Friday, November 1, 2019

Shakespeare — He should have no readers!

The following from The Writer’s Almanac prompts me to ask — casting myself in the role of trouble maker — why do we persist in reading plays that were intended for stage performances but never for silent reading? I say, we shall have no more marriages between solitary readers and the playwright’s scripts! (Note: when I was a theater major for my BA, we scoffed at readers in the English department because their encounters were incomplete; when I was an English major for my MA, we scoffed at the performers in the theater department because their encounters were incomplete. Hmmm.) 

It was on this day, seven years apart, that two of Shakespeare's plays (books by this author) were performed for the first time: Othello in 1604, and The Tempest in 1611.
 Othello was performed for the court of James I. In the "Accounts of the Revels at Court" from 1604, there is an entry that says: "By the Kings Maiesties plaiers. Hallamas Day being the first of Nouembar, A play in the Banketinge house att Whithall called The Moor of Venis. Shaxberd." Othello, the Moor of Venice was performed several more times before Shakespeare died in 1616, but it wasn't printed until 1622.
Richard Burbage, Shakespeare's friend and the leading man in his acting company, probably played the first Othello, just as he played Hamlet, King Lear, and Richard III. He definitely played him in later productions, and a poet described Othello as Burbage's "chiefest part, / Wherein beyond the rest he moved the heart." King James was a scholar himself and a serious patron of the arts — he gave his name to the King James Bible, and he and his wife particularly enjoyed theater, and so many of Shakespeare's plays were performed before the royal court. Macbeth was written specifically for James, who was fascinated by witchcraft. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, who preceded James, an average of six or seven plays were performed each year in the royal court. The court of James I averaged more than 20 each year.
And it was on this day in1611 that The Tempest was first performed, once again for the court of James I. The Tempest tells the story of Prospero, a powerful magician and the former Duke of Milan who is exiled to a remote island with his daughter. He conjures up a storm to shipwreck his brother, who stole his throne.
Because The Tempest is Shakespeare's last major play, a lot of people think that Prospero is meant to stand for Shakespeare himself, and that his last speech, when he gives up his powers, is Shakespeare's own comment about the end of his career: "To the dread rattling thunder / Have I given fire and rifted Jove's stout oak / With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory / Have I made shake and by the spurs plucked up / The pine and cedar: graves at my command / Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth / By my so potent art. But this rough magic / I here abjure; and, when I have required / Some heavenly music — which even now I do, — / To work mine end upon their senses, that / This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff, / Bury it certain fathoms in the earth, / And deeper than did ever plummet sound / I'll drown my book."
The theater scene at James' court must have gone downhill after Shakespeare's day, because a few years later, in 1614, a courtier wrote to his friend complaining of the constant plays: "We have Plays at Court every night, — wherein they shew great patience, being, for the most part, such poor stuff that, instead of delight, they send the auditory away with discontent. Indeed our Poets' brains and inventions are grown very dry, insomuch that of five new Plays there is not one that pleases, and therefore they are driven to furbish over their old; which stand them in best stead and bring them most profit."


  1. i have to join the readers... the few plays i've seen were difficult to understand or follow, but reading them one has a chance to figure out what the characters are saying and what the action is... great post, by the by...

    1. Color me schizophrenic .... I agree with both sides of argument ..... yet I insist reading by itself is inadequate .....