|That Shakespeare is the supreme dramatist is not, I think,
questioned by anyone in the western world; except perhaps by a few literary
critics, who would urge that one or other of the three classical Greek
dramatists, Aeschylus, Sophocles and
Euripides, might be given that place. To challenge
their greatness would be foolish, but I think that Shakespeare, who
wrote in the same consciousness of the nature of drama as they, raised
the art to a higher level, by being able to do without the primitive
function of the chorus, as these dramatists themselves became more and
more able to do.
|I ask the question, what is it in Shakespeare's plays
that makes Shakespeare supreme ? What was his secret ? That he had a
secret we must admit, and I propose to seek for it in the plays.
|There have been innumerable estimates of Shakespeare's
genius; such as his knowledge of mankind, his human sympathies and insight,
his poetic gifts, his deep perception of symbolic meanings and imagery,
his comprehensive vision of the world, his mastery of the theatre, and
so forth. There have been those who have thought that one who has such
stature as a writer must have been better born, better educated, with
a higher standing among his countrymen, than that open to the son of
an English provincial tradesman. It is even thought that Shakespeare
represents a syndicate of writers whose names were not to be known.
|[...pause...] So great is the accomplishment, that it is hard to believe
in the man. We know hardly anything about him, and have very few of
his words apart from those that appear in his plays and poems. He is
very much of a mystery, as I believe that each man is a mystery,
containing within him hidden stores of talents and the core of genius
that equals that of the greatest, I find no difficulty in accepting
Shakespeare, the young man from Stratford, and in believing the testimony
of the editors of the first folio of his works, that the plays are his.
|However, it is not my purpose to discuss the authorship
of the plays, but to accept them, to think about them, and in wonder
at such marvellous works, to ask, why have they not been surpassed ?
The answer I offer is that the plays of Shakespeare, as a whole, and
individually, are works that most fully fulfil the requirements of drama.
They are as near perfection as it is perhaps possible to get. I have
said individually as well as a whole, for while it
is true that the plays vary in quality, in technical mastery, poetic
content, and dramatic value, there is not one play by Shakespeare, not
even the first that he wrote, the Henry VI
plays, that could have come from any other hand. The particular and
unique glow of Shakespeare's mind is upon the slightest of the works.
|The thirty-seven plays vary considerably among themselves.
There are the three chronicle plays just mentioned, there are the tragedies,
tragic comedies, comedies, and farcical comedies; also three plays that
are simply entertainments.
|If we study the plays in the order in which
they were written, which we do not know exactly, but well enough, we
see without question that his writing improved - not merely his characterisation
and verse, but the structure of the works. And if we look carefully
at the structure, keeping in mind, as we do, what the plays were intended
to be, material for actors to present a stage entertainment to an audience
for their acceptance, we shall discover that there is a structural principle
on which they are made, and that Shakespeare's growth as a dramatist
increases as his hold on that principle becomes firmer. I have called
that structural principle the fundamental law of drama,
for if Shakespeare is the supreme dramatist, the principle upon which
his work was based must be fundamental to drama.
|It has often been maintained, that Shakespeare's supremacy
lay in his blank verse, and certainly the
blank verse has never been surpassed, so that those who aimed at writing
in the Shakespearian manner imitated his verse. There has, indeed, been
much excellent blank verse, notably by P. B. Shelley and W. B. Yeats,
to mention only two of those who wrote in the Shakespearian poetic manner;
but they made obvious that good blank verse writing does not make a
Shakespearian play. Shakespeare's secret goes much deeper.
|I think that he probably got the secret from Christopher
Marlowe, born the same year as he, already established as a
leading playwright in the London theatre at the age of twenty-three,
when Shakespeare perhaps arrived in London. For Marlowe, who had received
a classical education in the University of Cambridge, had written Tamburlaine
the Great, which had captured the London stage with the acting
of Edward Alleyn, in 1587; a play constantly repeated.
|He wrote other
plays in which there was his mighty line of blank verse, so highly and
rightly praised, but what was even more important, these plays contained
a structure of play-writing, in which the Greek idea of a protagonist
was observed. This was something new in English drama, and hitherto
the Roman, Seneca, had been the model. It is true that
the structure of the Marlowe plays is not good, for all have weaknesses
of plot and character, that caused them to be played only occasionally,
since their Elizabethan successes; and notably Tamburlaine,
the first and by far the greatest, for the dramatic action peters out
rather than being brought to a conclusion; but the principle is unmistakably
there for the very first time since classical Greece.
|There can be little doubt that Shakespeare, when he came
to write, was greatly influenced by his contemporary, and got from him
what was essential to dramatic writing, which he discovered in the place
of the protagonist in the dramatic action. After his three early plays,
he wrote two dramas that very clearly show the effect of what he had
learned - Richard III and Titus
|Which of these was the earlier is not certain.
In both plays, we have heroes functioning as protagonists without any
question whatever. Both are monsters, Richard III saying, in his first
line, "I am determined to be [prove] a villain", and at the
end, "I love myself". While Titus, welcomed in Rome after
ten years of battle as a great hero, does great wrong, and is subjected
to such deep injuries, that he commits the monstrous act of getting
his wife to eat, unbeknowing, the flesh of her two sons. It is, indeed,
a play of horrors, written for a stage that delighted in them. Nonetheless,
Titus has nobility, and the position of the hero as protagonist is maintained.
|These two plays of terror were followed by a jesting
farcical comedy The Taming of the Shrew,
and the farce The Comedy of Errors,
the gentle but sour comedy Two Gentleman of
Verona, and the sweetly-sounding comedy Love's
Labour's Lost, all intended to raise mirth, each possessing
an unmistakable protagonist, all written very quickly, one after the
other. And while all, as everyone admits, are imperfect works, so that
they hold the stage with some difficulty today, they are imperfect,
not in verse or characterisation, or theatrically, but in their structural
|I must now say what I think that structural element to be;
in what our enjoyment of the plays as drama lies; what still causes
them to be important as dramas; where in these particular plays, as
some others, their imperfection lies. That element I call the fundamental
law of drama. I propose now to show how it is derived
from Shakespeare's plays, and that it is, indeed, his secret. Here,
I deal with a few of the more important. I will take three tragedies,
then three comedies, finally the three plays in which the law is not
observed, for its absence proves its validity.
|Let us first consider the tragedies Julius
Caesar, Hamlet and
|Julius Caesar, the second of
the great tragedies, is the Roman Play, a historical work
but not essentially historical, though its theme, as in that of all
the history plays, is politics, a subject on which Shakespeare was
never far away, for his was a highly political age.
Caesar, the protagonist does not give his name to the
play. Julius Caesar was the greatest in the list of characters, but
the play is not about him. It concerns Marcus Brutus. Brutus was a
man of principle involved in a political problem, who in dealing with
it makes a moral mistake, is overwhelmed, and killed. Brutus's problem
concerns Caesar; should Brutus join in the conspiracy against his
friend ? For the sake of his ideal of freedom, he joins those who
profess the ideal, but are self-seekers, and so brings about Caesar's
|Though Shakespeare does not moralise, we are left in
no doubt as to what causes Brutus's own downfall; faithlessness to his
inner integrity. The dramatic action is Brutus's statement of his situation.
The other conspirators, and Caesar himself, appear as Brutus's [thoughts?].
The words they speak are his words, as he imaginatively puts them in
|Unless the play is recognised as such a presentation,
it contains problems very difficult to solve, for otherwise it is muddled
and weak, as critics have found, when in fact it is clear and strong
- so clear that it is the easiest of the tragedies to stage - so easy
that boys can make a success of it. In being so easy, its point is often
missed, the murder of Caesar being carried out for its own sake, as
though that was the tragedy, when the point is what it means to the
noble Brutus; the vision, which is the play, being wholly his.
|About Hamlet there
can be no doubt at all; the play is his. Regarded as a problem play,
the most superficially formidable criticism is that there should have
been no problem, for was it not Hamlet's duty, the critics say, to revenge
his father's murder - a duty so transparent that he should have had
no doubt, so the young man is looked upon as a neurotic, and unstable.
Was ever a great work so basely treated ? Possibly, as a piece of story-telling,
a sort-of case could be made out against the hero, but if story-telling
be put in the second place, and the nature of the work as drama be considered,
it appears in an altogether different light.
|We have a young hero, who presents himself fully in his
strange situation - his invalid father suddenly dead, he himself tricked
out of his inheritance, his mother quickly remarried - and on his return,
he is haunted by his ghostly father, who says that he was murdered and
demands revenge. Here arises the powerful issue of conscience.
What is he to do ? And while the debate goes on in his mind, Hamlet
makes the fatal error, by acting without thought. He kills the old man
Polonius, with the consequence that he is put into his uncle's power,
who plots his death. In the end, conscience is clear, and justice is
done, at the cost of his own line.
|I say conscience, but we should not overlook the evidence
in the play that conscience, in this young hero, is not conventional
conscience, which only too often is false, while in Hamlet
it means the test and obligation of truth. I do not deny that Hamlet's
situation, which I have much simplified, has obscurities, which are
indeed part of the play's great attraction. But here, without any obscurity,
is the protagonist, Hamlet, presenting himself, his mother, his uncle,
his friend, in the ghostly apparition of his father, as well as everyone
else, and everything else, in vivid, unforgettable, dramatic action.
All the words of the play, spoken by each of the characters, are the
words of Hamlet. On this understanding, the play in its humanity, its
elevation of feeling, and its sympathetic empathy, contains a radiance
that causes it to be one of the greatest creations of man.
|The third tragedy, Macbeth,
is also a play of problems, though simpler than the earlier work. And
it, too, is a play of politics. Its hero is a politician, led astray
by ambition, who betrays his friend, and is led to evil, that pursues
him for his lifetime. It is a marvellously-constructed work, which provides
a full illustration of the principle of dramatic action, for which I
am contending. That it contains the projection, in dramatic terms, of
the hero's commentary upon his experience, is indicated in the words
of the cloudy witches at its very opening, when they declare to the
- I will drain him dry as hay:
- Sleep shall neither night nor day
- Hang upon his pent-house lid;
- He shall live a man forbid:
- Though his bark cannot be lost,
- Yet it shall be tempest-tost.
|Such a man was Macbeth, a successful king who reigned
long, but saw his life in a flash, as drained, dry, and tempest-tossed.
This tightly-written, compact play is perhaps Shakespeare's greatest
achievement, for in it, the protagonist appears as a man of high quality,
imprisoned in his own self-will, whose last desperate words are "the
time is free", though he puts the words in his slayer's mouth.
When we accept the action, the characters, and all they say and do,
as Macbeth's own presentation, the problems of the play, such as the
so-called supernatural elements, Lady Macbeth's early disappearance
from the scene, the mystery of the third murderer, the killing of Banquo,
and the rest, are set in their place, with light upon them.
|The comedies are not so simple
in structure - not so clear - as the tragedies, for comedy is always
complex. I invite you to consider The Merchant
of Venice, As You Like It,
and Measure for Measure.
|I daresay almost everyone would answer the question,
who is the protagonist ? in The Merchant of
Venice, by saying that he is Shylock; for while the Jew
is the largest, most interesting character, the drama is not about him,
but about the merchant. What is the problem ? How is the generous Antonio,
the merchant, to be saved from the clutches of the rapacious Jew ? Why
should we bother about that ? Because of the way in which it is put
before us, because of its gaiety and sweetness, and because of the strange,
and terrifying figure of the Jew. Thus we get in dramatic action, one
of the most charming comedies ever written. It is true that the protagonist
is somewhat weak; a rich man, he is seen only in the streets of Venice;
a sensible man, for he is a highly-successful merchant. He allows himself
to enter into an absurd contract.
|Naturally many critics have found fault with the play,
though they do not say exactly why. My own explanation of its undoubted
weakness is that it is a fault for a protagonist to present himself
weakly. It is hard to sympathise with Antonio, or even to be interested
in him. The dimensions, strengths and interest of the secondary character,
Shylock, do not compensate for this fault. Yet, because in the playing,
Shylock is a character that appeals to every actor, and more actors
have made their names in this part than in any other, save Shakespeare,
and because the whole work is written with such taste, the play is highly
popular, and always will be.
|Shylock is not the protagonist because
his problems, great as they are - the loss of his daughter and his wealth
and above all his revenge - are not what we can be invited to participate
in, and we are not concerned that they should have any solution. Antonio,
however, presents his handsome friend, that friend's lovely lady, and
how he, Antonio, has got out of his ridiculous though serious predicament,
in a way that arouses unalloyed delight. "Sweet lady, you have
given me life and living", he says at the close, and every audience
shares in this happiness, so what I call the fundamental law is well-satisfied.
|In As You Like It,
we see the working of this law in its fullness, for we have a protagonist,
who, without flaw, carries the dramatic action to its complete comedic
end. The play justifies its title, for what is better than to have things
as you like them - to achieve one's heart's desire. That is what the
play is about.
|The protagonist, Rosalind, in love with a man rejected
by her guardian, and in the face of the fiercest opposition, gets him
accepted and secures him for herself, and in her success all the other
characters in the play share. It is written mainly in delicious prose,
in which we see the charming Rosalind pursuing and wooing her so deep-in-love
lover. He, Orlando, is perfect, which makes the character difficult
for actors, who tend to be insipid. He has no faults, makes no mistakes,
except the astounding one of not recognising his love, so blind has
love made him. He appears at every moment in shining lights, as his
lady sees him - strong, brave, handsome, romantic, wholly-devoted -
the ideal man. This is a play not excelled in the whole range of comedy.
That Rosalind is central and that we see everything and everyone as
she sees them, and participate in it as she intends, is certain.
|Now, the third comedy Measure
for Measure - a play "full of genius", said William
Hazlitt, but also full of difficulty for actors and critics. What is
the Duke in the play at, in leaving his city in the hands of a deputy
? Is he tired of his own place; or testing the deputy; or does he lack
any motive ? What are we to think of the chaste Isabella, who refuses
to sacrifice herself to save her brother's life ? What about the lewd
Pompey; and how to account for the apparent muddle at the end ?
|When we see what Shakespeare is doing, giving the actor, as protagonist,
the opportunity of presenting a wise and subtle ruler, who wants to
know the real condition of his people, and what they think about him
and his rule, who finds that his most upright friend has in him unsuspected
vice, and that there is virtue in a simple girl, and in short how good
and evil are mixed in men, the play is without difficulty. With the
Duke central, the action becomes clear, and the play's ending, in the
conciliation and forgiveness, makes it a work that gives great satisfaction.
|Of course, I have done no more than indicate how the
fundamental law appears in these plays as their structural principle;
but sufficiently, I hope, to arouse your interest. I now come to the
three plays in which, I suggest, the law is not observed. They are plays,
given the name in the general sense of being works for the stage; not
in the particular sense of drama. They do not possess dramatic action.
|The first is A Midsummer Night's
Dream, one of the most delightful works that ever appeared
on the English stage. To fault it is horrifying to some people, but
the fault I am now concerned to point out is not in its high value as
entertainment, but in its lack of significance as drama. It is, indeed,
entertainment written for a marriage, and for poetic display, and pleasure,
but there is no protagonist and no central problem.
|If you look for
a protagonist you will find none to satisfy the test. Is it the Duke,
Theseus ? He has no problem. The lovers have problems, but they are
no more than background. Is it Bottom, the clown ? Surely, he is there
for laughter, merely. Is it Oberon ? His problem, that of ending the
dispute with his queen, Titania, is sheer fantasy - a presentation of
unreal discord. There needs to be no protagonist in a piece that offers
so charming and comic series of episodes, one after the other, and ends
with the invitation "Sweet friends, to bed." The very lightness
of the piece - its tenuous substance - is not that of drama, in the
|The Merry Wives of Windsor
is supposed to have been written to order. It certainly has a central
character, but this character functions not as a protagonist, only as
a victim - a rejected fool, in whose predicament there could be no invitation
to participate. In this piece, Shakespeare shows what he thinks of his
over-admired creation Falstaff . That Falstaff is one of the most outstanding
characters of the comic stage, no-one disputes, and that Shakespeare
created him to be such is certain, but amusing as he is, and with every
human folly, that Falstaff is to be admired is another matter, and in
this piece Shakespeare makes clear that he is not; for the old scoundrel
is shown as a despicable fellow, treated with every possible indignity,
and we laugh heartily, for he deserves no more. His humanity is totally
abstracted. "I am not able to answer", are his last words.
|The third play, Pericles,
is one of the last plays and was rejected by Shakespeare if its omission
from the first folio of his works has any meaning. It had been published
twice in his lifetime, but he would not have it placed with the rest.
Yet it was so successful a piece as to be the first of his plays to
be revived in the Restoration.
|The play is an illuminated theatrical
version of an old poem by John Gower; "a mouldy tale", said
Ben Jonson. It contains all the ingredients of stage work for popular
taste - romance, spectacle, storms, shipwreck, dumb-show, and magic.
These ingredients, let us note, were those of another play, The
Tempest, but with what different results. In Pericles,
the princely hero wanders through the play in the manner of bare, even
perfunctory, narrative. In fact, the play discharges none of the functions
of drama, in awakening a response to an experience, expressed in terms
of poetic vision. It possesses all the ingredients of a play except
the essential one of dramatic action, and provides an example to all
playwrights of what to avoid, for it is the one work of Shakespeare
that deserves oblivion.
|What I wish to point out is how the fundamental
law of drama, and the place of the protagonist, forms the structural
element in Shakespeare's work as dramatist. It is his secret. The best
plays observe the fundamental law, present day plays and old ones; while
what is unsatisfactory . . . . . .
[ . . . . . the tape ends here. From the context, I think the talk
was nearly at an end, and only a few words, or perhaps a sentence
or two, have been lost.]