Great literature doesn’t waste our time. It’s like a friend who is kind enough to
show up when we need an honest dose of truth, strong enough to force its finger down
our throats so that we can regurgitate whatever it is that has sickened our souls, and
compassionate enough to stick around while we examine the bile that pools around us on
the floor. No one understood this better than William Shakespeare. As a writer of great
literature--as a writer of plays, in particular--Shakespeare used all of the classical
structural tools of storytelling to reveal something brutally honest about what it means to
be human. As a presenter of plays, however, he realized that he had two ...view middle of the document...
Swept up in emotion, the audience
would howl, weep, and tell the characters what to do. On the best of nights, this kind of
collective emotional response would add to the overall performance in such a way that a
new question (one that was left unspoken because it was, after all, unscripted) would
hang in the air for everyone to consider. In this manner, the storytelling would become
the product of both actors and audience members and, even more significantly, it would
become the product of the audience and Shakespeare himself (Harbage).
Long before most playwrights realized this very specific kind of power within
theater, Shakespeare set the “stage” for audience response as he sat alone at his writer’s
desk. When writing Hamlet
, for example, he structured his story according to exposition,
rising action, and climax: the point at which the protagonist experiences some sort of
revelation--which is to say that Shakespeare used the traditional Elizabethan tools of
story structure to flesh out his characters, move the story along, and resent a resolution.
However, because he was commissioned by theater managers to write his plays for the stage, the writing itself became a kind of dance between story telling and story
presentation. Thus, in the hope of fully engaging theater audiences, Shakespeare always
referenced the various elements of spectacle that he envisioned in his mind’s eye as he wrote: everything from stage direction, lighting, and sound, to such special effects as mist
(dry ice) and real cannon fire (which actually burned London’s Old Globe Theater to the
ground in 1613 during a performance of King Henry VIII) (Bridges).
To begin with, Shakespeare usually noted where his protagonists would stand
during key moments. Because his plays were often performed on a thrust stage--one that
extended out on three sides for greater intimacy between performers and the audience--
Shakespeare had them deliver soliloquies on the platea, a downstage area that
Shakespeare viewed as an “un-localized setting from which the performer could
acknowledge and talk to the audience” (Escolme). Soliloquies were Shakespeare’s
favorite method through which the protagonist could directly address” and therefore
engage the audience by sharing his innermost fears, hopes, and desires (Escolme). They
also heightened audience empathy and interaction--the means through which Hamlet
“imposed his viewpoint upon the audience” and vice versa (“Hamlet” 25). The overall
goal was to show a “theatrical openness to the Elizabethan audience for whom his plays
were first written….where characters could be produced even in the moment of
performance” and, in the process, add something spontaneous to the mix (Escolme).
For example, when Hamlet
was first staged for a crowd of 3,000 at the Globe in
1600, Prince Hamlet delivered his soliloquies at the platea, where he was “visibly
surrounded by thousands of people--some of...