Thus Leaning on Mine Elbow I Begin

John Keats wrote that the poetical character “is not itself—it has no I self—it is every thing and nothing—It has no character—it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated.” And thus “a Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually in [forming] and filling some other Body.”

All of Shakespeare’s characters have an exultant and self-sufficient energy that lifts them above the realm of nature. That is why the greatest tragic characters are also close to comedy. Their expansiveness and self-assertion provoke delight. It is also why Shakespeare betrays no real interest in motive. His characters are fully alive as soon as they come upon the stage, and no excuse for their conduct is ever necessary. He will even excise their motives, outlined in his sources, simply to augment their inward or obsessive energy. They become mysterious and more challenging, provoking the audience to wonder or alarm. There are other occasions when motive has to be inferred from conduct; the characters have acquired a reality so strong that you must try to see around them.

Their speech and action are all of a piece, and their utterances are so knit together that they manifest a complete and coherent spirit or soul. The very cadence of the voices creates a unique and identifiable personality. In the second scene of the play, on the occasion of his first appearance upon the stage, the rhythms of Othello are deeply embedded in the structure of the verse with a series of half-lines—“’Tis better as it is … Let him do his spite … Not I, I must be found … What is the news? … What’s the matter, think you?” It is the rhythm of Othello’s being.

As far as the great tragic heroes are concerned, there is a corresponding belief in the ruling power of the self. Their destiny does not lie in the stars, in some abstract notion of Fate or, least of all, in some scheme of divine providence. Their movement is so irresistible, their inner life so powerful, that they gather momentum as the drama proceeds. Even in their fall they are wonderful.

Genius must find its time, too, and can quicken only in the general atmosphere of its period. It has been claimed, for example, that the sixteenth century was the age of the adventurer and of the striving individual. We see him first, on the English stage, in Faustus and in Tamburlaine. In that interim between the imperatives of a sixteenth-century religious culture and the claims of “society” in the seventeenth century, the individual being emerged as the object of speculation and enquiry in Montaigne’s work no less than in Marlowe’s. This was also the Shakespearian moment.

Shakespeare’s major protagonists have all the strength and vitality of their creator. Their capacity for life is astonishing. They have a mental, as well as a physical, energy. Even Macbeth retains a mysterious optimism. They are at one with the forces of the universe. Shakespeare’s true villains are pessimists, denying human energy and the capacity for human greatness. They are self-absorbed and melancholy, the enemies of movement and vitality. And here, if anywhere, the true sympathies of Shakespeare’s own nature can be found. Studies of his imagery have also shown that he was in love with movement in all of its forms, as if only in that quick sway and acceleration could he catch the vital life of things.

There was, naturally and inevitably, a particle of himself in all of his characters; that is what brings them alive. He is the source of their being. He adverts to that fact in the plays themselves. Richard III declares that “a thousand harts are great within my bosome,” and in Richard II Aumerle cries out: “I have a thousand spirits in one breast”; in the same play the king himself reveals that “play I in one person many people.” It is an odd but insistent emphasis. As Hazlitt said of Shakespeare, “He had only to think of any thing in order to become that thing, with all the circumstances belonging to it.”1 He had a preternaturally sensitive imagination, which could clothe itself in the being of another. This gift or capacity expresses itself in terms of another insistent Shakespearian theme. I am not what I am. Who is it that can tell me who I am?

Since there is an element of Shakespeare in all the myriad heroes and heroines of his plays, they must also remain fundamentally mysterious. They are not governed by rational choices; their logic is always the logic of intuition and of dream. Their dilemma often concerns the role that they must play, and the part they must assume in the world. It is the secret of his heroines. His characters are witty, and cryptic, and whimsical. They are sometimes inscrutable, and more than a little fantastical. As Ophelia remarks to her father of Hamlet’s behaviour, “I doe not knowe, my Lord, what I should thinke”(517). They partake of their maker. That is also why Shakespeare’s characters still seem “modern,” since they are based upon diversity and indeterminacy. It is sometimes said that he invented individual consciousness on the stage but it would be more true to say that, taking his cue from Montaigne, he conveyed the idea of consciousness as unfixed and unstable. This was almost certainly not a deliberate ploy on his part but, rather, the natural expression of his own genius.

It also reflects an actor’s consciousness. As the hero of Sartre’s novel Les Maim Sales reveals, “You think I am in despair. Not at all. I am acting the comedy of despair.” It has been remarked that in Shakespeare’s plays the language of self-knowledge is the language of acting; by impersonating others he became more himself. Or, to put it another way, Shakespeare understood himself by becoming someone other. He often resorts to metaphors of the stage, and one of his favourite phrases is “to play the part.” His lovers learn to perform and improvise before one another. His most interesting characters are actors at heart. No other dramatist of his age maintains such an emphasis. He did not owe this interest to the fact that he was a player; rather, he became an actor because he already possessed that interest. His plays, with the possible exception of those of Moliere, are the most entirely suited to the theatre in the history of world drama.

In the speech by Theseus on the nature of imagination, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there is an apparently fluent and straightforward passage (1715-1717):

… the Poets penne
Turnes them to shapes, and giues to ayery nothing,
A locall habitation, and a name.

But in the vocabulary of the Elizabethan drama “shape” was the name for the actor’s costume, “habitation” for his place upon the stage, and “name” for the scroll on the actor’s chest revealing his identity.

When in his speech Hamlet adverts to “this goodly frame the Earth,” to this “sterill Promontory” and “this Maiesticall Roofe, fretted with golden fire” his audience would know that he was referring in turn to the walls of the theatre, to the bare stage, and to the roof of the pent-house above his head spangled with stars. The theatre was the occasion for the speech. Shakespeare is saturated with the language of the stage. Who would dream, in all his talk of “shaddowes,” that “shadow” was a technical term for the actor? Thus at the close of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Robin Goodfellow declares that “If we shadowes haue offended” he is speaking for the cast. When the actor playing Buckingham in All Is True declares that “I am the shadow of poore Buckingham”(258) he is making an overtly theatrical reference. The connection also lends resonance to Macbeth’s remark that “Life’s but a walking Shadow, a poore Player” (2004). In one of Shakespeare’s most theatrical plays, Richard II, there is a constant interplay between shadow as reflection of what is real and shadow as insubstantiality or unreality itself. There are shadows everywhere in Shakespeare’s plays. There is also a curious fact about shadows that he understood very well: however insubstantial they may be, they lend depth and delight to any view.

Shakespeare sees his characters as an actor would, not as a poet. It is noticeable, for example, how many of his characters blush. That is for the stage. Dickens said that he had only to imagine a character, and that character would appear before him. Shakespeare had the same power in excelsis. And the central point is that Shakespeare sees before him not just the character but the actor playing the character. That is why he, of all contemporary playwrights, had the surest command of stagecraft. It was an instinct. He saw gestures; he saw groups of actors moving across the stage. There are some scenes that are dominated by one gesture or by a series of parallel gestures, such as kneeling or sitting on the ground as a token of abasement. Characteristically, a scene with many characters will be preceded by a scene with few characters, both as a principle of contrast and as a means of giving time for the larger cast to be assembled. He also gave 95 per cent of the lines to the fourteen principal actors in the company; this was partly a matter of seniority, but it was also the carefully planned economy of a practical manager. It permitted rehearsals to go ahead without the presence of the hired men.

One stage direction in Timon of Athens has all the marks of Shakespeare’s imaginative vision: “Then comes dropping after all Apemantus discontentedly like himselfe.” In Antony and Cleopatra there is the direction: “Enter the Guard rustling in.” He hears, as well as sees, the players. In such business, as he himself wrote, action is eloquence. He must have visualised the costumes also since, in Elizabethan drama, clothes made the man (or woman). There are scenes in which he ordains the use of masks, or of clothing all in black. The visual imagery of the play was of the utmost importance. That is why he was aware of the passage of time and of daylight across the open stage, so that he wrote shadowy scenes for the hour when the shadows begin to deepen across London itself. In the last act of Romeo and Juliet Romeo and his servant enter “with a Torch”; in the last act of Othello, the Moor enters “with a light.” So each scene or episode has its own form and tempo, with the overriding emphasis being given to the continuity and the coherence of the action. That is why in the Folio he is described as “the Famous Scenicke Poet,” and why Tolstoy believed that Shakespeare’s principal gift lay in his “masterly development of the scenes.”2

It has become clear that he saw certain performers, Kempe or Burbage, Cowley or Sincler, in the roles he had assigned to them in his imagination. Most of the actors had their own particular speciality, at which he aimed his art. He heard their voices; he knew in advance their individual presence upon the stage. Why does Gertrude say that Hamlet is “fat and scant of breath” (3508) when fighting Laertes, if Burbage himself were not inclined to perspire during the duelling scene? There is no other indication of Hamlet’s weight. The development of Burbage as an actor had a direct influence upon the growing depth and complexity of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes. They also gradually age with Burbage. Shakespeare wrote progressively more challenging parts for Kempe, too, leading him up to the supreme achievement of Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where his genius for clowning is touched by lyricism and by mystery.

It is possible that a character would somehow acquire added qualities by virtue of being performed by one particular actor. It was reported by Charles Gildon in 1694, for example, that “I am assur’d from very good hands, that the person that acted Iago was in much esteem for a comedian, which made Shakespeare put several words and expressions into his part (perhaps not agreeable to his character).”3 Inadvertently, perhaps, Othello has therefore been sometimes considered as a form of commedia dell’arte.

There are some theatrical historians who have explained the development of his art in terms of different players and different venues. It has been asserted, for example, that he wrote the “cheerful” comedies of his early period for Kempe and composed the “bitter-sweet” comedies of his middle years for Kempe’s successor. It is an argument that has the undoubted advantage of being incapable of proof. It does have the merit of emphasising, however, the close bond between play and players. There were no doubt also occasions when Shakespeare took up suggestions from his fellow actors, on matters of staging or even speech.

It is clear enough that Shakespeare gave much thought to doubling, where one actor played more than one part; obviously he had to ensure that the same characters were not on stage at the same time which, with a cast of twenty-one actors perhaps playing in some sixty different parts, was in itself a feat of theatrical memory. But in doubling he could also create some wonderful effects. Thus the doubling of Cordelia and the Fool in King Lear— the Fool mysteriously disappears when Lear’s good and faithful daughter reappears in the plot—allowed for deeper ironies beyond the reach of words. He also created parts for himself, as we have observed, and in each of the plays there will be one character that he intended to perform. The character may not have resembled him at all, but he is the one Shakespeare wished to play.

His amenability to actors is evident elsewhere. It has been remarked by generations of actors that his lines, once remembered, remain in the memory; they are, to use the word of the great nineteenth-century actor, Edmund Kean, “stickable.” This of course was an enormous advantage for the first players, who might have to repeat several plays on various occasions during one theatrical “season.” The words are also attuned to the movement of the human voice, as if Shakespeare could hear what he was writing down. They possess a natural speech emphasis, quite unlike the stiffness of Kyd or of Marlowe. Actors have, in addition, commented upon the fact that the cue for movement or stage business is implicit within the dialogue itself. He was also able to exploit the dramatic possibilities of silence in many of the plays. He used off-stage cries or sounds to suggest turns in the plot, like the knocking at the gate in Macbeth or the shouts of the crowd in Julius Caesar. There never has been a more professional or accomplished master of all the devices of the stage.

As an actor, too, he was in intimate communion with the audience. His purpose was to please the spectators, and every episode in the play was designed to engage their attention. There are passages of dialogue which are clearly meant to signal, to those parts of the audience who might not be able to see clearly, what is happening upon the stage. When Macbeth calls out “Why sinkes that Caldron,” he is telling the spectators that the vessel is now going through the trap-door. Ben Jonson wrote his plays ultimately to be read; Shakespeare wrote his for performance.

If there is a certain modesty in this, it is a virtue he learned early. He was obliged, after all, to act in many ill-written plays composed by his contemporaries; the greatest dramatist of the age had to subdue himself, and bring to life, the words of deeply inferior playwrights. He went from King Lear to Barnaby Barnes’s The Devil’s Charter in one season and, in another, from The Taming of a Shrew to The Ranger’s Comedy. In a lifetime of reticence and self-effacement it is perhaps the greatest act of self-abnegation that Shakespeare ever endured; it may account for his occasional expressions of dissatisfaction with his chosen profession.

Fluency or fluidity is also the form of his thought. He delights in pairs, in doubleness, in oppositions. He cannot conceive a thought or sentiment without reversing it. Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher who had a preternatural sense of style and tone, perhaps expressed it best when he declared that the “art of writing lines, replies, which express a passion with full tone and complete imaginative intensity, and in which you can none the less catch the resonance of its opposite—this is an art which no poet has practised except the unique poet, Shakespeare.”4 He is preoccupied by change and contrast, as if only in the play of differences can the life of the world be expressed. The clown continues his farce as Romeo enters the tomb of Juliet and as Hamlet stands by the grave of Ophelia. In the quick changes of the stage the solemn councils of the court are followed by the pantomimic revels of the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap. The King and the Fool are true companions in the storm. Tolstoy complained that these scenes inKing Learwere barren of meaning or consolation but, for Shakespeare, there is no meaning other than these two bare figures upon the stage. Lear can no more exist without the Fool than the Fool can exist without Lear. Thus is the spirit of difference, and of opposition, played out. In the most sublime reaches of Shakespeare’s art there is no morality at all. There is only the soaring human will in consort with the imagination.

The dispassionate nature of his genius, the almost impersonal intensity of his art, persuaded many eighteenth-century critics that he was kin to nature itself; he had the same indifference to the life of his creations. There is no reason to believe that he was deeply disturbed or troubled by the death of Desdemona, for example—deeply excited, of course, because he was involved in all the power and momentum of his expressiveness. But not deeply moved. It may have been remarked that he was particularly cheerful that day.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!