Dramatic Criticism in Shakespeare's Time


The more fully informed we are about earlier theatres in other societies, however remote and alien, the more we discover exactly what expectations were shared by their audiences and met by theatre professionals then and now. This certainly includes the medieval antecedents of the Shakespearean theatre, for the mystery plays covered biblical history in a spirit of ultimate trust in divine providence reflected in the very title of Dante's Divine Comedy. Even earlier the great Aristotle, precursor of so many later theorists, admitted in his Poetics that his preference for deeply depressing plays was not shared by his fellow Athenians. He preferred plays with a single plot about the downfall of one great man, and proceeded to prescribe in detail how that distressing kind of plot should be presented. His terms have been largely accepted by influential later critics like Sir Philip Sidney in his Apologie for Poetrie, and rigorously codified by successive neoclassicists who have tried for centuries to enforce their "rules" on theatre professionals with questionable success in many cases. Nevertheless Aristotle himself had to concede the existence of at least one alternative mode to his ideal:

Second in quality is the kind of plot some put first. I mean the plot having a double arrangement, like that of the Odyssey, and concluding in opposite ways for the good and the bad. It seems to be first in rank because of the weakness of the spectators. For the poets in their compositions follow the wishes of the audience. (Gilbert, 86-7)

For Aristotle, theatre audiences are wrong and intellectuals like himself know better what artists should do. Not all scholars, critics and theatre professionals have agreed with him, including many known and imitated by Shakespeare. For example, in the sixteenth century, an Italian academic well-versed in Aristotle, called Giovambattista Giraldi Cinzio (usually identified as Cinthio in English studies of Shakespeare's sources) asserted the right of later authors to defy Aristotle's prescriptions: "To speak generally, authors who are judicious and skillful in composition should not so restrain their liberty within the bounds set by their predecessors that they dare not set foot outside the old paths" (269). Another even more orthodox Renaissance follower of Aristotle named Ludovico Castelvetro nevertheless accepts the artist's obligations to his modern audience:

Now, because poetry has been discovered, as I say, to delight and recreate the common people, it should have as its subject those things that can be understood by the common people and when understood can make them happy. These are the things that happen every day and that are spoken of among the people, and that resemble historical accounts and the latest reports about the world. (Gilbert, 308)

Cinthio was not only a critic but also a practitioner of the arts, and his theatrical practice confirms the opinions of the more narrowly academic Castelvetro about the "secondary" class of tragedy and its positive impact on audiences regretted by Aristotle:

I have composed some [tragedies] with happy endings, the Altile, the Selene, the Antivalomeni, and others merely as a concession to the spectators and to make the plays appear more pleasing on the stage, and that I may be more in conformity with the custom of our time. . . . And in this sort of play often for the greater satisfaction and better instruction of those who listen, they who are the cause of disturbing events, by which the persons of ordinary goodness in the drama have been afflicted, are made to die or suffer great ills. . . . It gives extraordinary pleasure to the spectator when he sees the astute trapped and deceived at the end of the drama, and the unjust and the wicked finally overthrown. (Gilbert, 256-7)

Shakespeare certainly knew and liked Cinthio's works, for his Hecatommithi (a collection of short stories) provided plots for Measure for Measure and Othello. So it is not surprising that Cinthio's positivist criteria for drama might apply generally to Shakespeare's plays, even to so negative a drama as King Lear, for all the evil characters in it do die: Goneril, Cornwall, Regan, Oswald, and Edmund. Even the murdered Cordelia is not innocent, since her obtuseness initiates the whole disaster, including a French invasion of England, something Shakespeare clearly shows to be disgraceful in King John. As for the deaths of both Gloucester and Lear, they might be properly attributed to natural causes, simply from old age, not murder. Gloucester certainly dies from excess of happiness on rediscovering his lost son Edgar, and one possible reading may suggest that even Lear dies hopeful of Cordelia's survival. At least in the Folio, authority in his kingdom seems to be taken over by Edgar—the name of one of the most successful kings in British history (see individual play entry). In attacking critics' attempts to limit classification of drama into just two categories, tragedy which ends sadly and comedy which ends happily, Cinthio goes on to say: "Critics fall into this error because they were of the opinion that there cannot be a tragedy which ends happily" (Gilbert, 257). In postulating the superiority of the mixed, positive category of tragedy, he is backed up by Guarini who asserts that his version of it appeals to all levels and types of humanity:

Truly, if today men understood how to compose tragicomedy (for it is not an easy thing to do), no other drama should be put on the stage, for tragicomedy is able to include all good qualities of drama and to reject all bad ones; it can delight all dispositions, all ages and all tastes—something that is not true of the other two, tragedy and comedy, which are at fault because they go to excess. (Gilbert, 512)

Another theatre practitioner, the Spaniard Lope de Vega, sardonically adopts a similar posture in rejecting the high art advocated by the followers of Aristotle, whom he pretends to be addressing respectfully. He argues that such high art as they require simply will not sell, and so he is obliged to surrender to popular tastes:

Not that I am unaware of the rules; thank God that even as an apprentice to grammar I had already read the books which treated of these subjects. . . . But I finally found that the plays in Spain at that time were not as their early makers in the world thought they should be written, but as many untutored writers treated them who worked for the public according to its own rude ways, and thus insinuated themselves into favor to such an extent that whoever now writes plays with art dies without fame or reward. . . . It is true that I have written [plays] in accordance with the art, that few know, but later when from others I saw proceed monstrous things full of theatrical apparatus, to which the crowd and the women who canonize this sad business came running, I returned to the barbarous manner, and when I have to write a play I lock the rules away with six keys; . . . and I write in the manner of devisers who aspired to the acclaim of the crowd; for since it is the crowd that pays, it is proper to speak to it stupidly in order to please. (Gilbert, 542)

So what is this popular kind of mixed drama with a double plot that Castelvetro, Cinthio, and Lope de Vega all agree is required by their modern audiences? It approximates to the genre reviled by Aristotle as an inferior popular type, and called by Guarini "tragedy with a happy ending." Lope expands on the character of this variant:

The tragic mixed with the comic, Terence with Seneca, although it be like another monster of Pasiphae, will make one part grave, the other absurd: and this variety gives much delight. Nature gives a good example, for because of such variety it has beauty. (Gilbert, 544)

Like the drama of many of his contemporaries in the English theatre, Shakespeare's art in general can best be understood by these terms of reference provided by such sources, familiar to him and his European contemporaries, since almost all his plays approximate to some degree to what has often been called "tragicomedy," a term that first appeared as early as the prologue to the Amphitryon of Plautus. Its attributes are based exclusively on expedient stage practices, not aesthetic theories, and the precedents do not apply just to Shakespeare's comedies and romances, with their distinctive mixture of acute stress, comic wit, farce, and provocative resolutions. The frequent failure of some of his plays to match the specifications of academic theories of comedy and tragedy has led to the creation of a dubious academic category of indefinables called "problem plays." These often also include tragedies such as Hamlet and Julius Caesar, for their failure to conform to Aristotelian norms means that many of Shakespeare's tragedies must be relegated to the same anomalous group, unless we can show that they have their own distinct characteristics. If Shakespearean tragedies have detectable patterns, they are ones which were governed primarily by what theatre audiences welcomed, not by respect for supercilious authorities such as Sidney, who despised the contemporary Elizabethan popular theatre, and whose opinions were thus largely irrelevant to its practices. Elizabethan plays' structure, characterization, tone, and emotional impact are defined primarily by recurring responses to performances from their popular audiences. So it is not just in his comedies that Shakespeare avoided presenting spectators with painfully "correct" art, offering audiences instead What You Will, or As You Like It. We should distinguish between the productions of "play-writers" such as Ben Jonson whose artistic principles seem to be favored by intellectuals like Hamlet, and the practical craftsmanship of traditional "playwrights." Like Lope de Vega, it is to this latter category that Shakespeare primarily belongs, as a craftsman, like a wheelwright or a shipwright, designing works purely for the satisfaction and convenience of his customers, not to meet some supposedly superior standard of excellence, whether aesthetic or metaphysical, such as those promulgated by Renaissance Academies. A carpenter makes a chair from readily accessible materials for its immediate purchaser to sit in comfortably, not for it to be included in some posthumous anthology of Collected Chairs. We shall see this process reflected in many subsequent sections of this site. © HMR References Gilbert, Allan H., ed. 1962. Literary Criticism: Plato to Dryden. Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press.

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Except where otherwise specified, all written commentary is © 2016, Hugh Macrae Richmond