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The Empty Stage and Sensory Experience
Our first premise is that Shakespeare was a Renaissance man, with all the magic connotations of that term, and that he was therefore familiar with most of the arts. Our second and equally important premise is that his territory, the Elizabethan stage, was a Renaissance vehicle and equally magical, the pantechnicon of its time. The poet, his play, and his stage are inseparable, and the Renaissance concept of the poet as maker embraces speech as well as words, song and dance as well as music, taking all the performing arts to a point where their edges are thoroughly blurred.
In practice, it is for us to recognize the form and shape of these arts of voice and body, ears and eyes, and to unblur their edges. More than this, the study of a play demands that we understand how these arts come together for the promotion of drama and performance. If a Shakespeare play works like no other ever written and performed, it should lead us directly to that other mystery, the nature of the Elizabethan theatre and stage itself. Its sheer emptiness--its "empty space," to use the term with which Peter Brook enshrined it--places the emphasis on the embodiment of the arts in action, and on the processes of drama as a performing art.
The open stage has been said, with justice, to throw all the weight upon the actor and his power of speech and movement. If it is a bare stage, it also invites the participation of the audience, urging the laws of "Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts," the ironic plea for help spoken by the Chorus in Henry V. Above all, the empty space makes of drama a direct and sensory experience: when Lear curses his daughter Goneril on the line, "Infect her beauty, / You fen-suck'd fogs" (King Lear, 2.4.167-8), our thoughts are less likely to be on Tudor notions of infectious disease than on the actor's spittle; when Macduff hears of the death of his wife and children, the lines teach the actor how to speak them, since one word, "all," is repeated again and again until we hear it as both a cry of anguish and a call for revenge:
All my pretty ones? Did you say all?--O Hell-kite!--All? What all my pretty chickens ... ? (Macbeth, 4.3.216-8)
Say this more softly and we hear groans, more loudly and we hear howls; but the noise itself is doing the work.
The emptiness of the Elizabethan stage, however, carries another, more elusive, quality, one which has to do with the nature of Elizabethan dramatic illusion. The thrust of the platform precipitates the actor almost into the arms of his audience, and the intimacy of the tight-knit auditorium compels him to sense it physically all around, below, and above him. In turn, although the stage does not necessarily represent anything in particular, it refuses to allow us to slip away into the simple ease of make-believe, but constantly insists that we remember we are in a theatre, as Bertolt Brecht desired we should, and that we have a constructive contribution to make in the creation of the play. In summary, the non-illusory quality which enabled an Elizabethan poetic play to work at maximum force was that of a ritualistic spirit shared by all parties to the play.
This alert and conscious quality of imagination characteristic of a Shakespeare play allows the arts to come together in performance in the way they do. The same freedom that encouraged the language of the stage to leap from prose to verse and back again, that enabled the action to slip from the realistic to the unreal and symbolic with the speed of a dream (or a nightmare), prompted the playwright to exploit in many hybrid ways the arts of music and song, and dance and pantomime, within the magic web of the theatre. This chapter will focus on music, song, and dance in the plays, and the way they are used may reveal a little of how poetic drama does its remarkable work.
"Music plays" is the recurring stage direction throughout quarto and folio, and the more literary reader is in danger of taking this as a cue to let his eye run on to the next line of print. Yet we know too well what power music can bring to a scene: how many gunfights in the western movies of old would simply lack excitement, if not actual firepower, without the constant help of a full orchestra out there on the range; and how many bad actors and actresses have had their performances enhanced at moments of great emotion by a friendly violin? (Some years ago there was a pretty English starlet named Patricia Roc who received great praise for an emotional performance of watching her lover's airplane flying off to war; closer inspection of the shot reveals that the camera showed only the back of her head; music had done it all.)
So the rule for an Elizabethan play should be that whenever we read the stage direction, "Music plays," we should pay special attention, and at least determine what kind of music: a lute and strings proposing a love sang will have a different effect from the drums and trumpets, hautboys and sackbuts, of a royal procession. Yet in Shakespeare there are some 300 musical stage directions, and at least thirty-two of the plays refer to music, with over 500 passages in the text making direct reference to it. The implication is that the musicians belonging to a company or hired for the occasion were always on hand, and that every play may be assumed to employ music. Every boy actor was trained, we know, in singing, and every company clown was expected to sing also; perhaps all Elizabethan actors had vocal gifts. Is this alarming? We always knew that Shakespeare wrote musical comedies; if now seems he wrote musical tragedies and histories too. It is for us to check the places where singing merges with speech, and sang and dance with drama.
The gulling of Benedick in Much Ado about Nothing, 2.3 offers a familiar instance of a Shakespearean sang in action. As Benedick eavesdrops upon the Prince, Leonato, and Claudio (who know that he is listening), the trickery is begun appropriately with a love sang, Balthasar's sweet and melancholy little ditty,