Shakespeare’s Art

Shakespeare's Art

Shakespeare wanted art,’ Ben Jonson says bluntly, and comments on the statement in a well-known passage: ‘He had an excellent phantasy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometimes it was necessary he should be stopped. “Sufflami­nandus erat,” (‘He had to be repressed’) as Augustus said of Haterius. Milton echoed him even in his loving praise of Shakespeare, calling him ‘sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy’s child,’ who warbled forth his ‘native wood-notes wild.’ However, Jonson, the propagator of the criticism of Shakespeare’s art, himself, in the fine verses which headed the 1623 folio wrote: 

Yet must I not give Nature all: thy art,
My gentle Shakespeare, must enjoy a part.
For though the poet’s matter nature be,
His art doth give the fashion. And that he
Who casts to write a living line, must sweat,
(Such as thine are) and strike the second heat
Upon the Muses’ anvil; turn the same,
And himself with it, that he thinks to frame;
Or for the laurel, he may gain a scorn!
For a good poet’s made, as well as born.
And such wert thou.

Moreover, while Shakespeare’s work contains no dramatic theory, it very clearly indicates his opinion on the art of acting. The celebrated scene in which Hamlet criticizes the actors and tries to inspire them to natural interpretation, equally removed from emphasis and flatness says much for the control which Shakespeare would have had reason exercise over caprice and fancy.

Elemental Harmony

To admit that Shakespeare gives this regulating power to wisdom is the best way of explaining the harmony which he has been able to bring into almost each one of his plays. He skillfully created an atmosphere for the different elements of the theatrical art. This could not regularly happen as the effect of a fortunate accident. The very freedom habitual to popular plays, the custom of mixing two or even three plots in one play, the alternation of the tragic and the comic, the con­current use of rhymed and blank verse and prose: all contri­buted to enhance the difficulty of fusing harmoniously pictures and scenes so disparate in their moods. The resultant success is the more meritorious because, like something done for a wager, it was all but unattainable.

Read: What is Distinctive in Shakespeare?

He didn’t apply the same recipe ever twice. Each work demanded its individual solution. The concealed and sure art that interweaves the threads of the double plot of The Merchant of Venice, finally confronting Shylock with Portia, is mesmerizing. Similarly in Midsummer Night’s Dream he brings together, from the opposite extremes of society, the grotesque crafts­men and the lords and ladies of Athens and, from their even greater remoteness, Titania, the little fairy, and Bottom, the boor, whose meeting has a symbolism essential to the play. Again, in King Lear the theme of filial ingratitude is re­peated, as by an echo, when Lear’s suffering recurs in Gloster, the betrayal of Goneril and Regan in Edmund.

Shakespeare’s Art is Empirical

His art is essentially empirical: it takes realities into account and is not based on the abstract. He himself, speaking with the voice of King Henry V, reveals its principle:

There is some soul of goodness in things evil,
Would men observingly distil it out. 

Shakespeare co-twined dramatic scenes and sceneries so well that his characters and places are inseparably and closely associated. Doesn’t the name of Juliet at once call up the Capulet’s ballroom, or the moonlit balcony or the tomb in which she lay before she died? Similarly, Rosalind brings alive the trees of the Forest of Arden drooping and rustling. Hamlet waits feverishly for the ghost on the platform at Elsinore or cracks grim jokes in the churchyard. Nowhere is there more of the picturesque or of the poetry of nature than in these plays, performed with a few properties to symbolize rather than to indicate the places in which their action passed.

The portrayal of the Clown

Similarly, instead of eliminating or disdainfully neglecting the clown, Shakespeare undertook to educate him, gave him guidance, and converted a necessary evil into good. Mar­lowe, an idealist, proclaimed his contempt for clowning and resolution to have done with it. Yet when Marlowe came to write Faustus he had, willy-nilly, to compromise, and since he felt it beneath him carefully to write a part for the clown, he threw him, as it were, a sketch for his buffoonery and grimacing and let him fill it in for him­self. The result is a play of which parts, the beginning and the end, are admirable, but which is a mere framework.

Whether the Shakespearean clown is a boor or court-fool or nobleman’s jester, he is a popular philosopher independent and sagacious beneath his apparent stupidity. The playwrights generally make the clowns pass through most of the plays without letting him belong to the plots. Shakespeare, however, makes a real character of the clown, humanizes him and gives him a sort of heart. He lends him affection, such as Launce feels for his mangy dog, or Touchstone for Celia, or Lear’s fool for his master. Or he admits him into a craft. Bottom is a weaver and with his self-sufficiency and artlessness, has character, shown for instance in his conviction that the amusement which his stupidity affords proceeds from his wit. Indeed, Bottom has won a place in the foreground of a play as the meaning of Midsummer Night’s Dream depends on his meeting with Titania.

Clowns and Shakespeare’s Art

No, the Shakespearean world wouldn’t have crumbled if the clowns were gone but it might have lost its soul. In fact, the technical purity and social nobility of the plays would have doubtless enhanced, but their meaning would have been restricted and their philosophy would have suffered. Shakespeare’s use of the clown is often so happy and unexpected that this character could hardly be spared from his drama. The poet did well to think, like Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet:

For nought so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give. 

It was this tolerance, proper to him, which enabled Shakespeare to retain the clown longer than most of his rival dramatists. Agreed, this fact is among those which make his plays seem more archaic than theirs. Jonson and Fletcher, more innovative than he, soon got rid of the vestiges of the primitive stage which clashed with their conceptions of realism and modernity. They did not perceive the ‘soul of goodness’ which lurked in the clown who had become an anachronism.

Shakespeare’s Conservatism

Shakespeare was conservative in the theory and practice of his art. He seems to have been one of the least inventive among his contemporaries. He preferred subjects of which others had made trial. Very often he did no more than re-work upon existing plays. Some of his masterpieces had already been tried on the stage; for instance Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Lear. When Shakespeare’s subjects had not already been dramatized, he generally took them, even for his comedies and romantic plays, from a book, and reproduced them, on the whole, faithfully. He borrowed the theme of As You Like It from a novel by Lodge, that of The Winter’s Tale from a novel by Greene, and All’s Well that Ends Well from one of Boccaccio’s stories. Othello comes from a story of Cinthio.

Rediscover: Exploratory Shakespeare

The plays of which he seems to have invented the subjects are very few. Nonetheless, researcher-critics may someday discover their roots, too. In any case, these are The Merry Wives of Windsor, save for some insignificant passages, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Tempest. Unarguably, these are just enough to show that, if he did not usually care to create his plays entirely, he could do it when he chose. It is remarkable that the three last of these plays have an excep­tional character, that, having been voluntarily and arbitrarily created, they are of the nature of plays with a purpose, symbolical plays. Each of them illustrates an idea. In brief, Shakespeare’s theory of art was empirical and he practised it rather well.

Art of Story-Telling

Shakespeare was an adept story-teller. Whether he had read Aristotle’s Poetics or not, he successfully created dramatic ‘plausible impossibility’ in Henry VI in the sequence of Richard wooing Anne. At the end of the sequence, left alone at the stage, Richard poses a question to the audience: “Was ever woman in this humour woo’d”/ Was ever woman in this humour won?” (Act I, Sc. ii) Yes, he did it! Shakespeare could pull off even implausible sequences.

As we wind up let Richard in Henry VI accompany us. He foretold Shakespeare’s art of story-telling in his major historical plays and tragedies in the speech reproduced below. The words are a wake-up call for all the modern high and mighty as well.

For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been depos’d, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping kill’d,
All murthered – for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court, and there the antic sits
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, and a little scene,
To monarchize be feer’d, and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit
As if this flesh which walls about our life
Was brass impregnable; and humour’d thus,
Comes at the last and with little pin
Bores thorough his castle wall, and farewell King!

Henry VI (Act III, Sc. ii, 155-70)

3 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s Art”

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