Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

Shakespeare and the modern novel

Shakespeare must have read anything and everything that came his way, not just the sources for his plays, which are well known, not just the classical authors who, if Ben Jonson is to be believed, he was obliged to read in translation, but everything else that came his way, from the ballads and pamphlets sold in the street to the self-published work of his contemporaries. He read poetry, history, philosophy, satire, stories, other people’s plays and, as we know, not infrequently took from them whatever caught his ear to use in his own work.

The only things he didn’t read, and for this we must be grateful, were novels.

The stories he read gave him the plots and characters for some of his plays. Giulietta e Romeo by Luigi da Porto (1486-1529) left him with nothing to add of his own invention apart from his genius for theatre and his poetry. There is even a faint echo of Shakespeare’s prologue in the first lines of the Italian story: “… there flourished two noble, but rival families…”

A Winter’s Tale was closely based on a story called Pandosto by one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Robert Greene (1558-1592). The only thing of any significance that Shakespeare changed was the names of the characters, which was perhaps an ironic response to Greene’s misuse of Shakespeare’s own name in his posthumously published pamphlet, A Groat’s Worth of Wit, as “an upstart crow … in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country”.

But neither these two stories nor anything else that Shakespeare ever read was anything like a novel. What distinguishes the modern novel from the tales that preceded them is the presence, in one guise or another, of an omniscient narrator.

Shakespeare’s greatness, as has often been said, lies in his ambiguity. But that is just as true of all the other Elizabethan dramatists and would probably not have attracted comment if it had not been for the novel. What people mean when they talk about Shakespeare’s ambiguity is that we are never quite sure whose side he is on.

By contrast, since old tales were replaced by novels and story-tellers by novelists, there has never been any doubt whose side the novelist is on. Playwrights, like puppeteers, should be invisible. Their skill is in enabling actors to persuade audiences to believe in them, to identify with them, to sympathise with them, to sympathise as much with Macbeth as with Banquo, as much with Iago as with Othello, as much with Barrabas in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta as with his daughter, as much with any one member of the Tyrone family as with any other in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night.

Some novelists are more visible than others. Reading a novel by Charles Dickens, one can never forget who is telling the story. Much as Emily Brontë might try to confuse us by having multiple narrators, there is no doubt who the real narrator is or where her sympathies lie. However much we might engage with the characters in a crime novel, it is the skill of the novelist in keeping us guessing that we admire most.

The characters in a novel can never be anything but pawns in the novelist’s hand. The novelist, while maintaining the fiction that the fiction is fact, plots the moves. Holding the book in one’s hand is like holding the novelist’s hand. Reading a novel is a private experience which takes place in a world created by the novelist exclusively for the solitary reader. The characters are figments of their shared imagination. The reader’s experience of a novel is wholly dependent on the novelist who describes the characters, their actions, their way of speaking, how they feel, what they think, everything.

The characters in a play are created by actors. Their lines might have been written by a playwright, but if that’s how the audience hears them the actors aren’t doing their job. Actors are not pawns in the playwright’s hand. They are free agents. The actor brings as much to the shared theatrical experience as the playwright. As far as the audience is concerned, the actor brings more, because the playwright is invisible. Spending hours in the company of a novelist, on a sofa or in a bed, is very different from spending an hour or two in the company of a lot of other people watching a play. That’s why novelists, offering a more intimate experience that lasts longer, are better known and better paid than playwrights.

And that’s where directors come in.

The first thing modern directors do when they are asked to direct a play by Shakespeare is to get rid of the ambiguity. If Shakespeare won’t say whose side he’s on, the director, who has been brought up on the novel, will decide for him.

To take just one of numerous examples, in a recent production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at London’s Young Vic theatre, the director set out to show that the play is “as much driven by cruelty as it is by love”. But in setting out with that intention, the director has assumed the mantle of author, as it is worn by novelists, telling the audience what to look for and how to react, holding their hands, rather than enabling the actors to play their parts with all the ambiguity that Shakespeare and other invisible playwrights allow.


A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Young Vic, 2017

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This entry was posted on March 16, 2020 by in drama, Fiction, Literature and tagged , , , .
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