Re-reading Shakespeare's evergreen players
Ahmed Tahsin Shams
"After God," said the 19th-century novelist Alexandre Dumas, "Shakespeare has created most." Whether stock characters or dynamic or foils, the players in Shakespeare's plays spot a pictorial place in readers' mind even after nearly 400 years of 'Peare's death (April 23, 1564 - April 23, 1616).
From sunrise to set, those vivid 16th century characters, 'Peare's players, still roam around us, among us. A Theatergoer's Guide to Shakespeare's Characters by Robert Thomas Fallon explores the world of characters created by the Bard. The book is designed to enhance the playgoer's enjoyment of a performance, but it also makes for enlightening reading after the show. Intended for the general reader, it is written in plain but not inelegant English and avoids the specialized language of the theatre and the academy.
More than eight hundred characters appear in Shakespeare's thirty-eight plays. Fallon has chosen some sixty of these figures to examine. With few exceptions, they are the ones that modern theatergoers are most likely to encounter in performance, those that have captured the imagination of audiences over the centuries: Lear, Hamlet, Cleopatra, Rosalind, Portia, and the like.
"All the world's a stage. And one man in his time plays many parts" (As You Like It) ascertains the dynamic range of all characters in all plays. Either out of misjudgement or out of revenge who met their tragedies, had a great fall losing their "better days", are --- Othelo, Macbeth, Hamlet or King Lear --- leaving a bucket of down-to-earth philosophies behind us as well as grave speeches --- as if they stand as teachers of all time.
On the other hand, rogues like Iago in Othelo, one of the finest villains ever, sketch duplicity and shrewdness to the highest level which make us fall in love with the villains, perhaps Shakespeare --- the dialogue-maestro --- intended to get away from the boundary of absolutes and thus cooked a dish-for-all where good or bad are inter-mingled as well as role-switched in his stage-tapestry losing the absolute identity leaving a baffled-question --- whom "to be" liked "or not to be" liked!
Characters like Falstaff in Henry IV, Part 1 and Pompey in Measure for Measure render a prison-cell by the trap of humour even in super-lengthy-speech scenes. For instance: Pompey telling who he could and couldn't execute: "If the man be a bachelor, sir, I can; but if he be a married man, he's his wife's head, and I can never cut off a woman's head." The height of paradox is enhanced when fools in 'Peare's plays seem wiser than others --- "The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool." (As You Like It) or Viola's speech in Twelfth Night: "This fellow is wise enough to play the fool" Another most renowned play Romeo and Juliet not only portrays "true love never runs smooth" but also a 'depth' prioritizing features above names:
"What is in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet."
Madness in many of this Bard's players, opposite to sophisticated Prospero in The Tempest, is also well-appreciated among 'Peare's fans. Hamlet took the peak-position through his "Brevity --- the soul of wit" or speeches like "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't" or "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so".
There is not such a topic on earth which this word-connoisseur didn't pen about. Whether romance, courage or laughter, all submitted themselves into his inkpot. When we meet the Earl of Kent in King Lear saying --- "As flies to wanton boys, are we to th'gods. They kill us for their sport" or when Escalus, a minor character, talks of Angelo in Measure for Measure: "Some rise by sin, some by virtue fall" --- we can relate such ideologies or scenarios even in today's social or political context.
Many dialogues, which get whistles on film theatres nowadays, are this dramatist's blessings: "Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once" (Julius Caesar), "If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?" (The Merchant of Venice), or "Love looks no with the eyes, but with the mind; and therefore the winged Cupid is painted blind" (A Midsummer Night's Dream). In addition, scenes of justice, though presented in a playful manner in Measure for Measure, leave a strong impression only because of 'Peare's outstanding usage of syntax in the voice of Duke:
"Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;
Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure."
However, life signifies nothing, an absurd quote of post-modern era, was first pictured in literature through Macbeth orienting the very way of our exit from the play of the world-stage:
"Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
In the book, Robert Thomas Fallon also talks of some lesser-known characters. Fallon locates each of them in the story of their play, relates them to other characters, shows how they change (or don't), and sums up their character and nature.
Many of his players' utterings are now well-used quotes endowing them with intransience. In Henry IV, Part 2, the speech of King Henry --- "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown" is a simple illustration of his eternal verses, even if time grows old:
"So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee."
Ahmed Tahsin Shams is with
The Daily Observer