Shakespeare, Stage or Page?

Shakespeare Is Hard, But So Is Life: A Radical Guide to Shakespearean Tragedy

by Fintan O'Toole
Granta Books, 164 pp., $12.95 (paper)

“Reade him, therefore; and againe, and againe.”1


In 1811, Charles Lamb published his subtle and pugnacious essay “On the Tragedies of Shakspeare, considered with reference to their fitness for stage representation.” In it he argued not that Shakespeare’s tragedies should never be acted, but that they are made “another thing” by being acted. “Nine parts in ten” of what Hamlet does are “the effusions of his solitary musings, which he retires to holes and corners and the most sequestered parts of the palace to pour forth.” How, Lamb asks, “can they be represented by a gesticulating actor, who comes and mouths them out before an audience, making four hundred people his confidants at once?”2 And again:

To see Lear acted,—to see an old man tottering about the stage with a walking-stick, turned out of doors by his daughters in a rainy night, has nothing but what is painful and disgusting. We want to take him into shelter and relieve him. That is all the feeling which the acting of Lear ever produced in me. But the Lear of Shakspeare cannot be acted.

The contemptible stage machinery for imitating the storm falls as far short of the horrors of the real elements as any actor’s attempt to portray Lear:

They might more easily propose to personate the Satan of Milton upon a stage, or one of Michael Angelo’s terrible figures…. On the stage we see nothing but corporal infirmities and weakness, the impotence of rage; while we read it, we see not Lear, but we are Lear,—we are in his mind, we are sustained by a grandeur which baffles the malice of daughters and storms; in the aberrations of his reason, we discover a mighty irregular power of reasoning….

Goethe expressed a similar opinion, four years after Lamb, in his “Shakespeare and no End.” “Shakespeare’s fame and excellence,” Goethe tells us, “belong to the history of poetry. It is a mistake to suppose that his whole merits lie in his importance in the history of drama.” And again:

Shakespeare gets his effect by means of the living word, and it is for this reason that we should hear him read, for then the attention is not distracted either by a too adequate or by a too inadequate stage-setting. There is no higher or purer pleasure than to sit with closed eyes and hear a naturally expressive voice recite, not declaim, a play of Shakespeare’s.

Reading, in other words, whether we do it ourselves, or get a nonhistrionic friend to do it for us—reading and imagination are the keys to the essential Shakespeare.

The opposite view became well entrenched by the end of the twentieth century. No longer was it an open question whether certain of Shakespeare’s plays were performable: all were performable in principle, and all were indeed, with varying degrees of frequency, performed. Performance itself became the criterion for interpretation: “We must allow Shakespeare himself to decide what…

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