For all Goethe’s genius, Faust is a work primarily of literature, a work of the page, a masterpiece to be read. Shakespeare, however, in his greatest plays, marries the two forms – stage and page – to exactly that extent which raises him above all others. Shakespeare continues to be acted because he was a great playwright. It might be said that he continues to be read because he continues to be acted, but the fact is that even were Shakespeare not, still, the most performed playwright on earth (not to mention the most prodigious of writers for the screen - on the IMDB there are over 150 matches and part matches for ‘Hamlet’ alone), he would still be the English language’s greatest poet. We read the plays as poems, we watch them as dramas. What the solitary reader cannot fully evoke is their great flow and rhythm. Plays, too, are collaborative. The thing that is engaged with by the audience is the work not just of Shakespeare, but of actors, directors, designers, stage hands, carpenters, voice coaches and so on. In both the library seat and the theatre seat the imagination is certainly at work, but in quite different manners. In the library we seek those internal resonances and connections that rich poetry gives us. In the theatre we are asked to see armies and sunsets. What is metaphor on the page is simile on the stage, in that the actor plays horror or amorousness or madness or ruthlessness, and the audience is required to transform the seeming into truth. And then there are the lines themselves. An actor can bring a different meaning to a line hitherto thought nailed by the reader, although by the same token the ordinary actor can choose only one meaning at a time. “I am constant as the northern star”. Is this pride, arrogance, ruthlessness, charisma, constancy, stubbornness? A great actor may be able to evoke several of these, but not all. In our armchair they all apply. The point is that in doing so they interrupt the drama. Finally it perhaps might be said that Shakespeare is the greatest of all poets because he is the greatest of all playwrights, and of course vice versa. Then again, let’s not forget Touchstone’s Wildean saying: “the truest poetry is the most feigning”. Poetry too is an act. I won’t bang on because I’ll just get knotty and knotted what with all the world being a stage and so on….
NB - apologies to those who also receive the Shakespeare club blog, who will have received this twice.