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What was Shakespeare's Secret ?
talk by C. B. Purdom - New York, 1964
Transcript by Alan Cash
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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. 0:00
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. 0:38
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. 0:52
[...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. 1:31
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. 2:14
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. 3:06
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. 3:22
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. 4:11
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. 4:47
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. 5:17
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 Andronicus. 6:06
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. 6:30
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 element. 7:18
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. 7:58
Let us first consider the tragedies Julius Caesar, Hamlet and Macbeth. 8:36
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. 8:41
In Julius 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 murder. 9:00
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 their mouths. 9:41
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. 10:06
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. 10:41
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. 11:21
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. 12:07
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 bemused Macbeth, 13:08
  • 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. 14:10
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. 15:04
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. 15:20
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. 16:17
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. 17:00
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. 17:42
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. 18:05
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 ? 19:07
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. 19:43
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. 20:21
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. 20:46
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 true sense. 21:15
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. 22:02
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. 23:02
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. 23:23
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.]