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The greatness of Shakespearean text


My admiration for Shakespeare knows no bounds. If he had written nothing else other than Hamlet’s advice to the actors I would still rate him as a great dramatist. Actor is the apple of the theatre’s eye its essential underpinning, so to speak. Shakespeare knows that it is the actor who interprets the playwright’s words and intentions and so his Hamlet implores the actors to not cheapen their art.

Speak the speech I pray you as I pronounced it to you (meaning: as I recited it to you, in a natural way) but if you mouth it (meaning: overdo it) as many of your players do, I had as lief (meaning: rather) the town-crier spoke my lines.

Nor do not saw the air too much with your hands thus (he demonstrates a histrionic posture) but use all gently (meaning: do everything with restraint) for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness (meaning: as your passion reaches tempestuous proportions you must develop self-control that will give it a natural ease) Oh, it offends me to the soul to hear a periwig pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings who, for the most part, are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise (meaning: Oh it gets on my nerves to hear a ham actor in a wig tear a passion to shreds — to rags even — just to play to the gallery, which for the most part are only capable of appreciating mindless mime shows and spectaculars).

Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. (meaning: make your gestures suit what you say and vice versa. One proviso: don’t overact) For anything so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ‘twere, the mirror upto nature; to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure (meaning: anything overdone is against the purpose of acting, which was — and still is — to reflect reality, to demonstrate what is virtuous, to expose the deplorable, and to depict faithfully the essential nature of contemporary life).

And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them; for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set a barren quantity of spectators to laugh too, though in the meantime some necessary question of the play be than to be considered. That’s villaneous and shows a most pitiable ambition in the fool that uses it. (meaning: let your comedians stick to their lines. There are some who laugh themselves, to get a number of mindless spectators to laugh too, causing some necessary part of the plot to be delayed. That’s unforgivable, and demonstrates a contemptible ambition in the comedian who indulges in it).

In Europe — and even in England — Hamlet’s advise was not heeded for nearly three hundred years. It was only towards the end of the 19th century that directors like Stanislavsky guided his actors to “show as ‘twere the mirror upto nature.”

If you go through a Shakespearean text you find that the zest for life pulsates nearly all of his plays.

Here in our part of the world you still see actors ranting and raving on the stage and in films. The fault lies not so much with the actors as with the directors who believe that unless feelings and emotions are expressed hyperbolically, the audience would not be moved.

 * * * * *

If you go through a Shakespearean text you find that the zest for life pulsates nearly all of his plays. Laughter and tears, ambition and human weakness jostle each other in the same work. His characters are all active personalities, from the heroes who win glory to the vagrants who cut purses, from passionate queens to nubile girls who dress in boys’ clothes in pursuit of men they desire. What is more, his characters frequently triumph over their deficiencies. The headstrong King Lear is never beaten down as when he is cast out by his daughters. Lear not only becomes emotionally enhanced by his suffering, but intellectually enlarged since he gains a fresh understanding of life. Standing in the great storm, he takes heed of all the miseries that had eluded him when he ruled the kingdom.

 “Prithee go in thyself seek thine own ease..

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’r you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,

Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you

From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en

Too little care of this. Take physic pomp,

Expose thy self to feel what wretches feel,

That thou mayst shake the superflux to them

And show the heavens more just.”

For those who may not find some words in their dictionaries let me paraphrase it.

“Please go in yourself; seek some comfort… Poor naked wretches, wherever you are, that endure the pelting of this pitiless storm; How shall your bare heads and bony bodies, your tattered and torn raggedness, protect you from storms such as these? Oh, I have cared too little about this! Take a dose of this medicine great ones! Expose yourself to feel what wretches feel, so that you can share their deprivation and show that the gods are just”.

Macbeth is never so great as when he rises from the sordid usurpation of the throne to a realization that “All our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death” and goes out bravely to meet inevitable death. And Hamlet, that noble and most humane prince, whose intellect is as refined as the purest diamond, remains ever so calm in the face of death.

We defy augury. There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man knows aught of what he leaves, what is ’t to leave betimes? Let be.”


We must disregard premonitions. Everything is carefully pre-ordained. If death comes now it won’t come in the future. If not in the future, then now. If not now then sometime, for certain. Being ready for it is what matters. Since no man knows anything of what he leaves what’s so bad about an early death?

Shakespeare’s tragic or historical characters all learn, in one degree or another, the hollowness — and the vanity of power.

Zia Mohyeddin

The author is the president and CEO of National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA)

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