An ongoing question surrounding William Shakespeare is whether he’s best understood and appreciated from the page or on the stage. We say both but in this article we will focus on understanding Shakespeare more from the perspective of stage, from the perspective of performance and the theater.
To experience the depth of Shakespeare’s plays, we don’t simply read them—we watch them too. It is through watching them that we can apply two key tools in understanding Shakespeare: stagecraft and audience participation.
This is the third of a three-part series on how to understand Shakespeare. We began with Four Literary Tools to Help You Understand Shakespeare to understand and appreciate his work. The second article Discovering the Meaning Behind Scenes & Words: Key Tools in Understanding Shakespeare is a deeper dive into his first two tools.
Stagecraft: A Tool for Understanding Shakespeare
Stagecraft refers to all the ways Shakespeare uses his theatrical trade to attain dramatic effects in his works.
For example, the language in a Shakespeare play tells us what to read, but it doesn’t tell us how to read it. In the theater, an actress will determine her understanding of Ophelia and will give us a performance that expresses that understanding. At that moment, Ophelia comes alive to us in ways that she may not in our private reading experience.
Stagecraft brings an understanding of Shakespeare that reading alone cannot achieve.
This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
No single performance of a Shakespeare play can possibly express all the meanings that Shakespeare packed into a single play. In performance, an actor makes a whole series of interpretive choices that inform the audience of how he conceives of and expresses his sense of the character. Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet is different from Kenneth Branagh’s, which is different from John Gielgud’s, which is different from Richard Burton’s.
Learn more about how Shakespeare created theatrical “reality” through language
Each performance gives us a version of the character or play, but never the whole of it. Any particular performance of a Shakespeare play is like a jazz session—there’s a quality of improvisation at work, each show a little different from all others. That’s part of the magic of a Shakespearean performance.
It’s irrefutable that Shakespeare wrote his plays primarily for the stage—after all, they are plays. It is through watching his craft on stage that we can catch crucial elements in the play’s meaning.
Ongoing Participation with Shakespeare Leads to Understanding
The next tool in the arsenal to understanding Shakespeare requires our “participation.”
We don’t understand what Shakespeare is telling us through experiencing King Lear, Macbeth, or The Merchant of Venice just once in a reading or a show. We should read it, watch it, read it some more, see another production, return to the text, discuss it, and repeat the process.
The most reward comes from ongoing, active engagement with his work. Indeed, it is that kind of lifelong involvement with Shakespeare that brings the most understanding about his work.
His work requires our own participation. The more the audience can enter imaginatively into the theater experience, the more we will get out of a Shakespearean play. It is as if there is an agreement between us and Shakespeare: He gives us all the material we need to have a transforming experience from his plays, and it is then up to us to see how much we can bring to this experience. We know this because Shakespeare tells us directly in the dialogue.
In Henry V, Shakespeare tells us what it takes to really grasp what he’s doing on stage. Henry V begins in an odd manner: a “chorus” walks onstage, usually a single person, and speaks what the text calls a “Prologue.” Pay attention to the advice the chorus gives the audience about how they ought to watch the play:
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
The chorus speaks almost as if he was the playwright, asking for “a muse of fire,” that the playhouse itself would inspire him to reach to heaven for his words. Instead of a bare, wooden stage, he asks for a real kingdom—no hired actors. He wants princes to play his parts. He asks for the audience to participate by being monarchs who are watching his play, instead of mere commoners for his audience.
“Then,” he continues, “should the warlike Harry [King Henry] like himself, assume the port of Mars”—that is, we’d see a real king, like the God of War himself, striding before us. We’re thinking that would be nice, but of course that won’t happen—we know they’re just actors on the stage.
And so the chorus asks the audience for our pardon and goes on to list the deficiencies of what we’re about to watch:
But pardon, gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that hath dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cock-pit [a derogatory term for a theater] hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O [a reference to Shakespeare’s theater, the round-shaped Globe] the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
It’s as if the playwright is saying from the start, it’s not going to work, we can’t match reality. There’s no way to reproduce the great battle of Agincourt with 10,000 soldiers on this bare and dusty stage. But he goes on and tells the audience that indeed, it can work wondrously if they will do their part.
The Audience Doing Their Part
“Let us,” he says, “on your imaginary forces work.” This is one of the tools to the whole mystery of his art. Shakespeare’s participation tool, or “imaginary forces” tool, means we must actively enlist our imagination in the play before us.
The chorus then lists a whole series of action verbs that the audience has to perform:
Suppose within the girdle of these walls / Are now confined two mighty monarchies
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts…
Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them / Printing their proud hoofs i’th’ receiving earth;
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings, Carry them here and there, jumping o’er times,
Turning th’accomplishment of many years
Into an hourglass.
This is the wonder of Shakespeare’s plays: He instructs us how to give life to these flat, unraised spirits—literally, dead ghosts—and tells us that the power lies in us, in our participation, and our imagination to make the magic of his plays work and to understand them.
Once you know that Shakespeare’s use of stagecraft is crucial to understanding the deeper themes and meanings of his works, the easier his plays become. We must also participate actively in the play as we read or watch it “on your imaginary forces work.”
Learn more about the drama of ideas in Henry V
Using these tools and techniques will help to unlock the mysteries of Shakespeare so that the pleasures and the profundity of his work can become accessible to you. With confidence and practice, you can begin to approach reading or view a Shakespearean play with understanding and discuss Shakespeare with a depth that will impress friends and family.
Common Questions About Shakespeare’s Stagecraft
Characteristics of Elizabethan theater include the aside, a frame (play-within-a-play), eavesdropping, males performing female roles, and the soliloquy.
Dramatic techniques used in Shakespearean tragedies include dramatic irony (the audience knows something before the characters do), monologues, asides, and motifs.
Elizabethan Theatre began around 1576, but its success was short lived, as the Puritans shut playhouses down in 1648. However, the timing was good in relation to Shakespeare’s lifetime, as he was born in 1564 and died in 1616.
The main elements of Elizabethan tragedy include the tragic hero, the battle between good and evil, the supernatural, and a lack of justice.