Anyone who doubts the veracity of Shakespeare’s claim to be Shakespeare should have little doubt after reading Shakespeare on Theatre, Nick de Somogyi’s excellently edited collection of Shakespeare’s own commentary on stagecraft. No noble isolated from the stage, regardless of his imagination, could possibly include so many intricate details of the player’s life as are found in the Shakespeare plays.
A so asserts de Somogyi with his opening paragraph: “Whatever else he was or wasn’t – and bookshelves groan with contending theories – William Shakespare (1564-1616) was a working man of the theatre to his core.”
Consider Romeo and Juliet’s Benvolio, “Nor no without-book Prologue faintly spoke after the prompter, for our entrance.” As he dismisses Romeo’s request that his fellow Montague deliver a speech to their hosts. In these words of hesitation, Shakespeare captures the nervousness of a player assigned to perform a Prologue, often the last bit of a play to appear, and thus the least rehearsed.
Of course, who can forget the wonder of the comedy within a comedy in a Midsummer Night’s Dream, or the tragedy of revelation delivered by unsuspecting players at the conclusion of Hamlet. These are no imaginings of what it is like to play the stage, but powerful satire on one hand, and a striking dramatic device on the other. It’s one thing to describe a play one has seen, it’s entirely another to transform the stage into a self-referential architecture in order to convey the breadth of human emotion.
And who can forget the dialog between Duke Senior and Jaques in s You Like It?
Duke Senior: Thou seest we are not all alone unhappy:
This wide and universal theatre
Presents more woeful pagents than the scene
Wherein we play in.
Jaques: All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
The have their exits and their entrances’
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages…
Categorized by the acts of acting, de Somogyi takes the reader on a virtual tour of Shakespeare, from audition, casting and parts, to learning lines, rehearsing, props, costumes, notes and rewrites, theatres and scenery, fluffs, prompts, cures and snags and onto audiences, critics and tours, all set about between prologs and epilogues with a sandwiched essay on ‘final scripts’ acting as an interlude.
The interlude presents an insightful analysis of the transmission of the Shakespeare text which, though we may believe Shakespeare to be Shakespeare, we have much less confidence in which particular words he actually wrote, compared to those that were performed, edited and printed. Important to this book of Shakespeare on the stage, regardless of the actual words penned, the various versions, including the bastardized Quartos, continue to reflect Shakespeare’s intimate knowledge of the stage. In an interesting take on textual analysis, de Somogyi recreates the play-within-a-play of The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and thisbe as a play independent of a Midsummer’s Night Dream and the other characters with their often caustic banter, to provide a hint of what might have been the actual text.
To be clear, this book is a collaboration between an insightful editor creating categories of thought and Shakespeare, the creator of the opus to which de Somogyi applies his system. Anyone who loves the stage will find the most famous and most brilliant lines and scenes recast into a totality of theatre experience. Simply reading Shakespeare cannot deliver the kind of forced punch that de Somogyi applies. Through serendipity, a play goer may stray to connect dots among the works, but only with concentrated effort can so much material be culled into a meaningful illustration of the weight and depth theatre itself brings to Shakespeare’s plays.
As the Editor of the Shakespeare Folio Series and Visiting Curator at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, it’s hard to imagine a person better equipped the de Somogyi to appreciate this aspect of Shakespeare’s work. Although Shakespeare’s Globe is not a faithful reproduction of the original Globe, it is the nearest stage upon which (and beneath and behind) an actor can discover to some degree what it was like to perform as an Elizabethan actor. de Somogyi does a fine job, so to speak, of finding Shakespeare’s resume hidden among the ashes of time.
de Somogyi asks, as does Rumour and his costume painted with tongues, that the audience, that blunt monster with uncounted heads, ‘Open your ears!’ We, of course, must count ourselves among the uncounted heads, and acknowledge, by argument grand and subtle, that the man we call Shakespeare, perhaps above all else, was a man of the stage, a man who can still teach his audiences, and his actors, as much about his craft as he can the truth of human nature.