The Legend of Shakespeare

Notes of a Lecture given by Dr. Rudolf Steiner
Berlin, May 6, 1902


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

Marie Steiner

A whole legend has arisen on Shakespeare and whole libraries have been written on each one of his works. Men of learning have given many interpretations of his plays, and a number of writers considered that an uneducated actor could not have produced all the thoughts which they discovered in Shakespeare's works, and they established 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 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 by Shakespeare 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 anxiously kept away from the printing press, the people were to come to the theatre and see the plays there, not read them at home. Prints which arose at that time were thefts, based on stenographic notes taken during a performance (shorthand had just begun to exist), so that their text did not correspond to the original version, but was full of errors and mutilations.

These partial omissions and mistakes led certain investigators to the statement that Shakespeare's plays are not works of art of any special value and that originally they must have existed in quite a different form. One of these investigators is Eugen Reichel, who thinks to recognise in the author of Shakespeare's plays a man with a definite world-conception. But such statements are contradicted by the fact that the plays, in the form in which they now exist, are able to exercise 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� at the Inauguration of the Lessing Theatre. It did not fail to produce a powerful impression in spite of a very bad translation and poor acting.

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

This development in art which culminated in Shakespeare is determined by the preceding phase of cultural development; The Renaissance period. 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 marked personality, the expression of Christian ideals of that time. The Christian type of his days, not the individual personal essence of the human being, appeared in the foreground. This was the general conception. The Christian principles of that time did not concern themselves with the single personality, with the individual. But little by little a new world-conception aroused the interest in the Individual human being.

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 set forth individual characters, he was far from presenting to his audience an ethical or moral idea. For example, the idea of a tragic guilt, as found in Schiller's dramas, who thought that he had to encumber his hero with it in order to justify the catastrophe, 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 trace a concept of guilt in this meaning in any of his dramas.

Shakespeare also did not intend to present ideas of any kind, he did not wish to set forth jealousy in Othello or ambition in Macbeth, but simply the definite characters of Othello, Macbeth, or Hamlet. Just because he did not burden his characters with theories, he was 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. (See in this connection Rudolf Steiner's lectures given at Stratford on Avon.)

Shakespeare was born at Stratford in 1564; his father was in fairly good circumstances, so that his son was able to attend the grammar school of his native town. There are many legends about Shakespeare's youth. Some say that he was a poacher and led an adventurous life. These facts 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 book-learning, 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 changes in the action, his passion and daring, all bear witness to a life full of movement and colour.

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 lowest ranks, 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 recited his first more important part.

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

Shakespeare's plays �LOVE'S LABOUR LOST,� �AS YOU LIKE IT� and some of the Kings' plays 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 times followed little by little; �HAMLET�, �MACBETH�, �KING LEAR�, �JULIUS CAESAR�, after his first great play �OTHELLO�.

Some of Shakespeare's biographers and commentators wish to deduce from certain of his 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;� it [is] Hamlet who recoils from his father's ghost, just as it is Macbeth who recoils from the witches. Whether Shakespeare believed in ghosts and witches, whether he was a churchgoer or a freethinker, is not the essential point at all, he simply faced the problem: how should a ghost or a witch appear on the scene so as to produce a strong effect upon the audience. The fact that this effect is undiminished today, proves that Shakespeare was able to solve this problem.

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 decorations, costumes, etc., the frequent changes of scenery, 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 equipment of a royal palace, the effect produced by the characters must have been even greater than today.

Whereas in a modern play so much depends on scenery, decorations, etc. (a modern writer generally gives a detailed description of the stage decorations, etc., so that the effect of his plays may be handicapped by bad staging), Shakespeare's plays leave a strong impression, even when performed in the poorest way.

The influence exercised by Shakespeare's art will gain in power, when we shall have learned to lay more stress on their essential character. They will act through the power which lies in the description of the single characters. It is this which constitutes their living essence, which has never been surpassed throughout the centuries.

Thanks to, where many lectures and books by Rudolf Steiner in English may be found.