There is indeed hardly a glory of Shakespearean drama that might not be matched by a fragment or an aspect of some other contemporary play. Over three decades ago I had read almost all the plays of Shakespeare when the fancy had caught me. To confess, I used to resort to a misdemeanour to read the plays. To be honest, I have not read or re-read a single one since then. Later I read Dr Faustus also, among others. Shakespeare did not – how could he? – surpass the pathos and poetic sublimity of the last scenes of Marlowe’s Faust. Indeed, every element in Shakespeare’s drama might be matched by the best of the stage writers of that period when they were at their best. So, what is distinctive in Shakespeare? What makes Shakespeare Shakespeare?
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To continue the comparing spree, Shakespeare created no atmosphere of grief and horror more agonizing than that which envelops Webster’s Duchess of Malfi. Not one of his plays is more solidly constructed than Jonson’s Volpone, Epicoene, and Alchemist. None of his comedies is more skillfully staged than Beaumont and Fletcher’s Knight of the Burning Pestle, none of his tragedies than their Maid’s Tragedy. He has created no character more singularly original than Dekker’s old Friscobaldo, and he never gives the illusion of reality more powerfully than Middleton and Rowley in their De Flores. The poignant humanity of Heywood in A Woman Killed with Kindness equals him when his painting is most moving. There is in Dekker’s Shoemaker’s Holiday a merry swing not bettered in Shakespeare’s most exhilarating comedy.
Still, Shakespeare is the greatest. Why? – Because of a rare combination of all the gifts in him. – Because of the multifariousness of his curiosity, and the extreme diversity of his talents. His flexibility was marvellous. He selected the most diverse material and reworked upon the same with equal ardour and joy to produce something unique catering to the contemporary popular culture of entertainment as well as earning a place of classicism for the new work.
Shakespeare wrote narrative poems like Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece to profess his love for lyrical beauty and command of rhymes. He simultaneously showed his mastery in drama choosing from astonishingly different genres. Truly, no one theory fits them all and each of them ought to be studied separately. Indeed, it doesn’t do justice to classify the plays into tragedies, comedies and so on because the classification obscures our understanding of Shakespeare as a thinker. Such a creative person must have had his own thoughts on the most pressing matters of his time. We will look into this aspect some other day – may be in the next post.
Shakespeare is never found twice at the same point. It is as though he had sworn in his youth to experiment in constructions of the most varied kinds and in the most highly contrasted moods. The tragic and the comic, the sentimental and the burlesque, lyrical fantasy and character-study, portraits of women and of men, the high and the low – all got proper treatment at the hands of the Bard. To the end of his career, these alternatives recur. In the two years, 1601 and 1602, he produced the light-hearted comedy, Twelfth Night, with its mingling of farce and romance, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, and All’s Well that Ends Well.
Besides his variety, the poet’s capital gift was certainly that he could endow historical and imaginary beings with life, not intermittently and by flashes, like most of his contemporaries, but consistently. In the works of others, we do get these gem-like talents but only in flashes when they are at their best. His characters do not lose their identity. His small characters’ parts may be short, they may have to speak only some twenty lines of verse, but these are enough to let the poet make them unforgettable. It is principally in this respect that Shakespeare surpasses his rivals and becomes Shakespeare, the only one. Only very rarely can Shakespeare’s contemporaries give the illusion that their characters are at once living and true. Not Marlowe, nor Jonson, nor Beaumont and Fletcher, to mention only the most illustrious of Shakespeare’s rivals – no one was capable of such truthful characterization.
Characters are puppets in the hands of authors – stage characters are more so. Vivid characterization alone could prolong their life beyond the time of performance into eternity. Characterization has been the distinctive feature in Shakespeare. A profound difference between Shakespeare’s work and that of his contemporaries consists of the greater truth, the more serious and substantial character, which fundamentally belongs to his plays in the mass. Other playwrights often made history unreal, but Shakespeare could warrant the truth even of romance.
Regarding characterization, it would be apt to note that mid-twentieth-century critics thought that it was rather a misnomer to apply the term to Shakespearean plays. Characters are there in novels. Early modern English drama was a dance of images or stereotypes. L.C. Knights belonging to this school derided earlier critics like A.C. Bradley. The general readers, however, do not go with the Knights school. Shakespeare excels at characterization.
He had no theory of literature, only the desire to interest the public, and talent so flexible that it immediately adapted itself to every genre and imitated every note on which a poet had ever played. And so Shakespeare was for six or seven years the undisputed, almost the only, master of English drama.
Greene died in 1592, almost immediately after denouncing him. Marlowe, the greatest of his rivals came to a sudden end next year. Kyd’s death occurred in 1594. Lodge abandoned playwriting for medicine; Nashe had found his right means of expression in satirical pamphlets and novels. It is impossible to cite a single play, either a tragedy or a comedy, which appeared in these years and had a real value to make it comparable to Shakespeare’s. By a quirk of circumstances and the enormity of his distinctive talent and passion, Shakespeare emerged as a popular, successful and critically acclaimed playwright of English literature.
Read Next: Shakespeare’s Art
It is a law of Shakespeare’s art that he endlessly recycles ideas and never repeats himself. Everything appears to be old and at the same time profoundly new. Moreover, while writing scenes he seems to have drawn inspiration from actual events in life. He based his historical plays and tragedies on royal lives. He, however, also drew significantly from his own personal history. The narrated death of Ophelia in Hamlet might have had been inspired by the drowning of young Katherine in 1579 when the playwright was just fifteen years old.
There is something eerie about Shakespeare’s ability to anticipate our thoughts. And this makes him eternally relevant. To be frank, a young man studying English as a second language and burdened with rules and expectations is in awe of Shakespeare’s distinctive verse which appears to him euphemistically intriguing. Therein lies the distinctiveness.