Notes on a Voice: Robert Butler on the world's most famous dramatist
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2012
He was born in 1564 in a provincial English town, educated at the local grammar school, and became the greatest playwright of his age. His name was Christopher Marlowe, he wrote seven plays, and died aged 29. William Shakespeare was born the same year, also educated at his local grammar, wrote 37 plays, and became the greatest playwright of all. English provincial grammar schools in the 1570s must have been hot stuff. Shakespeare would have been introduced to Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”, comedies by Plautus and Terence and tragedies by Seneca. He studied rhetoric, the Bible and the English countryside. He practised composition or “turning”, the school exercise of taking a passage from the classics and producing a variation. That became his career.
To ditch the classical unities of time, place and action in favour of pleasing an audience of 1,500+ ranging from courtiers to groundlings. He crossed continents and spanned decades, he used ghosts, witches, shipwrecks, sword-fights, snatched kisses, mistaken identities, eavesdropping, cross-dressing, jokes, songs and masques. Since stage design was strictly limited, most of the visual effects, from the long shots to the close-ups, take place within the poetry.
He inherited the iambic pentameter from Chaucer, Spenser and Marlowe and raised it to a sublime complexity. From 1590 to 1611, he developed this ten-syllable short-long rhythm from the simple rhetorical constructions of the early history plays to the knotty fractured lines of the great tragedies, which make us feel the struggles of the characters: Brutus in his garden ponders the assassination of Caesar; Hamlet hangs back from killing his stepfather while he’s at prayer; Leontes seethes with jealousy as his wife chats with his best friend. By capturing thought as it unfolds, Shakespeare presents a modern vision of human nature, suggestible, contradictory and pulsing with nervous energy. As Othello says to Iago: “I prithee speak to me/as thou dost ruminate, and give the worst of thoughts/the worst of words”.
Use other people’s material. Shakespeare was the rewrite man Hollywood can only dream of. Give him Plutarch’s 80-page essay on Mark Antony and he’ll give you the 3,500-line tragedy “Antony and Cleopatra”. He was unencumbered by modern anxieties of originality, only inventing the plot for “The Tempest” and one or two others. Unlike some rewrite men, he doesn’t tidy up the original, he untidies it. He takes plays with happy endings and leaves them ambivalent, he obscures motive (Coleridge wrote of Iago’s “motiveless malignity”) and adds seemingly extraneous characters and glancing scenes. He introduced 2,000 new words (“horrid”, “lonely”, “zany”) and many everyday phrases (“flesh and blood”, “cruel to be kind”). His work occupies an eighth of the “Oxford Dictionary of Quotations”.
The 180-degree turnaround, one character changing the mind of another with sheer rhetorical verve: Richard III woos Lady Anne after killing her husband; Volumnia pleads with her implacable son Coriolanus not to sack Rome; Antony turns the crowd against the conspirators after Caesar’s death.
Marlowe threw down one challenge after another: “The Jew of Malta”, “Dido Queen of Carthage”, “Edward II”, “Dr Faustus” and “Tamburlaine Pts 1 & 2”. Shakespeare responded with “The Merchant of Venice”, “Antony and Cleopatra”, “Richard II”, “Macbeth”, “Henry IV Pts 1 & 2” and “Henry V”.
Out of nearly 1m words, the sentence that best captures the internal drama, the unbearable pressure of the divided mind, is in “Julius Caesar”: “Between the acting of a dreadful thing/And the first motion, all the interim is/Like a phantasma or a hideous dream.”
Illustration by Kathryn Rathke