Thanks, Mr.Malkus. That was great. Good morning, everyone. We’ll continue our presentation today by showing you how Shakespeare’s dramatic art changed in the year 1599. Please welcome our actors: James Miller, Adam Janet, Mr. Malkus, John Prevas, Meg Bowen, Renn Andrews, and Ryann Ahmed. They will deliver a series of speeches from Hamlet. Thanks folk for helping us out. And so, with no further ado, let’s begin:
SLIDE #1 in:
Holding the Mirror up to Nature
1599: The Globe, Hamlet and Shakespeare's Theatre Manifesto:
1599: it was the year that the Globe Theatre was built, the year Shakespeare fired his Fool, and the year he wrote Hamlet; 1599 was the year that Shakespeare's dramatic art took a quantum leap forward. XF to SLIDE #2 Hamlet initiated the great series of tragedies that Shakespeare would write over an extraordinary six-year period: Othello, then King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra and, finally, Macbeth. What got into him? The answer can be discovered, I believe, in the text of Hamlet itself. SLIDE #2 OUT
You 11th and 12th graders will remember that at the outset of this tragedy’s action, the melancholy prince of Denmark has just had an extraordinary supernatural encounter. The Ghost of the old King, Hamlet’s dear, recently dead father commands him to revenge his “foul and most un-natural murder”, and Hamlet vows to sweep to his revenge “with wings as swift/ As meditation or the thoughts of love”…. Only, he doesn’t. It’s not like he doesn’t despise the new King, his uncle, that ‘smiling, damned villain’ who poisoned his father and now is sleeping with his mother. Still, Hamlet cannot act. Why not? Well, we’ll leave that for you to figure out. You 9th and 10th graders still have an important essay to write about that one.
But, I have always been fascinated by the section of the play which immediately follows Hamlet’s ghostly encounter with his father. Act II. Yes, instead of sweeping to his revenge, Hamlet spends most of the next several weeks (in the play’s time) wandering about in filthy clothes, tormenting his girl friend, Ophelia…insulting her pompous father, Polonius, muttering strange threats at the King (only in code, though) …. and giving his mother some very, very nasty looks. It seems like he has, I dunno, well, he is acting just a little bit like he’s gone round the bend.
The most amazing thing about this section of Hamlet is that it’s not only the young Prince who is behaving strangely. The play itself seems to have gone bonkers. Hamlet’s mother, concerned for her son’s health, has sent for his best friend from college, and he shows up at Elsinore, only he has metamorphosed into them SLIDE #3 in: a strange doppelganger named Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and boy are they weird. They are always bowing and scraping, sucking up to adults, and bonking their heads together. Old Polonius too, well, he’s always been a tedious old fool; only now he is behaving like the ultimate cartoon caricature of puffed up pretentiousness. And then, Shakespeare himself starts making some pretty obvious mistakes: in one speech Hamlet refers to the very stage he is standing on: CF to SLIDE #4 he describes that most excellent canopy, the heavens over his head (just like at the brand new Globe Theatre!).
Hamlet (James): I have of late—but wherefore I know not--lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so. (Hamlet II ii)
Did you hear that? CF to SLIDE #5 Hamlet referred in a nasty way to the foul and pestilent vapors emanating from the breathing audience right in front of him. The groundlings. Hmmm! Hey! Characters in a play are not supposed to refer to the fact that they are characters in a play. That’s one of the rules. It ruins the whole effect!
And into this surreal setting steps a traveling troupe of tragedians! SLIDE #5 out
The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited: Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light. For the law of writ and the liberty, these are the only men.
What is Shakespeare up to? Why does he make the strange choice to drop the pretense that he is even putting on a play? Well, I don’t know the answer to that one either, but it is like we are seeing the whole world through Hamlet’s eyes.
It gets even more interesting! During the ensuing scene, when Hamlet welcomes the tragedians to Elsinore, he starts making comments about the plays being staged in London at the very time that Hamlet was on the boards in 1600, and again, he is not very nice! In the following snippet, Hamlet and Guildenstern, I mean Rosencrantz, are talking about a scandalous show that was being staged by a company of child actors right across the Thames River from the Globe at that posh indoor theatre, The Blackfriars. SLIDE #6 IN The play was called Cynthia’s Revels and it had been written by Shakespeare’s arch rival, Ben Johnson. CF to SLIDE #7 In it the child actors were satirizing the performances of the adult actors at other theatres by impersonating them. Yep, Middle School Theatre in competition with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and guess what: they were outselling Hamlet! CF to SLIDE #8
…there is, sir, an eyrie of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question, and are most tyrannically clapped for't: these are now the fashion, and so berattle the common stages--so they call them--that many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose-quills and dare scarce come thither.
Ay, that they do, my lord; Hercules and his load too.(Hamlet II ii)
CF to SLIDE #9
Get it, eh, The Globe?
SLIDE #9 OUT I read a great book about Shakespeare’s life last summer called 1599. It’s by a scholar named James Shapiro, and he tells the story of that crucial year in the Bard’s career. In his chapter on Hamlet, he suggests that Shakespeare was paying homage to styles of theater that had served him during the first ten years of his career. In 1599, now middle-aged, having sunk his life savings (and the wealth of his whole company) into this new venture, Shakespeare had decided to strike out in a new artistic direction. He was gambling that the audience that he had developed over the past decade of theatrical successes was ready to come with him.
Shakespeare was leery of satire. Holding any public figure up to open ridicule in Elizabethan London could get you into hot water with the government, or, even worse, you might be confronted by a rapier-wielding playwright. (Ben Jonson had already been imprisoned for killing a rival on the streets of London.) No, Shakespeare was too smart. He would not blatantly engage in satire, no matter how lucrative that dangerous game might be.
He was also ready to jettison his greatest talent: his skill at churning out the kind of rhetorical bombast that the crowds loved. In the late 1580’s Shakespeare had been inspired to get into playwriting by his own theatrical mentor, SLIDE #10 IN Christopher Marlowe. (Hamlet itself is a revision of an earlier version of the play that Shakespeare may have acted in when he first came to London.) You can hear echoes of Shakespeare’s Marlovian style in Act II of Hamlet, in the language of the leader of the tragedians who have just arrived at Elsinore:
HAMLET (John P.)
LORD POLONIUS (Mr. Malkus)
First Player (John P.)
he finds him
LORD POLONIUS (Mr. Malkus)
Pretty effective stuff, huh? Well, Shakespeare was less impressed than Hamlet. Farewell, Marlowe! Shakespeare’s first triumph as a playwright had been in the Henry VI plays, (Right, never heard of them. Well, there’s a reason.) They were a cycle of history plays, a brand new genre that Shakespeare himself had invented, about the English Civil War of the 15th century, the War of the Roses. Those performances had sold extremely well. There is a record of the sales at performances of Henry VI at the Rose Theatre on the Southbank that indicate that Shakespeare had been making serious money, making a name for himself in the London theatre world, by indulging in the kind of crowd pleasing rhetorical bombast that he had come to lean upon and despise as a playwright. At the Globe there would be no more of that!
Shakespeare was also ready to leave behind the other main crowd-pleasing routine of his early plays, the obscene jiggery of improvisational street theatre. The great clown of Shakespeare’s company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, had been Will Kempe. It was Kempe who first played roles like Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, Launce in Two Gentlemen of Verona, and the Dromios in The Comedy of Errors. It had also been Will Kemp who had played Falstaff, maybe the greatest comic character in theatre history, in Shakespeare’s second great tetrology of history plays, the Henry IV cycle. Kempe was the star of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a huge crowd pleaser. At the end of every Elizabethan play, after the actors took their bows, the Clown was given the opportunity to take center stage and perform a “jig”. SLIDE #12 IN Now, this is not the type of jig which concludes every performance at the Present Day Globe. That’s just spirited dancing. No, the jig in Elizabethan times was an improvised skit of rhyming bawdry which the Clown sang directly to the audience; I imagine it was kind of like the obscene stand up routines made famous by Richard Pryor and Robin Williams, only you need to add drums, tabor and dance. Will Kempe was the acknowledged master of the jig.
Yet where is he in Hamlet? What role does he play? The answer is none. Where is the fool in Hamlet? The Fool is literally dead. The fact is that Shakespeare fired Will Kempe early in 1599, before the Globe officially opened. His share in the company was bought out, and Shakespeare ridded himself of this rhyming comedian who was always going off book! CF to SLIDE #13 Kempe responded by lampooning Shakespeare in a great jig which he danced and sang all the way from London to the sea. So Will Kempe danced his way into oblivion.
How many of you had heard of Will Kempe? SLIDE #13 OUT
Shakespeare pays a eulogy to the old time fool in the great Gravedigger Scene at the end of Hamlet:
First Clown (Mr. Malkus)
HAMLET (Adam J.)
First Clown (Mr. Malkus)
HAMLET (Adam J.)
Takes the skull
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen? Now get you to my lady's chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come; make her laugh at that.
So, Shakespeare sadly but decisively cast away the old tricks that had worked for him But what was to replace rhetoric and satire and bawdy humor? The answer comes, yep, in Act II of Hamlet. Before the Players put on The Mouse Trap, the play within a play at the center of the action, the prince instructs his actors about the new style in which they should speak the speech.
HAMLET (Meg B.)
Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumbshows and noise.
Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special o'erstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.
Precision, enunciation, realism: these would be the new criteria by which the art of playacting would be judged. Acting requires more than just declamation. The actor needs to be able to project what is going on within in order to convey to the audience what Hamlet later describes as ‘the brief and abstract chronicle of the time’.
Sounds good, but if the theatre were to achieve this new naturalism, what device would Shakespeare use to captivate his audience? The answer can be found, you guessed it, at the end of Act II of Hamlet. In a remarkable one-two punch, Shakespeare wrote two soliloquies for his new star actor, Richard Burbage to perform as Hamlet. And in so doing, Shakespeare set the model for all future playwrights to match.
The soliloquy allows the character to speak directly to the audience about what is on his mind. Last summer I also read another wonderful book about Shakespeare; this one entitled Will in the World by the scholar Stephen Greenblatt. In his chapter on Hamlet, Greenblatt focuses on the crucial breakthrough in dramaturgy that takes place in this play. He argues that Shakespeare’s great leap forward took place because he had discovered the power of suggestion to sound the mysterious depths of the human psyche. Before Hamlet, Shakespeare had used the soliloquy to superb effect by simply letting the audience in on a villain’s plot, like in Richard III, but gradually over the course of the 1590’s Shakespeare discovered that the soliloquy could be used to even more powerful psychological effect by merely hinting at the terrible struggles that a character wages with the passions within his own psyche. SLIDES #14-26 RUN We can call these forces desire, hatred, fear, or conscience, but can we understand them? In Hamlet’s soliloquies he deals directly with the issue most troubling him: Why does he not act? And as the soliloquies show, he doesn’t have a clear idea why. But we the audience are drawn into the mystery of the action by looking for clues that even Shakespeare himself might not have understood. SLIDES DONE
HAMLET (Renn A.)
Sounds like a plan, huh? Hamlet has just broken out of the funhouse-mirror depression which had prevented him from acting, right? No. Just minutes later in stage time, he is speaking to us again:
HAMLET (Ryaan A.)
To be, or not to be: that is the
Shakespeare had developed the skill to hint at the undiscovered country of the human psyche through the suggestiveness of language and the actor’s art. In future plays, Shakespeare would use silence and intimation even more as he opened doors in our minds that previously had been closed to us. Shakespeare’s theatre is timeless because it functions as a Rorschach test, an inkblot upon which each age can project its own sense of the unknown within, in that realm where thought and feeling dance their Sabbath, where reason converts to emotional energy and then back again into utterance.
It is up to you, gentle audience, to have the courage to cross that threshold together.
Thanks, actors, please take a bow. And many thanks, Ober family, for your generous gifts to the school which continue to help make our study of Shakespeare and Acting possible.