score a cheap success: “. . . there is, sir, an eyrie of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question and are most tyrannically [outrageously]clapp’d for ‘t.”

William Shakespeare

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The poet’s sensitiveness was touched, rather, by the Warwickshire countryside, the environment of his youth. Its native flowers and trees, the field sports, country people, and animals are always vividly evoked. His fairy lore is that of his native county, and he carries with him—to Belmont in Italy where Lorenzo and Jessica are wooing, to the woods near Athens where Theseus is celebrating his wedding, to the glassy stream in Denmark where Ophelia drowned—the five senses of an English country boy. Milton described him as “Fancy’s child,” warbling “his native wood-notes wild.”

Even Shakespeare’s political sympathies are conservative. He is most eloquent in praise of degree and rank (Troilus and Cressida, Act I, Scene 3); of the divinity of kingship (King Richard the Second); of feudal loyalty and devotion (King Henry the Fifth); and of “little England,” not the great empire envisioned by a Raleigh or a Drake (King Richard the Second, Act II, Scene 1). He shows constant fondness for the tillers of the soil and distaste for the workmen of the city, glorified by Thomas Dekker and Thomas Heywood.

Imagery and Rhetoric.

Investigation of Shakespeare’s imagery has shown some interesting associations in that part of his mind below the level of consciousness. A beginning of this study was made by Walter Whiter in the 18th century, but his work was forgotten. Whiter pointed out that Shakespeare associated with the idea of flattery such miscellaneous items as dogs, candy, melting, stones, poison, and ice. When one item of this cluster sprang to mind, others were likely to accompany it. Moreover, this cluster persisted in his memory over a number of years. Its presence can be traced in King Richard the Second, As You Like It, Timon of Athens, and Antony and Cleopatra.

Modern researchers have uncovered many more image clusters, some of which seem peculiar to Shakespeare. In many instances a play has its own dominant imagery, such as light and darkness in Romeo and Juliet, animals in Othello, disease in Hamlet, cooking and food in Troilus and Cressida, and commercial transactions in Cymbeline. Certain images that pervade many plays are sometimes thought to have symbolic significance—for example, music and tempest. An ornithologist, Edward A. Armstrong, has found elaborate bird images and unexpected linkings of images. Caroline Spurgeon tried to classify the images to form a picture of Shakespeare’s personality, and Wolfgang Clemen traced the development of imagery in the plays of different periods.

Shakespeare was trained in the discipline of rhetoric, and the verse of his early plays is especially rhetorical. The opening soliloquy of King Richard the Third and the laments of the nurse and the Capulets in Romeo and Juliet (Act IV, Scene 5) are examples. Shakespeare not only used elaborate, structured language but also made fun of it in Love’s Labour’s Lost. In his middle and later periods he abandonee}, the stiff rhetorical manner for more natural speech.

Like all Elizabethans, Shakespeare was fond of conceits, tricks with words and ideas, and puns. Samuel Johnson’s remark in this connection is famous: “A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost die world and was content to lose it.” But Keats saw that the working out of conceits produced in the poet a kind of intensity that cast up many fine things, as if said unintentionally. In Shakespeare’s mature style, what was once extraneous decoration-suited to the taste of the readers of Lyly—became metaphor of the richest sort. And metaphor is the essence of poetry. No description of Shakespeare’s achievement as a poet could better his own, when he added to his passage on the lover and the madman as imaginers (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, Scene 1) a portrait of the poet:

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

William Shakespeare - King Lear

William Shakespeare – King Lear (Source : pixabay.com)


Shakespeare did not succeed in founding a family. Neither was he the founder of a literary school of followers, as Spenser and Jonson were. There is ample evidence from the allusions to him even before 1600 that he was a popular writer, both as poet and as playwright. Jonson, the greatest critic of the age and a man opposed on principle to much in Shakespeare’s kind of art, did him full justice. The references to him between 1590 and 1700, collected in The Shak-spere Allusion-Book (rev. ed., 1932), fill two large volumes, and others have been found since.


In general, Shakespeare’s reputation has remained high. The Restoration period sometimes preferred Jonson for correctness and Beaumont and Fletcher for “the language of gentlemen.” But Shakespeare was popular on the stage, and Dryden praised him highly and discriminatingly. In the 18th century a kind of Shakespeare idolatry set in, which lasted well into the 19th. This served in part as an attack on the rigid canons of neoclassic taste and an aid to the growing Romantic movement, but it should be remembered that Samuel Johnson, certainly no romantic, defended Shakespeare for violating the unities, even if he did regret that poetic justice was not always employed in the conclusions of the plays. The reaction against the idolatry has not lessened his fame or station among the world’s great, and it has carried with it a tremendous amount of scholarly study, to which Americans and Germans have contributed as much as Englishmen—study that has thrown revealing light on the theater, the companies, the texts, and the man himself.

In the 19th century the most important critical evaluation of Shakespeare’s work was done by the great romantics. Coleridge delivered 12 lectures on the plays in 1811-1812, and in Biographia Literaria (1817) he discussed the specific manifestations of poetic power in a critical analysis of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Hazlitt’s Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays appeared in 1817. Charles Lamb, the best-read in Elizabethan literature of all the romantics, published in 1807 the first edition of Tales from Shakespear, Designed for the Use of Young Persons. Carlyle declared in his On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841) that Shakespeare was all art and no artifice, a claim that modern critics have refuted.

William Shakespeare

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Andrew C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy (1904) remains a classic, although Bradley’s tendency to treat the characters as if they were real people has been resisted by many critics, notably Elmer E. Stoll. Harley Granville-Rarker brought to Shakespeare criticism the knowledge and skill of a playwright, actor, and director. The scholarly studies of Sir Walter Greg, Sir Edmund K. Chambers, J. Dover Wilson, Frank P. Wilson, and Gerald E. Rentley, among others, have provided a sounder basis for critical appreciation. Since the mid-1900’s the finding of mythical and symbolic meanings in Shakespeare has become fashionable. Among the notable proponents of this kind of criticism are G. Wilson Knight and Northrop Frye.

Theatrical History.

The greatest actors of the English-speaking stage have uniformly attempted the major Shakespearean roles, and the plays have served for 300 years as the greatest test and greatest opportunity for actor, producer, and designer. After Rurbage the next actor of first rank was Thomas Betterton. His devotion to Shakespeare led him to make a pilgrimage to Stratford and collect data, which he gave to Nicholas Rowe, the first biographer. He was famous as Hotspur, Rrutus, Othello, Macbeth, and Lear, and he played Hamlet with great success until he was over 70. Many of the versions he used were “improved” for Restoration taste, but in his own acting versions he refused to paraphrase.

In the mid-18th century, David Garrick dominated the stage, and he served as actor, producer, and adapter of Shakespeare. He failed in the parts of Othello and Iago, but his Lear and Hamlet were famous, and his comic talent was shown in his Benedick (in Much Ado).

Garrick’s successor in the great tradition was John Philip Kemble, who was active from 1783 to 1817. He played most of the tragic heroes with success, but other members of his brilliant family equaled him. His sister Sarah, Mrs. Siddons, was the greatest of Lady Macbeths, and his niece Fanny Kemble won great fame for her Juliet. As a manager, Kemble revived some minor Shakespearean plays that had been long off the stage.

Edmund Kean exemplified romantic interpretation at its height. He appeared first at Drury Lane in January 1814, and for the younger generation he immediately supplanted Kemble. Praise of him by Leigh Hunt, Hazlitt, and Lamb has become literature. He was especially famous for his Shylock, Othello, and Richard III.

W. Charles Macready in the 1830’s tried to keep alive the old system of large patent theaters but failed. Two of his actors were great: Helen Faucit, the finest actress of the romantic heroines, and Samuel Phelps, who, after being held back by Macready, came into his own with the failure of the big theaters and the repeal of the Licensing Act in 1843. At Sadler’s Wells Theatre, Phelps presented Shakespeare for 20 years. He revived most of the plays, and he scorned “improved” texts.

As manager of the Princess’ Theatre from 1850 to 1859, Charles Kean, the son of Edmund Kean, started the elaborate, scholarly, and heavy productions that continued through the age of Henry Irving and Beerbohm Tree. This smothering of the play by the production was stopped in the 20th century by the influence of Gordon Craig and Harley Granville-Barker.

William Shakespeare - A Midsummer Night's Dream

William Shakespeare – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Source : pixabay.com)

Shakespearean roles have attracted all of the principal actors on the 20th century stage. Among the most eminent are Sir John Gielgud and Sir Lawrence Olivier, both of whom were stars at the famous Old Vic Theatre in London. Two major English companies have continued the great tradition of the Old Vic in presenting Shakespeare’s plays—the Royal Shakespeare Company, with its main theater at Stratford-upon-Avon, and the National Theatre Company, which took over the Old Vic in 1963.

Summer festivals in which a number of Shakespearean plays are produced have sprung up since the 1950’s. The Stratford Shakespearean Festival at Stratford, Ontario, Canada, established in 1953, was followed by the American Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Conn. Others that continue to flourish annually are the Oregon Shakespearean Festival at Ashland; the San Diego (Calif.) National Shakespeare Festival; the Colorado University Shakespeare Festival at Boulder; the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival at Lakewood, Ohio; the New York Shakespeare Festival in the outdoor Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, New York City; and the Champlain Shakespeare Festival in Burlington, Vt. See also the Index entry Shakespeare, William, and the articles on each of the plays and the poetical works.


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