frnOUW*' N44 ib44^
COPYRIGHT NORMAN N. HOLLAND 1964
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TO THE BEST AUDIENCE:
Janie and Katy-
and John, Who Came in in the Middle.
REVERSING A CURRENTLY POPULAR PATTERN, THIS BOOK CROWS OUT OF A TELEVISION
series, "The Shakespearean Imagination," and many, though by no means all,
of its peculiarities stem from that swift and electronic origin. For one thing, the
style: though I have translated the scripts from oral to written English, the
language remains intractably more casual than the prose of literary criticism
probably should be. The book, though it is about Shakespeare, is not aimed at
the professional Shakespearean, but at the same audience as the television series,
a course-for-credit. The audience, both those actually registered and the hitch-
hikers, included a great variety of people: lawyers, housewives, teachers, nuns,
engineers, sculptors, and one perceptive postman; the large number of high
school students was surely balanced by the young lady cramming for her doc-
toral examinations at a nearby university. In short, this is a book for that
poltergeist of publishers, the intelligent general reader. My aim, in both book
and series, is to enhance and enrich your perception and enjoyment of Shake-
speare and, I hope, by a process of carry-over, literature in general. So ambitious
a book should have been written at the end of a lifetime of teaching Shake-
speare, and I can claim but a scant eight years. The opportunity to do such a
series, however, both the subject matter and the new technique of teaching,
was too good to miss. From the series the book inevitably grew.
I am, therefore, especially grateful to Dean Reginald Phelps of Harvard who
originally approached me about doing the television course-for-credit for the
Commission on Extension Courses. The staff, both desk and studio, of station
WGBH (the Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council) gave most
generously of patience and effort at the beginning and end and all through
those miles of video tape and the thirty long Thursdays of televising "The
Shakespearean Imagination." I owe a particular debt to Mr. Russell Morash
who, in producing the series, gave me by precept and example a quite refreshing
and unaccustomed respect for the director's art; and to Mrs. Bonnie Watts and
her son Kevin who very graciously contributed their mutual time and energy
to the preparation of the original scripts and telecasts. The series would not have
been possible at all had it not been for the continued help of the actors and
actresses who gave their performances; nor would the series have been much
fun without the kindness of those in the audience who wrote encouragement.
Like the television series, the book has visuals. I am most grateful to the
Folger Shakespeare Library for permission to reproduce the materials in Figs.
1, 3, 5, 13, and x5; to the Harvard College Library for Figs. 8, io, and ii; to
the Harry Elkins Widener Collection of the Harvard College Library for Fig.
12; to Mr. C. Walter Hodges and his publisher, Coward-McCann, Inc. for per-
mission to reproduce his theater reconstructions in Figs. 2 and 6; and to the
Marquess of Bath for Fig. 7. I am especially grateful to the Harvard Theatre
Collection and the kindness of Miss Helen Willard for Figs. 9, 14, x6, 17, 18, 19,
20, 21, 22, 23, 24, and 25. Edwin Booth as Hamlet (Fig. 20) was painted from
life by John Pope; the original is on view at the Loeb Drama Center and is the
property of the Harvard Theatre Collection.
Both in the television series and in this book, alas, my debt to my fellow
Shakespearean critics and scholars is very great and very ill paid, for I have
made no attempt to enter credit for the various insights and ideas that follow. I
can only plead that I have treated myself as stingily, making no effort to single
out my own originations. Then, too, what I am formulating in this book is very
largely the coin of current Shakespeare teaching: professionals will recognize
my particular indebtednesses well enough; the amateur has no need to. I must
acknowledge, however, a special debt to one fellow Shakespearean: Professor
Max Bluestone, who was kind enough to read the manuscript and help me
eliminate the most glaring gaffes.
My greatest source of help, hope, and harborage I have already mentioned in
NORMAN N. HOLLAND
Shakespeare and His Theater
The Theater in the Mind
Romeo and Juliet
The Merchant of Venice
Henry IV, Part I
Measure for Measure
Antony and Cleopatra
The Winter's Tale
FOLLOWING PAGE 146:
I. Title page of the First Folio (1623).
2. An innyard stage.
3. The Globe Theatre as shown in Visscher's View of London (1616).
4. Inside the Swan Theatre (c. i596).
5. Frontispiece from Francis Kirkman's The Wits (z672).
6. Reconstruction of the Globe Theatre by C. Walter Hodges.
7. Drawing attributed to Henry Peacham of a scene from Titus Andronicus
8. The Cosmos-a drawing from Robert Fludd's History of the Greater and
Lesser Worlds (1617).
9. Painting by Zofany of David Garrick and Mrs. Pritchard in Macbeth
Io. The Music of the Spheres-from Fludd's History (1617).
II. Man as Microcosm-from Fludd's History (1617).
12. Macbeth and Banquo meet the witches-from Holinshed's Chronicles
13. Title page of the First Quarto of Romeo and Juliet.
14. Charles Macklin (c. 1697) as Shylock.
15. Title page of the First Quarto of The Merchant of Venice.
16. Thomas Betterton (c. z635-17zo).
17. A sketch by John Nixon of David Garrick (1717-z823) as Hamlet (1775).
i8. John Phillip Kemble (1757-1823) as Hamlet.
19. Henry Irving (1838-90o5) as Hamlet.
20. Edwin Booth (1883--893) as Hamlet.
21. Maurice Evans as Hamlet.
22. John Barrymore (1882-1942) as Hamlet.
23. Leslie Howard (1893-1943) as Hamlet.
24. Sir Laurence Olivier in the film Hamlet.
25. John Gielgud as Hamlet.
A. The Great Chain of Being-a schematic diagram. 35
B. Correspondences in the Great Chain of Being. 39
C. Character configuration in Romeo and Juliet. 83
D. Conflicts and choices in i Henry IV. 127
E. Tensions and choices in King Lear. 259
SHAKESPEARE AND HIS
PERHAPS THE BEST PLACE TO START AN INTRODUCTION TO SHAKESPEARE IS WITH THE
one fact that most people think they know about Shakespeare, namely, that
Shakespeare wasn't Shakespeare. The plays were actually written by some earl
or spy or a committee of earls and spies hidden away in a cave and sending out
secret messages in comedies and tragedies as though they were fortune cookies.
These anti-Stratfordian theories, as they are called, came into being rather re-
cently, outgrowths of nineteenth-century bardolatry. Shakespeare's contem-
poraries seem to have had no doubts he wrote the plays, nor did they idolize
him. For a hundred years after his death, critics said sagely, "Shakespeare lacked
art," meaning, a sense of classical restraint and craftsmanship. But in the nine-
teenth century, romantic spirits, rebelling against this kind of classicism, turned
Shakespeare into a universal genius, lawyer, general, statesman, philosopher, and
historian. At the same time, as a different kind of reaction against classicism,
Romantic biographers turned him into a simple child of nature, "Avonian
Willy," growing up among country scenes, unspoiled by bookish education, even
illiterate. Finally, some other romantic spirits drew the obvious conclusion
(given these peculiar premises) : Avonian Willy could not have been the superla-
tive lawyer, general, statesman, philosopher, and historian, who wrote the plays.
There must have been a conspiracy to hush up the real author's name, which the
anti-Stratfordian then produces-usually the type of person the particular anti-
Stratfordian admires, intellectual, scientist, homosexual, aristocrat, or what you
will. To back up these protean changes of identity, the facts of Shakespeare's
life and times are tossed to the winds in favor of the shakiest kind of internal
evidence. Romeo, for example-E-O stands for Earl of Oxford, so "Romeo"
2 THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
means E-O at Rome, and the tragedy becomes a secret allegory of the Earl of
Oxford's visit to Rome.
This anti-Stratfordianism, of course, is just foolishness but, I suppose, really
quite harmless and it does keep the people who figure it out off the streets and
out of trouble. It is rather hard, though, on Shakespeare's reputation, and I can
vouch from personal experience that it's hard on professors of Shakespeare when
they are cornered by anti-Stratfordians at cocktail parties. The facts of the matter
are that we have exactly the same kind of evidence that Shakespeare wrote these
plays that we have for his contemporaries, in fact, the same kind of evidence of
authorship that we would have for any modern writer (the writer of this book,
for example). We have the book with the author's name on it, indeed, in Shake-
speare's case, even his picture on it (see Fig. i), and we have a couple of dozen
references by contemporaries to Shakespeare as the author of his plays. Some of
these references are by educated members of his audience, the scholar and clergy-
man, Francis Meres, for example, or the young lawyer, John Manningham.
Others are by people like Ben Jonson or Francis Beaumont who actually worked
in the world of the theater with Shakespeare, went drinking with him on Friday
nights at the Mermaid Tavern and perhaps even talked over with him the
problems of plays and playwriting. (Jonson at least seems to have done so.)
The whole anti-Stratfordian business rests on the completely false notion that
the man Shakespeare was an unlettered peasant who could not have written
these plays. The facts are that Shakespeare came from a solid, middle-class,
even upper-middle-class, background, exactly the same background as most of
the other Elizabethan popular playwrights, and that he was about as well edu-
cated as a modern college graduate, or, at least, as well educated as the people
who say Shakespeare was an unlettered peasant.
Shakespeare was born in Stratford-on-Avon, a busy little market town in
Warwick about eighty-five miles from London. The Elizabethans tended to
care more about souls than bodies, so instead of recording birth dates they re-
corded baptisms. Shakespeare was baptized April 26, 1564, and the scholars
have decided to give his birth date as April 23, for three reasons: first, it was
customary to baptize children about two or three days after they were born;
second, St. George is England's patron saint, April 23 is his day, and it is a
Good Thing to have England's greatest poet born on St. George's day; third,
Shakespeare died on April 23, and to have him be born and die on the same day
makes a better story. Shakespeare's father, John Shakespeare, was a manufac-
turer of gloves, a dealer in agricultural commodities, and a leading citizen in
Stratford. In fact, when young William was four years old, his father was
elected Bailiff, the highest office in the town government, equivalent to a modern
mayor. John and Mary Shakespeare first had two children who died in infancy,
then William, so the poet was, in effect, like so many geniuses, an oldest child.
3 Shakespeare and His Theater
He was followed by a series of five younger brothers and sisters. Shakespeare
most probably attended the Stratford Grammar School, where he would have
received a quite good education. He learned, of course, to read and write, but,
more important, he spent a lot of time studying rhetoric, how to write and speak
well. He would have spent most of his time studying Latin, the classics of Latin
literature, Roman history, and the Bible, and he would have had a little exposure
to Greek. I wonder how many modern children-or, for that matter, how many
modern Ph.D.'s-are educated that well. Of course, Shakespeare didn't study a
lot of things that we think important. He didn't study mathematics or any
foreign languages except Latin and Greek, and, as you can tell from the plays,
he didn't study geography. Ben Jonson rather snidely pointed out, "Shake-
speare, in a play, brought in a number of men saying they had suffered ship-
wreck in Bohemia, where there is no sea near by some hundred miles." And, of
course, he didn't spend all his time studying. Judging from the language in the
plays, we can guess young Shakespeare was very fond of sports and games; he
uses a lot of figures of speech derived from sports like hunting, hawking, and
At eighteen, he became involved with one Anne Hathaway, a woman some
eight years older than himself. They got married rather hastily and six months
later Mistress Shakespeare was delivered of a daughter, Susanna. You can make
of that what you will-and most people have. Two years later, when Shake-
speare was twenty-one, they had a set of twins, and shortly after that, Shake-
speare left for London. Legend has it-a most unreliable but persistent legend-
that he had to get out of town because he was convicted of poaching.
In any case, once Shakespeare arrived in London, he eventually became an
actor with one of the leading acting companies, the Lord Chamberlain's Men.
In 1603 King James himself became their patron so the company then became
known as the King's Men. Legend has it that Shakespeare got his start by hold-
ing horses outside the theater, but, anyway, by 1592, when he was twenty-eight,
he had acquired enough reputation as an actor and playwright to elicit that
surest indication of success--envy. We find a rival playwright, Robert Greene,
making a highly uncomplimentary reference to him, as "an upstart crow beauti-
fied with our feathers ... an absolute Johannes factotum in his own con-
ceit the only Shake-scene in a country," but then as time goes on, more and
more compliments come his way, like Meres's remark, "The Muses would
speak with Shakespeare's fine filed phrase-if they would speak English." Dur-
ing the twenty years he lived in London, he seems to have kept his Stratford life
and his London life more or less separate. Of course, there were occasional trips
home, but no more children, and one of the twins, his only son Hamnet, died
in 1596 when Shakespeare was thirty-two.
Then we begin to see the marks of success. Old John Shakespeare was ap-
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
patently coming down the ladder as fast as his son William was coming up it.
William begins to pay his father's debts. In 1596 he purchases a coat of arms for
the family and the title of gentleman. In 1597 he buys the second biggest and
fanciest house in Stratford. In 1599, at the age of thirty-five, he becomes what
we would call a principal stockholder in his acting company. Shakespeare had
achieved a social position and economic bracket very similar to that of Charlie
Chaplin and Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks when they founded United
Artists in 1919. Most of what we hear of him after he became a principal stock-
holder concerns investments and lawsuits-that was what the Elizabethans did
for lack of television: they had lawsuits. About 161x, or when he was forty-seven,
he retired from London and went back to live in his big, fancy house in Strat-
ford, receiving visiting cronies from London, supposedly sitting around a mul-
berry tree. Legend has it that, one April, two of his fellow playwrights came up
from London, Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton. They all drank too much and
Shakespeare fell into a fever that proved fatal. Be that as it may, he died on
April 23, 1616, leaving his wife Anne his second-best bed, a not uncommon
provision in the wills of the day.
That was Shakespeare's life in Stratford, and you can read about it in any
edition of Shakespeare. What we really care about are those twenty years in
London when he wrote what is purely and simply the greatest collection of plays
in the world. The London that Shakespeare came to as a young man must have
been a fascinating place. England had just beaten the Spanish Armada. She was
now the greatest sea power in Europe, just beginning that age of colonization
the effects of which we are still recovering from today. Along with empire came
new scientific achievements, new voyages of discovery and colonization, new
manners, new customs, and presiding over it all that wonderfully enigmatic,
womanly un-woman, Elizabeth I.
She, like most of her Londoners, was terribly fond of the theater. At the
height of Shakespeare's career there were nine theaters in that London of 60,000o
people, the equivalent of 450 theaters in a city the size of New York. Most of
those nine theaters could hold between 2,000 and 3,000 people, not counting
standees, and on the holidays the theaters were packed tight. On a popular day,
in other words, 16,ooo people or xo percent of the whole city could have been in
the theater. It cost only an English penny to get in, about a twelfth of a skilled
worker's daily wage. It wasn't, in short, at all like the modern theater. New
York, the most theatrical city in America, doesn't have 450 theaters; it has
about thirty. The Shakespearean theater was a truly popular medium and a
modern analogy to the Elizabethan theater would not be today's legitimate
theater, but the movies. You could find 450 movie theaters in a city the size of
New York, and up until recently, anyway, you could find an admission price
that was one-twelfth of a skilled worker's daily wage. No small part of Shake-
5 Shakespeare and His Theater
speare's tremendous achievement stems from the fact that he was writing for
what we would call today a mass medium, the movies or television. Don't be
middle-brow, and turn up your nose at a popular art. Shakespeare didn't.
Specifically, there were four ways-at least four-that the popularity of the
theater worked for Shakespeare. First, people do well what they do a lot of, and
the English did a lot of theater toward the end of Elizabeth's reign and during
James's. During the period from 1590 to 1625, the theater reached a height it has
never attained since the theater became more specialized, less of a mass medium,
appealing to the few instead of the many. Second, Shakespeare could count on
his audience knowing a lot about what had been going on in the theaters. He
could put in a character like Ancient (or Ensign) Pistol, who quotes a lot of
garbled scraps from old plays and makes jokes that way. He could write a
sequel basing one play on another because he could be pretty sure that his audi-
ence had seen the first. If Part I of Henry IV was successful, Shakespeare could
write Part 2 just the way we today have Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, I
was a Teen-Age Frankenstein, and so on. Myths and legends and forms could
grow this way. There are practically no sequels in the modern theater because it
doesn't play to a large enough audience.
Third, and most important, Shakespeare had to write for all levels of the
population, from the highest and fanciest critical or professorial taste to the
very lowest, just as the modern moviemaker writes with one eye on the people
who read Screen Romances and the other eye on the people who read Cahiers
du Cinima. Finally, there is a tremendous vitality in these recurring forms of
the popular arts. Things like the Western, the gangster movie, or, in Shake-
speare's day, the revenge play or the pastoral romance, such forms in a mass
medium are constantly being improved and polished, given more appeal, and,
ultimately, exhausted. Also, when you have such widely received forms, it means
the writer doesn't have to invent so much. He knows what his audience expects
in the way of conventions and plots and types of character, and he can con-
centrate his own attention on the subtleties.
There are a great many things about Shakespeare that will seem strange
unless we keep in mind that he was writing for a popular art, a mass medium.
The theater was quite an industry in Elizabethan London, and there couldn't
have been half a dozen people in that industry who knew more about it than
Shakespeare did. For more than twenty years, he worked in the theater, every
day he could. If we let ourselves be a little speculative, a little more carefree
with the evidence than perhaps we should be, we can imagine what one of
Shakespeare's working days would have been like. It would have consisted of
three parts, probably: writing a new play; rehearsing an old one with his acting
company; then performing at the Globe Theater.
If, like many writers, Shakespeare did his writing in the morning, he would
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
have gotten up at dawn, and after the standard Elizabethan breakfast of a
piece of bread and a pint of ale (which no doubt stimulated his creativity) he
would sit down to write. He would take a folio sheet of paper, a piece of paper
about 14 by 17 inches, and fold it lengthwise three times so as to produce four
pages, each divided into three columns. He could write the text of the play on
the center of each page, on the left the speech tags, and on the right the stage
directions and sound effects and the rest. (In fact, the few pages that survive of
an Elizabethan playwright's manuscript were written this way.) Shakespeare
used the older kind of handwriting, "secretary hand," it was called, which looks
more like German script than the Italian or italic hand from which our modern
handwriting, round hand, comes. Shakespeare's fellow actors tell us he never
blotted a line, but Ben Jonson nastily says he wishes he had blotted a thousand.
Shakespeare turned out a play about every six months during his London
career. He could have written them at the rate of fifty or a hundred lines a
day without overstraining himself. He rarely had to collaborate with other
writers the way most Elizabethan playwrights did, because he was himself a
wealthy man. In Elizabethan times, as now, actors were paid very well, writers
rather poorly, and Shakespeare made most of his money as an actor. Acting was
a very skilled profession in Elizabethan times. It involved, like all Elizabethan
professions, an extensive training, an apprenticeship. The actor had to know
not only acting, but jumping and tumbling, dueling and singing, and all kinds
of other necessary skills. Shakespeare apparently spent five years working up
as an actor, and was known for his acting of older men. One tradition says he
played Adam in As You Like It, another, that he may have played the Ghost of
Hamlet's father (remember, Shakespeare had a son named Hamnet, who died).
At any rate, on this hypothetical day, about ten or eleven in the morning,
either before or after dining, Shakespeare would cross the river to the Globe
Theater which, like most of the theaters, was in the red-light district. Again,
many things about Shakespeare will seem strange unless we recognize that he
was writing for a theater which was very, very different from the modern
theater. Shakespeare's theater was based on the simplest of stages, the kind that
you will still see in use today in the primitive parts of the world or in circuses or
carnivals (see Fig. 2). It consists simply of a platform with a place where the
actor can change his costume and from which he can make his entrances and
exits. There is no attempt to create an illusion of reality. In Shakespeare's life-
time strolling troupes of players would move these portable stages from inn to
inn, setting them up in the innyards so that the inn served as an amphitheater
to hold the audience.
In 1576, when Shakespeare was still a twelve-year-old boy in Stratford, the
first permanent theater was built in London. It was a very simple arrangement.
A man named James Burbage simply erected that innyard stage inside a stand-
7 Shakespeare and His Theater
ard Elizabethan amphitheater. The amphitheater was a round building with a
large capacity and a round space in the middle, commonly used for that grand
Elizabethan sport, bearbaiting, tying a bear up and letting a half-dozen or so
dogs work him over. In fact, Shakespeare's fellow playwright, Ben Jonson,
complained in one of his prologues that his grand, classical plays had to be per-
formed in the middle of the stench left over from the previous day's bearbaiting.
Visscher's seventeenth-century aerial view of the city shows what one of these
theaters looked like from the outside (see Fig. 3). The names are confused but
it doesn't matter much-you can see very little anyway except a few stray
Elizabethans and the barest outline of the three-storey structure. The theaters
were mostly open to the skies, although it was important to put a roof over the
stage to protect from the rain not the audience, which you could replace, but the
expensive costumes. What was inside that round or octagonal structure, though,
is one of the greatest puzzles of modern scholarship. There survives a copy of a
sketch by a Dutch tourist which shows a little of what an Elizabethan theater
looked like from the inside (see Fig. 4). The sketch leaves out a lot of detail,
but we can see that the stage is mostly a large platform, that there is no scenery,
and that the audience is on three sides, perhaps four, of the action. Another
drawing shows a so-called "private" theater, that is, one with a roof over it (see
Fig. 5). Again, the stage is a simple platform stage with no scenery, no illusion
of reality except possibly for the curtain or arras at the back.
Figure 6 shows one scholar's guess-I think the best one-as to what the
inside of Shakespeare's theater looked like. The stage itself is simply a bare
platform; in fact, Shakespeare speaks of it as "this unworthy scaffold," and it
was exactly the same kind of scaffold that was used for another grand Eliza-
bethan sport, executions. We know from a builder's contract the dimensions of
this scaffold. It was 27% feet deep and 43 feet wide, an enormous playing area,
a wonderfully fluid space on which action could be ending on one side at the
same time that it was beginning on the other side. On three sides of this plat-
form, the spectators stood on the bare ground and they were called "ground-
lings." More well-to-do spectators could go and sit on one of the three levels of
benches by paying a penny or two pennies extra, and if you were a little short of
cash you could go round and round that round theater while the man who col-
lected the money tried to catch up with you to get the extra penny.
On so large a stage, one in the midst of its audience, most of the action must
have taken place downstage, at the front edge of the platform. There was no
curtain, so acts and scenes ran one after another with no interruptions. There
may have been a small curtained recess (the "inner stage") at the back of the
platform, but if it existed at all, it was small and used only for entrances,
exits, and "discoveries," the actors moving out of the inner stage and down-
stage as quickly as possible. Sight lines to this inner stage would have been
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
awkward, and to have played any extended action there would have left most
of the spectators staring across 271/2 feet of empty stage. The scaffold itself was
covered with rushes instead of carpets, and the roof was made of straw. Two
pillars supported the roof and they could be climbed or hidden behind if the
action called for it. A trapdoor towards the front of the stage let down into the
space underneath, a trapdoor being useful for raising ghosts, for disappearing
acts, for people descending into hell or for other special occasions. There was an
area (the "upper stage" or "the above") one storey above the platform that was
used for those scenes in which one character on the main stage talks to a char-
acter "above," on the walls of a town, for example, or, like Juliet, on a balcony;
but since "the above" was ordinarily filled with paying customers, it was better,
if possible, not to use it at all At the very top, two storeys above the platform,
the roof, extending out over the main stage, was painted on its inside with stars
and planets. "Look," says Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice,
how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold.
And perhaps the musicians sat in a little room (the "heavens") right under that
roof; if so, when Shakespeare speaks of "heavenly music," he means it quite
literally. In any case, the star-painted roof over the stage, the trapdoor to hell
below-is it any wonder Shakespeare said, "All the world's a stage"?
Within this theater played the King's Men, a repertory company made up
year after year of approximately the same group of actors. The company would
have been based on a capitalist, a real estate owner, the man who owned the
theater. In Shakespeare's case, it was two brothers, Cuthbert and Richard
Burbage, the heirs of James Burbage, who built the original permanent theater.
Richard, fortunately, was not just a theater owner, but also an actor and there-
fore more sympathetic to the needs of the company than an ordinary real estate
operator might have been. He was, in fact, the great tragedian of Shakespeare's
company, the man for whom such parts as Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth were
written. Then the company would have included the sharers, as they were called
(we would call them the principal stockholders), who were also the principal
actors of the company. There would have been about ten of them, all growing
rather fat and prosperous, and Shakespeare was one of these men. The sharers
would hire some outside actors to play the minor parts, and usually a hired actor
was expected to double in more than one minor part in a play. Of course, the
hired actors didn't make as much money as the sharers and unemployment was
a problem for them, so that they may have "stolen" a play by dictating it to a
printer after they had memorized their parts (or so some scholars explain the
early "stolen and surreptitious copies" of Shakespeare's plays). Then the com-
pany included the apprentices, boys learning the trade of acting, and they played
9 Shakespeare and His Theater
the women's parts. No women were allowed on the public stage in Shake-
speare's day, so that all his great parts for women-Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra,
Juliet, and the rest-were meant to be played by boys about twelve years old.
Finally, the company had its janitorial staff, the people who cleaned up the
theater, put fresh rushes on the stage, and the gatherers, as they were called,
who collected the money for admission. The janitorial staff was brought in
when you needed an army or a crowd or a mob. As Shakespeare says in
Our scene must to the battle fly,
Where-O for pityl-we shall much disgrace
With four or five most vile and ragged foils,
Right ill-disposed in brawl ridiculous
The name of Agincourt.
(IV. Chorus. 48-52)
Those "four or five most vile and ragged foils" are the janitorial staff.
Because he belonged to this repertory company, Shakespeare could work out
his ideas in the theater, unlike the modern playwright. He knew the people
he was writing for. He worked with them every day, he knew the kind of part
they could play, and he, like other actors, probably took his turn directing.
Shakespeare, then, may have directed his own works, like the modern writer-
director of films. Rehearsals probably lasted about two hours at the Globe and
then, around :30 in the afternoon, the actors would get ready for a perform-
ance. The janitorial staff would hoist the company's flag on top of the theater
so that people all over the city would know there was a performance. On the
Globe's flag was a picture of Hercules holding the earth, the Globe, on his
shoulders, and underneath him the words Totus mundus agit histrionem, or,
as Shakespeare put it, "All the world's a stage." After people had had time to
come across the river to the theater, there would be three soundings of a
trumpet. Finally, after the audience assembled and quieted down, on the third
sounding of the trumpet, the Prologue in his traditional black cloak would come
forward and speak his introduction and the play would start.
As we have seen from the drawings, there was no curtain, no fixed scenery
and little movable; therefore there were no breaks for acts and scenes. One
scene followed on another the way scenes in a movie do. The act-and-scene
divisions you see in the texts of Shakespeare's plays today are a mere literary
convention that has nothing to do with Shakespeare's own stage practice. No
play of Shakespeare's printed during his lifetime was divided into acts and
scenes. Similarly, the things you read in some editions of Shakespeare about
"another room in the castle" or "another part of the battlefield"-all this was
added by eighteenth-century editors and has nothing whatsoever to do with
Shakespeare's stage. "Another part of the battlefield" was just another part of
IO THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
that empty 27%-by-43-foot stage. Similarly, there was no particular attempt to
make the costumes realistic. Shakespeare's actors just wore very fancy but
ordinary Elizabethan clothes for the most part, as you can see in what is ap-
parently a sketch of a contemporary performance of Titus Andronicus (see
Fig. 7). There were some conventionalized costumes for classical plays, but
Shakespeare's Greeks and Romans didn't look very Greek or Roman. It wasn't
until the end of the eighteenth century that people decided historically realistic
costumes should be used. The idea of staging Shakespeare in "modern dress"
isn't "modern" at all-that was the way he staged his plays himself. Similarly,
the acting style in Shakespeare's day was apparently not very realistic. The
actor did not set out to imitate a real human being but instead tended to be
more ceremonial, more like an orator, more like a man reciting poetry.
Thus, the general thing to remember in reading Shakespeare's plays is that
he was not writing for a so-called "naturalistic" theater, a theater which at-
tempts to show real people in realistic situations like the late nineteenth- or early
twentieth-century theater. Many of the excesses of nineteenth-century "char-
acter" criticism or modern "method" acting of Shakespeare's plays come about
because people think of Shakespeare as telling realistic stories about realistic
people. Shakespeare's theater was more abstract or stylized, more ceremonial
than realistic-with one exception. The Elizabethans loved gore and the play-
wright was under an obligation to produce realistic beheadings and disem-
bowelings and such episodes as the tearing out of Gloucester's eyes in King
Lear. Shakespeare might have worked that, you see, with a peeled grape that
would make a splat as Cornwall cries, "Out, vile jelly" "Upon these eyes
of thine I'll set my foot." Trick tables made beheadings possible; and a sheep's
bladder full of viscera could be hidden under a double for a disemboweling.
But, except for that kind of episode, Shakespeare's plays were not done real-
istically. Even the history books of Shakespeare's day showed historical char-
acters as though they were Elizabethans. An illustration from Holinshed's
Chronicles, for example (see Fig. 12), shows the eleventh-century Macbeth and
Banquo in sixteenth-century costume and the witches looking for all the world
like three Elizabethan ladies out for a stroll. Perhaps, then, the best thing to
think of when you try and think of the style of a Shakespearean play is a
medieval painting with a blank background, showing the eternal, the universal
part of man, lifted out of the bounds of a particular space and time.
Shakespeare speaks of "the two hours' traffic of our stage" in Romeo and
Juliet, and because there were no intermissions and the scenes flowed one right
after the other, he could indeed complete a play in two to two-and-a-half hours.
In fact, he had to, in that outdoor theater, because he had to get his audience
home before sundown. The play, even if it was a tragedy, was always followed
by a "jig" or comic skit. For example, at the end of Macbeth, after Macduff
z1 Shakespeare and His Theater
has carried the tyrant's head all around that 27%-by-43-foot platform, perhaps
with a little blood or catsup dripping from the neck onto the spectators nearest
the stage, then three or four comic dancers would come out and do a jig to
send the audience home across the river in a good mood. They were a good
audience. Like most illiterate people, they were extremely sensitive to language
and, all rumors to the contrary, they were apparently a quiet, attentive, and
patient audience. Like every Shakespearean critic, I hope by my efforts to give
Shakespeare another audience as good as his first. As Ben Jonson said of him,
"He was not of an age, but for all time." He is our writer as much as theirs.
"NOT OF AN AGE, BUT FOR ALL TIME," WROTE JONSON; 'TIS TRUE, 'TIS PITY, AND
pity 'tis, 'tis true. Each age since i6r6 has had its own Shakespeare, and the
story as a whole is one of the sadder illustrations of our perverse human ability
to substitute superficials for essentials. Age after age has imposed on Shake-
speare's life, gossip and idle backstairs fancies; on his work, the literary fads
or venalities of the moment.
In fact, Shakespeare's troubles began, even before his death in 1616, with
the so-called "bad" quartos. Copyright in Shakespeare's day offered an author
little in the way of profit or protection, and authors usually sold their plays out-
right to an acting company (receiving from 6 to /io). The early copyright
arrangements were particularly hard on the acting companies: once a play was
printed, anybody could perform it. Companies such as Shakespeare's, therefore,
tried to keep their plays out of print until they were no longer attractions in the
theater. Printers, on the other hand, were not averse to turning a penny by
pirating an edition of a play still being performed. Scholars differ as to just how
this pirating was accomplished. Some hold that a man or men attended the per-
formance to take the play down in one of the primitive shorthand systems of
the day, but the more accepted view is that the printer connived with some of
the actors who had been hired from outside the company to play minor parts:
he got them to dictate what they could remember of the play to someone in the
printer's shop. Here, for example, is the opening of Hamlet as it appears in one
of the accepted texts (with modern spelling and punctuation):
Enter ... two sentinels.
Bernardo. Who's there?
Francisco. Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.
13 After 16z6
Long live the king
You come most carefully upon your hour.
'Tis now struck twelve. Get thee to bed, Francisco.
For this relief much thanks. 'Tis bitter cold,
And I am sick at heart.
Have you had quiet guard?
Not a mouse stirring.
Well, good night.
If you do meet Horatio and Marcellus,
The rivals of my watch, bid them make haste.
Enter Horatio and Marcellus.
I think I hear them. Stand, hol Who is there?
Friends to this ground.
Give you good night.
Who hath relieved you?
Give you good night.
^nd liegemen to the Dane.
farewell, honest soldier.
Bernardo hath my place.
What, is Horatio there?
A piece of him.
This is the opening of Hamlet as it appears in the "bad" quarto of 1603 (ap-
parently dictated by the actor playing Marcellus; notice how the text gets
somewhat more accurate when Marcellus is on stage):
Enter two sentinels.
Stand: who is that?
Oh, you come most carefully upon your watch.
And if you meet Marcellus and Horatio,
The partners of my watch, bid them make haste.
I will. See-who goes there?
Enter Horatio and Marcellus.
Friends to this ground.
And liegemen to the Dane.
O, farewell, honest soldier. Who hath relieved you?
Bernardo hath my place. Give you good night.
Say-is Horatio there?
Horatio. A piece of him.
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
Often, after such a pirated text appeared, the acting company would try to
recoup by bringing out its own good edition. In the case of Hamlet, after the
"bad" quarto (Qi) appeared in 1603, 1604 saw the second quarto edition (Q2),
"Newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much again as it was according
to the true and perfect Coppie," a text apparently based on Shakespeare's own
manuscript and the one from which modern texts of Hamlet are commonly
Even with authorized quartos, though, the publishing of plays remained a
fairly helter-skelter business. Shakespeare, for example, lavished considerable
care on the publication at the beginning of his career of his two narrative poems,
Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594). Plays, however,
were a fairly disreputable kind of writing, and Shakespeare seems never even
to have watched his plays through the press, let alone written careful intro-
ductions to them as he did for the two poems. In fact, it seems possible that
the world's greatest playwright may have expected his reputation as a writer
to rest on these two good, but hardly outstanding, early poems. In x166, how-
ever, Ben Jonson brought forth his plays in a large folio collection, somewhat
pompously entitled Works, and playwrights began to take the publication of
their plays more seriously. Here again, an analogy to the film is not out of place.
Though, for a long time, screenplays have been published in an irregular sort of
way, it was not until 1960 with the publication of Four Screenplays by Ingmar
Bergman that there was a conscientious effort to bring out one man's work,
more or less carefully edited, and closely associated with the author. Similarly,
Jonson's Works started a trend and set other playwrights to publishing their
collected plays. It is faintly possible that Shakespeare himself had begun editing
his plays for the press when he died in 1616. He did leave, in his will, "to my
ffellowes John Hemynge Richard Burbage & Henry Cundell xxvj" viijd A
peece to buy them Ringes." Probably Shakespeare left them this bequest simply
because they were the three surviving members of the old acting company; just
possibly, though, he may have been rewarding them for taking the responsibility
for seeing his plays through the press.
Burbage died shortly after Shakespeare ("Exit Burbage" went one epitaph
for the great tragedian), but in 1623 John Heminge and Henry Condell brought
out Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. Published
according to the True Originall Copies. With this, the First Folio (Fi),
Heminge and Condell gave us, in effect, Shakespeare as we know him. It is
difficult to imagine what we would know about the plays and the poet without
these two men who worked, as they said, "without ambition either of selfe-
profit, or fame: only to keepe the memory of so worthy a Friend, & Fellow
aliue, as was our SHAKESPEARE, by humble offer of his players Here are thirty-
six plays (only Pericles has been added to the canon Heminge and Condell
15 After r6t6
established), and for most of these plays, the Folio provides the authoritative
texts. A somewhat elaborate volume, the Folio gives us our most authentic
likeness of Shakespeare, the Droeshout engraving; it also contains a list of the
principall actors," which includes Shakespeare himself, and a scattering of
tributes from London literary figures like Leonard Digges and Hugh Holland
including probably the most eloquent tribute ever paid by one poet to a rival,
Jonson's lines "To the memory of my beloued, The AUTHOR, Mr. WILLIAM
SHAKESPEARE." Heminge and Condell themselves wrote an introduction, "To
the great Variety of Readers," an important description of Shakespeare and his
works, which contains also a useful admonition to critics and readers:
It had bene a thing, we confesse, worthie to haue bene wished, that the
Author himself had liu'd to haue set forth, and ouerseen his owner writings;
But since it hath bin ordain'd otherwise, and he by death departed from that
right, we pray you do not envie his Friends, the office of their care, and paine, to
haue collected & published them; and so to haue published them, as where (be-
fore) you were abus'd with diuerse stolne, and surreptitious copies, maimed, and
deformed by the frauds and stealthes of iniurious impostors, that expos'd them:
euen those, are now offered to your view cur'd, and perfect of their limbes; and
all the rest, absolute in their numbers, as he conceiued the. Who, as he was a
happie imitator of Nature, was a most gentle expressed of it. His mind and hand
went together: And what he thought, he vttered with that easinesse, that wee
haue scarse received from him a blot in his papers. But it is not our prouince,
who only gather his works, and giue them to you, to praise him. It is yours
that read him. And there we hope, to your diuers capacities, you will find
enough, both to draw, and hold you: for his wit can no more lie hid, then it
could be lost. Reade him, therefore; and again, and again: And if then you
doe not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger, not to understand
him. And so we league you to other of his Friends, whom if you need, can bee
your guides: if you needed them not, you can leade your selues, and others. And
such Readers we wish him.
With the First Folio, Shakespeare was left to the mercies of time. His plays
were still performed, though cut to allow for the reduced playing time in the
"priuat" theaters and changed a little (for example, song-and-dance scenes put
into Macbeth to suit the growing demands of audiences for such things).
In 1642, however, Puritan reformers finally succeeded in closing down the
theaters, and Shakespeare was officially banished from the boards during the
ensuing eighteen-year "dramatic interregnum." Unofficially, however, there
were bootleg performances. Some of the more popular comic parts of the plays
were excerpted and played as little "drolls" at country fairs and the like: the
Bottom scenes from Midsummer Night's Dream, the Falstaff scenes from I
Henry IV, and, oddly enough, the graveyard scene from Hamlet.
In x660, when Charles II was restored to the throne and London theaters
started up again, they opened to a changed audience, more aristocratic than the
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
cross-section of society for which Shakespeare had originally written and more
intellectual, their tastes influenced by French styles and the new, rationalist
philosophy associated with Descartes and science. John Evelyn saw Hamlet in
x66i and liked it himself, but reported in his Diary, "Now the old plays begin
to disgust this refined age, since his Majesty's being so long abroad." Samuel
Pepys, indefatigable-if insensitive-playgoer and the great diarist of the day,
found Twelfth Night "one of the weakest plays that ever I saw on the stage,"
and Romeo and Juliet "a play of itself the worst that ever I heard in my life."
Midsummer Night's Dream, he said, was "the most insipid ridiculous play that
ever I saw in my life," but (in the manner of an out-of-town buyer at a modern
musical) "I saw, I confess, some good dancing and some handsome women,
which was all my pleasure."
Accordingly, Restoration writers set about rewriting Shakespeare to suit the
new tastes of their audience, much the way modern French plays are "adapted"
to suit the needs and tastes of Broadway. First to go was the language-Shake-
speare's "low" words were to be replaced by language more suited to the
elevated and refined diction of the Enlightenment. Davenant's operatic version
of Macbeth, complete with witches swinging about on wires like Peter Pan,
provides samples aplenty of this "refinement." Where Shakespeare's Banquo,
baffled at the witches' vanishing, had asked excitedly,
Were such things here as we do speak about?
Or have we eaten on the insane root
That takes the reason prisoner?
(I. iii. 83-85)
Davenant's Banquo genteelly inquired:
Were such things here as we discours'd of now?
Or have we tasted some infectious herb
That captivates our reason?
Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth steels her courage for the murder:
Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry "Hold, hold!"
(I. v. 48-52)
while Davenant's Lady Macbeth discreetly eschews "low" terms:
Make haste, dark night,
And hide me in a smoke as dark as hell,
That my keen steel see not the wound it makes,
Nor heav'n peep through the curtains of the dark
To cry, "Hold, hold!"
17 After 1616
Dr. Samuel Johnson (for all that he is the greatest of English critics and one of
the most sensitive of commentators on Shakespeare) eighty years later ap-
plauded Davenant's substitution of "curtains" for "blanket" and suggested that
the terror of the lines would be "weakened by the name of an instrument used
by butchers and cooks in the meanest employment; we do not immediately
conceive that any crime of importance is to be committed with a knife." Again,
Macbeth, the real Macbeth, looks at his bloody hands and asks:
Will all great Neptune's Ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red,
(II. ii. 59-62)
while Davenant's Macbeth whimpers:
Can the sea afford
Water enough to wash away the stains?
No, they would sooner add a tincture to
The sea, and turn the green into a red.
Compare the lack of delicacy in: "The crow makes wing to th' rooky wood,"
with the refinement of: "The crow makes wing to the thick shady grove," or
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
(V. v. 19-23)
is so much better as:
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in a stealing pace from day to day,
To the last minute of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
To their eternal homes; out, out, that candle!
Davenant's Macbeth is at least easier, and Pepys did like it: "One of the best
plays for a stage, and variety of dancing and musique, that ever I saw."
"Reforming" Shakespeare's language was only the beginning; the plots were
next. Davenant's opera of Macbeth, for example, enlarged the role of the Mac-
duffs to create the balance and symmetry the rationalist tastes of the age ap-
proved. Davenant also adapted Measure for Measure by using the main plot,
but eliminating the "low" comedy of Elbow and Pompey and substituting for
it the witty scenes from Much Ado About Nothing; the result, he called The Law
Against Lovers. Davenant also collaborated with John Dryden to rework The
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
Tempest into a rather ribald and spectacular musical comedy. The plot which
delighted an age discovering the "natural man" was the story of Miranda, the
girl who has never seen a man, so Davenant added two more innocents, one of
them a man who has never seen a girl; both plots afforded plenty of opportunity
for the racy wit the Restoration favored. Thomas Shadwell turned Timon of
Athens into an opera, and John Lacy rewrote The Taming of the Shrew into
a more or less typical Restoration comedy featuring a comic servant with
Scottish dialect and called Sauny the Scot. By 1710, most of Shakespeare's plays
had been "improved," but of all these adaptations, the only one with any merit
of its own is Dryden's Antony and Cleopatra which he called (one could
scarcely ask for a more typical Restoration title) All for Love; it is certainly the
best blank-verse tragedy written in English after 1642.
Surely the most extraordinary of the adaptations was Nahum Tate's version
of King Lear. Tate eliminated Shakespeare's brilliant Fool, put in some love
interest, and gave the tragedy a happy ending. At the end, Lear achieves a "blest
Restauration" and Edgar marries Cordelia, pointing the moral demanded by
the rule of "poetic justice":
Thy bright example shall convince the World
(Whatever Storms of Fortune are decreed)
That Truth and Vertue shall at last succeed.
Indeed, the true Shakespeare has succeeded, and the adaptations serve today
mostly to provide a few chuckles in scholarly circles. Nevertheless, they did
have an astonishing durability. They replaced the real Shakespeare, some of
them, for as long as a century and a half; Tate's version of Lear, for example,
was being played in London well up into the nineteenth century. In fact, a few
aspects of Colley Gibber's Richard III found their way into the recent film of
Paradoxically, while some neoclassic authors were rewriting Shakespeare,
others were valiantly trying to restore what he "really" wrote. If there is one
feeling which characterizes the Enlightenment, it is: We know. Thus Davenant
and others could "refine" and "improve" Shakespeare; and thus Nicholas Rowe,
his first eighteenth-century editor, could pontificate: "I shall not undertake the
tedious and ill-natur'd Trouble to point out the several faults he was guilty of"
in not arranging his plays according to the supposed rules of Aristotle. "As
Shakespear liv'd under a kind of mere Light of Nature, and had never been
made acquainted with the Regularity of those written Precepts, so it would be
hard to judge him by a Law he knew nothing of. We are to consider him as a
Man that liv'd in a State of almost universal License and Ignorance: There
was no established Judge, but every one took the liberty to Write according to
the Dictates of his own Fancy." Despite this "irregularity," Shakespeare's plays
19 After r616
had gone through four editions in the seventeenth century, and Rowe took it
upon himself to bring out a new one. His was the first illustrated edition of
Shakespeare, the first to contain a biography, and the first to provide a complete
set of act-and-scene divisions in the eighteenth-century manner. (Remember
that on Shakespeare's stage the scenes followed one after the other without
breaks; what act-and-scene divisions the First Folio has represent a literary, not
a dramatic convention.) Unfortunately, Rowe based his text on the "latest
edition" instead of turning back to early texts, and in doing so he set a precedent
for Shakespearean editing that was to last nearly two hundred years.
Thus, when the poet Alexander Pope decided to bring out a correct edition
of Shakespeare's works, "that of the late Mr. Rowe being very faulty," he
worked from Rowe's text. Though Pope gave Shakespeare high marks for
characterization, originality, "power over our passions," and "sentiments," "It
must be own'd," he decided, "that with all these great excellencies, he has
almost as great defects," and Pope set about to rescue him. In addition to "Want
of Learning," Shakespeare had leveled his plays to please "the Populace" and
his audience "was generally composed of the meaner sort of people." "Not only
the common Audience had no notion of the rules of writing, but few even of
the better sort." Further, Shakespeare was a "player," and "They have ever had
a Standard to themselves, upon other principles than those of Aristotle. Players
are just such judges of what is right, as Taylors are of what is graceful." Con-
sequently, Pope felt free to drop lines he did not like or bury them in footnotes
or marginalia; he emended freely, flattening out Shakespeare's irregularities
into the glassy slickness of eighteenth-century poetic diction. Pope's edition
(1725) was a disgrace, and it prompted one Lewis Theobald to publish in 1726
a book, Shakespeare Restored, or a Specimen of the many Errors as well Com-
mitted as unamended by Mr. Pope in his late edition of this Poet; designed
not only to correct the said Edition, but to restore the true Reading of Shake-
speare in all the Editions ever published." Pope waspishly replied by immor-
talizing his opponent as "piddling Tibbalds" and making him the hero of the
first version of the most delightful satire in English, the Dunciad; Theobald is
made to apostrophize the Goddess of Dulness:
For thee I dim these eyes and stuff this head
With all such reading as was never read.
Theobald had indeed prepared himself for the study of Shakespeare by studying
the sources from which Shakespeare took his stories, and when he retaliated by
producing his own edition of Shakespeare, it proved far more satisfactory than
Pope's. William Warburton, however, rallied to the defense of Pope and pro-
duced his own edition; at the same time both he and Pope attacked still another
editor, Sir Thomas Hanmer.
20 THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
All these warring editors, however, whether ridiculing or stealing one an-
other's emendations, all assumed it was an editor's business to conjecture, where
the text seemed difficult or unsatisfactory, what Shakespeare had "truly" written.
An eighteenth-century satirist summed up the rights of editors: "He has a right
to alter any passage, which he does not understand." "Where He does not like
an expression, and yet cannot mend it, He may abuse his author for it." Rowe
had set a procedure for future editing of Shakespeare which lasted well-nigh
two hundred years: turn away from the early folios and quartos and substitute
the cumulating wisdom of editors, adding emendation to emendation. Though
later editions-in the eighteenth century, Edward Capell's, George Steevens'
(who obtained for his edition commentary by Samuel Johnson), the great
scholar Edmond Malone's edition, and subsequent variorums (editions which
summarize the comments of other editors and scholars); in the nineteenth
century, the Cambridge Shakespeare of 1863-I866-though these editions pruned
the excesses of the warring editors, Rowe's principle of cumulating editorial
wisdom remained largely intact.
Until our own century, the only radically new approach to editing Shake-
speare was that of Thomas Bowdler who brought out, in 1818, The Family
Shakespeare on the following editorial principle: "If any word or expression is
of such a nature, that the first impression which it excites is an impression of
obscenity, that word ought not to be spoken, or written, or printed: and if
printed, it ought to be erased." Bowdler found to his pleasure "that the indecent
words in [Shakespeare's] writings may, in almost every instance, be expunged,
not only without injury, but with manifest advantage to the sense of the passage,
and the spirit of the author." Accordingly, Bowdler improved Shakespeare by
excluding from his edition "whatever is unfit to be read aloud by a gentleman
to a company of ladies." "I can hardly imagine," wrote Bowdler, "a more pleas-
ing occupation for a winter's evening in the country, than for a father to read
one of Shakespeare's plays to his family circle"-indeed Bowdler's own father
had done so, and so great was his father's skill in editing as he read, "that his
family listened with delight to Lear, Hamlet, and Othello without knowing
that those matchless tragedies contained words and expressions improper to be
pronounced." The aim of Bowdler's Family Shakespeare was to enable other
fathers, perhaps less skilled, to read to their family circles "without incurring
the danger of falling unawares among words and expressions which are of such
a nature as to raise a blush on the cheek of modesty, or render it necessary for
the reader to pause, and examine the sequel before he proceeds further in the
entertainment of the evening." Thus was Shakespeare improved, now, for the
Victorians. "Here, ran Johnson's dagger through," quipped the British Critic,
"'see what a rent envious Pope has made,' and 'here, the well beloved Bowdler
21 After z616
His plays were not of an age, but for all ages in the matters of editing and
"improvements"; so also the man himself. Each age invented, as it were, its
own image of the bard. "Shakespeare wanted art," said his friend Ben Jonson,
that is, Shakespeare lacked that sense of technique which meant paying proper
attention to the way the Greeks and Romans wrote plays and obeying the rules
of Aristotle (which, of course, Aristotle himself did not invent; Renaissance
commentators did). "His wit was in his owne power," said Jonson, "would
the rule of it had been so too," as he pointed out an absurd line in Julius Caesar
(which apparently Shakespeare changed as a result of Jonson's scorn). This was
to be the opinion of Shakespeare for a century and a half after his death, that he
had a marvelous imagination but failed to control it well, "rule" it, because
he "wanted art" or lacked learning. Thus Milton could write, some fifteen years
after the playwright's death, of "sweetest Shakespeare, fancy's child," that is,
imagination's favorite son, warbling "his native Wood-notes wild," and contrast
Shakespeare's free flow of imagination with Jonson's "learned" style. So also
Dryden in the Restoration found Jonson "the more correct poet, but Shakespeare
the greater wit," that is, the man with greater imagination. The Restoration
would speak of Shakespeare's "Artless beauty." "'Twas well in spight of him
what ere he writ," wrote an anonymous poet. We have already heard Pope's
strictures in the early eighteenth century, and even Dr. Johnson in his magnifi-
cently sane and balanced "Preface to Shakespeare" (1765), though on balance
he justified Shakespeare's style and judgment, relied in part on the Enlighten-
ment's feeling that "The English nation, in the time of Shakespeare, was yet
struggling to emerge from barbarity."
With the end of the century and the coming of Romanticism, the rules and
"correctness" even the best minds of the Enlightenment had set such store by
fell into disrepute. The conception of "artless" Shakespeare veered around-not
to the correct view, that Shakespeare was a fairly well educated man-but to
make of his supposed artlessness, not a vice, but a virtue. In the hands of the
best Romantic writers, this view became a sound, even brilliant, corrective to the
neoclassic cliches. Thus, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, greatest of the Romantic
Let me now proceed to destroy, as far as may be in my power, the popular
notion that he was a great dramatist by mere instinct, that he grew immortal
in his own despite [it] began in a few pedants, who having read that
Sophocles was the great model of tragedy, and Aristotle the infallible dictator
of its rules, and finding that the Lear, Hamlet, Othello, and other master-pieces
were neither in imitation of Sophocles, nor in obedience to Aristotle took
upon them, as a happy medium and refuge, to talk of Shakspeare as a sort
of beautiful lusus natural, a delightful monster,-wild, indeed, and without
taste or judgment. .. In nine places out of ten in which I find his awful name
mentioned, it is with some epithet of 'wild,' 'irregular,' 'pure child of nature,' &c.
22 THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
The true ground of the mistake lies in the confounding mechanical regularity
with organic form. The form is mechanic, when on any given material we im-
press a predetermined form, not necessarily arising out of the properties of the
material;-as when to a mass of wet clay we give whatever shape we wish it to
retain when hardened. The organic form, on the other hand, is innate; it shapes,
as it developed, itself from within, and the fulness of its development is one and
the same with the perfection of its outward form. Such as the life is, such is the
form and even such is the appropriate excellence of .. our own Shake-
In other words, Shakespeare's plays have the form which is right for Shake-
speare's plays. It is nonsense to say he "wanted art."
In the hands of lesser men, however, Shakespeare was still supposed to
be "Artless," uneducated, and this supposed lack of learning combined with
the Romantic cult of the primitive and the "natural," the notion of the poet
tutored only by nature, to produce a particularly tedious and confusing kind
of sentimentality. This sentimentality had already begun at the Jubilee celebra-
tion at Stratford in 1769, presided over by David Garrick which greatly stressed
the notion of "Avonian Willy":
Ye Warwickshire lads, and ye lasses,
See what at our Jubilee passes;
Come revel away, rejoice, and be glad,
For the lad of all lads was a Warwickshire lad,
went one of Garrick's songs. By the 1840's, Thomas Carlyle could speak in one
breath of "the greatest intellect, who, in our recorded world, has left record of
himself in the way of Literature" and in the next breath of "the Stratford
Peasant." Even scholars were not immune to the image of a pastoral bard sur-
rounded by "sweet English maidens," "pleasant country scenes," "Spring
flowers," and, above all, "sheep-shearings." One of the finest scholars, Halliwell-
Phillips, described in 1874 a Shakespeare "removed prematurely from school,
residing with illiterate relatives in a bookless neighbourhood; thrown into the
midst of occupations adverse to scholastic progress." Sidney Lee in 1898 found
him "a village youth," stagestruckk."
Combined with this image of the "child of nature" was the most shameless
kind of adulation. Jonson had said, "I lov'd the man, and doe honour his mem-
ory (on this side Idolatry) as much as any." Later, less reasonable souls have not
stayed on the lee side of idolatry. Davenant, for all his "improvements," was
willing to go a long way to link himself to the bard. Davenant's parents, notably
his beautiful mother, had run the Crown Tavern in Oxford where (Davenant
said) Shakespeare would stop over on his annual journeys to Stratford. "Now
Sir William," a seventeenth-century antiquary reported of Davenant, "would
sometimes, when he was pleasant over a glass of wine with his most intimate
23 After 16z6
friends say, that it seemed to him that he writt with the very spirit that did
Shakespeare, and seemed contented enough to be thought his Son. He would
tell them the story as above, in which way his mother had a very light report,
whereby she was called a Whore."
Davenant's willingness to sacrifice his mother on the altar of the Shakespeare
cult was only a first step across the line of idolatry. It is rather striking, in fact,
how often bardolatryy" (as it is called) soars into the language of religion. As
early as 1765, an English writer had a Frenchman say: "A veneration for Shake-
speare seems to be a part of your national religion, and the only part in which
even your men of sense are fanatics," and Coleridge complained that Shake-
speare was treated "as a sort of grand Lama, adored indeed, and his very excre-
ments prized as relics." The citizens of Stratford were, to be sure, not slow in
providing relics that the increasing throng of visitors to Stratford could pur-
chase. Though the testy Reverend Francis Gastrell who purchased New Place
cut down the mulberry tree the poet was said to have planted, indeed, razed the
house, the tree was purchased by an aptly named Thomas Sharpe who fashioned
from it a seemingly never-ending stream of cups, toothpick cases, and the like.
"Perhaps," writes a kindly scholar, "it was, after all, a very big mulberry tree."
At any rate, at the Jubilee, Garrick was given one of the cups and so moved to
Behold this fair goblet, 'twas carv'd from the tree,
Which, O my sweet Shakespear, was planted by thee;
As a relic I kiss it, and bow at the shrine;
What comes from thy hand must be ever divine.
Stratford was seeing the beginnings of the "Shakespeare industry." Edmond
Malone, for example, wrote:
In this retreat our Shakespeare's godlike mind
With matchless skill surveyed all human kind.
The "retreat" began to realize some of the possibilities opened by the bard's
growing reputation. Mrs. Hart, a distant descendant, sold off bits and pieces of
the poet's chair. Anne Hathaway's descendants turned up with a beaded purse
they said the poet had given his beloved and, even more exciting, an oak chair
in which he sat during their courtship holding Anne on his knee. The succeed-
ing owners of the Birthplace had, most surprising of all, Friar Laurence's lan-
tern, but also produced what purported to be the poet's reading glass, pencil
case, tobacco box, sword, baby chair, and easy chair (evidently, like the mulberry
tree, selling off pieces of it had not diminished the original item).
The stream of relics from the shrine was equaled only by the stream of
words from devout worshipers. All through the century, bardolaters were
moved to massive apostrophes. There was De Quincey's (1823): "O mighty
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
poet! Thy works are not as those of other men, simply and merely great works
of art; but are also like the phenomena of nature, like the sun and the sea, the
stars and the flowers; like frost and snow, rain and dew, hail-storms and thun-
der. Carlyle's (184o):
Here, I say, is an English King, whom no time or chance, Parliament or
combination of Parliaments can dethrone! This King Shakespeare, does not he
shine, in crowned sovereignty, over us all, as the noblest, gentlest, yet strongest
of rallying signs. We can fancy him as radiant aloft over all the Nations
of Englishmen, a thousand years hence.
And on and on through the century, the paean swelled in all the orotundities of
Victorian prose, culminating in Swinburne's effusions as he wound up his wit
to consider the last plays: "And now, coming at length within the very circle of
Shakespeare's culminant and crowning constellation, bathing my whole soul
and spirit for the last and (if I live long enough) as surely for the first of many
thousand times in the splendours of the planet whose glory is the light of his
very love itself what shall I say of thanksgiving before the final feast of
Shakespeare?" Indeed, he would seem to have said all any reasonable man could.
By this time, Shakespearomania was not simply an English phenomenon
but a European one. With the spread of Romanticism, the contempt for the
rules of the Enlightenment, and the prizing of the "irregular" and "primitive,"
Shakespeare had conquered Europe as well as his native isle, and those who
wished to could read in Goethe or Pushkin paeans in their native tongue, like
this by Victor Hugo:
Shakespeare: what is he? You might almost answer, He is the earth. .. In
Shakespeare the birds sing, the bushes are clothed with green, hearts love, souls
suffer, the cloud wanders, it is hot, it is cold, night falls, time passes, forests and
multitudes speak, the vast eternal dream hovers over all. Sap and blood, all
forms of the multiple reality, actions and ideas, man and humanity, the living
and the life, solitudes, cities, religions, diamonds and pearls, dung-hills and
charnel-houses, the ebb and flow of beings, the steps of comers and goers, all,
all are on Shakespeare and in Shakespeare.
This kind of thing, while it expresses an admirable fondness for Shakespeare,
can hardly be said to add to our understanding of his works, an understanding
that was badly needed in the nineteenth century.
Bardolatry thrived on the fact that, then, little was known about the poet.
Instead, the aura around the bard consisted largely of rather doubtful old
stories. The Stratford citizens were no less slow in providing legends than they
were in providing relics; and old actors who survived into the Restoration had
added their dim recollections. Shakespeare "had been in his younger years a
schoolmaster in the country" (though the records of such things do not show
it). "His father was a Butcher, and when he [Shakespeare] was a boy he
25 After 1616
exercised his father's Trade, but when he killed a Calfe he would doe it in a
high style, and make a Speech." When he first came up to London, he held
horses for the patrons outside of the theaters. He had died a Roman Catholic.
He had written epitaphs for various Stratford figures (which the proud citizens
then produced). He had died after a drinking bout with two fellow poets visit-
ing from London, Jonson and Drayton (though Drayton was famous for his
sobriety). He had played Adam in As You Like It and the Ghost in Hamlet.
The most durable story of all was that Shakespeare had been persecuted by one
Sir Thomas Lucy for poaching in his deer park and had lampooned Lucy as
Justice Shallow in The Merry Wives of Windsor, giving Shallow twelve luces
("louses") in his coat of arms (the Lucys, however, had no deer park in the
sixteenth century and a "luce" is a freshwater fish that appeared on many coats
of arms in the period).
This intriguing, if rather fanciful, picture was further confused by forgery,
and not just of mulberry wood and easy chairs. In the i790's, William-Henry
Ireland, inspired by the Stratford shrines and relics, "discovered" a mortgage
deed. This first success, however, like the fatal glass of beer, led the young man
on and on through receipts, portraits, letters, poems, manuscripts of plays, even
a lock of the poet's hair, and finally to a hitherto undiscovered masterpiece,
Vortigern and Rowena. This tragedy, in which Ireland took considerable pride,
was actually produced-despite howls of laughter from a skeptical audience at
the climactic line, "And when this solemn mockery is o'er." The nineteenth
century produced a farrago of portraits, most of them truly Elizabethan, but
probably none of them a portrait of Shakespeare. Even scholars were not im-
mune from the mania for Shakespeareana, and one of the greatest of them,
John Payne Collier, was carried away by the praise accorded his early discoveries
of theatrical documents, praise which had made him the leading Shakespearean
authority of his day. Haunted by heaven knows what strange visions of literary
eminence, Collier "discovered" other diaries and documents of the period and
finally came up with a whole set of marginalia in an early folio that purported
to be corrections against Shakespeare's original manuscript. Even today, scholars
are not entirely sure what in Collier's work can be relied upon. Other scholars
of the nineteenth century, intent upon the further deification of the bard, be-
came "disintegrators," that is, critics who insisted that such-and-such a scene
or line was too inferior to be the poet's work-it must have been interpolated by
somebody else. These disintegrativee" critics, in other words, simply brought
Pope's thesis of the horrid actors up to date, and they, like Pope, did their bit
to obscure the Shakespearean picture.
The combination of ignorance and idolatry is a dangerous one; it hardly
makes sense to regard any man, even a Shakespeare, as on the one hand a uni-
versal genius and on the other an unschooled child of nature. It is not surpris-
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
ing that in all the confusion someone should ask could this "Stratford peasant"
be the same man as "the greatest intellect who, in our recorded world, has left
record of himself in the way of literature"? Someone, of course, did ask: Joseph
C. Hart, in his Romance of Yachting (1848): "Ah, Shakespeare-Immortal
Bard-Who were you?" Hart offered no solution, but Miss Delia Bacon did, in
The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded (x857)-her namesake,
Elizabeth's great jurist, Sir Francis Bacon. And in doing so, she opened the
floodgates: out poured conjecture, speculation, codes, cryptograms, acrostics,
anagrams,* and even conversations with the spirits of departed candidates for
authorship-for, of course, Bacon's claim in time came to be regarded as no
more valid than that of the "ignorant butcher's son." Since Delia Bacon's primi-
tive efforts, we have been treated to cases for over twenty others, among them,
the Earls of Derby, Rutland, and Oxford, Christopher Marlowe, Sir Walter
Raleigh, Sir Edward Dyer, the Countess of Pembroke, a committee headed by
Queen Elizabeth, and a nun named Ann Whateley (who exists solely as a
clerk's error for "Hathaway").
In the days when bardolatry combined with a truly astonishing ignorance
about Shakespeare and his theater (it was not, for example, until 1875 that a
reasonable chronology for the plays was established), such an anti-Stratfordian
cult is, in a way, not very surprising. What is surprising is that such a cult or
cults should continue long after our ignorance of Shakespeare and his time has
been cleared up. After all, we have inherited the achievements of nineteenth-
century scholarship as well as its failures, and the documents proving the facts
of Shakespeare's life and stage are now quite easily available to anyone willing
to look at them. Shakespeare was not "a mean, drunken, ignorant and absolutely
unlettered rustic," nor did his contemporaries find his plays particularly learned
or aristocratic-in fact, quite the opposite. We can now see that the anti-Strat-
fordian cults are arguing (to put the notion in modern terms) that Chief Justice
Warren-or Governor Rockefeller or Wernher Von Braun-has been secretly
turning out screenplays at the rate of two a year leaving coded messages and
allegories in them to prove his authorship when future ages shall have decided
(two centuries hence) these movies were the work of a universal genius.
It would be pleasant to say that, while in the studies of the world, men were
unmasking, forging, idolizing, bowdlerizing, "refining," "improving," and
emending Shakespeare, on the stages of the world, this consummate dramatic
Imagine, for example, the secret messages about authorship contained in a word like
honorificabilitudinitatibus (for example, hi ludi tuiti sibi, Fr Bacono, which more or less
says: these plays entrusted to themselves proceeded from Fr Bacon), though since Dante
uses the word, too, the message must prove Bacon wrote The Divine Comedy as well as
Love's Labours Lost.
27 After 1616
artist had remained pure, but such, alas, is not the case. On the stage, no less
than in the study, each age has had its own special version of Shakespeare.
Shakespeare had written his plays for a 27%-by-43-foot platform, surrounded on
three sides by the audience, with little or no scenery, and no breaks between
successive scenes. The popular theaters being open to the skies, there was no
proscenium arch and no curtain. Such a simple stage obviously could not last
long. Even in Shakespeare's lifetime, as the popular theaters faced various diffi-
culties and the "priuat" or roofed, indoor theaters became increasingly impor-
tant in the economics of the theater, his plays moved indoors with, apparently,
some increase in scenery and breaks for musical intermissions.
After the dramatic interregnum, when the theaters were reopened, they
were indoor theaters with a proscenium arch, curtain, and with a large part
of the platform behind the arch. The purpose of increasing the area behind the
arch was to provide space for scenery and other effects (space, for example, for
the wires on which to hang Davenant's witches). The curtain meant breaks for
act-and-scene divisions in the French manner, so that Rowe, in dividing the
plays into acts and scenes, was simply following the theatrical practice of his
day. No wonder Shakespeare seemed to lack "art"-the curtain would have
been constantly going up and down for changes in scene.
In the eighteenth century, still more of the playing area moved behind the
proscenium arch. Still more scenic effects were added, until what confronted
the audience (now facing, not surrounding, the playing area) was essentially
a modern picture-frame stage in which the proscenium arch frames what looks
like a picture of the setting. It is at this time that editors begin adding those
strange stage directions, "another room in the castle," "another part of the battle-
field," when all there should have been was that grand scaffold 27Y-by-43 feet.
What goes with the picture-frame stage is the "fourth-wall convention" in
which the audience pretends, in effect, it is watching the action through the
transparent fourth wall of a room. Such a stage calls for a more realistic, natu-
ralistic style of acting. In Shakespeare's day, or at least just before his time, act-
ing was more like recitation. Over the next two centuries, acting became more
and more naturalistic, the greatest steps in that direction being taken by David
Garrick in the third quarter of the century: "the illusions of imposing declama-
tion" gave way, with Garrick's innovations, to "the just modulation of the
words, and concurring expression of the features from the genuine working of
nature." It would be no bad thing if modern actors and directors were more
aware of the fact that Garrick's innovations were innovations. The theater has
been a going concern for some three thousand years; only in the last i50 has
naturalistic representation (which most modern actors and directors regard as
the essence of the dramatic art) been considered important. Among the writers
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
writing in the benighted ages before naturalism were Aeschylus, Sophocles,
Euripides, Lope de Vega, Calder6n, Moliere, Marlowe, Jonson, Racine, Cor-
neille, Congreve-and Shakespeare.
Naturalism, whether we regard it as a good influence or a bad one, came
slow and late. As a matter of fact, it was only in Garrick's time that the custom
ended of having the more well-to-do spectators sit on the stage, hardly an ar-
rangement calculated to produce an illusion of reality. In Shakespeare's day,
actors simply wore the clothes of their own time (with perhaps a few conven-
tionalized garments that signaled they were playing Greeks and Romans). In
what is apparently a sketch of a contemporary performance of Titus Andronicus
(see Fig. 7), only the principals wear anything remotely like Roman costume;
the guards wear Elizabethan clothes. This was indeed "Shakespeare in modern
dress," and this approach lasted for two hundred years. Garrick, when he played
Macbeth, "used to be dressed in a suit of scarlet and gold, a tail wig, etc., in every
respect like a modern military officer" (see Fig. 9), and the witches wore
"mittens, plaited caps, laced aprons, red stomachers, ruffs." Garrick's Hamlet
looks simply like an eighteenth-century gentleman (see Fig. 17). It was Gar-
rick's rivals, Aaron and John Hill and Charles Macklin, who introduced natu-
ralism in stage dress. Macklin, wrote his biographer, "whose eye and mind were
ever intent on his profession, saw the absurdity of exhibiting a Scotch character,
existing many years before the Norman Conquest, in this manner [that is, as
a modern military officer], and therefore very properly abandoned it for the old
Caledonian habit." But his Shylock (see Fig. 14) wears eighteenth-century
At the same time, painters had begun painting what were called conversation
pieces, that is, paintings that illustrated a line or scene from one of the plays.
While some of these works were worthwhile in themselves, like Blake's engrav-
ing of the ghost of Caesar or Fuseli's painting of Lady Macbeth, they only con-
fused readers of the plays as to what the plays were supposed to look like on-
stage. Increasingly, people began to regard a Shakespearean play not so much
as a thing-in-itself but as a representation of something outside itself. People
got the characters all mixed up with historical personages as though Shake-
speare had been merely recording the doings of some actual people. The Strat-
ford relic-works had come up with Friar Laurence's lantern, and if you go to
Verona today, you will quite solemnly be shown the tomb of Romeo and Juliet,
and Elsinore is always described as Hamlet's castle, though so far as anybody
knows neither Romeo nor Juliet nor Hamlet ever actually existed.
In short, just as Shakespeare's plays were getting free of the alien critical
standards the eighteenth century had imposed, the nineteenth century came up
with an alien theatrical practice. By the end of the eighteenth century, theater
people were slowly but surely getting rid of the Restoration "improvements"
29 After 16z6
and adaptations. Garrick disposed of Hippolito (the young man who had never
seen a woman in The Tempest), but he also dropped the gravediggers and
Osric from Hamlet. Edmund Kean put the tragic ending back into Lear, but
it was not until 1838 with William Macready that the tragedy regained its Fool
and lost the romance between Edgar and Cordelia. By the mid-century, schol-
arly Samuel Phelps, working in the little suburban theater at Sadler's Wells,
had finally played all but six of Shakespeare's plays substantially as they were
written. The big London theaters, however, had so grown in size that for their
audiences the plays had to be spectacles rather than the verbal dramas that
Shakespeare actually wrote, and this need to turn the plays into pageants led
to the next age's version of Shakespeare.
In the 1850's, Charles Kean began staging Shakespeare with a great to-do
about archaeological accuracy. Macbeth, for example, had an enormous eleventh-
century banquet hall complete with hundreds of retainers, roasted oxen being
carried about, and all the rest. To move all that scenery, even to move around
in it, takes time, and what was Kean to cut? Naturally-cut the language which
is obviously of less importance than the roasted oxen. In The Winter's Tale,
an obliging eighteenth-century editor had solved the problem of the nonexistent
seacoast of Bohemia by assuring his readers that Shakespeare (that learned
geographer!) had really meant "Bithynia," which made a nice savage contrast
to the Graeco-Syracusan culture represented by the other scenes in the play.
That was all Kean needed: "An opportunity is thus afforded," he wrote, "of
reproducing a classical era, and placing before the eyes of the spectator, Tableaux
vivants of the private and public life of the ancient Greeks." An awesome team
of archaeologists reproduced with appalling accuracy chairs, harps, fountains,
even a little go-cart which young Ellen Terry pulled about as she played
Mamillius. Shakespeare's simple stage direction, "Here a dance of twelve
Satyrs," became "the boisterous merriment of the Dionysia, a grand festival of
the vintage, in honour of Bacchus, executed by an overpowering mass of satyrs,
men, women, and children in wild disguises and with frantic energy. There
must have been at least three hundred persons engaged in this revel. .. "
Through the remainder of the century, Sir Henry Irving continued this
style, staging a 30,000 Henry VIII complete with three stories of half-timbered
Tudor houses crowded with citizens cheering the royal procession. Hamlet,
Irving turned into a rather treacly love story, stressing Ophelia's touching mad-
ness at the expense of the murder and usurpation, and ending the play with the
death of the hero: "The rest is silence"-if only it were! Beerbohm Tree con-
tinued Irving's ravages up to World War I, introducing, for example, into King
John a spectacular dumb show of the granting of Magna Carta (though it con-
tributed nothing to the play). His Midsummer Night's Dream had real grass
with real rabbits hopping about on it. Finally, William Poel and Harley Gran-
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
ville-Barker led a successful revolt against this lush Victorian staging, and by
producing Shakespearean plays under essentially Elizabethan conditions, gave
a more satisfactory Shakespeare to audiences.
In essence, the nineteenth century's version of Shakespeare, then, not only
in staging, but in criticism, was a picture or chronicle of something outside
the play, historical personages in eleventh-century Scotland or Athens or Bi-
thynia. We should probably see in this approach something of the influence of
the novel, itself an outgrowth of a radical shift in thinking that took place in
the eighteenth century. The classical world-view saw human nature as essen-
tially unchanging, existing in timeless universals; the business of the artist was to
bring out those enduring, unchanging aspects of the human situation, stripping
off the irrelevant accidents of time and place. Shakespeare shared this view. He
himself saw the past times he wrote about as in their important essentials
very like his own day; hence, it was all right to dress the actors as Elizabethans
even when they were playing Greeks and Romans, just as Italian Renaissance
painters dress the characters of a crucifixion or Pieta in clothes of the Italian
Renaissance. It was thirty years after Shakespeare's death before the word
"anachronism" appeared in the English language. In the course of the eight-
eenth century, as society became more individualistic and capitalistic, as the
hierarchical, all-embracing structure of Renaissance society broke up, people
came to think of human nature as more particular and unique, different in
different times and places. History ceased to be the record of an unchanging
"nature," of fables for every age and clime, and became instead the analysis of
individual and particular processes of cause and effect. The novel, with all its
particularized details of name, date, place, or motive, replaced the theater as
the great medium of popular art, and increasingly, audiences demanded from
the stage realistic details such as those the novelist gave. Since Shakespeare is
quite skimpy in such matters, Victorian directors supplied them by their staging
(Kean's "placing before the eyes of the spectator Tableaux vivants of the
private and public life of the ancient Greeks"). In short, we should not look on
Victorian staging simply as a result of large theaters, but as a comprehensive
view of Shakespeare's plays, indeed, a comprehensive view of nature and of art
which applied to all writers. The Victorian view is no less false to Shakespeare's
art, but it is not simply an empty theatricality.
In our own century, it would be nice to say Shakespeare is handled better.
Modern producers do tend to stage Shakespeare in a simple set, often on a plat-
form or arena stage, so that the play need not be cut to allow the curtain to
go up and down and the sets to be moved. Recently, there has been more and
more of a tendency to stage Shakespeare in whatever kind of costume seems
best to bring out the values of the play, a trend set by Orson Welles's Julius
3x After 6166
Caesar in the 1930's and continued, for example, in such productions as the Old
Vic's of Troilus and Cressida in the military costumes of World War I (though
perhaps future ages will find our staging of Much Ado about Nothing in the
form of a Western as reprehensible as Beerbohm Tree's rabbits). We no longer
rewrite Shakespeare, except for such special occasions as Swingin' the Dream,
a 1939 version of Midsummer Night's Dream set in the New Orleans of the
i88o's complete with three bands including the Benny Goodman Sextet and a
cast of two hundred, among them Louis Armstrong as Bottom the Weaver. The
lush Victorian tradition of staging has largely been left to the movies, a natural
result of the difficulty of transferring to a highly visual medium a highly aural
work like a Shakespearean play. Even in the films of Shakespeare, the best have
left Shakespeare's language largely untouched, using the special techniques of
the film to develop the central idea of the play (for example, Sir Laurence
Olivier's Henry V abandons the usual naturalism of the film to produce a con-
sciously "stagy" version, with an opening view of the Globe Theatre and back-
drops flat as medieval paintings, thereby developing the play's central metaphor,
the "stage" of history). The trouble with Shakespearean production in our age
is our worship of the "original"-we are not content to have a good staging
done over and over; we want a new one every time, and we are thus led into
such absurdities as a production of Hamlet with three actors onstage at a time
to play the one Prince and thus suggest the different sides of his character.
"Original"? Certainly. But valuable?
Respect for Shakespeare's language-this, if anything, is what the twentieth-
century approach to Shakespeare offers. In editing, for example, our age has
abandoned the principle of cumulating editorial wisdom, the steady addition of
emendations, in favor of closely following the original texts, except, of course,
for spelling and punctuation. Modern bibliographers hold that the early quartos
and the First Folio are our best sources for what Shakespeare "really wrote."
Real knowledge of what copy was used to set up a given text (was it just a copy
of another printed text, or did the printer turn back to a manuscript?), knowl-
edge of the practices of Elizabethan printshops and of the kinds of mistakes an
Elizabethan compositor was likely to make-these, say modern editors, are better
guides to what Shakespeare wrote than a statement by even the most sensitive
of editors that such-and-such a line makes no sense or doesn't "read right." One
wonders, though, when reading an account of some industrious scholar tracing
a particular broken "B" through the typefaces of the First Folio, whether the
method of Pope does not have something to recommend it after all. The general
reader, however, as against the scholar, need remember only two things about
editions: first, what edition you read does matter-they vary considerably;
second, you get closer to Shakespeare when you read a modern edition which
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
follows the original quartos and the First Folio closely than when you read a
nineteenth-century text full of emendations and conjectures.*
Above all, as reader, and as theatergoer, respect Shakespeare's own language.
"Let us," he wrote of himself and his fellow actors, "on your imaginary forces
work." "Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts." "Eke out our perform-
ance with your mind." No nineteenth-century spectacle with its elaborate illu-
sions of reality is Shakespeare's real theater. Not even the Globe is his real
theater, not after all these centuries. Shakespeare's real theater is what he called
"the quick forge and working-house of thought," what we may call the theater
in the mind.
In this book, for example, I am quoting from the Pelican editions of the individual
plays which are edited on modern principles. I have, however, reserved to myself an edi-
tor's privilege and altered punctuation.
THE THEATER IN
THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, IN SUCH MATTERS AS EDITING AND STAGING, DEVELOPED
a new respect for Shakespeare's language. In criticism (which we can define as
understanding and evaluating the plays-in that order), two schools of thought
have dominated: the "historical" critics and the so-called "new" critics. The his-
torical critic holds, as his basic axiom, that the way to read a writer from the
past (like Shakespeare) is to put yourself in the position of his own original
audience: try to know what they knew, feel as they felt, think as they thought.
The "new" critic takes the opposite tack: the modern reader should put all
matters of biography, history, intention, evaluation, and background aside until
he has pondered the text by itself with all the twentieth-century care, intelli-
gence, and feeling he can muster. These two approaches squarely contradict
each other in theory. In practice, however, they work out to much the same
thing: a historical critic tries to read with all the skill and imagination the new
critic would like him to use; the new critic (on the sly, as it were) corrects his
reading of the text in isolation by his (bootlegged?) knowledge of what an
Elizabethan play is likely to contain. Both schools of thought embody that most
distinctive trait of all twentieth-century thinking (not just Shakespeare criti-
cism): concern for language. Both schools of thought recognize that Shake-
speare's language creates the setting, the time and place of the action, the scenery
and costumes, the acting. In short, our minds responding to Shakespeare's lan-
guage are his real theater.
As for language, Shakespeare wrote what is technically called "Modern
English" (as against Chaucer's Middle English or the Old English of the
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
Beowulf), but it is a rather different modern English from ours because we no
longer think the way Shakespeare and his contemporaries did. Language and
thought are interrelated; they cannot really be separated, for language deter-
mines thought and thought determines language. For example, some languages,
say Bantu or Chinese, simply will not accommodate thoughts which are possible
in English, and, vice versa, English cannot accommodate some thoughts possible
in other languages. Language and thought each determine the other, and
Shakespeare's language is different from ours because his thinking was differ-
ent, specifically his thinking about the nature and order of the universe. The
great contribution that historical criticism has made in our time to understand-
ing Shakespeare's language is a knowledge of the Elizabethan world-view, the
way men in the Renaissance saw the nature of the universe.
The Elizabethans believed in what is called the "great chain of being," an
idea that had its first stirring among the Greeks with Plato and Aristotle and
which lasted until the eighteenth century. Compounded of Biblical lore, Greek
philosophy, and a lot of farfetched natural history, "the great chain of being"
stands as one of the most important and long-lasting ideas in the history of man.
The idea is that the structure of the universe is an order or hierarchy like a
chain or a ladder or a musical scale. Everything in and of the universe, from
God at the top to the lowest stone at the bottom, every single created thing in
the universe has its place in that hierarchy. Figure A, in effect, charts out this
great chain of being. At the top is God, and it is God's love that flows through
and sustains and holds together this whole system. A heavenly magnetism,
God's love radiates down through the universe, and every created thing in
turn gives back that love-had not the Psalmist said, "The heavens declare the
glory of God: and the firmament sheweth his handiwork"? Immediately below
God are the nine orders of angels-seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominations,
virtues, powers, principalities, archangels, angels. Each one of these groups is
in charge of a particular heavenly or astronomical sphere. In order, they are
the primum mobile-that is, the substance whose turning gives the heavens
their motion-the stars, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury and the
lowest of the planets, the moon-this, of course, is the old Ptolemaic or common-
sense astronomy which said that the earth stood still and everything else moved
Next in line comes Man, and he, too, finds himself in a hierarchy or an order:
a political hierarchy, beginning with the Emperor, then the King, Duke, Mar-
quis, Earl, Viscount, Baron, Baronet, Knight, Esquire, gentleman, then below
the ranks of nobility the various professions and trades, lawyers, doctors, mer-
chants, artisans, soldiers-then ordinary citizens, and, at the bottom, peasants,
fishermen, then the lowest of human creatures, the beggar, and finally, almost
subhuman, the Fool. The angels are characterized as "intelligences"-they know.
UNCHANGING WORLD OF ETHER
OF FOUR ELEMENTS:
Vine (or Bramble)
Fig. A. The Great Chain of Being-a schematic diagram.
Orders of nobility
Lion (or Elephant)
Falcon (or Eagle)
Dolphin (or Whale)
Insects (motion, but
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
Man (except for the Fool) has the next best thing, reason; he can think matters
Below man is the order of the beasts, who lack reason, but have memory and
hearing and motion and touch or sense. At the top are the four-legged animals
having all these things: the lion or the elephant at the top, followed by the fox,
wolf, snake, and down at the bottom something like the mole. Then come the
two-legged animals, the birds, the highest being the eagle or the falcon. Then
after the birds come the fish, who have motion but not hearing: at the top is
the dolphin, which some people thought was a fish. For every species on land,
there was thought to be a corresponding species in the ocean, a further element
in harmony and order. Then there are land animals which have motion but
not hearing, like insects, the bees being the top, the ants next, and so on down
to the worms. Finally, there are animals which have sense or touch but no mo-
tion, for example, oysters or barnacles.
Below the animals come the plants which have only existence and growth,
and they, too, have their order. At the top are the fruits, highest because they
are made for man's needs, the highest of the fruits being the pomeroy, or
pomme royal, the royal apple. After fruits come the flowers, the rose being
highest. Then come the trees, the oak being highest, the elm, finally the bramble
and, at the bottom, the herbs. All the way at the bottom of the scale are the
minerals, having only the quality of existence in space and time; these, too, are
ordered: first, there are the liquids, the most mobile; then the metals, with gold
being the noblest, lead or brass being the basest; then the stones, the diamond
being the noblest, then the rest of the jewels, the ruby, topaz, till finally we come
to the common or garden-variety stone.
This created world is made out of the four elements which are, again run-
ning from higher to lower, fire-which is hot and dry; air-which is hot and
moist; water-which is cold and moist; and earth-which is cold and dry. Cor-
responding to the four elements are the four basic fluids of the body: choler,
blood, phlegm, and black bile; and these four fluids or "humours" determine
the four basic personality types: the choleric man, the sanguine, the phlegmatic,
and the melancholy.
In short, the "great chain of being" describes a tidy, finite universe, in which
there is a place for everything and everything has its place. As long as every-
things stays in its place all goes well, but when someone or something tries to get
out of line the whole order is wrenched or thrown into a state of mutiny or
confusion. The first such wrenching came when Lucifer rebelled against God;
the second when Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden. These wrenchings occur
again whenever a son rebels against his father or a subject against his prince,
or when the body falls into disease because one organ or humour has stepped
out of line. This is what Shakespeare's Ulysses says in Troilus and Cressida:
The Theater in the Mind
The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre,
Observe degree, priority, and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office, and custom, all in line of order.
But when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues, and what portents, what mutiny,
What raging of the sea, shaking of earth,
Commotion in the winds, frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixture? O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder of all high designs,
The enterprise is sick. How could communities,
Degrees in schools, and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenity and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And hark what discord follows. Each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy. The bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than their shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe;
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead.
(I. iii. 85-115)
Notice the huge areas to which Ulysses applies the idea of degree or rank or
order: the planets, the fact that land stands above the sea, the winds, communi-
ties, commerce, schools, inheritance ("the due of birth"), the respect due to or
the "prerogative of age," all kinds of ranks-"crowns, sceptres, laurels," the
relationship of father and son (later in the passage, he ranks man's psychologi-
cal faculties-reason, will, appetite). Notice, too, the images Ulysses uses for
degree, a ladder, a tuned string (the lengths of the string establish the order of
its scale), and, perhaps a little optimistically, "the married calm of states," re-
flecting the notion that the husband is higher on the scale than the wife. Earlier
in the passage, he had compared military order to the order in a beehive.
We should probably discount Ulysses' speech somewhat since Shakespeare
wants us to think of him as a pompous, even hypocritical, man. Nevertheless,
he does give us a classic statement of the Elizabethan world-view, the "great
chain of being." Naturally, not everyone held this view with equal vigor. The
young intellectuals of Shakespeare's day, interested in "new philosophy" or
science, were getting away from this idealizing of order that old conservatives
like Shakespeare's Ulysses went in for. This belief in order, however, did con-
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
stitute what Alfred North Whitehead termed a "climate of opinion," that is, a
prevailing set of ideas which people either took for granted or took as a starting
point for some other set of ideas, much the way twentieth-century Americans
tend to assume rather automatically that science, in some sense, "has the an-
There are three things to remember about this chain of being. First, it repre-
sents a belief in the rightness of order. What disturbs the order is wrong, like
the fall of Lucifer or of Adam. For example, we look on the assassination of
Julius Caesar as a nice sort of liberal, democratic thing to do, the way we rebelled
against George III. For Shakespeare and his contemporaries absolute rulers
were part of God's order, and the man who kills a king is as bad as Judas. This
sense of order in the political and spiritual worlds is why so many of Shake-
speare's plays deal with the problem of killing or deposing a king. Shakespeare
is testing and probing, shaking, if you will, this universal order to see how it
holds up. Drama, after all, demands conflict.
The second thing to notice about this chain of being is that it binds together
fact and value. As in any hierarchical system, say the army or the academic
world, the mere statement of what a thing is tells you also what its value is.
An assistant professor is a bigger and better thing than a mere instructor but a
far less grand thing than an associate professor. A lieutenant junior grade is a
bigger and better thing than a mere ensign but less than a lieutenant senior
grade. So in this great chain of being, if we know that such-and-such a thing
is a whale, we know that, though it is the royal fish and outranks all other fish,
it is, being a fish, less than a lion or an elephant or an eagle but more, on the
other hand, than a bee or an ant. Mere events are emblematic; they symbolize
moral values. To put it linguistically, "is" and "ought to be" are all mixed up
together because of this hierarchical structure. The mere fact that the whale
is tells us what it ought to be, where its proper place is in this chain of values.
The third thing to remember about this great chain of being is that it leads
to a language which is primarily one of comparison and analogy. That is, the
whole chain can fold up, as it were, like an accordion, into parallel pieces. Then
the chain structure would produce a whole series of correspondences or parallel
relationships among the angelic order; the planetary order; the human order,
whether in the body politic or our physical bodies, in the family or in our
minds; the animal order; and the mineral order (see Fig. B). Then, if you were
looking for a way to describe a king, you might compare him to God, you might
call him the "father" of his land or the "head" of his kingdom. You could
compare him to the heart among the organs, to gold among the metals, to the
sun among the planets, and so on. If you wanted to describe the body, you
might compare it to the earth and call it, as Richard II does, "that small model
of the barren earth which serves as paste and cover to our bones." If you wanted
PLANETARY ORDER POLITICAL ORDER FAMILY ORDER
Sun King Father
Citizens, etc. Eldest Brother, etc.
PSYCHOLOGICAL ORDER BODY ORDER ORDER OP ORGANS
Reason, Will, Head Upper Region Brain (Animal Spirits)
Memory, Fancy, Arm 1
Memory, F ens, Truk Middle Region Heart (Vital Spirits)
Common Sense Trunk )
Five Senses Leg Lower Region Liver (Natural Spirits)
ANIMAL ORDER FISHES BIRDS
Lion (or Elephant) Dolphin (or Whale), etc. Falcon (or Eagle), etc.
TREES METALS ELEMENTS
Oak Gold Fire
Elm Silver Air
Fig. B. Correspondences in the Great Chain of Being-a schematic diagram.
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
to describe a kingdom you might, as a courtier in Coriolanus does, compare it
to the human body: you could speak of the "kingly-crowned head," you could
compare the king's counsellors to the heart, the kingdom's soldiers to the arm,
and so on. If you wanted to describe a kingdom another way you might com-
pare it to a garden. As one of Shakespeare's gardeners says in Richard II's dis-
Why should we in the compass of a [fence]
Keep law and form and due proportion,
Showing as in a model, our firm estate,
When our sea-walled garden, the whole land,
Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers chok'd up,
Her fruit trees all unprun'd, her hedges ruin'd,
Her [plots] disordered and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars,
(III. iv. 40-47)
that is, evil courtiers. If you wanted to describe the proper relation of a wife
to her husband, you might compare the family to a kingdom. Thus, in The
Taming of the Shrew, Katherine, the shrew who has been tamed, explains to
wives how they should behave:
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign.
(These were the days before "love, honor and obey" had been replaced by
"love, honor and cherish.")
Such duty as the subject owes the prince
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth,
Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions and our hearts
Should well agree with our external parts?
(V. i. 147-169)
Kate's phrasing suggests an important side effect of the Elizabethan world pic-
ture-it is the "external parts," the appearance of a thing that indicates what
it is and where it belongs in the great chain of being. As Ulysses says, "Degree
being vizarded," that is, the signs of authority being hidden, "Th' unworthiest
shows as fairly in the mask," and degree is lost. Hence, in Shakespeare's plays,
as we shall see, the ideas of seeming or, conversely, of perceiving appearances
correctly become important.
The Theater in the Mind
The comparisons created by the chain of being show up visually in some
pictures by Robert Fludd, a seventeenth-century cabalist. He shows (Fig. 8)
the cosmos on a chain from God supported by bountiful, life-giving Nature and
by man's Art (which imitates-"apes"-Nature). Within our world are all the
intricate correspondences among animals, metals, plants, planets, and the rest.
Figure II shows Fludd's diagram of the way the parts of the human body (the
microcosm) correspond to the various elements and planets in the macrocosm.
In Figure Io, Fludd shows the "music of the spheres"-the correspondences
between the planets and elements and the notes of a musical scale tuned by God
in Pythagorean proportions. Were we to look for a pictorial form of the way
we think, as contrasted with the way the Renaissance thought, we would find
it in one of those quasi-medical advertisements which show the body-the inside
of the body, notice-as a glorified machine. For us, the heart is not the noblest
of the organs, but a pump that pushes our blood around. We are the products
of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. We can no longer say
with Kate that our external parts describe what our condition should be, that
our physical features fix our place in a universal order of values. Rather, we
want today to probe into and look inside things. The order we find in the
universe is not an order of things being higher and lower in value than other
things but an order of cause and effect. The stomach does not "correspond to
the aristocracy"; rather it is a kind of furnace for oxidizing Bufferin tablets and
other foods. The brain is not the "throne of reason," but a series of electrical
switches. There is no use expecting from Shakespeare the kind of cause-and-
effect thinking that we do today. For him the heart is not just a pump, but the
noblest of the organs. His language falls naturally into patterns of analogy and
comparison. Ours does not.
John Dryden, writing at the end of the seventeenth century, is often called
"the father of English prose." By that epithet, literary historians mean that
Dryden is the first major writer to write the kind of English prose we admire:
neat, spare, concise, businesslike-going straight to the point. Elizabethan prose
(with a few exceptions) was no such thing, because it was written in the lan-
guage appropriate to the Elizabethan world-picture, figurative language, that
is, language having many figures of speech. Elizabethan writers prized long
sentences developing rather involved analogies and comparisons. Similarly,
Elizabethan poetry was richly metaphorical, while the poetry of the Restoration
and eighteenth century became, like the prose, neat, balanced, more than a little
abstract (just as the world-view of science is a series of generalizations and
abstractions). In this sense, it was quite natural for men who valued this "scien-
tific" language to find Shakespeare full of "quibbles," that is, puns and involved
figures of speech; it was quite natural to rewrite him into the "refined" verse
of, say, Davenant's Macbeth.
Again, Shakespeare's language turns out to be the crucial thing. The recogni-
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
tion of the Elizabethan world-picture (which is, to me at least, the great achieve-
ment of historical criticism in our time) enables us to see why Shakespeare
wrote the way he did, in verse, extremely rich verse, hardly a language real
men speak. Shakespeare's plays embody worlds like ours in many ways, but
different in some important respects: order is very important, and very good;
fact and value are each implicit in the other; the important relations between
things are those of likeness and difference, not those of cause and effect; exact
statement of psychological motives, of the timing or placing of events, is not
as important in a Shakespearean play as in most modern literature, notably the
novel. Rather, events are emblematic, symbolic, answering to moral rather than
literal truth. It is this kind of world a play of Shakespeare's creates; and this
is the world to which the historical critic's understanding of the Elizabethans'
world-view leads us.
The "new" critic also wants us to enter the world of the plays, but by a
different route. Nineteenth-century critics, when they were not exclaiming over
Shakespeare's plays, tended to think of the plays as representations of real situa-
tions in the real world, like photographs, if you will, or newspaper accounts
or like novels which give us accounts of people and events drenched in realistic
detail. As we have seen, nineteenth-century stagecraft, not finding those realistic
details in the plays, supplied them by reconstructing an elaborate archaeological
realism. In the same way, nineteenth-century critics supplied realistic details by
elaborate inferences from the text. As early as 1774, Maurice Morgann, in his
famous essay on the question of Falstaff's cowardice, wrote:
I affirm that those characters in Shakespeare, which are seen only in part, are
yet capable of being unfolded and understood in the whole. ... If the char-
acters of Shakespeare are thus whole, .. it may be fit to consider them rather
as Historic than Dramatic beings; and, when occasion requires, to account for
their conduct from the whole of character, from general principles, from latent
motives, and from policies not avowed.
This kind of approach necessarily leads the critic away from the actual words
of the play into inferences and surmises about the imaginary events described
by those words. Thus, A. C. Bradley, whose Shakespearean Tragedy (1904)
was the culmination and final brilliant summary of this nineteenth-century
approach, goes into such questions as: Where was Hamlet at the time of his
father's death? Did Emilia suspect lago? Did Lady Macbeth really faint? In-
evitably, such an approach takes the critic away from the play as play into
considering the play as a fictitious record of events exterior to itself, almost like
a novel; inevitably, the critic's attention is drawn away from the language of
the play to the non-existent events.
The "new" critics of the 1920's and after turned their backs on this nine-
teenth-century kind of analysis, choosing instead to consider the plays more as
The Theater in the Mind
poems than as novels. Each particular play creates its own poetic world, a world
in some respects like everyday reality, but in many respects different. Our busi-
ness as readers is to enter, live in, and experience that special world, but we are
bound to get mixed up if we apply notions from everyday reality unchanged to
that contrived world of the play with its own special nature and its own interior,
poetic logic. Rather, as readers, we need to accept the play as it is, not forcing it-
into a record of something like the real world. In the last analysis, the world of
the play is the world it creates in our minds as we experience the play. On the
stage, this "new critical" approach finds its expression in the nonrealistic sets of
the modern performance of Shakespeare or such devices as costumes which are
not historically accurate but which convey the flavor of the world of the play.
To achieve the world of the play in the theater of our minds, however, calls
for a fairly special kind of reading, something that goes beyond the ordinary
At the age of six or thereabouts, most of us were taken by the hand and led
to school where we were taught "how to read." More exactly, we were taught
how to put letters together to form words and told we knew how to read. Es-
sentially, what we learned to read was a sequence of words: a simple story or
a progression of ideas. Reading literature or "seeing" literature in the form of
a play or film, however, calls for something more. Good reading or good seeing,
the "new" critic says, proceeds first and foremost by paying close attention to
the work itself, putting aside value judgments and matters of biography or his-
torical background until we have really understood the words themselves. There
is a second basic principle of good reading-you might call it giving the author
the benefit of the doubt: unless or until it is proved otherwise, assume that every
detail in a work of literature serves a purpose, serves in one or more ways to
add to the organic unity of the whole. Just as a child reads letters together to
form words, so a more mature reader uses his skill and imagination to put
details together to form an artistic totality.
Details act together in two basic ways: by likeness or difference, that is, by
repetition or contrast, but there are literally myriads of possible variations. Key
words can be repeated; the plot in a narrative may be echoed in a subplot, in
"comic relief," or in figures of speech; characters may be presented in terms of
symbols; even plot techniques (surprise, anticlimax, and the like) or methods of
characterization (as by occupation or bodily detail) or the use of certain sounds
in a poem or certain rhetorical figures, even these mere techniques can be used
as meaningful elements. One can see these patterns only by looking at the work
itself, keeping in mind the basic assumption that all these details probably will
come together into an artistic wholeness. It is sometimes helpful to look first
at what seems to fit in least well; because such elements are "farther away" from
the center of a work, they often add most to it. For example, in a Shakespearean
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
tragedy, the comic scenes often tell us most about the play as a whole. In every
case, though, this kind of reading or seeing demands an imaginative effort to
get the sudden intuitive understanding of likenesses that underlie seeming
difference, the same kind of imaginative leap that any discovery requires. These
imaginative graspings, these sudden awarenesses of the infinite variety of things
"going on," are what give that marvelous sense of enlarging the mind and
feelings which is the peculiar and special pleasure of literature.
A work of literature with a story (for example, a novel or a play or a film)
makes a special, double demand on its audience because every element in it can
serve in two ways. In a sense, one can think of literature-with-a-story as proceed-
ing detail by detail, episode by episode, effect following cause, along the circum-
ference of a circle. Each element of the work is related sequentially to the one
before it and the one after it in the story. At the same time, each element is
related to all the others at once by the shape or style of the curve in which they
are all involved together. One can think of the center of the circle (though it
is no part of the circle itself) as the thing which holds all these parts together,
the essence or informing principle, the "point" of the work. Any given element
in a narrative or dramatic work will thus serve both as a "story element" and
as part of the overall unity of the work.
For example, in a story about a boy falling in love with a girl completely
and wonderfully different from any he has ever known, it would nevertheless
be a prosaic necessity for boy to meet girl. The writer could choose any one of a
number of ways of getting the young man to his ladylove; he will, in fact,
choose that way which adds most to the total effect of his story. For example,
the young man might have to cross water (cross, in effect, from an old way of
life to a new one) and pass a difficult test, as Bassanio does in The Merchant of
Venice. The young man might very nearly die so as to be, in the Biblical phrase,
"born again" to enter this new world, as Sebastian in Twelfth Night and Ferdi-
nand in The Tempest are. The young man might have to disguise himself
(indicating, in a way, he is leaving his former self behind), as Romeo wears a
mask, hiding his Montague identity, when he meets Juliet, or as Prince Florizel
dresses like a simple country swain to court Perdita in The Winter's Tale. In
any case, something drastic is required. It would probably not be very effective
to have the young man simply trot around next door to find such a transcend-
This coaction of events in both a realistic cause-and-effect way and a purely
poetic way is what Aristotle had in mind when he said that fiction was "a more
philosophical and a higher thing than history." History deals with particulars;
fiction informs particulars with universal ideas. Oscar Wilde put it more whim-
sically when he complained, "Life is terribly deficient in form." A chronicler
of life, such as a newspaper reporter, has little artistic choice; he is supposed to
The Theater in the Mind
state the facts as directly as possible. A creative writer, on the other hand, shapes
and chooses events to make a unity and coherence that the random happenings
of everyday reality just don't have. It is because of this element of artistic
choice that the "world" of a play (or novel or story or film) is not simply a
copy of the everyday world (in which, for example, our young man achieving
a transcendent love probably just met the girl in the college library). To enter
the "world" of a work of art, the "theater of the mind," we need to pay atten-
tion to the way that world is shaped. We need to recognize that any given
element in the story (if it is a good story) functions both to tell a coherent tale
and to give a unity and "point" to the work as a whole.
This double demand that literature-with-a-story makes on its audience is
particularly important in the plays of a verse dramatist like Shakespeare. If we
think of Macbeth (for example) as simply a story of ambition and murder,
the poetry of the tragedy will seem a mere chromium trim unnecessarily clut-
tering up a good yarn, making the play much inferior to the prosy, realistic,
and deathless works of any Broadway season. When, for example, Banquo at
II. iii. 122-123 wants to say, "After we get dressed," he comes out with:
And when we have our naked frailties hid,
That suffer in exposure. .
Presumably, Shakespeare did not complicate matters for his own amusement;
Banquo's more complex phrasing (thoroughly unnatural and unrealistic) has
added something-poetry. And any real appreciation of the play involves un-
derstanding all of it, both story and poetry, more properly, story as poetry.
One difference between "After we get dressed" and Banquo's poetic statement
lies in the images (that is, sensations and ideas) brought in by such words as
"naked," "frailties," "suffer," and "exposure." By these words (and thousands
like them in Macbeth) Shakespeare builds up and emphasizes certain aspects
of the essential action.
Imagery, narrowly defined, equals "similes plus metaphors" or "figures of
speech." Broadly defined, however, imagery includes "any restatement of the
essential," that is, any extra, not absolutely necessary, duplication of those things
which are both necessary and of the essence. So understood, imagery becomes
a very broad, far-reaching concept. It includes not only the language of a play,
the relations among the plots, but the scenery, costumes, even the lighting. In
a film, for example, the background of every shot represents a potential image
which the director may or may not use. The best directors, of course, use back-
grounds much the way Shakespeare used poetry, to establish the essential idea
of the film. If we speak precisely, though, we cannot separate imagery from the
play of which it is a part any more than one can separate the "background" in
a film shot from the rest of what appears on the screen. If a work of art has
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
organic unity, each of its parts is implicit in and involved with all the others.
Nevertheless, we can-and will-talk about imagery separately, and precisely
because of our broad definition of the concept.
If imagery "restates the essential," then a very good, direct way of getting
at whatever is essential in a play would be to examine the imagery. For our
test case (in this introduction and the next chapter), we will take Macbeth,
useful for this purpose because it is both one of the shortest and one of the most
familiar of Shakespeare's plays. As you read Macbeth, you will notice a great
many references to procreation, parenthood, progeny, and their opposites. These
images restate and remind us of important elements in the plot: the prophecy
of kingship for Banquo's descendants, the fact that the Macbeths have no chil-
dren, the murder of Macduff's children, the death of young Siward, and the
like. In the list of characters, there are four sets of parents and children:
Macduff and his son; Banquo and Fleance; Siward and young Siward; Duncan
and his sons, Malcolm and Donalbain. All in all, procreation and parenthood
would seem to be "essential" aspects of Macbeth.
In the tragedy as a whole, I find eighty-five images of procreation, parent-
hood, progeny, and their opposites: enough to create a very strong impres-
sion in the mind of anyone seeing the play, let alone reading it. Some of these
images are quite gratuitous: that is, Shakespeare could have put anything at
all in their place or omitted them entirely. Others represent more limited
choices, those that are called for by the plot or the situation (though, of course,
This is a list of images of procreation, parenthood, and progeny in Macbeth. Those
which are gratuitous, that is, not dictated directly by the plot, are asterisked.
I. iii. 58-59* II. iii. 93-96 III. vi. 18-20
I. iii. 67 II. iii. 136 III. vi. 24
I. iii. 71 II. iv. 4* IV. i. 30-3*1
. iii. 86 II. iv. 25 IV. i. 55*
I. iii. 18 II. iv. 34' IV. i 58-60*
I. iv. 25' 111 i. 5-6 IV. i. 64-65'
I. iv. 28-29 I. i. 3 IV. i. 65-67*
I. iv. 38 III. i. 665 IV. i. 76 (st. dir.)*
I. iv. 48 IV. i. 86 (s. dir.)*
iL 70 IV. i. 86-89
I. v. 45-46' III. v. 9 IV. i. 1o
I. vi. 8-9' III. i. 35 IV. i. II (st. dir.)
I. vii. 21 III. ii. 37 IV. i. 112-124
I. vii. 54-59 II. iii. 20 IV. i. 152-153
I. vii. 72* 2 IV. ii. 6
III. iv. 2o
II. i. I. .9-3 IV. ii. 27I1
II. ii. 3'* III. iv. 66 IV. ii. 27
II. ii. 53* III. iv. o6 IV. ii. 30
IV. ii. 37-38
II. iii. 25-300 III. vi. 5-10o IV. ii. 44
47 The Theater in the Mind
Shakespeare was free to change the plot had he wished to do so, and thus, in
a sense, these images also embody choices). Notice that there is no question
of "reading in" here. Such a tabulation is coldly factual. The inferences one
draws from this complex of imagery (as it is called) may involve "reading in,"
but the images themselves are purely and simply "there."
There are other complexes of imagery for which similar lists could be
made: images of animals, birds, blood, disease and medicine, domesticity (in-
cluding eating, drinking, and sleeping), family life, night and darkness, public
and political life, religion, shelter, seeds, plants, trees, and so on. There are,
for example, twenty-five images of clothing or covering.* Though there are
only a third as many of these images as those of procreation, many more of
the clothing images represent "free" choices by Shakespeare, because clothing
is not intricately tied in with the plot. Shakespeare seems to have gone out of
his way to put these remarks about clothing in, and this fact suggests a corollary
to our definition of imagery: the less necessary the image is, the more choice
the writer has, and the more significant the image is likely to be. Thus, though
there are in all fewer clothing images than images of procreation, since more
are gratuitous, the clothing images are likely to be just as important as those
of procreation. In general, though, one does not judge the importance of images
simply by number. The importance of an image can lie in the degree to which
IV. ii. 59 IV. iii. 177 V. iii. 22-26
IV. ii. 62 IV. iii. 204
IV. ii. 68 IV. iii. 211-212 V. vi. 3
IV. ii. 82-83* IV. iii. 216 V. vii. 2-3
T ;IV. iii. 2i81
IV. iii.IV. i. 28V. vii. I2-16
IV. iii. 26 V. i. 66--67*
IV. iii. 61-63' V. viii. 5-6
IV. iii. ro6 V. ii. 9* V. viii. z4-r6
IV. iii. 1o8-Io* V. viii. 31
IV. iii. 155* V. iii. 3-4 V. viii. 37-38
IV. iii. i66* V. iii. 6 V. viii. 65*
*This is a list of images of clothing in Macbeth; the "gratuitous" images are asterisked:
I. ii. 54* II. i. 107* IV. iii. 33
II. ii. 69* IV. iii. 172*
I. ii. 40o IV. iii. 2o8*
I. iii. zo8-rog* II. iii. 12-ri3
I. iii. x45* II. iii. xo8-I2* V. i. 5
II. iii. 122-123* V. i. 57*
I. v. 5 II. iii r28 V. ii. 202
V. ii. 2o-22*
II. iv. 38
I. vii. 2ii. 47 V. iii. 34*
I. vii. 34
I. vii. 36* IV. i 88 V. iv. 15*
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
it is "extra"; it can also lie in the prominence and distinctness of the image
at important points in the play.
The images we have considered so far have been concrete. They have dealt
with tangible things like clothing or children. Imagery, however, can be ab-
stract, as, for example, the images of "shifting shapes" in Macbeth. These images
would include not only the various hallucinations and apparitions in the play,
but also the occasions, quite remarkable in number, in which someone ex-
presses difficulty in seeing or understanding, the outstanding example being
Macbeth's misunderstanding of the prophecies of "these juggling fiends,"
That palter with us in a double sense,
That keep the word of promise to our ear
And break it to our hope.
(V. viii. 19-22)
We can think of these as images of "uncertain perception." Another complex
of abstract images clusters around the idea of "coming together" as in the strik-
ing image of:
Two spent swimmers that do cling together
And choke their art.
(I. ii. 8-9)
or the very opening line of the play: "When shall we three meet again?" Ab-
stract images can be just as important as the concrete ones, sometimes more
Where, however, do all these "complexes of imagery" leave the story of am-
bition and murder which is, after all, our first impression of Macbeth? The
story is right where it was; the imagery has enriched it, interwoven with it,
and brought out from the story its implications. To see these implications, we
look back at those images and their contexts and see how they work together.
For example, animals occur in Macbeth in two contexts: sometimes, like the
"arm'd rhinoceros," they are violent, threatening; sometimes, as when the
"mousing owl" (Macbeth) kills the "falcon, tow'ring in her pride of place"
(Duncan), animals serve as symbols. This contrast matches other contrasts in
the tragedy, for example, between man's frail nakedness and his civilized cloth-
ing; between bare facts and symbolic, ambiguous prophecies that cover them;
between private, family life and public, symbolic, political life; perhaps in the
largest sense between a nature red in tooth and claw and a symbolic nature
impregnated with moral and religious, supernatural, order. Macbeth, then,
though it begins in our minds as a story of one man's ambitions and murders,
is ultimately a far bigger thing: a play about nature's way of growth and
decay, an order in which supernatural and natural things mix and germinate
49 The Theater in the Mind
in a man's mind and from there grow out into his acts, his family, and his
commonwealth until finally their influence wanes and dies.
Only by being aware as we read Shakespeare of some such "informing prin-
ciple," some such "essence" or "center" of each play, can we respond to the
play in all its wholeness, its unity in variety; only that way can we experience
the full pleasure of literature, feeling the massive oneness of the play implicit
and powerful in its every moment. And only by all the play can we measure
the genius of its author or enter the theater of his mind-or our own.
WE NO LONGER BELIEVE IN WITCHES, THOUGH PERHAPS WE ARE A LITTLE TOO QUICK
to dismiss such matters out of hand. Anyone, I think, looking with an unbiased
eye at such a scientific study of witchcraft as Joseph Glanvill's Sadducismus
Triumphatus (1681) might find the evidence for witchcraft rather more im-
pressive than schoolbooks lead us to believe. At any rate, because we no longer
believe in witches, we no longer know very much about them, and many
readers are rather puzzled by the witches in Macbeth. In some strange way
they seem to preside over, even dominate, the action of the tragedy, and yet
they do not actually do anything: Macbeth seems to create his own tragedy.
One school of thought holds that the witches are common or garden-
variety Elizabethan witches, strange old women knowing a few tricks like
fortune-telling, the kind of witch seventeenth-century believers in witchcraft
were likely to burn, and so they appear in an illustration to Holinshed's
Chronicles (see Fig. 12), the book from which Shakespeare developed the plot
of Macbeth. Shakespeare, however, so freely altered the material he took from
the Chronicles that he may well have altered the witches, too. There is no real
reason to expect Shakespeare's witches to be the same kind of witches as
Holinshed's. Another school of thought holds that the witches are the three
Fates, the moirai or Parcae of Classical mythology, or the Norns of Norse
mythology, the three nasty ladies who spin the thread of life, twist it, and
then cut it off. Both Shakespeare and Holinshed refer to the three women
Macbeth and Banquo meet as the "weird" or "weyard" sisters, and the old
meaning of "weird" or "wyrd" was fate. In fact, Holinshed speaks of them as
"the goddesses of destinies "
The best way, however, to decide who or what the witches in Macbeth are,
what powers they have, and what influence they exert over Macbeth, is to
look, not at Holinshed or even Elizabethan pastimes such as witch-burning,
but at the play itself. To do that, it is necessary to take out three speeches that
do not belong in Shakespeare's play. The text as we have it was evidently
taken from an acting version of the play, one that was used as late as 1614,
and in 1614, as today, actors and directors seem to have had an irresistible urge
to "improve" Shakespeare's works. In Macbeth this took the form of putting
in three speeches which we know don't belong in Macbeth: the so-called Hecate
speeches, III. v. entire; IV. i. 39-43 and 125-132. The speeches were put in to
introduce some songs and dances from The Witch, a play by Thomas Middle-
ton. The Hecate speeches bring in a little musical comedy element to appeal
to the tastes of an audience of 1614. You can see they don't belong. It's hardly
likely that witches, having foretold Macbeth's utter failure, would then say:
Come, sisters; cheer we up his sprites
And show the best of our delights.
(IV. i. 127-128)
With these Hecate speeches out, and the song-and-dance routines, the other
powers of the witches become fairly obvious. Clearly, the witches can foretell
the future. In the course of the play, every prophecy they make comes true.
They predict that Macbeth will be made the thane, that is, the earl, of Cawdor,
and he is. They predict that Macbeth will become king and he does. They
predict that he should beware of Macduff and he should. They predict that
"none of woman born shall harm Macbeth," and he is killed by Macduff who
was "from his mother's womb untimely ripped." They predict that "Macbeth
shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
shall come against him," and in the final, terrifying scenes of the play, Birnam
Wood does indeed come against him. Finally they predict that Banquo will
be father to a line of kings: "Lesser than Macbeth, and greater .. Thou
shalt get kings, though thou be none," and Shakespeare's audience would
have known that King James I of England, James VI of Scotland, claimed
descent from that very same Banquo.
The fact that the witches can foresee the future, however, does not mean
they control or cause that future. Their powers are sharply limited, as you can
tell from Act I, scene iii, where one of the witches wants to revenge herself
on a sailor's wife who would not give her any chestnuts. She is going to tor-
ment the sailor himself, but
Though his bark cannot be lost,
Yet it shall be tempest-tost.
(I. iii. 24-25)
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
She can prophesy, she can torment the man, she can tempt him, but "his bark
cannot be lost"-she cannot take his life. Neither can the witches take Macbeth's
life, even through the agency of Macduff. The mere fact that the witches can
see the future does not mean they cause it, any more than your seeing this
book causes its existence, or any more than your knowing the weather will
change causes it to change. The Elizabethans were familiar with this kind of
distinction as an answer to a theological problem. That is, if God is omniscient,
if he knows everything that is going to happen, then the future is determined,
and man has no free will. If man has no free will, he is not responsible for
his acts, but God holds him responsible. Theologians resolved this paradox by
saying that God could foresee the future, but merely seeing the future did not
make man act in any particular way: in a Christian scheme of things, man has
-must have-free will.
And Macbeth does. He spends three scenes making up his mind to kill the
King. As he writes to Lady Macbeth, what the witches gave him was knowl-
edge: "I have learned by the perfect'st report they have more in them than
mortal knowledge" (I. v. 2). In a Christian scheme, what Macbeth does with
that knowledge is his own problem. As Banquo warns him,
Oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray 's
In deepest consequence.
(I. iii. 123-126)
Macbeth was not forced to kill Duncan. As he says to himself,
If chance will have me King, why chance may crown me
Without my stir.
(I. iii. 143)
He even decides not to kill Duncan, "We will proceed no further in this busi-
ness," but then Lady Macbeth, who is a good deal better at witching than the
professionals, eggs him on. Witches, both amateur and professional, tempt
Macbeth and they betray him, but his destiny is his own doing. He chooses
his fate with his own free will. They simply tell him the future. It is Macbeth's
own idea that this represents a "supernatural soliciting."
In another sense, however, the witches do determine Macbeth's destiny in
that they determine the tone and atmosphere of the play in which he exists.
One can think of them as supernatural forces, or, perhaps, as some producers
of Macbeth like to think of them, as dark forces in man's mind dredged up
from some proto-Freudian nightmare, but basically, the feeling they give is
one of uncertainty, bewilderment, a fear of the unknown. The world of
Macbeth is a world in which shapes take form and shift and vanish in mys-
terious ways. The witches are themselves such a shape. As Macbeth writes his
wife, "When I burned in desire to question them further, they made them-
selves air, into which they vanished." And Banquo says of them,
Were such things here as we do speak about?
Or have we eaten on the insane root
That takes the reason prisoner?
(I. iii. 83-85)
The witches are not the only things of which we might ask, Were such things
here? Macbeth, on his way to murder King Duncan, cries out:
Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand?
(II. i. 33-34)
And then, after the killing itself,
Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep.'
(II. ii. 34-35)
Then there is the ghost of Banquo which Lady Macbeth names to her husband,
O proper stuff
This is the very painting of your fear,
This is the air-drawn dagger which you said
Led you to Duncan.
(III. iv. 60-63)
There are the apparitions the witches conjure up to state their second set of
prophecies and so trigger the second great wave of action in the play: the
armed head, the bloody child, and the child crowned with a tree in his hand.
There is the dread vision of supernatural retribution closing in on Macbeth
when Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill comes against him. And then
there are the two most famous apparitions in the play:
Yet here's a spot .. Out, damned spot! Out, I say! .. What, will these
hands ne'er be clean? Here's the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes
of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. (V. i. 29-48)
The tragedy is full of strange illusions and apparitions, stains that will not
come out, trees that uproot themselves and move, mysterious voices, ghosts,
The tragedy has a fearful sense of uncertainty, and that uncertainty finds
for itself a distinctive figure of speech which occurs again and again in the
play. The technical name for this figure of speech is antithesis, the pairing of
opposed ideas. The witches say, "When shall we three meet again?" and an-
swer, "When the battle's lost and won." "Fair is foul," they say, and "foul is
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
fair." And Macbeth's very first words echo them: "So foul and fair a day I
have not seen." King Duncan says of the fallen Thane of Cawdor, "What he
hath lost, noble Macbeth hath won." Banquo says to the witches,
Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear
Your favors nor your hate.
(I. iii. 60-61)
And the witches in turn say of Banquo, "Lesser than Macbeth, and greater,"
"Not so happy, yet much happier." "Thou shalt get kings, though thou be
none." These antitheses are from only the first three scenes; but the figure
of speech runs all through the play, harking back, of course, to those obscure
and ambiguous prophecies. As Macbeth says,
Be these juggling fiends no more believed,
That palter with us in a double sense,
That keep the word of promise to our ear
And break it to our hope.
(V. viii. 19-22)
In Macbeth's world, shapes shift, things appear and disappear, words lose
their meaning and become their very opposites. It is, in short, a nightmare
world, a world of moral disorder, in which heaven, "as troubled with man's
act, threatens his bloody stage" (II. iv. 5-6). Order, for Shakespeare and his
audience, meant that great chain of being in which every created thing had its
proper place. In Macbeth, things don't stay put-they wander about in a thor-
oughly disconcerting way. As Macbeth says (somewhat petulantly, I think)
when Banquo's ghost turns up:
The time has been
That, when the brains were out, the man would die,
And there an end. But now they rise again,
With twenty mortal murders on their crowns,
And push us from our stools.
(III. iv. 78-82)
(Things are getting pretty bad when the people you murder just won't stay
murdered.) Not just the ghost, though, but everything in Macbeth is out of
order. The subject rises against his anointed king just as, so two of the char-
A falcon, tow'ring in her pride of place,
Was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed.
And Duncan's horses (a thing most strange and certain),
Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race,
Turned wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out,
Contending againstt obedience, as they would make
War with mankind.
(II. iv. 12-18)
Other images for this moral disorder come in Macbeth's conjuration of the
witches when he calls on them for the second set of prophecies.
I conjure you by that which you profess,
Howe'er you come to know it, answer me.
Though you untie the winds and let them fight
Against the churches, though the yesty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up,
Though bladed corn be lodged and trees blown down,
Though castles topple on their warders' heads,
Though palaces and pyramids do slope
Their heads to their foundations, though the treasure
Of nature's germens tumble all together
Even till destruction sicken, answer me
To what I ask you.
(IV. i. 50-61)
The last is the most terrible curse of all, that the treasure of nature's "Germaine,"
genes, we would call them, tumble all together even till destruction sicken. It
is the curse of fallout, the tumbling together of all the seeds, the genes, that
guarantee that humans have human children, and not monsters made up out
of some mismatched collection of genes, half human, half animal.
Still another image for Macbeth's world of moral disorder is disease. To
the Elizabethans, disease was not just something you took pink pills for-
it was a psychosomatic condition of mental and physical disorder, a condition
in which the body's fluids fell into unbalance. The Macbeths are sick. They
eat their meals in fear. They cannot have children. They lack the season of all
natures, sleep. Lady Macbeth walks in the night repeating the dreadful words
of the murder scene. Her doctor says of her:
Do breed unnatural troubles. Infected minds
To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets.
More needs she the divine than the physician.
(V. i. 66-69)
Disease, in this metapsychosomatic sense, is not just something you take to your
neighborhood psychiatrist. This kind of disease goes deeper than medicine.
Macbeth himself asks that same doctor:
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?
(V. iii. 40-45)
and when the doctor says he cannot, Macbeth cries, "Throw physic to the dogs,
I'll none of it." There is no remedy for Macbeth. Only true kings have holy
powers, like the King of England, who we hear is himself a medicine:
All swol'n and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye,
The mere despair of surgery, he cures .
and 'tis spoken,
To the succeeding royalty he leaves
The healing benediction. With this strange virtue,
He hath a heavenly gift of prophecy,
And sundry blessings hang about his throne
That speak him full of grace.
(IV. iii. 150-159)
The English King is the very opposite of Macbeth, the Scottish King, who
creates not health, but death; who has no succeeding royalty; who must turn
to witches for prophecy. In this same scene, Malcolm and Macduff join forces
to attack Macbeth, as they say, to "Make us med'cines of our great revenge to
cure this deadly grief" (214-215).
Disease is one image of the moral disorder of the Macbeths' Scotland; another
is dismemberment. The last name we hear Macbeth called in the play is "this
dead butcher," and, even at the beginning of the play, when he is still King
Duncan's loyal warrior, when he finally faces the rebel Macdonwald, "he un-
seamed him from the nave to th' chops," that is, from the navel to the jaws,
"and fixed his head upon our battlements." But the most famous instance of
dismemberment is the witches' brew itself:
Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison'd entrails throw.
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork, and blindworm's sting ...
(IV. i. 4-16)
Macbeth is often called a "dark" tragedy. By that term, critics simply mean
a lot of the tragedy's most important scenes take place at night; the murder
of Duncan at midnight; the murder of Banquo just after twilight; the ap-
pearance of Banquo's ghost at an evening feast. Darkness usually connotes
evil as light connotes goodness, but in this tragedy darkness is more specific.
It is a darkness that hides all these mysterious shifting shapes and forms. It
is a darkness that enables the Macbeths not to look at the evil they do:
Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires.
(I. iv. 50-5)
In the very next scene Lady Macbeth says,
Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry 'Hold, hold!'
(I. v. 48-52)
And the day after the murder there is an unnatural darkness:
By th' clock 'tis day,
And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp.
Is't night's predominance, or the day's shame,
That darkness does the face of earth entomb
When living light should kiss it?
(II. iv. 6-io)
A clock in eleventh-century Scotland? When I was a schoolboy, we would
pounce on such a blunder and come up baying like little hounds, "Anach-
ronism!" No-Shakespeare does not think in such realistic terms. His half-
medieval imagination has stepped beyond a realist's space and time into a
world of values. This darkness in Macbeth is no ordinary darkness, but a moral
darkness, a darkness that serves to hide evil, and it needs, to remedy it, a moral
light, a light that serves to reveal evil. During the sleep-walking scene we learn
of Lady Macbeth, "She has light by her continually. Tis her command" (V.
i. 20). The light, in effect, is the light of her remorse, her sight of the evil in
her own dark heart.
Not only is the atmosphere of the tragedy dark; it is also stifling, smother-
ing, strangling. We hear of "thick night," "the fog and filthy air"; we are told
of the opening battle, "Doubtful it stood, as two spent swimmers that do cling
together and choke their art." In this stifling, smoky smog theie are,
Lamentings heard i' th' air, strange screams of death,
And prophesying with accents terrible,
Of dire combustion and confused events
New hatched to th' woeful time.
(II. iii. 52-55)
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
Before Macbeth sets out to have Banquo killed, he cries,
Light thickens and the crow
Makes wing to th' rooky wood.
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,
Whiles night's black agents to their preys do rouse.
(III. ii. 50-53)
In this dark, stifling atmosphere we hear strange noises, but we see above
all-blood. "Blood," "bloody," "bleeding," "bleeds," these words occur over
forty times in this, the second shortest of Shakespeare's plays, or, if you like
statistics, on average, about once every fifty lines. Lady Macbeth says, as coldly
as any medical student, "Who would have thought the old man to have had
so much blood in him?" (V. i. 36). The play has a whole river of blood, when
I am in blood
Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.
(III. iv. 136-138)
Not just a river, there is even an ocean of blood, as Macbeth looks at his bloody
hands and groans,
Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.
(II. ii. 59-62)
Blood fills the choking, stifling atmosphere of the play, an atmosphere that
fills vast, empty, echoing spaces. As one of the noblemen says,
I have words
That would be howled out in the desert air,
Where hearing should not latch them.
(IV. iii. 193-195)
And Macbeth says of the king he is about to murder,
Will plead like angels trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe
Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubin horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye
That tears shall drown the wind.
(I. vii. 18-25)
Macduff says of Scotland,
Each new morn
New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows
Strike heaven on the face, that it resounds
As if it felt with Scotland and yelled out
Like syllable of dolor.
(IV. iii. 4-8)
Macbeth himself calls on these vast, echoing, reverberating spaces when he says
to Lady Macbeth's physician,
If thou could'st, doctor, cast
The water of my land, find her disease,
And purge it to a sound and pristine health,
I would applaud thee to the very echo,
That should applaud again.
(V. iii. 50-54)
At the same time that Macbeth's Scotland is a vast, empty, reverberating
space, it is also a stage:
Thou seest the heavens, as troubled with man's act,
Threatens his bloody stage.
(II. iv. 5-6)
Indeed it is a bloody stage on which Macbeth plays out what he calls "the
swelling act of the imperial theme" (I. iii. 128-129). Those are playwright's
terms, "act," "stage," "theme," and they suggest that life in this tragedy is
treated as though it were a play or
a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.
(V. v. 24-26)
The tragedy seems to say our actions cast shadows on a stage behind this
stage, the stage of this world. Our actions here are but a play performed before
heavenly judges. Vast as the world is, it is only a small part of a still vaster
order. Even so, those heavenly judges, like an audience in a theater, do not
change what transpires upon that "bloody stage." As Macduff moans when he
hears his wife and children have been murdered, "Did heaven look on and
would not take their part?"
Repeated references to stagecraft, to great, empty spaces, to blood, dark-
ness, these constitute what we have called "complexes" or "clusters" of images.
By "images," in a narrow sense, critics mean simply the sensations or pictures
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
called up by the figures of speech, the poetry of a Shakespearean play. In a
larger sense, though, images are a poet's way of stating the essence of what
he is writing about. Many people must have had the same experience I did
in school (at least, I get the impression from my students many people still
learn this kind of naturalistic Macbeth): "Macbeth is ambitious. Ambition
is his tragic flaw, the thing that makes him profound and interesting to us, but
also the thing that leads to his tragic fall. This is a tragedy of ambition." Well,
the statement is true enough, as far as it goes, but surely a man whose valet
is called Seyton (and pronounced like "Satan") has gone a little far to be
called simply "ambitious." Can we think simply of ambition when we hear
the magnificent words Macbeth speaks as he goes off to kill King Duncan?
Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch theel
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Thou marshall'st me the way that I was going,
And such an instrument I was to use.
Mine eyes are made the fools o' th' other senses,
Or else worth all the rest. I see thee still,
And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,
Which was not so before. There's no such thing.
It is the bloody business which informs
Thus to mine eyes. Now o'er the one half-world
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtained sleep. Witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate's offerings; and withered murder
Alarumed by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl's his watch, thus with his stealthy pace,
With Tarquin's ravishing strides, towards his design
Moves like a ghost. Thou sure and firm-set earth,
Hear not my steps which way they walk, for fear
Thy very stones prate of my whereabout
And take the present horror from the time,
Which now suits with it.
(II. i. 33-60)
Such a speech moves far beyond mere ambition in any usual sense; and the
speech reaches further because of its images: a darkness hiding "horror"; hal-
lucinations like the "fatal vision"; mysterious noises, the very stones prating;
witchcraft; vast spaces like "the one-half earth"; antitheses such as "I see thee
still ... There's no such thing"; disease, "the heat-oppressed brain"; even
goutss of blood."
Because of its imagery, this speech, indeed all of Macbeth, hovers between
nature and supernature, between the "sure and firm-set earth" and the "horror"
of "the time," between the "fatal vision," "dagger of the mind," and "this
which now I draw." In scene after scene, Shakespeare contrasts supernature
and nature. Act I, scene i, gives us the supernatural disorder of witchcraft;
Act I, scene ii, the natural disorder of the rebellions against King Duncan.
The beginning of Act I, scene iii, gives us prophecies of honors to come to
Macbeth, the throne to come to Banquo's heirs; the remainder of Act I, scene
iii and scene iv show us the natural fulfillment of one of these prophecies,
and we see King Duncan meting out rewards and punishments like the witches
and, like them, predicting who shall inherit the throne. Scene v gives us
Lady Macbeth tempting her husband as the witches had done; scene vi gives
us Lady Macbeth, not as witch, but as gracious hostess. The next four scenes
alternate between the Macbeths' castle as a scene of feasting, celebrations, and
sleep, and that same castle as a "Hell" of treason and murder (the devil-Porter's
phrase is "too cold for hell"). Act III, scene iv, shows us Banquo's ghost, an
image of supernatural retribution; it is followed by III, vi, the suspicions of
the courtiers, the beginnings of a naturalistic retribution. The unreal horror
of the second interview with the witches (IV. i) gives way to the real horror
of the slaughter of the Macduffs (IV. ii). It is through such imagery, such
stagecraft, the poetic logic of juxtaposition, that common or garden-variety
Elizabethan witches can become for us very "goddesses of destinie" without
their actually controlling the fate of the characters.
The images we have considered so far are images of the supernatural, a
supernatural conceived very much in the same shuddery forms that a child's
fears of the dark might take: hallucinations and terrible dreams, shapes and
shadows shifting and moving, witches and prophecies, stifling and smothering
darkness, dismemberment, disease, strange echoing sounds, and blood, above
all, blood. These are the images that take Macbeth beyond the schoolbook
tragedy of "ambition," that make the play probe the dark bowels of the uni-
verse. Yet, balancing these images of supernature, there is a whole other mass
of images, those that, in a way, support that schoolbook reading.
Macbeth is a moral tragedy and, like any moral problem, there are two
ways of looking at it, from a supernatural point of view or from a natural. As
always in Shakespeare, no matter how exotic and supernatural the action, it
grows from a simple family situation. Macbeth, grand and tragic as it is, is,
after all, a play about a husband and a wife, a wife we might meet in Suburbia
as well as Glamis. Lady Macbeth is the proverbial ambitious wife, the wife
pushing her husband ahead over his own hesitations and inhibitions. In fact,
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
the first time we see Lady Macbeth, we find her in a classic wifely situation:
her husband has invited the boss home to dinner practically without warning
her-not only the boss, the whole board of directors. But like a good wife she
manages a supper, indeed rather a feast; at least, everyone sleeps pretty soundly
afterwards. We hear about food and beds; we hear about wine and drinking
also: nightcaps and possets. In the course of the play we have not one, but
two, feasts. In both these cases, however, the food and drink are perverted. The
feasts are marred by murders, and the drinks, those cozy little nightcaps, are
drugged. The home life of the Macbeths is-not to put too fine a point on it-
We hear of the most homely of all substances, mother's milk, "the milk of
human kindness." In Shakespeare's day, "kindness" did not simply mean be-
nevolence. The word still had its original sense of "kin," as we use the word
in "mankind," meaning all of us who are related, being man. When Lady
Macbeth speaks of the "milk of human kindness," then, she means the milk
we sucked in the first act of our common humanity. It makes her phrase all the
Yet do I fear thy nature.
It is too full o' th' milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way.
(I. v. 14-16)
Even more terrible is her curse,
Come to my woman's breasts
And take my milk for gall, you murd'ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature's mischief.
(I. v. 45-48)
And again she says,
I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this,
(I. vii. 54-59)
that is, the murder.
Sleep is another natural, homely thing that we see perverted and destroyed
in this rather insomniac play.
Methought I heard a voice cry "Sleep no morel
Macbeth does murder sleep"-the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care,
The death of each day's life, sore labor's bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's feast.
(II. ii. 34-39)
Later, as he is planning to murder Banquo, Macbeth cries out:
Let the frame of things disjoint, both the worlds suffer,
Ere we will eat our meal in fear, and sleep
In the affliction of these terrible dreams
That shake us nightly.
(III. ii. 16-19)
Food, wine, mother's milk, sleep-Macbeth is very much a family play,
a play of domesticity, albeit perverted domesticity. A large part of this family
life in Macbeth is fatherhood, and fatherhood is treated in the tragedy as a ter-
ribly important thing. A great deal of Macbeth is concerned with passing on
one's inheritance to one's sons. This is the key issue between Macbeth and
Banquo. As Macbeth recalls the witches' prophecies:
When first they put the name of King upon me,
They hailed him father to a line of kings.
Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown,
And put a barren sceptre in my gripe,
No son of mine succeeding.
(III. i. 58-64)
If I can put it in crude, naturalistic terms, the same crude terms in which Lady
Macbeth becomes simply an ambitious corporation wife, the whole question in
Macbeth is whether the son will inherit his father's business, or some inter-
loper from outside will come in.
Still another way the play carries out the theme of domesticity is with birds,
birds after all, being nest-building animals. "This castle hath a pleasant seat,"
says the innocent Duncan as he arrives at the Macbeths', and Banquo replies,
This guest of summer
The temple-haunting martlet, does approve
By his loved mansionry that the heaven's breath
Smells wooingly here. No jutty, frieze,
Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird
Hath made his pendent bed and procreant cradle.
Where they most breed and haunt, I have observed
The air is delicate.
(I. vi. 3-10o)
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
There is a fearful irony in associating with the hellish and sterile atmosphere
of the Macbeths' castle, the innocence of a bird's nesting, the heaven's breath,
a "temple," a "bed," a "procreant cradle," breeding, delicate air. We hear,
though, not only of the procreant martlet, but the bird of death, the owl
(twice), the rook, the though, the goose, the kite, chickens-the killing of
the Macduffs is told almost entirely in terms of birds-the wren, the vulture,
the eagle, the sparrow. If we can enlarge the class, we hear also of the bat,
the shard-borne beetle, and other flying creatures. Birds are important partly,
I suppose, because they fly between heaven and earth; and for that reason they
are like omens, like the witches' prophecies. Birds hover between heaven and
earth even as the play itself does, and so remind us of the theme of supernatural
intervention or Providence. "Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and
one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father," or, as Hamlet
put it, "There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow." Birds, too, by
flying from here to there, carry out the idea of shapes shifting and moving
which is so important in Macbeth. Then, too, birds are the other two-legged
animal-the other besides ourselves.
Birds make only one cluster among many, many animal images in Macbeth.
For example, we hear about the hare, the lion, the serpent, the horse, the wolf,
a whole list of dogs (hounds, greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs, shoughs,
water-rugs, and demi-wolves), "the rugged Russian bear, the armed rhinoceros
or th' Hyrcan tiger"-in the witches' brew there is practically a whole menagerie,
although in somewhat damaged condition: "eye of newt, and toe of frog,"
"lizard's leg and howlet's wing," among them the blood of a sow "that hath
eaten her nine farrow" (talk about parenthood!). Sometimes animals are used
to describe particular people. For example, Malcolm is called a sacrificial
lamb, and Macbeth speaks of himself as a bear tied to the stake. In a more
general way, though, these images of animals ask the question so much of
the play asks: "What is a man?" As Lady Macbeth says when Macbeth hesi-
tates before killing Duncan,
What beast was't then
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man.
(I. vii. 47-51)
One way man distinguishes himself from the animals is by clothing him-
self. Thus, in that very scene, Macbeth objects to his wife's urging,
I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people,
Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,
Not cast aside so soon.
And Lady Macbeth replies: "Was the hope drunk wherein you dressed your-
self?" Clothes, like opinions and hopes, hide what's underneath them. Put
another way, clothes, in this sense, are part of the hiding, disguising, obscuring
imagery like the darkness or the fog and filthy air. Clothes also symbolize
titles and honors. For example, when Macbeth is addressed as the thane of
Cawdor, he replies,
The thane of Cawdor lives; why do you dress me
In borrowed robes?
(I. iii. 108-109)
And Banquo comments,
New honors come upon him,
Like our strange garments, cleave not to their mould
But with the aid of use.
(I. iii. 144-146)
These clothes, titles, and honors, however, must be rightly won. Thus, at the
end of the play we hear of Macbeth the tyrant,
Now does he feel his title
Hang loose about him, like a giant's robe
Upon a dwarfish thief.
(V. ii. 20-22)
Titles and honors are not enough, however, unless they come to pass in the
rightful cycles of growth and inheritance, as Banquo, for example, is said to
be "the root and father of many kings." To develop this notion of the cycles
of growth and inheritance, the play uses a quite striking chain of images. It
begins in Macbeth and Banquo's first scene with the witches, when Banquo
asks them to "Look into the seeds of time, and say which grain will grow
and which will not" (I. iii. 58-59). Then Duncan says to Macbeth, "I have
begun to plant thee, and will labor to make thee full of growing" (I. iv. 28-29).
Lady Macbeth tells her husband, "Look like the innocent flower, but be the
serpent under it" (I. v. 63-64). When Malcolm and Macduff are gathering
their forces in England, we are told, "Macbeth is ripe for shaking" (IV. iii.
Macbeth's rise and fall is being compared to the growth and death of a
plant. We hear of his fate first in connection with seeds, then as being planted,
then as a flower, then as ripe for shaking, and finally he says of himself, "My
way of life is fallen into the sear, the yellow leaf" (V. iii. 22-23). In fact, Mac-
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
beth's fate is identified with that of a tree-or a lot of trees-Birnam Wood:
"Macbeth shall never vanquished be until great Birnam Wood to high Dunsi-
nane Hill shall come against him." And Birnam Wood does indeed come
against him. As part of their invasion, Malcolm and Macduff cut down
branches and hold them up as "leavy screens" to conceal their numbers.
These "leavy screens" involve far more than just an early example of
camouflage, something much more central to the significance of the tragedy
as a whole. In the northern Europe of Shakespeare's youth, it was customary
to celebrate the coming of spring with pageants and festivals, and a common
ritual in these festivals was a meeting in the forest for games, dances, and
other things. Then the celebrants would cut down green boughs and flowers
and carry them before the townspeople as they marched back into the town
from their gathering in the woods. Apparently, from this ancient ritual, came
legends and stories of old and wintry kings besieged in their castles and de-
feated when an army comes marching toward them carrying the green boughs
of the spring. One of these legends passed into Holinshed's Chronicles where
Shakespeare found it and put it in the tragedy of Macbeth. When we take the
episode of Birnam Wood, then, back into the mythological depths of the hu-
man mind, Macbeth is the king of a kind of Waste Land, a Scotland that
"cannot be called our mother but our grave" where "good men's lives expire
before the flowers in their caps" (IV. iii. 165-172). When he is overthrown,
with God's help,
(with Him above
To ratify the work) we may again
Give to our tables meat, sleep to our nights,
Free from our feasts and banquets bloody knives,
Do faithful homage and receive free honors-
All which we pine for now.
(III. vi. 32-37)
True food, drink, and sleep, true family life, in other words, will replace the
perverted and sterile family life associated with the Macbeths. And, indeed,
when this Waste Land is freed from its tyrant, the new, young king Malcolm
sets out to do those things "which would be planted newly with the time"
(V. viii. 65), and the cycle of the seasons is complete. The men carrying the
green boughs have reestablished the natural, providential order of time and
generation, harvest and inheritance, that the Macbeths violated. Oddly enough,
one of those men carrying green boughs is himself an almost supernatural
figure, Macduff, who was "from his mother's womb untimely ripped," a curious
violation of that natural and sacred rhythm. Macduff himself at the end is
childless, wifeless, almost like Macbeth, as though Macduff were his counter-
part, his balance. Macduff is the instrument and manifestation of that larger,
supernatural order that penetrates and probes the domestic and political tragedy
Is ripe for shaking, and the pow'rs above
Put on their instruments.
(IV. iii. 237-239)
In the childless Macduff, the tragedy has closed its cycle, its two great move-
ments of sin and retribution. The first wave of action (after the introductory
scenes, supernatural and natural, I. i and I. ii) begins with the first set of
prophecies, prophecies about benefits to come to Macbeth. Macbeth murders the
fathers, Duncan and Banquo. Then the second set of prophecies, prophecies
about the retribution to come, begins the second, the retributive, wave of ac-
tion, in which the childless father, Macduff, kills Macbeth. The structure of
the tragedy has a dualism, like so much of Macbeth with its two levels, super-
natural and natural, its antitheses, its two criminals, its two revengers.
We have seen this dualism of Macbeth in terms of its images. There were
the images of the real world, images of domestic life, of food, drink, sleep,
mother's milk, marriage, procreation and parenthood, a real world, too, of
animals and birds and plants, the real cycles of generation and inheritance, a
world of Providential timing. Clothing, as it were, that real world, giving it an
aura of significance, were images in which simple, natural things like animals
or birds or plants acquired symbolic, emblematic value; images in which titles
and honors and opinions were worn like clothing, distinguishing man from
animals, raising him toward an order of being beyond that of the natural world.
Also beyond the natural world were the images of "horrible imaginings," the
witches, the hallucinations and terrible dreams, prophecies, moving shapes and
shadows, strange noises, antitheses, in general, images of uncertain perception;
images of disease and dismemberment as related to the theme of moral dis-
order; darkness hiding a nameless evil; stifling, smothering air filling vast,
echoing spaces; and, above all, blood, blood with its double sense, natural and
supernatural: a body fluid and divinely ordained lineage.
This is the world of Macbeth, and to see and hear and feel and savor the
tragedy to the fullest, we must enter it like travelers to Cathay, taking that
world on its own terms, understanding the people and events as they exist in
that world. Only then can we feel the work of art as a whole, feel its central
issues implicit, resonating, in every single part of it. Our memories, however,
being such that we cannot hold the whole play in our minds at once, it is
sometimes useful to state in a plain, bald, and maplike way the idea that informs
the play and shapes its unique world. In this sense, we can say that Macbeth
is a play about, first, the interpenetration of the supernatural and the natural;
second, man as caught in that dualism and, at the same time, the uncertain,
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
puzzled spectator of it; in short, Macbeth is the tragedy of our uncertainty
about the way supernature penetrates nature. Given such an "informing prin-
ciple" for the play, we are in a position to feel it whole, to feel the Macbeth-ness
permeating every tiny aspect of the tragedy-even those parts which seem not
very central to the action.
Take, for example, what is probably the most famous speech in Macbeth,
though really a quite optional aside. Shakespeare could perfectly well have left
it out, and it doesn't seem to have a great deal to do with the immediate oc-
casion for the speech, Lady Macbeth's death. Note, however, how the speech
builds on and adds to the elements that pervade and permeate the world of
the tragedy: darkness, strange noises in the night, apparently meaningless
words, and a rhythm of time, that fertile rhythm of the generations supported
by God's love which in the hands of the Macbeths has become dried up, dusty,
and sterile. The speech builds on the tragedy's sense that life is but action on
a stage, that we act out our lives before a supernatural audience:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
(V. v. 19-28)
It is a famous speech, perhaps the most famous statement of disillusion in our
language. And yet, though all of us have felt disillusion at one time or another,
this speech gives the common emotion a distinctive Macbeth-ness. For one
thing, the speech is full of darkness and uncertain perception (the walking
shadow, the flickering candle). For another, the speech insists on a kind of
dualism in the alliteration of such phrases as "petty pace," "day to day," "dusty
death," "Out, out." The speech deals (as the whole tragedy does) with man
as an actor playing out his part on the stage of the natural world, a natural
world which is symbolic: syllables or "a tale." Yet they are meaningless noises,
"sound and fury signifying nothing," as though Macbeth wished at this point
to deny that connection with the supernatural which is the essence of his rise
-and his fall.
This Macbeth-quality informs and permeates everything in the play, no
matter how peripheral it may seem, for example, the famous comic speech of
the Porter at the opening of Act II, scene iii, immediately after the most solemn
moment of the tragedy, the murder of Duncan. It is a grandly obscene speech,
and it seems grandly irrelevant. In fact, Coleridge, the greatest of Shakespeare's
Romantic critics, said of it (rather snobbishly): "This low porter soliloquy
I believe written for the mob by some other hand." And yet the speech echoes
and reechoes the imagery of the rest of the play. The Porter compares the
Macbeths' castle to hell, projecting it onto that supernatural level which is so
essential to the tragedy. His speech is a long succession of perversions of such
natural processes as growth and sexuality. He speaks of an equivocatorr," a
man who, like the witches, can make words shift and change their meanings
into their very opposites. He speaks of French hose, false, foppish clothing like
the false titles Macbeth wears. His discussion of lechery is one long series of
the antitheses that we found to be a part of the mystery of the tragedy. And,
as for the knocking that summons the Porter, as Thomas De Quincey, another
Romantic critic, pointed out, it follows on the tragedy's most concentrated
series of horrible imaginings: "Is this a dagger which I see before me?" "Had
he not resembled my father ." "Didst thou not hear a noise?" "These deeds
must not be thought ." "Methought I heard a voice cry ." "I am afraid
to think what I have done." And after all these phantasms comes that solid,
oh so solid, KNOCK, KNOCK:*
Porter. Here's a knocking indeed! If a man were porter of hell gate, he
should have old turning the key. (Knock.) Knock, knock, knock.
Who's there, i' th' name of Belzebub? Here's a farmer that hanged
himself on th' expectation of plenty. Come in time! Have napkins
enow about you: here you'll sweat for't. (Knock.) Knock, knock.
Who's there, in th' other devil's name? Faith, here's an equivocator,
that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who com-
mitted treason enough for God's sake, yet could not equivocate to
heaven. O come in, equivocator. (Knock.) Knock, knock, knock.
Who's there? Faith, here's an English tailor come hither for stealing
out of a French hose. Come in, tailor. Here you may roast your
goose. (Knock.) Knock, knock. Never at quiet! What are you?-
But this place is too cold for hell. I'll devil-porter it no further ....
Enter Macduff and Lennox.
Macduff. Was it so late, friend, ere you went to bed,
That you do lie so late?
Porter. Faith, sir, we were carousing till the second cock; and drink, sir, is
a great provoker of three things.
SHow rarely in stage performances of Macbeth is that knock given the solidity it
demands. Far too often, it becomes simply a rattle and bang on a flat, giving an effect
exactly the opposite of what is needed. So done, the knock becomes illusion topping illu-
sion rather than, in De Quincey's words, making "known audibly that the reaction has
commenced; the human has made its reflux upon the fiendish; the pulses of life are begin-
ning to beat again the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we
live, first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them."
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
Macduff. What three things does drink especially provoke?
Porter. Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep, and urine. Lechery, sir, it provokes,
and unprovokes: it provokes the desire, but it takes away the per-
formance. Therefore much drink may be said to be an equivocator
with lechery .
(II. iii. 1-28)
So far from being a spurious addition to the play, the comic speech carries on
the very themes that constitute Macbeth-ness down to such miniscule details
as the Porter's constant expletive, "Faith!" precisely what Macbeth has-and
does not have.
Not only the great speeches and the so-called "comic relief," but also some
of the puzzles of the play answer to the logic of the poetry, even where they
do not answer to the logic of the story. For example, there is the puzzle of
the third murderer. When in Act III, scene i, Macbeth plots the murder of
Banquo, he deals with two assassins, but when in Act III, scene iii, the actual
murder takes place, a third murderer appears. Who's he? Most critics say that
the third murderer is Macbeth himself, and there is a little evidence for such
a view. There is another way, though, of looking at such story-puzzles, namely,
in terms of the play as a whole. Throughout the play, we see things coming
together in twos and threes. In fact, the opening line of the play is, "When
shall we three meet again?" Traditionally, two is the number of woman and
three the number of man, for obvious anatomical reasons. Similarly, it is
traditional that two is the number of earth and three the number of super-
nature. So in this play we have on earth the two Macbeths, a man and a woman
coming together to kill together, and then die separately. Then there are the
three witches, with their three sets of three prophecies each. This hovering
ambiguity between an actual, earthly two and a mysterious, supernatural three
is very much like the rest of the play hovering between nature and supernature
so that perhaps a mysterious third murderer is not as mysterious as one might
think. Perhaps, too, in the religious context of the play, there is a grim and
horrible parody of that passage in the Bible which goes, "Where two or three
are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them."
There is another puzzle in this tragedy, perhaps the most famous question
you can ask about Macbeth: How many children had Lady Macbeth? In Act
I, scene vii, she says, "I have given suck, and know how tender 'tis to love the
babe that milks me." The entire second half of the play, however, depends on
the fact that the Macbeths have no children. Now perhaps the historical Lady
Macbeth, the one in Holinshed, had been married before and had had a
child by her first husband. But surely, had Shakespeare wanted us to think that,
he would have told us. Critics used to think that this kind of omission was
just sloppiness on Shakespeare's part, but really, critics ought to hesitate a
little before they call the greatest dramatist the world has ever known,
"sloppy." Shakespeare isn't simply telling a story, he is writing a poem, creating
a world. Lady Macbeth's childless motherhood answers to a kind of poetic or
psychological necessity. At the beginning of the play, she is stronger, crueler,
more determined than Macbeth, who seems subordinate to her, like a son.
She is conspiring with Macbeth against the fatherly Duncan upstairs. Thus,
when she speaks of children, she is behaving like a mother, a seductive and
horribly perverted mother, it is true, but a mother nevertheless. Later in the
play, Macbeth becomes the fatherlike king and Lady Macbeth, now the child-
less Lady Macbeth, seems his wife, submissive and subordinate to him, fearful
and remorseful as he had been earlier. When she is like a mother, she speaks
of her children; when she is not like a mother, she has no children.
These little puzzles are minor points, of course, the kind of thing only
specialists should discuss, but they suggest how seeing the play whole can give
it a sense, a coherence, a feeling of oneness. Macbeth is not simply the story
of an ambitious man. As a whole, Macbeth is the tragedy of how uncertain
we all are about the ways supernature permeates nature, mixing and germi-
nating in men's minds, spreading outward into their families and their com-
monwealths. Macbeth is not just some farfetched story about eleventh-century
Scotland-it is our story and our world.
ROMEO AND JULIET
PEOPLE USUALLY SAY ABOUT Romeo and Juliet THAT IT IS A TRAGEDY OF YOUNG
love, and so-in a way-it is. We should keep in mind, though, that there are
many kinds of love in Romeo and Juliet. There is the love of parent for child,
in this case, a somewhat misguided love as old Capulet tries to make Juliet
marry the County Paris. There is religious love, the love of the Friar for his
flock. There is political love, the Prince's care for the citizens of Verona. And
we have unrequited love, Paris' love for Juliet, for example, and, even more
important, the love of Romeo for that character whom even critics tend to
forget, Rosaline. People apparently prefer not to remember that Romeo doesn't
simply fall in love with Juliet. When we first see him at the opening of the
play, he is pining away, not for Juliet, but for Rosaline, who has sworn that
she will still live chaste. It isn't until the fifth scene of the play that Romeo
meets Juliet and falls in love with her.
The tragedy has many different kinds of love. It also has hate and conflict,
naturally enough, in a way, for the god of love is an archer and he shoots fatal
arrows. We speak of the "victims" of love, of women "surrendering," or of love
"conquering" all. At this point, I suppose, we stretch out our Freudian an-
tennae, but the Elizabethans needed no psychoanalyst come from the couch to
tell them how close love is to fighting. Shakespeare makes it very clear, very
ribaldly clear, in the opening fight among the servants.
Sampson. I will push Montague's men from the wall and thrust his maids to
the wall When I have fought with the men, I will be cruel
with the maids-I will cut off their heads.
Gregory. The heads of the maids?
Romeo and Juliet
Sampson. Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads. Take it in what
sense thou wilt.
(I. i. I5-25)
When this tragedy puts love and fighting side by side, it touches the oldest
and deepest part of our minds, and we should call Romeo and Juliet not a
tragedy of young love, but a tragedy of young love and old hate, a tragedy
of "the fatal loins."
What people usually say about Romeo and Juliet is that it is a tragedy of
fortune, or as the Prologue at the opening of the play has it, the tragedy of "a
pair of star-crossed lovers." Now, most Elizabethans firmly believed in as-
trology, in the influence of the stars on human affairs. The stars were the agents
of fortune; as Romeo says after he has slain Tybalt, "Oh, I am fortune's fool!"
(III. i. 134), meaning he is fortune's plaything. As we saw, when we were
dealing with Macbeth, most Elizabethans believed in fortune, fate, and the
stars, but they were also Christian, and they believed in free will. Thus, though
a man's fate is predetermined, he determines it by choosing as he goes along.
God knows everything that is going to happen, but we make it happen.
Perhaps the best way of thinking of "the stars" in Romeo and Juliet is more
or less the way we think of luck. The stars, however, have an advantage over
luck in that one can use them to read one's fate, as by casting a horoscope. In
fact, this is more or less what Romeo does when, just before he first meets
Juliet, he has a foreboding of what is to come:
My mind misgives
Some consequence, yet hanging in the stars,
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night's revels ..
But he that hath the steerage of my course
Direct my sail!
(I. iv. 1o6-113)
In effect, like a modern scientist, Romeo thinks of the stars as embodying and
revealing the laws behind physical events; they tell us what is going to happen.
Man chooses, as Romeo himself chooses to go to the Capulets' ball, but man
chooses to fulfill the course that has been plotted for him by God. In effect,
Romeo describes the stars as a way to read his future.
There is a lot in this play about reading and books and the rules they can
teach you. For example, in Act I, scene ii, an illiterate servant comes to Romeo
to ask him to read the guest list that he is supposed to deliver for a party. The
second time that Romeo kisses her, Juliet says, "You kiss by the book,"
meaning he kisses politely, formally. (What a horrible thing to say to a young
man she's just kissed) Mercutio, after he has been stabbed by Tybalt, complains
74 THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
that he was stabbed by a villain "that fights by the book of arithmetic" (the two
references to doing things "by the book" establish another parallel between
loving and fighting).
The idea of doing things by the book runs all the way through the play; it's
all part of Romeo and Juliet's rather rigid and artificial style. Romeo and Juliet
is a play with a great deal of formality in it, formality in its broadest sense as
well as its narrowest. In a narrow sense, the style of Romeo and Juliet is formal.
We find a great deal of rhyme in this play, as in most of Shakespeare's other
early plays. And the rhyme is not wholly successful, as, for example, in the
closing couplet of the play,
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
Not only do we have rhyme in this play, there are even whole little lyrics
embedded in the dialogue. Juliet recites an epithalamium, or marriage song,
as she waits for Romeo to climb her balcony the night after Friar Laurence has
married them. After that wedding night, as the lovers watch the dawn break
that will separate them, they recite another traditional kind of poem, an
aubade, or a day-song as it is called, a poem in which trysting lovers lament the
coming of day. The very moment they meet and declare their love, Romeo and
Juliet speak an impromptu sonnet:
Romeo. If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this;
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Juliet. Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.
Romeo. Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Juliet. Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
Romeo. 0, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do!
They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Juliet. Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.
Romeo. Then move not while my prayer's effect I take,
(I. v. 93-1o6)
and he kisses her, after dutifully filling out the rhyme-scheme abab cbcb
Romeo and Juliet was apparently written in the period when Shakespeare
was more interested in writing poetry than plays. There is some evidence that
he wrote Romeo and Juliet in 1591, at the very start of his career, and then
revised it in 1596. In any case, Shakespeare wrote this play sometime in the
75 Romeo and Juliet
first quarter of his career, the period when he wrote Venus and Adonis and
The Rape of Lucrece and apparently began writing his sonnets, the greatest
collection of sonnets in English. Shakespeare's imagination in Romeo and
Juliet is lyric, rather than dramatic. Instead of the rich, complex metaphors of
Shakespeare's middle style, Romeo and Juliet relies instead on mere word play,
puns. Juliet, tormented by her nurse's delays, cries out,
Hath Romeo slain himself? Say thou but 'I,'
And that bare vowel T shall poison more
Than the death-darting eye of cockatrice.
I am not I, if there be such an T .
(III. ii. 45-48)
and so on. Could Lady Macbeth have talked that way, expressing her emotions
by a hail of puns? The puns get particularly thick in the battles of wits between
the young men of the play, Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio. Romeo, for ex-
ample, jokes about his pump, that is, his shoe, to Mercutio, and that worthy
replies: "Follow me this jest now till thou hast worn out thy pump, that,
when the single sole of it is worn, the jest may remain, after the wearing,
solely singular." "O single-soled jest," Romeo comes back, "solely singular for
the singleness!" And a modern audience sits on its hands.
Along with this interest in puns and poems and books, there is, naturally
enough, a preoccupation with names, as in the famous, "A rose by any other
name" (which should probably be "word"). The passage begins with Juliet
asking, "Oh Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo" (wherefore, of
course, means why, not where, are you Romeo). Romeo goes on to answer and
deny his name:
My name, dear saint, is hateful to myself,
Because it is an enemy to thee.
Had I it written I would tear the word.
(II. ii. 55-57)
And later, Romeo says to Friar Laurence:
O, tell me, Friar, tell me,
In what vile part of this anatomy
Doth my name lodge? Tell me, that I may sack
The hateful mansion.
(III. iii. 105-o18)
This interest in words and names extends even to the letters of the alphabet.
At one point the Nurse has to deliver a message to Romeo, and she tells him
of a poem Juliet has written based on the fact that Rosemary and Romeo both
begin with the letter R. (Like many other things the Nurse says, this turns out
to be rather a ribald remark if you know some Elizabethan slang.) Juliet her-
self plays on the letter "I" when she asks,
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
Hath Romeo slain himself? Say thou but 'I,'
And that bare vowel I shall poison more
Than the death-darting eye of cockatrice.
I am not I, if there be such an T
Or those eyes' shot that makes thee answer 'I.'
(III. ii. 45-49)
These two letters, R and I, are the initials of the two principal characters in
the play, for the Elizabethans, like the Romans, used I for J when they felt
like it as on the title page of the First Quarto text of this play (see Fig. 13).
This careful playing around with the initials of the two lovers is just one such
element in the very stylized and formal texture of this tragedy.
The tragedy also uses a number of the Elizabethan conventions about love.
There is, for example, a great deal in Romeo and Juliet about eyes. Mercutio
says of Romeo that he is "stabbed with a white wench's black eye," with a
blonde's dark eye. Again, love and fighting, but this idea of stabbing with an
eye also refers to an Elizabethan notion of optics. We say that when we see
an object, light waves or photons or some mysterious thing from the object
enters our eyes. The Elizabethan was much more humanistic, and he thought
that when we saw something our eyes shot beams toward the object. Our theory
is all very nice for physics; their theory explains how people fall in love. The
girl looks at the boy, wiggles her eyelashes, and thus shoots darts into the pupils
of his eyes which descend and stab him to the heart. Thus, when Juliet warns
Romeo that her kinsmen will murder him he says, "Alack, there lies more
peril in thine eye than twenty of their swords," one more case of that age-old
link between love and fighting. And that link suggests that now we are
beginning to see the essence of the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.
The tragedy seems to be working itself out in a series of opposition. We've
already noticed Romeo versus Juliet, or, if you wish to generalize it, male
versus female, in the delightful battle of love. Juliet says before her wedding
Learn me how to lose a winning match,
Played for a pair of stainless maidenhoods,
(III. ii. I2-I3)
as though love were a game between two opponents. Then there is the obvious
opposition between the houses of Montague and Capulet, which is expressed in
still another contrast: the Montagues are often called dogs; the Capulets are
associated with cats, Tybalt, for example, being called "prince of cats" and
"Good king of cats." A very important contrast in this tragedy plays off romantic
love against physical love: romantic love as represented, say, by Romeo and
Juliet themselves or by Romeo's idealizing of Rosaline; physical love as rep-
resented by Mercutio's ribald comments or those of Juliet's long-winded Nurse.
77 Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet, for all that it is supposedly a tragedy of young love, is one
of Shakespeare's most obscene plays. For example, the Nurse in the process
of taking thirty-odd lines to explain to us that Juliet is slightly less than
fourteen years old recalls a time when she tripped and fell and her husband
took up the child.
'Yea,' quoth he, 'dost thou fall upon thy face?
Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit;
Wilt thou not, Jule?'
(I. iii. 41-43)
Falling on one's face as against falling on one's back is only one in the play's
long series of contrasts or opposition. We have water as against fire when
Romeo, in one of the poems embedded in the dialogue of this play, speaks
of turning tears to fires. At one point one of his friends asks him, "What sad-
ness lengthens Romeo's hours?" and Romeo replies "Not having that which
having makes them short." Having and not having; long and short. At another
point Juliet says to the Nurse:
Though news be sad, yet tell them merrily;
If good, thou shamest the music of sweet news
By playing it to me with so sour a face.
(II. v. 22-24)
The contrast is between good news and bad, sweet and sour. Again, Juliet cries
out when she learns who Romeo is:
My only love, sprung from my only hate!
Too early seen unknown, and known too late!
(I. v. 138-139)
Love and hate; unknown and known; early, late-this is the way Shakespeare's
imagination is working in Romeo and Juliet: opposites juxtaposed. Macbeth
has such contrasts, for example, "Fair is foul and foul is fair," and we said
that Shakespeare's imagination was finding for itself a particular figure of
speech in Macbeth, antithesis. In the case of Romeo and Juliet, there is also
a characteristic figure of speech; it is oxymoron (a word particularly handy for
crossword puzzles and cocktail parties). Like antithesis, oxymoron involves the
joining of opposites, but joining them in a closer and more extreme way, often
by coupling an adjective with a noun to which it cannot apply. We see this
adjective-noun combination in such a statement as Juliet's cry of anguish when
she learns that Romeo has killed her cousin Tybalt:
Beautiful tyrant! fiend angelicall
Dove-feathered raven! wolvish-ravening lambl
Despised substance of divinest show
THE SHAESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
Just opposite to what thou justly seem'st-
A damned saint, an honorable villain!
(III. ii. 75-79)
We hear the same kind of stuff when Romeo comes upon the scene of the
fight with which the play begins. He translates the fight into an oxymoron for
his own unrequited love for Rosaline:
Here's much to do with hate, but more with love.
Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate,
0 anything, of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms,
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
(I. i. 178-184)
Oxymoron, of course, is a verbal figure of speech, but Romeo and Juliet has
another kind of oxymoron, a visual oxymoron based on light. Light permeates
this play, pervades almost every scene with all the ardor and warmth of
young love-or old hate. The action of the play takes place in four days so
that three times we see the dawn rise. As Romeo says, "More light and light
-more dark and dark our woes" (III. v. 36). Light seems linked to love. On
the first night of the action we go to Capulet's feast with its gay, sparkling
torches. After the feast there is the balcony scene under the night sky studded
with stars. The next day Romeo and Juliet are married and that night again
there is a bright scene of love against the dark sky and then the dawn. The
final scenes of the play take place in the darkness of the Capulets' tomb, lit by
the troubled flickering of a lantern, and again the dawn, this time a reluctant
gray dawn, breaks. Sometimes the light in Romeo and Juliet is like a brief flash
against the darkness; we hear of lightning and the sudden flash of gunpowder.
Friar Laurence moralizes,
These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which, as they kiss, consume.
(II. vi. 9-11)
More often, the light is a bright spot against a black ground, a torch or a lantern
or a star, as in the phrase, "a pair of star-crossed lovers." Thus, Romeo, after
he has met Juliet at the Capulets' ball, climbs over her garden wall and looks
up at her balcony where suddenly she appears.
But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
79 Romeo and Juliet
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou her maid art far more fair than she.
Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
Having some business, do entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their spheres till they return.
What if her eyes were there, they in her head?
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars
As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.
(II. ii. 2-22)
Juliet, too, sees Romeo in terms of a bright spot against a dark ground, day
in night, snow on a raven's back, or stars against the night:
Come, night; come, Romeo; come, thou day in night;
For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night
Whiter than new snow upon a raven's back.
Come, gentle night; come, loving, black-browed night;
Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
(III. ii. 17-25)
This image of light against dark is, of course, not confined to stars; it can
become the rather strange simile with which Romeo comments on his first
sight of Juliet:
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear-
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows
As yonder lady o'er her fellows shows.
(I. v. 45-49)
That was his first sight of Juliet; we find the same image of light against
darkness in his last sight. He has just killed his rival Paris and says to him:
I'll bury thee in a triumphant grave.
A grave? 0, no, a lanthorn, slaught'red youth,
For here lies Juliet, and her beauty makes
This vault a feasting presence full of light.
(V. iii. 83-86)
The very grave becomes "a feasting presence full of light," a place of gaiety,
even of love. Romeo speaks of it as the "bed of death" and then again as
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
the "womb of death." When he buys the poison with which he commits
suicide he says, "Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee to-night" (V. i. 34), thinking
of dying together as an ecstasy of love.
Just as the opening scenes of the play bring together the act of love and
the act of hate, sex and fighting, the closing scenes of the play bring together
the place of birth and the place of death. These equations, love and hate, sex
and dying, marriage and funeral, womb and tomb, such thoughts, modern
psychologists are quick to tell us, occupy some of the oldest and deepest
levels of the human mind. So, too, the strict and extreme contrasts of ideas are
characteristic of our most primitive thinking, a child's feeling that things are
either to be taken in the mouth or spat out. In fact, Friar Laurence puts this
rigid, black-and-white pattern in images of food when he says:
The sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness
And in the taste confounds the appetite.
Therefore love moderately: long love doth so;
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.
(II. vi. 11-15)
It is Friar Laurence who, in one sense, is the spokesman for the play, who,
if this were a modern play, we would call the raisonneur, the man who speaks
for the author. At the intellectual center of the play stands Friar Laurence's
speech about flowers. Throughout the play it is the love of Romeo and Juliet
that has been called a flower. For example, Juliet in the balcony scene says,
This bud of love, by summer's ripening breath,
May prove a beauteous flow'r when next we meet.
(II. ii. 12x-122)
But the flower is struck by the chillness of death. Juliet dies and
Death lies on her like an untimely frost
Upon the sweetest flower of all the field.
(IV. v. 28-29)
Life turning into death, the flowered Juliet into the poisoned Juliet, light into
darkness, love into conflict, womb into tomb, bright spots fading against a
dark ground-all these images and ideas come together in Friar Laurence's
great tribute to nature and the dawn and the harmony of good and evil in
the larger purposes of the universe:
The grey-eyed morn smiles on the frowning night,
Check'ring the Eastern clouds with streaks of light;
And flecked darkness like a drunkard reels
From forth day's path and Titan's fiery wheels.
Now, ere the sun advance his burning eye
81 Romeo and Juliet
The day to cheer and the night's dank dew to dry,
I must up-fill this osier cage of ours
With baleful weeds and precious-juiced flowers.
The earth that's nature's mother is her tomb.
What is her burying grave, that is her womb;
And from her womb children of divers kind
We sucking on her natural bosom find,
Many for many virtues excellent,
None but for some, and yet all different.
0, mickle is the powerful grace that lies
In plants, herbs, stones, and their true qualities;
For naught so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give;
Nor aught so good but, strained from that fair use,
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse.
Virtue herself turns vice, being misapplied.
And vice sometime 's by action dignified.
Within the infant rind of this weak flower
Poison hath residence, and medicine power;
For this, being smelt, with that part cheers each part;
Being tasted, slays all senses with the heart.
Two such opposed kings encamp them still
In man as well as herbs-grace and rude will;
And where the worser is predominant,
Full soon the canker death eats up that plant.
(II. iii. 1-30)
Two opposed kings encamped in man-this is the vision Romeo and Juliet
gives us of ourselves. In a later speech Friar Laurence, speaking over the sup-
posedly dead Juliet, defines these two parts of man as the heavenly and the
Heaven and yourself
Had part in this fair maid-now heaven hath all,
And all the better is it for the maid.
(IV. v. 66-68)
As so often in drama and particularly in Shakespearean drama these two
parts-the heavenly and the earthly parts of the principal characters-are pro-
jected outward onto the characters around them. There are, for example, two
sets of parents in the play, the lovers' real parents and their spiritual parents.
We see the real parents briefly, old Montague a little more conciliatory than
his fiery opposite Capulet. We see the Capulets impetuously forcing Juliet to
marry Paris. We hear at the end of the play that Lady Montague has died
of grief. Behind these real parents are what we might call the spiritual parents
of the lovers, a set of parents who project the most fundamental aspects of
the lovers' characters. They are Friar Laurence, Mercutio, Rosaline, and the
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
Nurse. These four spiritual parents are in turn divided into heavenly and
earthly parts. That is, Friar Laurence on the masculine side becomes a heavenly
father. Mercutio, on the other hand, who seems almost an older brother to
Romeo, is masculine but far more earthy. He seems to look only on the
physical or sexual side of love, and when his imagination turns to spiritual
things, it finds expression in paganism: the grand speech about Queen Mab
and the fairies, or his conjuration of the hidden Romeo:
The ape is dead, and I must conjure him.
I conjure thee by Rosaline's bright eyes,
By her high forehead and her scarlet lip,
By her fine foot, straight leg, and quivering thigh,
And the demesnes that there adjacent lie,
That in thy likeness thou appear to us!
(II. i. i6-21)
Rosaline, too, is pagan, but "She hath Dian's wit," that is, the temperament
of the goddess of chastity. Rosaline herself projects another kind of spirituality:
that hankering after the ideal, the absolute, which is so much a part of the
young love of Romeo and Juliet. "She hath sworn that she will still live
chaste." "She hath forsworn to love." Finally, at the opposite end of the scale
from the holy father, Friar Laurence, is the profane mother, the Nurse. "Ancient
damnation," Juliet calls her, "0, most wicked fiend." When she advises Juliet
that, since Romeo has gone away, she might just as well marry Paris, Juliet
rejects her evil parent and turns to the good one, saying, "I'll to the Friar to
know his remedy." Figure C shows all these character relations in a kind of
diagram-male-female; Christian-pagan; chaste-unchaste. There is another,
rather curious justification for pairing the Friar and the Nurse this way: the
Nurse has a helper, Peter; the Friar is associated with "St. Peter's Church."
This must seem very cold-blooded and schematic, but you should remember
this is a very rigid and schematic sort of play. Romeo and Juliet is not just
a tragedy of young love, but a tragedy of young love and old hate and that
phrasing keeps us in mind of two of the dualities in the tragedy: love-hate,
young-old. The whole tragedy, in a sense, depends on the contrast between
the impulsive, hasty qualities of youth and the delays of old age. That is, Romeo
and Juliet rush to get married; Mercutio and Tybalt rush into a deadly sword
fight. On the other hand, old Montague, old Capulet, and the Prince delay
-and have delayed for years-in trying to straighten out their quarrel.
We could put all these fragments of the play together by saying that the
essence of Romeo and Juliet, the principle that informs and characterizes the
play's distinctive world, is opposition: Romeo and Juliet is the tragedy of the
way opposites are so close in this world. How often two and two-ness appear
in the play, beginning with that crucial phrase of the prologue, "a pair of
83 Romeo and Juliet
star-crossed lovers," and ending with the Prince's mournful comment at the
tomb that he has "lost a brace of kinsmen." All through the imagery, we find
opposites paired: virtue and vice; water and fire; long and short; quick and
slow; sweet and sour; light and dark; bright spot and dark background; cat
and dog; womb and tomb; birth and death; sex and fighting; but most of all,
love and hate.
Not only are there sharp contrasts in the ideas and images, but also in
Fig. C. Character configuration in Romeo and Juliet.
the characters and action. Mercutio, Rosaline, the Nurse, and the Friar make up
a pair of pairs, projections of the basic opposition in the tragedy: chastity and
unchastity; Christian and pagan; male and female. Throughout, the tragedy
sets off the earthly aspects of people from the heavenly, just as the Friar sep-
arates medicine from poison in his flowers. The Friar himself, gathering
medicines, bound to poverty, stands as a contrast to that poor apothecary from
whom Romeo buys his poison. He contrasts, too, with Prince Escalus: the
Prince wants to make peace between the two families by enforcing a political
decree from outside the feud; the Friar wants to make peace by encouraging
a spiritual decree (the marriage) that has grown up inside the feud. The
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
humorous word battles begun by Mercutio contrast with the serious sword
battles begun by Tybalt. Romeo and Juliet achieve a romantic, idealized love
that contrasts with and transcends both the earthy, physical love so ribaldly
described by Mercutio and the Nurse, and the chastity associated with Rosaline
and the Friar. In the action as a whole, Juliet's wedding turns into a funeral;
the lovers, in a hard irony, "die of love." In its essence, Romeo and Juliet is a
formal tragedy. In the narrow sense of the word, it is a play much concerned
with books, rules, conventions, poems, puns, words and names, and even
letters of the alphabet. The play is formal, though, in a far broader sense,
formal in this very quality of being composed of a series of sharp opposition.
Romeo and Juliet is the tragedy of two people who want to compromise, to
marry, in a world where everything is black or white.
These opposites, this formality, typify Shakespeare's early style. "What early
tongue," says Friar Laurence, "so sweet saluteth me?" Romeo and Juliet is
indeed Shakespeare's early tongue and it is indeed sweet, maybe even a little
too sweet. In the last analysis-and this may seem a horrible heresy to some
-Romeo and Juliet, I think, is simply not a very good play. It is, of course,
a great favorite with audiences, but that doesn't tell us whether it should be
a great favorite with audiences. It's a great favorite with actresses, particularly
aging actresses, who seem to have an irresistible urge to play the fourteen-year-
old Juliet opposite a handsome young lover. Because it's such a great favorite,
we ordinarily do include it among Shakespeare's major plays. If it is a major
play, though, it is certainly the least of Shakespeare's major plays. But this, too,
has its uses. Romeo and Juliet reminds us that even Shakespeare's hand can
slip a little sometimes, and it gives us a chance to look at what we might
call the lesser Shakespeare without going through the trials and tribulations
of Titus Andronicus or the Henry VI plays. Perhaps most important, by seeing
what Romeo and Juliet is not, we can see in high relief, as it were, what
qualities we prize in the really great plays of Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet
gives us a chance to ask what we mean by greatness or goodness in a literary
sense. Of course, this is a problem that has bothered all the philosophers of all
the ages, and I do not mean to offer in the next few pages any real answer.
Nevertheless, Romeo and Juliet does suggest some defects, some things that
keep us from saying "this is great," which we can look out for in other
Shakespearean plays or, for that matter, in any work of art.
For example, these rigid, sharp contrasts and oppositions-somehow they
all seem a bit too easy, rather like the villain of the nineteenth-century melo-
dramas who wore a black frock coat and a black stovepipe hat and would
stalk around and twirl his moustache, foreclose the mortgage, and tie little
Nell to the railroad track. We laugh at the villain of the nineteenth-century
melodrama, and the reason we laugh, I think, is that we expect from a work
85 Romeo and Juliet
of art some kind of complexity. We don't get it in the nineteenth-century melo-
drama, and we don't get it in Romeo and Juliet. These sharp, rigid opposition
and contrasts are a little too easy: love-hate, light-dark, sweet-sour, cat-dog-
it's like a word-association test. In this tragedy, the lovers are "good guys," and
the parents are all "bad guys." Now, while there is a germ of truth in that,
nevertheless, some of my best friends are parents and occasionally parents are
right-but you would hardly know it from Romeo and Juliet.
The same thing holds true for the poetry. The figures of speech Shakespeare
uses in Romeo and Juliet are not complex as they were in Macbeth, but simple,
the ordinary stock-in-trade of any Elizabethan poet. Romeo, for example, says,
Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs;
Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers' eyes;
Being vexed, a sea nourished with lovers' tears.
(I. i. 188-19o)
These are trite, hackneyed figures of speech; you could find them in dozens
of Elizabethan lyrics. At the end of the play, Juliet, wanting to commit suicide,
grasps Romeo's dagger and cries: "This is thy sheath; there rust, and let me
die." Old Capulet comes upon his stabbed daughter and says, "This dagger
hath mistak'n, for, lo, his house is empty on the back of Montague," that is,
the scabbard is empty, "And it missheathed in my daughter's bosom." The
figure of speech is that the dagger has been sheathed in Juliet's body instead of
in its proper scabbard. Now this is surely a very small leap of the poetic
imagination. Contrast the great passage in Macbeth, where Macbeth, who has
murdered Duncan, describes the two grooms sleeping beside him whom he is
accusing of the murder; he speaks of
Steeped in the colors of their trade, their daggers
Unmannerly breeched with gore,
(II. iii. 0o-I12)
of the daggers as wearing blood like breeches. It is a rather drastic figure of
speech, but an effective one, unlike the much cruder idea in Romeo and Juliet
that the dagger is sheathed in the body of its victim. The idea in the earlier
play is too easy; it demands no complexity from us in our response. The figure
of speech in Macbeth, on the other hand, does demand a complex response.
When critics speak of a too simple metaphor, they speak of it as relying on
our "stock response." That is, crude works of art tend to use the way we would
react anyway; you can see this trick any Sunday in the poetry columns of the
Sunday supplements. We read a poem about a little boy who has died and
gone to heaven and become an angel and we feel sad. Naturally enough. But
it was not the poem that made us sad, but the thought of a little boy dying.
THE SHAKESPEAREAN IMAGINATION
In other words, the poem used our stock response to gain its emotional
effect. It cheated. The poem generated no emotion itself; it only tapped a
preexisting emotion. The good poem or the good play, on the other hand, uses
our stock response only a little bit, only somewhat, only as the start for some-
thing bigger and better. If it did not use our stock response at all, we would
feel that it was foreign, strange to us, too complicated. We would complain,
as many people do about some modern poetry and fiction, that it is too
obscure, which, I take it, means simply that it is too far removed from the
way we ordinarily think or feel, too far removed from our stock responses.
If, then, the great work of art uses our stock responses but is not subservient
to them, we would expect to find a kind of peak or optimum point in the
complexity which makes for great art, a point where there is neither too much
complexity nor too little. Yet there seems to be no one level of complexity
which automatically guarantees great art. That is, some great art is very
complex, while other great art relies pretty heavily on our stock responses.
For example, James Joyce's Ulysses, probably the greatest novel of our century,
uses our stock responses relatively little. On the other hand, Spenser's Faerie
Queene or the novels of Dickens or, in our century, the great Western movies
such as High Noon, these build very heavily on our preexisting ideas of what
constitutes good and bad. In other words, merely using or not using our
stock responses is not itself a determining factor in literary value; we must also
consider how our stock responses are used, either simply or complexly. Thus,
in the case of Romeo and Juliet, not only does the play rely heavily on our stock
responses about parents and children; it also uses those stock responses in a
stock way. Contrast Macbeth. Surely our stock response to the man who as-
sassinates his guest, kinsman, and king is that he is a bad man, but in the
case of Macbeth this is complicated and enriched by the whole question of
fate, the role of the witches, the role of Lady Macbeth, and the rest.
There is still another factor in the way a good work of art uses our stock
or ready-built responses: it uses them always more or less at about the same
level. For example, Juliet hears that Romeo is banished and she says,
'Romeo is banish&d'-to speak that word
Is father, mother, Tybalt, Romeo, Juliet,
All slain, all dead. 'Romeo is banished'-
There is no end, no limit, measure, bound,
In that word's death; no words can that woe sound.
(III. ii. 122-126)
This is a sort of stock response, a young reaction. There is no end, no limit,
no measure, no bound, in Juliet's response to the banishment. Romeo, on the
other hand, when he speaks of his banishment to Friar Laurence, says,
87 Romeo and Juliet
Hadst thou no poison mixed, no sharp-ground knife,
No sudden mean of death, though ne'er so mean,
But 'banished' to kill me-'banished'?
O friar, the damned use that word in hell;
Howling attends it! How hast thou the heart,
Being a divine, a ghostly confessor,
A sin-absolver, and my friend professed,
To mangle me with that word 'banished'?
(III. iii. 44-50)
Romeo is also saying that the word carries in it a kind of infinite death, but
our response to his words is more complicated, more ironical. Romeo expresses
his despair in religious terms, and those very religious terms suggest that
he overstates his despair. After all, if we want to be cold-blooded and middle-
aged-and religious-about it, the fact that Romeo has been banished from
Verona is not the same as going to hell. Now one could make a play out of
Juliet's response, somewhat crude and childish though it is; and one could
make a play out of Romeo's response. But if a writer mixes these two attitudes
in a single play, we get the feeling of an unevenness. It can be really disastrous
if you mix these two different levels of response in a given speech. For
example, at the beginning of Romeo's speech about being banished he cries,
'Tis torture, and not mercy. Heaven is here,
Where Juliet lives; and every cat and dog
And little mouse, every unworthy thing,
Live here in heaven and may look on her;
But Romeo may not. More validity,
More honorable state, more courtship lives
In carrion flies than Romeo. They may seize
On the white wonder of dear Juliet's hand
And steal immortal blessing from her lips.
(III. iii. 29-37)
Suddenly the speech shifts from cats and dogs and little mice, soft, furry things,
to a carrion fly and, at that, a carrion fly which is stealing immortal blessing
from Juliet's lip. It's grotesque! Now it is possible, I expect, to write love
poetry about a fly on one's beloved's lips-John Donne wrote a famous love
poem about a flea biting first him, then his mistress-but it seems to me that
it is probably not possible to write a love poem which starts out with little
furry kittens and puppies and mice and then suddenly shifts to a carrion fly.
The shift in tone is too sharp, too radical, and we simply don't go along with
it. It doesn't succeed. In a good work of art, then, we ask for a certain
consistency, a certain unity or evenness in the tone; not so even that it becomes
monotonous, but not so disjointed that it becomes disturbing.