The following article was originally printed in Greek Genius and Other Essays. John Jay Chapman. New York: Moffat, Yard & Company, 1915. pp. 135-9.
THE classic stage and Shakespeare's theatre have, at first sight, nothing in common; for the first was dedicated to unity, the second to variety. The great size of the antique stage made unity essential. A play had but three or four characters and involved but one or two ideas, which were hammered upon during the entire performance. When the heroes ceased speaking, the Chorus took up the thread of the argument. A Greek tragedy, moreover, was of national origin and of religious import. The plot was always taken from a familiar myth; and only great personages, heroes, kings and princes were allowed upon the stage.
A play of Shakespeare's, on the other hand, was acted in a small space, and involved twenty or thirty characters. It took place amid hurried shifting of scene (imaginary scene, for there was next to no real scenery). The plot was any story under the sun. Tragedy and comedy were mixed. It had no public or religious significance. In fact, it was always on the verge of being taboo, and was constantly told by the police to move on. As for unity and the Unities, the fixed and stationary character of the staging itself was about the only unity in many Elizabethan plays.
In spite of these vast differences between the Greek stage and Shakespeare's stage, there are certain resemblances between the greatest of Shakespeare's tragedies and the greatest Greek tragedies. There is, in a few of Shakespeare's plays, as in Othello and King Lear, a unity of theme, a single moving column of idea, which makes them analogous to Greek plays, though all the machinery is different. Then the language of Shakespeare's loftiest tragic vein has many turns of thought and metaphor which are surprisingly like the Greek. Then, too, both theatres are intellectual -- that is to say, the appeal is an intellectual appeal, done through the presentation of ideas in the text, not through melodrama or pantomime. Every idea is articulated into words. If a person has a pain or sees someone coming he says: "I have a pain," "I see someone coming." The thoughts and purpose of the characters are thus metaphysically presented, and are often expounded with a rhetorical power which the stage functions of the characters do not suggest. Both on the Greek and on the English stage each character has, as it were, the privilege of becoming the poet; and it is the unspoken convention that no one shall notice the excursion. There is a danger connected with this privilege; for when the poet gets on his own hobby he is apt to make the little fishes talk like whales. For instance, it is natural that an old nurse should talk about death and the next world; but it is not natural that an old nurse should betray the peculiar cast of thought of a philosophic scholar, which Euripides throws over Phaedra's attendant. The old woman closes a philosophic speech as follows: "And so we show our mad love of this life because its light is shed on earth, and because we know no other, and have naught revealed to us of all our Earth may hide; and trusting to fables, we drift at random."
So also Shakespeare, in As You Like It, suddenly endows Phoebe the shepherdess with a "discourse of reason" much resembling Hamlet's, because a subject has come up that interests the poet -- namely, the difference between physical injury and mental distress.
- "Lean but upon a rush," says Phoebe,
- "The cicatrice and capable impressure
- Thy palm some moment keeps, but now mine eyes,
- Which I have darted at thee, hurt thee not."
It is the blank verse that gives the nurse and Phoebe this enlargement of their powers. In fact, both Greek tragedy and Shakespearian tragedy are in their poetic march a sort of great Gargantuan discourse issuing from the mouth of the poet, the stage being his jaws.
There is yet another resemblance between Shakespeare and the Greeks. Both the Greek tragedies and Shakespeare's best plays have been written with supreme facility. They have fallen from the pen. They exist in a region of artistic fulfilment. I suspect that it is this latter element of perfection that links Shakespeare and the Greeks in our thought, rather than all the rest of their scanty resemblances. So far as perfection of form goes, the Greek plays are infinitely superior to Shakespeare's. So far as native talent goes, there is no Greek dramatist who stands anywhere near Shakespeare, though Aristophanes suggests him. In each case perfection reaches a climax. With the Greeks it is the perfection of massive racial power; with Shakespeare, the perfection of modern romantic sentiment.
Back to William Shakespeare