The role of Ghost of Hamlet's father played by William Shakespeare so legend has it, described as “the top of his performance": Adam in “As You”, King Henry in “Henry the Fourth”, Duncan in “Macbeth”, in Ben Jonson's “Sejanus” and “Everyman in his Humour”, in Marlowe's plays also. A good actor, one of us, who treasured our art and, as a writer, was lucky enough to have a brilliant leading actor in the Chamberlain's Company. In Shakespeare's lifetime, when people thought of Lear, Hamlet, or Othello, they thought not of the playwright but of Richard Burbage who created those characters on stage. Why do so many great actors do their best work in Shakespeare's plays? Because the roles are created by an actor who is “in character” when he finds the words he writes. Apparently Shakespeare wrote very quickly and fluently, “with ne'er a blot on the paper”. I can imagine him saying the words out loud, his pen trying to catch up with his thoughts as he is acting out the scene
in his imagination – whether a ghost describing his own murder to his astonished son, a husband agonizing over his wife's infidelity, or two lovers falling in love in sonnet form at a Capulet party. Actors can trust that true to life on the page will become true to life on the stage. Shakespeare knows how to so craft the outpouring of those words as to make an actor look good saying them! Provided, that is, that the actor is as truly identified with the words as Shakespeare was when he wrote them. I like to think that doing scansion on the verse and study of the prose is to get as close as one can to that moment of creation. Scansion and study is to listen – to hear the rhythm of the verse as Shakespeare heard it, to enjoy how he designs the prose for comedy, so that you can collaborate with him. Peter O'Toole talks about this “uninhibited, unobserved private study, human speech as an art
These plays could only have been written by an actor. It amazes me that so many people doubt that, even some prominent actors: how can they not be proud of him being one of us?
Who but an actor could write: “As an unperfect actor on a stage / Who with his fear is put beside his part”. He knew so viscerally the dread of “drying” that he put these words in Coriolanus mouth: “Like a dull actor now / I have forgot my part, and I am out / Even to a full disgrace”. Who but an actor would feel so intimately this humiliation from an audience:
“As in a theatre, the eyes of men / After a well-grac'd actor leaves the stage / Are idly bent on him that enters next / Thinking his prattle to be tedious”.
Not only an actor, but a working actor/writer in a permanent theatre company, of which he was one of the shareholders. He wrote for the actors in his company. Burbage was able to remember more than 800 lines of dialogue and, because renowned as a stage fighter, Shakespeare was able to include dramatic duels in many of his roles. When William Kempe was the resident clown, known for his slapstick physical comedy, Shakespeare created roles like Dogberry, Costard, Peter the Nurse's man. When Robert Armin joined the Company with his wit and musical skills, now came Feste, Touchstone and Lear's fool. Among the leading boy players, whenever there was a tall one and a shorter, a feature is made of it in the roles they play: Helena and Hermia, Rosalind and Celia.
Most compelling of all, in spelling out Hamlet's Advice to the Players, Shakespeare was giving his own notes to his own Company, and eternally to all other actors who yearn to know how Shakespeare wants his plays to be performed. He had inherited the iambic pentameter from the flurry of dramatists who sprang up since the 1570s, when professional theatres were starting to be built and professional actors needed plays to stage. Chief rival to Shakespeare at the start was Christopher Marlowe with his “mighty line”, established at the Rose Theatre with Edward Alleyn his leading actor who was much admired for his heroic style. By the time he came to Hamlet, Shakespeare's art had developed into the authentic creation of a character's inner life. It needed a different kind of identified acting, which Shakespeare is now at pains to explain to his own players:
“Trippingly on the tongue” : talk naturally. “If you mouth it as many of our players do”: say it without meaning it – a dig at “you know who you are ...”. Grand gestures are out. Out of whirlwind “beget and aquire a temperance that may give it smoothness”. O how he hates all that shouting and overacting, showing off to the cheap seats! But don't under play either: “let your own discretion be your tutor” -he knew how an actor finds their own process. Use appropriate gesture, and drive the intention through the words, but always and specifically true to life. The art of acting is the study of human nature in all its aspects, to reveal what goes on in society. If this is exaggerated or done clumsily it may get cheap laughs but will sicken a discerning audience. O how Shakespeare cannot bear it when he sees actors being praised when they cheapen our profession by “imitating humanity so abominably”. He also hates comedians who insert their own schtick, laughing at their own jokes, distracting an audience from what is supposed to be happening. This “pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it” is not confined to the 16th Century! Shakespeare's own actors no doubt had a good idea who he was talking about, and the “tear a passion to tatters” actors too.
Shakespeare the actor is passionate about good acting and abominates crass acting. He pays tribute to the Player king who “could force his soul so to his on conceit / that from her working all his visage waned / tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect / a broken voice, and his whole function suiting / with forms to his conceit, and all for nothing! / for Hecuba! / What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba / that he should weep for her?”. I like to think that is a description of Burbage on a particularly good day! Contemporary accounts of Burbage praise him for “so wholly transforming himself into his part, and putting off himself with his clothes, as he never assumed himself again until the play was done … He was an excellent actor still, never failing in his part when he had done speaking, but with his looks and gesture maintaining it as if he were the character come to life.” Burbage embodied the total identification which Shakespeare outlines so persuasively in his Advice. It is a heartfelt vision of the nobility of our vocation as actors, our calling to a life long study of human nature, our artistry in so vividly imagining what it feels like to be somebody else that we can live inside their skin transformed.
To perform Shakespeare in the spirit in which it was written, where people say what they are thinking and feeling at the very moment they are thinking and feeling it, is to remind an audience what it feels like to be that alive inside. It reminds us as actors what it feels like to be that alive inside.
We have our master teacher in Shakespeare himself, the Elizabethan Stanislavski.