Shakespeare is commonly known as a great writer; but we cannot lose sight of the fact that he is every inch a man of theater, very much like Henrik Ibsen of the nineteenth century. His career in theater began as an actor. Working closely with the manager and the actors gave him a great sense of theater which is evident in all his major plays. In The Tempest Prospero’s speech (4.1.148-158) about the farewell to his magic is regarded as Shakespeare’s farewell to his dramatic writings symbolized by the breaking of Prospero’s magic wand. Here Shakespeare shows himself a master of language which is lucid and direct.
In As You Like It the Senior Duke’s remark “This wide and universal theatre/ presents more woeful pageants..” triggers Jaques’ reflection on the resemblance between human life and an actor’s performance on the stage: “All the world is a stage,/ All men and women merely players;/ they have their exits and entrances;/ And one man plays in his time plays many parts,/ His acts being seven ages.” ( 2.7.137-143 )
This speech shows how deeply Shakespeare’s mind was involved with the theater. In his famous speech following the report of Lady Macbeth’s death, Macbeth compares his frustrated life after the crime to an unimpressive actor “..Out, out, brief candle!/ Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/ That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,/ And then is heard nor more:” (5.5.17)
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Shakespeare’s greatest gift was theatrical: transforming well-known stories from Plutarch’s Lives, Seneca, Ovid, Lodge, Greene and many old plays into tragedies like Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, King Lear, and Julius Caesar, and into comedies like As You Like It and Twelfth Night.
Early he joined Lord Chamberlain’s company of players which became King’s company till Globe Theatre was built in 1599. According to A.L.Rowse he used to take charges of horses at the playhouse before he became an actor (Rowse.97) and later became a partner in the Globe Theatre. His entry into theater was attacked by Greene’s well-known caustic remark: “Yea, trust him not.: for there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his ‘Tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide’, supposes he is well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you, and being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shakes-scene in a country.”
Having tasted popularity with his histories and comedies, Shakespeare had his tragedies performed at Globe under his supervision and fully exploited the talents of tragic actor like Richard Burbage and comic actor like William Kempe . As female roles were acted by boys in his time, it was his sense of theater that prompted him to disguise his heroines like Portia, Rosalind and Viola in male attire and thereby help the boy actors look natural. The Elizabethan stage had no painted scenery and the play was acted in day light, he used his superb blank verse speeches to make the audience forget their surrounding and concentrate on the play.
Besides poetry, he also skillfully used costume, gestures, group of talented actors, music, procession and dancing for the highest dramatic effect. The inadequacy of the bare Elizabethan stage had to be compensated with good expositions. Shakespeare conveyed the necessary information about the setting and the major characters and the situation to the spectators in the opening scenes of As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Antony and Cleopatra and other plays through natural dialogue. In Julius Caesar he makes it clear to the audience that there is sufficient light at night before Brutus reads the letter thrown in by one of the conspirators.
His first hand knowledge helped him cater to the taste of the smoking gallants and fashionable ladies, the attentive audience who were generous with applause but also ready to hiss and mew at bad performance and also the ill-smelling groundlings who paid a penny to be entertained with comic scenes like Porter scene and the grave diggers’ scene. His plays are definitely for all ages and all times, but they are very much geared to Elizabethan theater.
Greenblatt, Stephen. (1997) The Norton Shakespeare. N.York. W.W.Norton & Co.
Rowse, A.L. (1963) William Shakespeare. London. Macmillan. 1963