Shakespeare Should Be Heard (Nov. 26)

Shakespeare Should Be Heard
Charles Lamb, favorite essayist, thought that no stage could do
justice to Shakespeare’s tragedies. He advocated reading the
plays, and with the imagination costuming the players and building
the gorgeous scenery in a way equaled by no scene painter
or costumer.
Read: Lamb ON THE TRAGEDIES or SHAKSPF.RE Vol. 27, pp. 299-310

ON THE TRAGEDIES OF
SHAKSPERE

CONSIDERED WITH REFERENCE TO THEIR FITNESS FOR
STAGE REPRESENTATION

TAKING a turn the other day in the Abbey, I was struck
with the affected attitude of a figure, which I do not remember
to have seen before, and which upon examination proved
to be a whole-length of the celebrated Mr. Garrick. Though I would
not go so far with some good Catholics abroad as to shut players
altogether out of consecrated ground, yet I o w n I was not a litde
scandalised at the introduction of theatrical airs and gestures into a
place set apart to remind us of the saddest realities. Going nearer,
I found inscribed under this harlequin figure the following
lines:—

To paint fair Nature, by divine command,
Her magic pencil in his glowing hand,
A Shakspere rose: then, to expand his fame
Wide o’er this breathing world, a Garrick came.
Though sunk in death the forms the Poet drew,
The Actor’s genius made them breathe anew;
Though, like the bard himself, in night they lay,
Immortal Garrick call’d them back to day:
And till Eternity with power sublime
Shall mark the mortal hour of hoary Time,
Shakspere and Garrick like twin-stars shall shine,
And earth irradiate with a beam divine.

It would be an insult to my readers’ understandings to attempt
anything like a criticism on this farrago of false thoughts and nonsense.
But the reflection it led me into was a kind of wonder, how,
from the days of the actor here celebrated to our own, it should have
been the fashion to compliment every performer in his turn, that has
had the luck to please the town in any of the great characters of
299

300 CHARLES LAMB
Shakspere, with a notion of possessing a mind congenial to the
poet’s; h ow people should come thus unaccountably to confound the
power of originadng poetical images and conceptions with the faculty
of being able to read or recite the same when put into words;1 or
what connection that absolute mastery over the heart and soul of
man, which a great dramatic poet possesses, has with those low
tricks upon the eye and ear, which a player by observing a few
general effects, which some common passion, as grief, anger, etc.,
usually has upon the gestures and exterior, can easily compass. To
know the internal workings and movements of a great mind, of an
Othello or a Hamlet, for instance, the when and the why and the how
jar they should be moved; to what pitch a passion is becoming; to
give the reins and to pull in the curb exactly at the moment when
the drawing in or the slacking is most graceful; seems to demand a
reach of intellect of a vastly different extent from that which is
employed upon the bare imitation of the signs of these passions in
the countenance or gesture, which signs are usually observed to be
most lively and emphatic in the weaker sort of minds, and which
signs can after all but indicate some passion, as I said before, anger,
or grief, generally; but of the motives and grounds of the passion,
wherein it differs from the same passion in low and vulgar natures,
of these the actor can give no more idea by his face or gesture than
the eye (without a metaphor) can speak, or the muscles utter intelligible
sounds. But such is the instantaneous nature of the impressions
which we take in at the eye and ear at a playhouse, compared
with the slow apprehension oftentimes of the understanding in reading,
that we are apt not only to sink the play-writer in the consideration
which we pay to the actor, but even to identify in our minds in
a perverse manner, the actor with the character which he represents.
It is difficult for a frequent play-goer to disembarrass the idea of
Hamlet from the person and voice of Mr. K. We speak of Lady
Macbeth, while we are in reality thinking of Mrs. S. Nor is this
confusion incidental alone to unlettered persons, who, not possessing
‘It is observable that we fall into this confusion only in dramatic recitations. We
never dream that the gentleman who reads Lucretius in public with great applause, is
therefore a great poet and philosopher; nor do we find that Tom Davies, the bookseller,
who is recorded to have recited the "Paradise Lost" better than any man in
England in his day (though I cannot help thinking there must be some mistake in
this tradition) was therefore, by his intimate friends, set upon a level with Milton.

TRAGEDIES OF SHAKSPERE 3OI
the advantage of reading, are necessarily dependent upon the stageplayer
for all the pleasure which they can receive from the drama,
and to whom the very idea of what an author is cannot be made
comprehensible without some pain and perplexity of mind: the error
is one from which persons otherwise not meanly lettered find it
almost impossible to extricate themselves.
Never let me be so ungrateful as to forget the very high degree of
satisfaction which I received some years back from seeing for the
first time a tragedy of Shakspere performed, in which these two
great performers sustained the principal parts. It seemed to embody
and realise conceptions which had hitherto assumed no distinct
shape. But dearly do we pay all our life afterwards for this juvenile
pleasure, this sense of distinctness. When the novelty is past, we
find to our cost that, instead of realising an idea, we have only materialised
and brought down a fine vision to the standard of flesh
and blood. We have let go a dream, in quest of an unattainable substance.
How cruelly this operates upon the mind, to have its free conceptions
thus cramped and pressed down to the measure of a straitlacing
actuality, may be judged from that delightful sensation of
freshness, with which we turn to those plays of Shakspere which
have escaped being performed, and to those passages in the acting
plays of the same writer which have happily been left out of the
performance. How far the very custom of hearing anything spouted,
withers and blows upon a fine passage, may be seen in those speeches
from Henry the Fifth, etc., which are current in the mouths of
school-boys from their being to be found in Enfield Speakers, and
such kind of books. I confess myself utterly unable to appreciate
that celebrated soliloquy in Hamlet, beginning "To be, or not to be,"
or to tell whether it be good, bad, or indifferent, it has been so
handled and pawed about by declamatory boys and men, and torn
so inhumanly from its living place and principle of continuity in the
play, till it is become to me a perfect dead member.
It may seem a paradox, but I cannot help being of opinion that
the plays of Shakspere are less calculated for performance on a stage
than those of almost any other dramatist whatever. Their distinguished
excellence is a reason that they should be so. There is so

302 CHARLES LAMB
much in them, which comes not under the province pf acting, with
which eye, and tone, and gesture, have nothing to do.
The glory of the scenic art is to personate passion, and the turns
of passion; and the more coarse and palpable the passion is, the more
hold upon the eyes and ears of the spectators the performer obviously
possesses. For this reason, scolding scenes, scenes where two persons
talk themselves into a fit of fury, and then in a surprising manner
talk themselves out of it again, have always been the most popular
upon our stage. And the reason is plain, because the spectators are
here most palpably appealed to, they are the proper judges in this
war of words, they are the legitimate ring that should be formed
round such "intellectual prize-fighters." Talking is the direct object
of the imitation here. But in the best dramas, and in Shakspere
above all, how obvious it is, that the form of speaking, whether it be
in soliloquy or dialogue, is only a medium, and often a highly
artificial one, for putting the reader or spectator into possession of
that knowledge of the inner structure and workings of mind in a
character, which he could otherwise never have arrived at in that
form of composition by any gift short of intuition. We do here as
we do with novels written in the epistolary form. How many improprieties,
perfect solecisms in letter-writing, do we put up with in
"Clarissa" and other books, for the sake of the delight which that
form upon the whole gives us.
But the practice of stage representation reduces everything to a
controversy of elocution. Every character, from the boisterous blasphemings
of Bajazet to the shrinking timidity of womanhood, must
play the orator. The love-dialogues of Romeo and Juliet, those
silver-sweet sounds of lovers’ tongues by night; the more intimate
and sacred sweetness of nuptial colloquy between an Othello or a
Posthumus with their married wives, all those delicacies which are so
delightful in the reading, as when we read of those youthful
dalliances in Paradise—
As beseem’d
Fair couple link’d in happy nuptial league,
Alone:
by the inherent fault of stage representation, how are these things
sullied and turned from their very nature by being exposed to a

TRAGEDIES OF SHAKSPERE 303
large assembly; when such speeches as Imogen addresses to her lord,
come drawling out of the mouth of a hired actress, whose courtship,
though nominally addressed to the personated Posthumus, is manifestly
aimed at the spectators, who are to judge of her endearments
and her returns of love.
The character of Hamlet is perhaps that by which, since the days
of Betterton, a succession of popular performers have had the greatest
ambition to distinguish themselves. The length of the part may be
one of their reasons. But for the character itself, we find it in a play,
and therefore we judge it a fit subject of dramatic representation.
The play itself abounds in maxims and reflections beyond any other,
and therefore we consider it as a proper vehicle for conveying moral
instruction. But Hamlet himself—what does he suffer meanwhile
by being dragged forth as a public schoolmaster, to give lectures to
the crowd! Why, nine parts in ten of what Hamlet does, are transactions
between himself and his moral sense, they are the effusions
of his solitary musings, which he retires to holes and corners and the
most sequestered parts of the palace to pour forth; or rather, they are
the silent meditations with which his bosom i s bursting, reduced to
words for the sake of the reader, who must else remain ignorant of
what is passing there. These profound sorrows, these light-and-noiseabhorring
ruminations, which the tongue scarce dares utter to deaf
walls and chambers, how can they be represented by a gesticulating
actor, who comes and mouths them out before an audience, making
four hundred people his confidants at once? I say not that it is the
fault of the actor so to do ; he must pronounce them ore rotundo, he
must accompany them with his eye, he must insinuate them into his
auditory by some trick of eye, tone, or gesture, or he fails. Me must
be thinking all the while of his appearance, because he knows that all
the while the spectators are judging of it. And this is the way to
represent the shy, negligent, retiring Hamlet.
It is true that there is no other mode of conveying a vast quantity
of thought and feeling to a great portion of the audience, who otherwise
would never learn it for themselves by reading, and the intellectual
acquisition gained this way may, for aught I know, be
inestimable; but I am not arguing that Hamlet should not be acted,
but how much Hamlet is made another thing by being acted. I have

304 CHARLES LAMB
heard much of the wonders which Garrick performed in this part;
but as I never saw him, I must have leave to doubt whether the
representation of such a character came within the province of his art.
Those who tell me of him, speak of his eye, of the magic of his eye,
and of his commanding voice: physical properties, vastly desirable in
an actor, and without which he can never insinuate meaning into an
auditory,—but what have they to do with Hamlet? what have they
to do with intellect ? In fact, the things aimed at in theatrical representation,
are to arrest the spectator’s eye upon the form and the
gesture, and so to gain a more favourable hearing to what is spoken:
it is not what the character is, but how he looks; not what he says,
but how he speaks it. I see no reason to think that if the play of
Hamlet were written over again by some such writer as Banks or
Lillo, retaining the process of the story, but totally omitting all the
poetry of it, all the divine features of Shakspere, his stupendous
intellect; and only taking care to give us enough of passionate
dialogue, which Banks or Lillo were never at a loss to furnish; I see
not how the effect could be much different upon an audience, nor
how the actor has it in his power to represent Shakspere to us
differently from his representation of Banks or Lillo. Hamlet would
still be a youthful accomplished prince, and must be gracefully personated;
he might be puzzled in his mind, wavering in his conduct,
seemingly cruel to Ophelia, he might see a ghost, and start at it,
and address it kindly when he found it to be his father; all this in
the poorest and most homely language of the servilest creeper after
nature that ever consulted the palate of an audience; without troubling
Shakspere for the matter; and I see not but there would be room
for all the power which an actor has, to display itself. All the passions
and changes of passion might remain; for those are much less
difficult to write or act than is thought; it is a trick easy to be attained,
it is but rising or falling a note or two in the voice, a whisper with a
significant foreboding look to announce its approach, and so contagious
the counterfeit appearance of any emotion is, that let the
words be what they will, the look and tone shall carry it off and make
it pass for deep skill in the passions.
It is common for people to talk of Shakspere’s plays being so
natural, that everybody can understand him. They are natural

TRAGEDIES OF SHAKSPERE 305
indeed, they are grounded deep in nature, so deep that the depth of
them lies out of the reach of most of us. You shall hear the same
persons say that George Barnwell is very natural, and Othello is very
natural, that they are both very deep; and to them they are the same
kind of thing. At the one they sit and shed tears, because a good sort
of young man is tempted by a naughty woman to commit a trifling
peccadillo, the murder of an uncle or so,2 that is all, and so comes to
an untimely end, which is so moving; and at the other, because a
blackamoor in a fit of jealousy kills his innocent white wife: and
the odds are that ninety-nine out of a hundred would willingly
behold the same catastrophe happen to both the heroes, and have
thought the rope more due to Othello than to Barnwell. For of the
texture of Othello’s mind, the inward construction marvellously laid
open with all its strengths and weaknesses, its heroic confidences and
its human misgivings, its agonies of hate springing from the depths
of love, they see no more than the spectators at a cheaper rate, w h o
pay their pennies apiece to look through the man’s telescope in
Leicester Fields, see into the inward plot and topography of the
moon. Some dim thing or other they see, they see an actor personating
a passion, of grief, or anger, for instance, and they recognise it
as a copy of the usual external effects of such passions; or at least
as being true to that symbol of the emotion which passes current at
the theatre for it, for it is often no more than that: but of the grounds
of the passion, its correspondence to a great or heroic nature, which
is the only worthy object of tragedy,—that common auditors know
anything of this, or can have any such notions dinned into them
by the mere strength of an actor’s lungs,—that apprehensions foreign
to them should be thus infused into them by storm, I can neither
believe, nor understand how it can be possible.
2 If this note could hope to meet the eye of any of the Managers, I wouW entreat
and beg of them, in the name of both the galleries, that this insult upon the morality
of the common people of London should cease to be eternally repeated in the holiday
weeks. Why are the ‘Prentices of this famous and well-governed city, instead of an
amusement, to be treated over and over again with a nauseous sermon of George
Barnwell? Why at the end of their vistas are we to place the gallows? Were I an
uncle, I should not much like a nephew of mine to have such an example placed before
his eyes. It is really making uncle-murder too trivial to exhibit it as done upon
such slight motives;—it is attributing too much to such characters as Millwood; it is
putting things into the heads of good young men, which they would never otherwise
have dreamed of. Uncles that think anything of their lives, should fairly petition, the
Chamberlain against it.

306 CHARLES LAMB
We talk of Shakspere’s admirable observation of life, when we
should feel that not from a petty inquisition into those cheap and
every-day characters which surrounded him, as they surround us,
but from his own mind, which was, to borrow a phrase of Ben
Jonson’s, the very "sphere of humanity," he fetched those images of
virtue and of knowledge, of which every one of us recognising a part,
think we comprehend in our natures the whole; and oftentimes
mistake the powers which he positively creates in us for nothing
more than indigenous faculties of our own minds, which only waited
the application of corresponding virtues in him to return a full and
clear echo of the same.
To return to Hamlet.—Among the distinguishing features of that
wonderful character, one of the most interesting (yet painful) is that
soreness of mind which makes him treat the intrusions of Polonius
with harshness, and that asperity which he puts on in his interviews
with Ophelia. These tokens of an unhinged mind (if they be not
mixed in the latter case with a profound artifice of love, to alienate
Ophelia by affected discourtesies, so to prepare her mind for the
breaking off of that loving intercourse, which can no longer find a
place amidst business so serious as that which he has to do) are parts
of his character, which to reconcile with our admiration of Hamlet,
the most patient consideration of his situation is no more than
necessary; they are what we forgive afterwards, and explain by the
whole of his character, but at the time they are harsh and unpleasant.
Yet such is the actor’s necessity of giving strong blows to the audience,
that I have never seen a player in this character, who did not
exaggerate and strain to the utmost these ambiguous features,—these
temporary deformities in the character. They make him express a
vulgar scorn at Polonius which utterly degrades his gentility, and
which no explanation can render palatable; they make him show
contempt, and curl up the nose at Ophelia’s father,—contempt in its
very grossest and most hateful form; but they get applause by it:
it is natural, people say; that is, the words are scornful, and the actor
expresses scorn, and that they can judge of: but why so much scorn,
and of that sort, they never think of asking.
So to Ophelia.—All the Hamlets that I have ever seen, rant and
rave at her as if she had committed some great crime, and the audi-

 

TRAGEDIES OF SHAKSPERE 307
ence are highly pleased, because the words of the part are satirical,
and they are enforced by the strongest expression of satirical indignation
of which the face and voice are capable. But then, whether
Hamlet is likely to have put on such brutal appearances to a lady
whom he loved so dearly, is never thought on. The truth is, that
in all such deep affections as had subsisted between Hamlet and
Ophelia, there is a stock of supererogatory love (if I may venture to
use the expression), which in any great grief of heart, especially
where that which preys upon the mind cannot be communicated,
confers a kind of indulgence upon the grieved party to express itself,
even to its heart’s dearest object, in the language of a temporary
alienation; but it is not alienation, it is a distraction purely, and so it
always makes itself to be felt by that object: it is not anger, but grief
assuming the appearance of anger,—love awkwardly counterfeiting
hate, as sweet countenances when they try to frown: but such sternness
and fierce disgust as Hamlet is made to show, is no counterfeit,
but the real face of absolute aversion,—of irreconcilable alienation.
It may be said he puts on the madman; but then he should only so
far put on this counterfeit lunacy as his own real distraction will
give him leave; that is, incompletely, imperfectly; not in that confirmed,
practised way, like a master of his art, or as Dame Quickly
would say, "like one of those harlotry players."
I mean no disrespect to any actor, but the sort of pleasure which
Shakspere’s plays give in the acting seems to me not at all to differ
from that which the audience receive from those of other writers;
and, they being in themselves essentially so different from all others,
I must conclude that there is something in the nature of acting which
levels all distinctions. And in fact, who does not speak indifferently
of the Gamester and of Macbeth as fine stage performances, and
praise the Mrs. Beverley in the same way as the Lady Macbeth of
Mrs. S.? Belvidera, and Calista, and Isabella, and Euphrasia, are
they less liked than Imogen, or than Juliet, or than Desdemona? Are
they not spoken of and remembered in the same way? Is not the
female performer as great (as they call it) in one as in the other?
Did not Garrick shine, and was he not ambitious of shining in every
drawling tragedy that his wretched day produced,—the productions
of the Hills and the Murphys and the Browns,—and shall he have

308 CHARLES LAMB
that honour to dwell in our minds for ever as an inseparable concomitant
with Shakspere? A kindred mind! O who can read that
affecting sonnet of Shakspere which alludes to his profession as a
player:—
Oh for my sake do you with Fortune chide,
The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds,
That did not better for my life provide
Than public means which public manners breeds—
Thence comes it that my name receives a brand;
And almost thence my nature is subdued
To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand
Or that other confession;—
Alas! ’tis true, I have gone here and there,
And made myself a modey to the view,
Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear—
Who can read these instances of jealous self-watchfulness in our
sweet Shakspere, and dream of any congeniality between him and
one that, by every tradidon of him, appears to have been as mere a
player as ever existed; to have had his mind tainted with the lowest
player’s vices,—envy and jealousy, and miserable cravings after
applause; one who in the exercise of his profession was jealous even
of the women-performers that stood in his way; a manager full of
managerial tricks and stratagems and finesse: that any resemblance
should be dreamed of between h im and Shakspere,—Shakspere who,
in the plenitude and consciousness of his own powers, could with
that noble modesty, which we can neither imitate nor appreciate,
express himself thus of his o w n sense of his own defects:—
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d:
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope.
I am almost disposed to deny to Garrick the merits of being an
admirer of Shakspere. A true lover of his excellences he certainly was
not; for would any true lover of them have admitted into his matchless
scenes such ribald trash as Tate and Cibber, and the rest of
them, that
With their darkness durst affront his light,

TRAGEDIES OF SHAKSPERE 309
have foisted into the acting plays of Shakspere? I believe it impossible
that he could have had a proper reverence for Shakspere, and
have condescended to go through that interpolated scene in Richard
the Third, in which Richard tries to break his wife’s heart by telling
her he loves another woman, and says, "if she survives this she is
immortal." Yet I doubt not he delivered this vulgar stuff with as
much anxiety of emphasis as any of the genuine parts: and for acting,
it is as well calculated as any. But we have seen the part of Richard
lately produce great fame to an actor by his manner of playing it,
and it lets us into the secret of acting, and of popular judgments of
Shakspere derived from acting. Not one of the spectators who have
witnessed Mr. C.’s exertions in that part, but has come away with a
proper conviction that Richard is a very wicked man, and kills little
children in their beds, with something like the pleasure which the
giants and ogres in children’s books are represented to have taken
in that practice; moreover, that he is very close and shrewd, and
devilish cunning, for you could see that by his eye.
But is in fact this the impression we have in reading the Richard of
Shakspere? Do we feel anything like disgust, as we do at that
butcher-like representation of him that passes for him on the stage?
A horror at his crimes blends with the effect which we feel, but how
is it qualified, how is it carried off, by the rich intellect which he
displays, his resources, his wit, his buoyant spirits, his vast knowledge
and insight into characters, the poetry of his part—not an atom of
all which is made perceivable in Mr. C.’s way of acting it. Nothing
but his crimes, his actions, is visible; they are prominent and
staring; the murderer stands out, but where is the lofty genius,
the man of vast capacity,—the profound, the witty, accomplished
Richard?
The truth is, the characters of Shakspere are so much the objects
of meditation rather than of interest or curiosity as to their actions,
that while we are reading any of his great criminal characters,—
Macbeth, Richard, even Iago,—we think not so much of the crimes
which they commit, as of the ambition, the aspiring spirit, the
intellectual activity which prompts them to overleap those moral
fences. Barnwell is a wretched murderer; there is a certain fitness
between his neck and the rope; he is the legitimate heir to the

310 CHARLES LAMB
gallows; nobody who thinks at all can think of any alleviating
circumstances in his case to make him a fit object of mercy. Or to
take an instance from the higher tragedy, what else but a mere
assassin is Glenalvon! Do we think of anything but of the crime
which he commits, and the rack which he deserves? That is all
which we really think about him. Whereas in corresponding characters
in Shakspere so little do the actions comparatively affect us,
that while the impulses, the inner mind in all its perverted greatness,
solely seems real and is exclusively attended to, the crime is comparatively
nothing. But when we see these things represented, the
acts which they do are comparatively everything, their impulses
nothing. The state of sublime emotion into which we are elevated
by those images of night and horror which Macbeth is made to utter,
that solemn prelude with which he entertains the time till the bell
shall strike which is to call him to murder Duncan,—when we no
longer read it in a book, when we have given up that vantage-ground
of abstraction which reading possesses over seeing, and come to see
a man in his bodily shape before our eyes actually preparing to
commit a murder, if the acting be true and impressive, as I have
witnessed it in Mr. K.’s performance of that part, the painful anxiety
about the act, the natural longing to prevent it while it yet seems
unperpetrated, the too close pressing semblance of reality, give a
pain and an uneasiness which totally destroy all the delight which
the words in the book convey, where the deed doing never presses
upon us with the painful sense of presence: it rather seems to belong
to history,—to something past and inevitable, if it has anything to
do with time at all. The sublime images, the poetry alone, is that
which is present to our minds in the reading.

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