That enjoyment of exhibitions, the representation of unusual occurrences by acting on the stage, governed the beginnings of the Germanic drama, is still recognized by the works of higher art as well as by the inclination of the public, and most of all by the first attempts of our dramatic poets.
Shakespeare filled with dramatic life the old customs of a play-loving people; from a loosely woven narrative, he created an artistic drama. But even up to his time and that of his romantic contemporaries, there shot across nearly two thousand years some brilliant rays from the splendid time of the Attic theater.
To him also, the arrangement of a piece depended on the construction of his stage. This had, even in his later time, scarcely side curtains and a simple scaffolding in the rear, which formed a smaller raised stage, with pillars at the sides, and a balcony above, from which steps led to the front stage below. The chief stage had no drop curtain; the divisions of the piece could be separated only by pauses; there were, therefore, fewer divisions than with us now. It was not possible, as it is on our stage, to begin in the midst of a situation, nor to leave it incomplete. In Shakespeare’s plays, all the players must enter before they could address the audience, and they must all make their exit before the eyes of the audience; even the dead must thus be borne off in an appropriate manner. Only the inner stage was concealed behind curtains, which could be drawn apart and drawn together without trouble, and denote a convenient change of scene. First, the front space was the street,—on which, for instance, Romeo and his companions entered in masks; when they had departed, the curtains were drawn apart, and there was the guest-room of the Capulets, as indicated by the servants in attendance. Capulet came forward from the middle of the background and greeted his friends; his company poured in upon the stage, and spread about the foreground. When the guests had departed, the middle curtain was drawn behind Juliet and the nurse, and the stage became a street again, from which Romeo slipped behind the curtain to be out of sight of his boisterous friends who were calling him. When these were gone, Juliet appeared on the balcony, the stage became a garden, Romeo appeared,18 and so on. Everything must be more in motion, lighter, quicker changing of scene-groups, a more rapid coming and going, a more nimble play, a closer concentration of the aggregate impression. Attention is called to this oft discussed arrangement of the stage, because this dispensing with changes of scenes, this former accustoming of the spectator to make every transition of place and time with his own active fancy, exerted a decided influence on Shakespeare’s manner of dividing his plays. The number of the smaller divisions could be greater than with us, because they disturbed the whole less; sometimes little scenes were inserted with no trouble at all. What seems to us a breaking up of the action, was less perceptible on account of the technical arrangement.
Moreover, Shakespeare’s audience, accustomed to the spectacular from former times, had a preference for such plays as presented great numbers of men in violent commotion. Processions, battles, scenes full of figures, were preferably seen and belonged, notwithstanding the scanty equipment which on the whole the spectacular drama of the time possessed, to the cherished additions of a play. Like the Englishmen of that time, Shakespeare’s heroes are fond of company. They like to appear with a train of attendants, and talk confidentially in unrestrained conversation about the important relations of their lives, on the market place and on the street.
In Shakespeare’s time, still, the actor must assume several roles; but his task now was to conceal his own distinctive personality entirely, and clothe beautiful truth with the appearance of reality. Only the parts of women, which were still played by men, preserved something of the ancient character of stage play, which made the spectator a confidant in the illusion which was to be produced.
Upon such a stage appeared Germanic dramatic art in its first and most beautiful bloom. Shakespeare’s technique is the same, in essential respects, that we still strive to attain. And he has, on the whole, established the form and construction of our pieces. In the following pages the discussion must recur to him continually; therefore, in this place, only a few of the characteristics of his time and of his manner, which we can no longer imitate, will be mentioned.
In the first place, the change of his scenes is too frequent for our stage; above all, the little side scenes are disturbing. Where he binds together a number of scenes, we must form the corresponding part of the action into a single scene. When, for example, in Coriolanus, the dark figure of Aufidius or of another Volscian appears from the first act forward in short scenes, in order to indicate the counter-play, up to the second half of the piece where this presses powerfully to the front, we are entirely at a loss, on our stage, to make these fleeting forces effective, with the exception of the battle scene in the beginning of the rising action. But we are obliged to compose the scenes more strictly for the chief heroes and represent their emotions and movements in a smaller number of situations, and therefore with fuller elaboration.
In Shakespeare we admire the mighty power with which, after a brief introduction, he throws excitement in the way of his heroes and impels them swiftly in rapid upward stages to a momentous height. His method of leading the action and the characters beyond the climax, in the first half of the play, may also serve as a model to us. And in the second half, the catastrophe itself is planned with the sureness and scope of genius, with no attempt at overwhelming effect, without apparent effort, with concise execution, a consequence of the play, following as a matter of course. But the great poet does not always have success with the forces of the falling action, between climax and catastrophe, the part which fills about the fourth act of our plays. In this important place, he seems too much restrained by the customs of his stage. In many of the greatest dramas of his artistic time, the action is divided up, in this part, into several little scenes, which have an episodical character and are inserted only to make the connection clear. The inner conditions of the hero are concealed, the heightening of effects and the concentration so necessary here fails. It is so in Hamlet, in King Lear, in Macbeth, somewhat so in Antony and Cleopatra. Even in Julius Cæsar, the return action contains, indeed, that splendid quarrel scene and the reconciliation between Brutus and Cassius, and the appearance of the ghost; but what follows is again much divided, fragmentary. In Richard III., the falling action is indeed drawn together into several great impulses; but yet these do not in a sufficient degree correspond in stage effect to the immense power of the first part.
We explain this characteristic of Shakespeare from a relic of the old custom of telling the story on the stage by means of speech and responsive speech. As the dark suspicion against the king works upon Hamlet; as Macbeth struggles with the idea of murder; as Lear is continually plunged deeper into misery; as Richard strides from one crime to another,—this must be represented in the first half of the drama. The ego, the self of the hero, which strives to achieve its design, here concentrates almost the entire interest in itself. But from this point on, where the will has become deed, or where the impassioned embarrassment of the hero has reached the highest degree, where the consequences of what has happened are at work and the victory of the counter-play begins, the significance of the opponent becomes, of course, greater. As soon as Macbeth has murdered the king and Banquo, the poet must turn the efforts of the murderous despot toward other men and events; other opponents must bring the conflict with him to an end. When Coriolanus is banished from Rome, he must be brought forward in new relations and with new purposes. When Lear flies about as a deranged beggar, the piece must either close, a thing which is not possible without something further, or the remaining persons must make apparent new uses of his terrible fate.
It is also natural that from the climax downward, a greater number of new motives, perhaps, too, of new persons, may be introduced into the piece; it is further natural that this play of the opposing party must set forth the influences which are exerted upon the hero from without, and therefore makes necessary more external action and a broader elaboration of the engrossing moment. And it is also not at all surprising that Shakespeare right here yielded more to curiosity and to the very convenient scene-connection of his time than is allowable on our stage.
But it is not this alone. Sometimes one can not repel the feeling that the poet’s ardor for his heroes is lessened in the second part. It is certainly not so in Romeo and Juliet. In the return action, Romeo, indeed, is concealed; but the poet’s darling, Juliet, is so much the more powerfully delineated. It is not so in Coriolanus, where the two most beautiful scenes of the play, that in the house of Aufidius, and the grand scene with the hero’s mother, lie in the return action. But it is strikingly so in King Lear. What follows the hovel scene is only an episode or a divided narrative in dialogue, with insufficient effect; the second mad scene of Lear is also no intensifying of the first. Similarly in Macbeth, after the frightful banquet scene, the poet is through with the inner life of his hero. The finished witch scene, the prophesying, the dreary episode in Macduff’s house,—few attractive figures of the counter-play fill this part, in an arrangement of scenes which we may not imitate; and only occasionally the great power of the poet blazes up, as in the catastrophe of Lady Macbeth.
Manifestly, it is his greatest joy, to fashion from the most secret depths of human nature, a will and a deed. In this he is inexhaustibly rich, profound, and powerful. No other poet equals him. If he has once rendered his hero this service, if he has represented the spiritual processes culminating in a portentous deed, then the counter-influence of the world, the later destiny of the hero, does not fill him with the same interest.
Even in Hamlet, there is a noticeable weakness in the return action. The tragedy was probably worked over several times by the poet; it was apparently a favorite subject; he has mysteriously infused into it the most thoughtful and penetrating poetry. But these workings-over at long intervals have taken from the play the beautiful proportion, which is only possible in a simultaneous moulding of all parts. Hamlet is, of course, no precipitate of poetic moods from half a human life, like Faust; but breaks, gaps, little contradictions in tone and speech, between characters and action, remained ineffaceable to the poet. That Shakespeare worked out the character of Hamlet so fondly, and intensified it till beyond the climax, makes the contrast in the second half only so much the greater; indeed, the character itself receives something iridescent and ambiguous, from the fact that deeper and more spirited motives were introduced into the texture of the rising action. Something of the old manner of bringing narrative upon the stage clung also to the poet’s last revision; some places in Ophelia’s exit and the graveyard scene appear to be new-cut diamonds, which the poet has set in while working over the earlier connection.
Nevertheless it is instructive to set forth distinctly in a scheme, the artistic combination of the drama from the constituent parts already discussed. What is according to plan, what is designed for a certain purpose, has not been found by the poet entirely through the same consideration which is necessary to the reader when instituting his review. Much is evidently without careful weighing; it has come into being as if by natural necessity, through creative power; in other places, the poet is thoughtful, considerate, has doubted, then decided. But the laws of his creation, whether they directed his invention secretly and unconsciously to himself; or whether, as rules known to him, they stimulated the creative power for certain effects, they are for us readers of his completed works, everywhere, distinctly recognizable. This self-developing organization of the drama, according to a law, will here be briefly analyzed, without regard to the customary division into acts.
Introduction. 1. The key-note; the ghost appears on the platform; the guards and Horatio. 2. The exposition itself; Hamlet in a room of state, before the beginning of the exciting force. 3. Connecting scene with what follows; Horatio and the guards inform Hamlet of the appearance of the ghost. Interpolated exposition scene of the accessory action. The family of Polonius, at the departure of Laertes.
The Exciting Force. 1. Introductory key-note; expectation of the ghost. 2. The ghost appears to Hamlet. 3. Chief part, it reveals the murder to him. 4. Transition to what follows. Hamlet and his confidants.
Through the two ghost scenes, between which the introduction of the chief persons occurs, the scenes of the introduction and of the first excitement are enclosed in a group, the climax of which lies near the end.
Ascending action in four stages. First stage: the counter-players. Polonius propounds that Hamlet has become deranged through love for Ophelia. Two little scenes: Polonius in his house, and before the king; transition to what follows. Second stage: Hamlet determines to put the king to a test by means of a play. A great scene with episodical performances, Hamlet against Polonius, the courtiers, the actors. Hamlet’s soliloquy forms the transition. Third stage: Hamlet’s examination by the counter-players, 1. The king and the intriguers. 2. Hamlet’s celebrated monologue. 3. Hamlet warns Ophelia. 4. The king becomes suspicious. These three stages of the rising action are worked out with reference to the effect of the two others; the first becomes an introduction, the broad and agreeable elaboration of the second forms the chief part of the ascent; the third, through the continuation of the monologue, beautifully connected with the second, forms the climax of the group, with sudden descent. Fourth stage, which leads up to the climax: the play, confirmation of Hamlet’s suspicion, 1. Introduction. Hamlet, the players and courtiers. 2. The rendering of the play, the king. 3. Transition, Hamlet, Horatio, and the courtiers.
Climax. A scene with a prelude, the king praying. Hamlet hesitating. Closely joined to this, the
Tragic Force or Incident. Hamlet, during an interview with his mother, stabs Polonius. Two little scenes, as transition to what follows; the king determines to send Hamlet away. These three scene groups are also bound into a whole, in the midst of which the climax stands. At either side in splendid working-out, are the last stage of the rising action and the tragic force.
The Return. Introductory side-scene. Fortinbras and Hamlet on the way. First stage: Ophelia’s madness, and Laertes demanding revenge. Side scene: Hamlet’s letter to Horatio. Second stage: A scene; Laertes and the king discuss Hamlet’s death. The announcement of the queen that Ophelia is dead, forms the conclusion, and the transition to what follows. Third stage: Burial of Ophelia. Introduction scene, with great episodical elaboration. Hamlet and the grave-diggers. The short, restrained chief scene; the apparent reconciliation of Hamlet and Laertes.
Catastrophe. Introductory scene: Hamlet and Horatio, hatred of the king. As transition, the announcement of Osric; the chief scene, the killing. Arrival of Fortinbras. The three stages of the falling action are constructed less regularly than those of the first half. The little side scenes without action, through which Hamlet’s journey and return are announced, as well as the episode with the grave-diggers, interrupt the connection of scenes. The work of the dramatic close is of ancient brevity and vigor.