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William Shakespeare

by Rudolf Steiner



Lawrence Olivier as Hamlet

Notes from a lecture given in Berlin on May 6, 1902, GA 52


Original translator unknown. Revised by Frank Thomas Smith


Friends who heard that notes existed of a lecture on Shakespeare given by Dr. Steiner in 1902 at the Workmen's School in Berlin expressed the wish to read these notes. They were taken down by Johanna Mücke, who did not know shorthand, so they do not claim to be complete. The 7 pages of typescript may correspond to about 25 pages of the original text of the lecture. But important points emerge even from these incomplete notes. Marie Steiner


According to a remark by the famous writer Georg Brandes, we should include Shakespeare in the German classics. And if we consider the enormous influence Shakespeare has had on Goethe, schiller and the development of German literature in general since he was rediscovered in the middle of the eighteenth century, especially through Lessing, we must agree with that remark – especially in view of the excellent translations of his work by Schlegel and Tieck.  

A legend has arisen about Shakespeare and whole libraries have been written about each of his works. Academics have given many interpretations of his plays, and finally a number of writers have decided that an uneducated actor could not have produced all the thoughts which they discovered in Shakespeare's works, and they became addicted to the hypothesis that not William Shakespeare, the actor of the Globe Theatre, could have written the plays which bear his name, but some other highly learned man, for example  Lord Francis Bacon of Verulam, who in view of the low estimation of literary activity at that time, borrowed the actor's name. These suppositions are based on the fact that no manuscripts written by Shakespeare’s hand have ever been found; they are also based upon a notebook discovered in a London library with single passages in it which are supposed to correspond with certain passages in Shakespeare's plays. But Shakespeare's own works bear witness that he is their author. His plays reveal that they were written by a man who had a thorough knowledge of the theatre and the deepest understanding for theatrical effects.

That Shakespeare himself did not publish his plays was simply in keeping with the general custom at his time. Not one of his plays was printed during his lifetime. They were carefully kept under wraps; people were to come to the theatre and see the plays there, not read them at home. Prints which appeared at that time were pirated editions, based on notes taken during the performances, so that the texts did not completely correspond to the original versions, but were full of errors and mutilations.

These partial omissions and mistakes led certain researchers to claim that Shakespeare's plays, as they were then available, were not works of art of any special value and that originally they must have existed in quite a different form. One of these researchers is Eugen Reichel, who thinks that the author of Shakespeare's plays was a man with a certain definite worldview. But such opinions are contradicted by the fact that the plays, in the form in which they now exist, exercise such an extraordinary influence. We see this great effect in plays that have undoubtedly been mutilated, for example in Macbeth. The hold of Shakespeare's plays on his audience was proved by a performance of  Henry V under the direction of Neuman-Hofer at the inauguration of the Lessing Theatre. It did not fail to produce a powerful impression in spite of an extremely bad translation and poor acting.

Shakespeare's plays are above all character dramas. The great interest which they arouse does not so much lie in the action, as in the wonderful development of the individual characters. The poet conjures up before us a human character and unfolds his thoughts and feelings in the presentation of an individual personality.

This artistic development, which culminated in Shakespeare, was made possible by the preceding phase of cultural development: the Renaissance. Shakespeare's character-dramas could only arise as a result of the higher estimation of the individual during the Renaissance. During the early middle ages we find, even in Dante and in spite of his strong personality, the basic expression of the Christian ideas of that time. The Christian type of his time, not the individual human personality, appeared in the foreground. This was the general conception. The Christian principle had no interest in the individual personality. But little by little a new worldview aroused interest in the Individual human being. Only gradually did a new interest in the individual arise by means of the different viewpoint.

The fact that Shakespeare's fame spread so quickly proves that he found an audience keenly interested in the theatre, that is to say, with a certain understanding for the representation of the personality as offered by Shakespeare. Shakespeare's chief aim was to describe individual characters,  and he was far from presenting to his audience an ethical or moral idea. For example, the idea of tragic guilt, as found in Schiller's dramas, who thought that he had to encumber his hero with it in order to justify his downfall, does not exist in Shakespeare's plays. He simply allows the events to take their course consistently, uninfluenced by the idea of guilt and atonement. It would be difficult to find a concept of guilt in this sense in any of his plays.

Shakespeare also did not intend to present a certain idea, not jealousy in Othello or ambition in Macbeth, no, simply the definite characters of Othello, Macbeth, or Hamlet. Just because he did not burden his characters with theories was he able to create such great ones. He was thoroughly acquainted with the stage, and this practical knowledge enabled him to develop his action in such a way as to thrill an audience. In the whole literature of the world there are no plays which are so completely conceived from the standpoint of the actor. This is a clear proof that Shakespeare, the actor, has the merit of having written these plays.

Shakespeare was born in Stratford in 1564. His father was in fairly good circumstances, so that his son was able to attend the Latin grammar school in his hometown. There are many legends about Shakespeare's youth. Some say that he was a poacher and led an adventurous life. These things have been adduced against his authorship, yet these very experiences could only enrich his dramatic creation. Even the fact that in spite of his good education he was not encumbered with higher academic study, gave him the possibility to face things more freely and in a far more unprejudiced way. The poet's adventurous nature explains to some extent some of the greatest qualities in his plays: the bold flight of his fantasy, his sudden transformations in the action, his passion and daring, all bear witness to a life full of movement and color.

In 1585, when Shakespeare's financial conditions were no longer in a flourishing state, he went to London. There he began his theatrical career in the most menial way, by holding the horses of the visitors while they were enjoying the performance. He then became supervisor of a number of such boys who had to hold the horses' reins, and was at last admitted to the stage. In 1592 he played his first important role.

His fame soon began to spread — both as an actor and as a dramatist — and his conditions improved, so that in 1597 he was able to buy a house in Stratford. After he became part-owner of the Globe Theatre he was a wealthy man.

The plays written during Shakespeare's first period: Love’s Labour Lost,  As You Like It, etc., do not differ so greatly from the plays of his contemporaries, of  Marlowe and others; their expressive power, their purity and naturalness were moreover impaired by a certain artificial note which was the fashion in those days. The great character-plays, which were to establish his fame for all time, followed: Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Julius Caesar.

Some of Shakespeare's biographers and commentators wish to deduce from certain of his later plays troubled experiences which embittered him. But in Shakespeare's case this is difficult to establish, because his identity withdraws behind his characters. They do not voice his thoughts, but they all think and act in accordance with their own disposition and character.

It is consequently useless to ask what Shakespeare's own standpoint may have been on certain difficult questions. For it is not Shakespeare, but Hamlet who broods over the problem of “to be, or not to be”, who recoils from his father's ghost, just as Macbeth recoils from the witches. Whether Shakespeare believed in ghosts and witches, whether he was a churchgoer or a freethinker, is not the point at all:  He simply asked himself: how should a ghost or a witch appear on the stage so as to produce a strong effect upon the audience? The fact that this effect is undiminished today proves that Shakespeare was able to answer this question.

We should not forget that the modern stage is not favourable to the effect which Shakespeare's plays can produce. The importance which is now attributed to props, costumes, the frequent changes of scenery, etc. diminish the effect which is to be produced by the characters in the plays — for this remains the chief thing. In Shakespeare's time when a change of scenery was simply indicated by a notice-board, when a table and a chair sufficed for the furniture of a royal palace, the effect produced by the characters must have been much greater than today.

Whereas in the modern theater so much depends on scenery, props, etc., when the playwright usually gives a detailed description of the scenery so that the effect of his plays may be handicapped by bad staging, Shakespeare's plays leave a strong impression, even when performed badly.

And when a times comes in which we again see the essential more than is the case today, will the effect of Shakespeare’s art be ever greater: through the power of characterization which remains alive and unequaled through the centuries.


Thanks to the Rudolf Steiner Archive.



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