Questions from Rebecca and Daniel, and from Michelle who is studying Hamlet
I often think Shakespeare is set apart from other writers because he doesn’t judge his characters. You always know what Ben Jonson thinks of his characters, for example, and he often despises them. Shakespeare never does.
Shakespeare also allows what might otherwise seem to be inconsistencies in character, or contradictory elements. But that is why actors love to play these roles because those contradictions make them human. We are all so full of apparent contradictory elements in our characters, depending on what time of day, or what mood you may find us in.
With regard to Hamlet, there is a very interesting test of how this works. Take the different positions in which the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy is placed in a) the first quarto, (published in 1603, and sometimes called the “bad” quarto) and b) in the second quarto published in 1604 (the same position it appears in the Folio published seven years after Shakespeare’s death in 1623) .
In the first (bad) quarto, Hamlet has just encountered the ghost of his dead father on the battlements, and been told his uncle has murdered him, and that he must revenge that death. He has, we are told, run into his girlfriend’s bedroom, deeply distressed, but unable to connect with her, has fled the room. It is in this state that he plunges into his existential enquiry. He contemplates death, and the reasons why he does not commit suicide.
But in the second quarto and the Folio, he doesn’t do the “to be or not to be” speech until after he has met his two old school chums, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, been introduced to the players, and invented a plan to reveal his uncle’s guilt publicly (with a performance of the play called “The Mousetrap”). He seems to be on a real high here. So why would he now fall back into his slough of despond, and contemplate his own annihilation?
Well, you could say, because he is volatile, and suffering massive mood swings, brought about by the trauma of his father’s death, and the news that the whole world is out of joint.
The first quarto position is perhaps the more logical position for a soliloquy of such anxiety. It’s a more linear progression from one state to another. But maybe the second position more vividly describes the fragile psychological state of the young prince.
Another lesser writer would have chosen a); but perhaps the more sophisticated Shakespeare relishes the complexity of option b).
You ask about other writers, Shakespeare’s contemporaries, and how they compare with him. It’s almost an unfair comparison, because many are great in their own ways.
Marlowe has magnificent daring, and revels in what Ben Jonson called the “mighty line”, ringing with violent thunder. His plots are huge and deal with dangerous subjects: a man who sells his soul to the devil, an openly homosexual king, a world conqueror, a Machiavellian Jew, a religious massacre in Paris.
Shakespeare can match him for grandiloquence, but Marlowe is rarely simple. He rarely takes your breath away with simple monosyllables: “ to be or not to be”; Leontes’ “O, she’s warm” or Lear’s “Never, never, never, never, never”.
Webster is baroque in his plotting and his obsession with what T.S.Eliot called “the skull beneath the skin”. He is gothic in his imagination, and unrelentingly bleak in his outlook. He’s always striving for effect. Shakespeare never is.
John Fletcher has a gentleness, a sweetness, and a wit, but no rage.
Shakespeare’s plays are all completely different from each other. Ben Jonson’s plays merge one into another. And Jonson, though bitingly satirical, and a scourge of vice, can never quite love his characters, can’t help criticising them. Shakespeare steps into each of his character’s shoes, understands how they tick, and has deep compassion for them, for all of us. He is able to express 360 degrees of human experience, while the others rarely get past 180.
None of his contemporaries can describe the entire spectrum of society from Court to country, from king to beggar in the way that Shakespeare can.
None can capture experience in a way which makes you say “how did he know I thought that?”. And none can do it in such memorable language, lines which once heard can never been forgotten, which hook into your brain and latch there for life.
Gregory Doran (RSC Artistic Director)