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Hamlet in all modern men. Musset wrote a 'Lorenzaccio' 60 rife with Hamletism that Mme. Sarah Bernhardt, after appearing as the protagonist of that play, was in the nature of things bound to undertake the Prince of Denmark. One peculiarly 'modern' novelist, Tourgenev, cannot choose hut write a ' Hamlet russe,' while another, M. Paul Bourget, reproduces the whole story in * Andre Cornells.' Then there is the veteran author of 'John Gabriel Borkman' who gives us a Hamlet, as it were, reversed, a Hamlet who makes 'il gran rifiuto,' and blithely refuses to take up the burden of the old generation under which the Shakespearian Hamlet was crushed. Nevertheless, it has to be asked, does * Hamlet' show the distinguishing marks of the drama as we understand it to-day? Does every scene contribute to the advancement of the story? Do every action and word take their due place in the composition of a character? Nothing of the kind. With the data of the play, its business, according to modern ideas, is to exhibit the progress of the conflict between Hamlet's temperament and his duty, between his irresolution and his revenge 'mission.' But this business is persistently neglected. Any irrelevance serves to set Hamlet off at a tangent. While he is waiting on the platform at Elsinore for the Ghost, some one drops an observation about the King keeping 'wassail,' whereupon he moralises upon the general passion for strong drink. Meanwhile the play marks time. When the players arrive, Hamlet puts aside his revenge project in order to deliver a lecture upon histrionics. If he meditates on suicide, he must bring in a reference to the law's delay and the insolence of office—matters which have nothing to do with his case. In the churchyard he must 'draw' the gravedigger. It is in complete forgetfulness of his 'mission' that he accepts the challenge to a bout of fence with Laertes. His mind, on this side of it, is like Squire Brooke's, 'a jelly that runs 'easily into any mould.' The obvious truth is that Shakespeare, having, as Walter Bagehot said, the 'experiencing 'temperament,' must needs endow Hamlet with that temperament too. He expressed himself in Hamlet in disregard of dramatic propriety. The story might get on as best it could; what he was intent upon was exhausting the possibilities of the moment—' enjoying the moment for the 'moment's sake,' as the late Mr. Pater might have said. The same disregard of dramatic propriety runs through the other characters. Polonius, a fool at one moment, is a sage at another, so that Coleridge was driven to contend that lie is not a comic character. Laertes cannot take leave of his sister without generalisations about princes' love and maidens' modesty, so that, only half in jest, a former Examiner of Plays described him as an instance of heredity.* Gertrude, rushing in with the shocking news of Ophelia's death, pauses to deliver a set piece of poetic description— 'There is a willow grows aslant a brook,'
with eighteen lines to follow—during which Laertes has to stand aside and bottle up his emotion. It comes to this, that, any topic once started, Shakespeare proceeds to expatiate upon it at large, and he is comparatively indifferent as to which character shall be his mouthpiece or to the progress of the dramatic action. Clearly 'Hamlet' bears the marks of something essentially different from a 'modern' play.
To draw attention to these points of technical method is not, of course, to call in question for a moment the virtues of 'Hamlet' as a poetic tragedy, its ' noble excess ' as the fine fleur of Renaissance romanticism, its triumphant fulfilment of the test laid down by Goethe for all work really classic— namely, that it shall be • energetic, fresh, and well-liking/ Such aspects of the matter are beyond discussion. But Shakespeare was no more free than any other man from thematerial limitations of the theatre in which his plays were produced; and it is in those material conditions that the explanation of his craftsmanship is to be found. Yet how seldom is that explanation sought in this the only proper quarter! We have seen S. T. Coleridge and Bodham Donne, two men of letters, explaining Polonius, one solemnly, the other only half jocularly, by purely literary and logical means. To this day our Shakespearian commentators, in the seclusion of their studies, pursue this false method—the bookman's method—of exegesis. If they would only come out of their studies and look at the stage— at some picture or model of the Elizabethan playhouse —they would save themselves the discovery of many mares' nests. A project has been recently mooted for the erection of an Elizabethan playhouse in facsimile, as a Shakespeare memorial, in one of the new London thoroughfares. We can perceive one, and only one, good reason for this other
* Mr. Bodham Donne. See 'More Letters of Edward Fitzgerald/ p. 131: 'Had any one quoted to me Laertes' parting advice to his sister, I should have sworn it was Polonius.' Donne thinks that Shakespeare may have intended pedantry in the blood.'
wise fanciful scheme; it would provide an object-lesson for the bookmen. Meanwhile we may refer them back to their Aristotle. The author of the 'Poetics'—whom nothing could escape—saw the distinction between what we have called the bookman's point of view in regard to drama and that which we propose to take in the present inquiry. 'Whether tragedy is to be judged in itself, or in relation 'also to the stage (irpds ra diarpa)'—that, he said, is aXKos Xoyos, another question.* For us, however, it happens to be not another question, but the question. The bookmen have been used to consider drama exclusively 'in itself.' We think it is high time to consider drama irpds ra Oiarpa, in its relation to the material conditions of the stage.
This aspect of the matter, so strangely neglected, is simplicity itself. That has happened in the theatre which has happened in every congregation gathered round the same centre of interest. Whether it be John Wesley preaching to the miners on a Oornish hillside, or a socialist haranguing the loafers in Hyde Park, or an acrobat tumbling for pence in a by-street, he chooses his ' pitch' and the crowd forms a ring. The earliest theatres, then, were naturally circular, with the stage in the centre. Naturally, too, the stage was bound to gravitate towards the circumference, in order that the performers might reach their platform and retire from it without traversing the crowd. It is superfluous to describe the minor modifications of this arrangement in the Elizabethan playhouse — everybody knows them—but it is not superfluous to point out the effects of this arrangement on the Elizabethan play. With actors on a raised platform, devoid of scenery and surrounded by the spectators on three sides, there could be no such thing as illusion, in the modern sense of the term, no attempt at a plastic reproduction of actual life. An Elizabethan actor was not, like his modern successor, a figure set in perspective in a framed picture whose conversation with his fellows is overheard by the audience. He stood forth among the crowd, hardly separated from them, and addressed them as an orator would address them. The Elizabethan drama, then, was of necessity a rhetorical drama. Each successive passage of dialogue was not so much the link between what preceded and followed it as a new 'topic,' which the speakers between them were expected to exhaust. The scene in itself, the scene of the moment,
* Poetics, ch. iv.
was everything; the logical nexus of the scenes nothing or next to nothing. Internal evidence of this has been adduced from 'Hamlet.' A curious piece of external evidence is forthcoming from a Frenchman who visited London shortly after the Restoration, one Samuel Sorbiere, whose 'Relation' of his visit was published in 1664. This, to be sure, was after Shakespeare's time; but the point is immaterial, for the position of the platform stage in the playhouse was still what it had been in Shakespeare's time. Sorbiere was struck by the indifference of the English audience to logical nexus of scenes in their drama, and gives the explanation furnished to him :' II ne leur importe que ce 'soit un pot-pourri, parce qu'ils n'en regardent, disent-ils, 'qu'une partie apres l'autre, sans se soucier du total.' * Sorbiere's English friends here put him on the right track, and our bookmen should lose no time in adding the 'Relation' to their libraries. 'Ne regarder qu'une partie 'apres l'autre sans se soucier du total:' that was the inevitable frame of mind in the spectator of a platformdrama.
It is a simple fact, little suspected by the bookmen, or indeed by the common-sense students of our stage, that its history up to a time so recent as to be within the memory of people now living is the history of the platformdrama. As time went on, the dimensions of this platform gradually shrank, like the shagreen skin in Balzac's story. A notable passage in Colley Cibber throws light on this process. As a rule, the lives of the players may be said to belong to the least important branch of entomology; but an exception must be made in favour of Cibber's 'Apology,' which is always interesting and sometimes, as is the ensuing extract,f of great documentary value. Cibber is comparing Drury Lane, as altered by Rich, with the structure of the old theatre :—
'It must be observ'd, then, that the Area or Platform of the old Stage projected about four Foot forwarder, in a Semi-oval Figure, parallel to the Benches of the Pit; and that the former lower Doors of Entrance for the Actors were brought down between the two foremost (and then only) Pilasters; in the place of which Doors now the two Stage-Boxes are fixt. That where the Doors of Entrance now are, there formerly stood two additional Side-Wings, in front to a fuJl set
* Quoted by Texte, ' Cosmopolitisme Litteraire,' p. 28.
f Quoted in 'Thomas Betterton' by Robert W. Lowe (1891), the most exhaustive and the most authoritative account of the Restoration playhouse. . of Scenes, which had then almost a doable Effect in their Loftiness and Magnificence.
'By their original Form, the usual Station of the Actors, in almost every scene, was advanc'd at least ten Foot nearer to the Audience than they now can be; because, not only from the Stage's being shorten'd in front, but likewise from the additional Interposition of those Stage-Boxes, the Actors (in respect to the Spectators that fill them) are kept so much more backward from the main Audience than they us'd to be: But when the Actors were in Possession of that forwarder Space to advance upon, the Voice was then more in the Centre of the House, so that the most distant Ear had scarce the Least Doubt or Difficulty in hearing what fell from the weakest Utterance: All Objects were thus drawn nearer to the sense; every painted Scene was stronger; every grand Scene and Dance were extended; every rich and fine-coloured Habit had a more lively Lustre: Nor was the minutest Motion of a Feature (properly changing with the Passion or Humour it suited) ever lost, as they frequently must be in the Obscurity of too great a Distance.'
Here is a striking confirmation of the view already set forth that the rhetorical drama was what the mathematicians would call a 'function' of the platform-stage. The histrionic elements which Cibber singles out for mentio*. are elements of rhetoric—the 'voice,' the 'utterance.' Cibber talks of the actors as we should now talk of orators —just as Plato had talked of them when proposing that Ka\\l(f>eovoi vTroKpiral, 'the actors with their beautiful 'voices,' should be banished from his ideal State. The stage was still essentially a platform, projecting among the audience, though already showing a tendency to withdraw towards the curtain. Spectators still lined the sides of the stage as in Elizabethan times, no longer seated upon it, however, but placed in 'stage-boxes.' A full century passed and we find Jane Austen, in 1813 (' September 15, * i past 8 '—' documentary ' evidence is not always so precise)—writing from London to her sister Cassandra: 'I 'talked to Henry at the play last night. We were in a 'private box—Mr. Spencer's—which made it much more 'pleasant. The box is directly on the stage. One is infinitely 'less fatigued than in the common way.' * Well into the last century, then, the boxes which Cibber had seen placed at the side of the stage were still in their old position. The stage remained even then, to all intents and purposes, a platform-stage.
. * Letters of Jane Austen, ed. Lord Brabourne (1884), vol. ii. p. 147.