Articles, Blog

Shakespeare’s Tragedies and an Acting Lesson: Crash Course Theater #15

Hey there, I’m Mike Rugnetta, this is Crash
Course Theater, and today the bodies hit the floor: We’re talking about Shakespearean
tragedy. Remember how the Greeks left the violence
offstage? Well, Shakespeare goes another way, with poisoning,
stabbing, strangling, and baking people into pies. Get in line, Sweeney Todd. There are already a couple of Crash Course
Literature episodes about “Hamlet” and that Scottish King whose name I could totally
say right now if I felt like it, but I’m just not going to, so we’ll be looking at
“King Lear”. And to set it all up, we’ll look at the
staging conventions of Elizabethan drama, and how all those soliloquies and storm scenes
were acted. Macbeth! OK FINE IM SORRY IM SORRY
INTRO Because of changes in vagrancy laws, actors
organized themselves into companies named after some royal patron. They mostly performed at purpose-built playhouses,
but when those were closed—looking at you, bubonic plague—they would tour around the
country. A company would be made of 8–12 shareholders,
3–4 boys, a few hired players, some musicians, and a couple of stagehands, who ran around
with whatever the Renaissance equivalent of headsets and clipboards were. Actors tended to specialize. There were king types, queen types, lover
types, and even a few different types of fool—like slapstick fools and clever fools … like
Yorick here. Shakespeare was an actor. We don’t know the roles he played, though
there’s a rumor he played the ghost in “Hamlet.” [[[From offscreen, ghost’s lines: “Swear…
swear… swear.”]]] Who said that!? But even specialized actors had to do more
than just act. They also had to sing and dance and sword
fight. And boy did they have to memorize. Actors would spend their mornings learning
a new play and their afternoons performing an old one. Because plays ran in repertory, there could
be several plays on the go in any given week, and many actors had several parts within them. The boys in the company played the women’s
roles—and some of those women have a lot of lines. With a schedule like that, actors didn’t
spend a lot of time sitting around speculating about themes and motivations. Especially because actors didn’t get copies
of the full script, just pages of lines and cues. The goal was to learn the lines and recite
them without too much overacting. We don’t know if Shakespeare hated overacting,
but Hamlet sure does. Here’s his speech to the traveling players: Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced
it to you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you
mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief
the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air
too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently;
for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say,
the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget
a temperance that may give it smoothness. Hamlet is telling the actors don’t yell,
don’t gesticulate wildly. Just get the words out, and if you need to
emote, do it with some elegance. No mouthing! No sawing! Wait… am I an overactor? As we mentioned last time, the outdoor Elizabethan
playhouse was a smaller, chintzier version of the Greco-Roman amphitheater. It had an acting area backed by a tiring house–the
place where players got changed –overlooked by tiers of semi-circular seating and a pit,
the area where workingmen who had paid a penny could stand and watch. Plays were performed in the afternoon, to
take advantage of natural light. And since this was an era before wireless
headset mics, actors had to project so they could be heard above all the chit-chatting
groundlings. The stage was bare except for big-deal furniture
like a throne or maybe a bed. So to make things visually interesting, actors
relied on sumptuous costumes and hand props. But this isn’t the Japanese theater. If an actor held a fan, he was probably just
using it to fan himself. There were only a few special effects, but
a couple of those were fire-based, which is not the greatest idea in a theater made of
wood. On that flammable stage, actors performed
some of the most fire tragedies ever written. Many written by Shakespeare who borrowed from
Greek tragedy and the medieval morality play and earlier Elizabethan forms to create a
whole new genre. Seneca, who we met in our episode on Roman
drama, is also an influence, especially on Shakespeare’s first tragedy, “Titus Andronicus.” Still, let’s remember that in terms of genre,
tragedy is a flexible term. As we mentioned last time, it was the editors
of the posthumous First Folio who decided to group his plays into Comedies, Histories,
and Tragedies. In Shakespeare’s life there was a lot more
slippage. A quarto of “Hamlet” was published as
“The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet,” which seems clear enough. But the history play “Richard III” was
published in quarto as “The Tragedy of King Richard III,” so that’s confusing. More confusing? “King Lear” appeared in quarto as the
“True Chronicle Historie of the life and death of King LEAR and his three Daughters,”
which makes it sound like a history play, but its not. So we propose a shortcut: When it comes to
Shakespeare, a tragedy is a play that ends unhappily and is not about a recent king. Like the other plays, the tragedies are mixtures
of prose and verse, though they tend to go heavy on the verse, and the language is typically
more ornate than in the comedies. As in Greek tragedies, they are action-packed. What with all the prophecies and soothsayers
and vengeful ghosts—[[[Offstage: “Swear… swear… swear”]]] shush it up! I don’t wanna hear it anymore!—Shakespeare
sets up related conflicts between fate and free will, individual desire and public good. Reversal and recognition? They’re here, too. Mostly. So is the idea of hamartia, or mostly good
characters missing the mark, like when Hamlet gets caught up in his father’s revenge story,
or Brutus joins the conspirators, or the Scottish characters in the play I could totally name
if I wanted to … agree to kill the king. But hey, there’s new stuff, too. For one thing, Shakespearean tragedies have
a lot of funny bits. The actors in Shakespeare’s company who
played fools were big crowd-pleasers, so Shakespeare wrote parts for them even in the sad plays. So, if you like your tragedy extra-depressing,
too bad! As Samuel Johnson said, Shakespeare’s work
is defined by “an interchange of seriousness and merriment, by which the mind is softened
at one time, and exhilarated at another.” Kinda like a marvel movie! Another important difference—sin! These plays inhabit a Christian moral landscape,
at least in part. It’s not enough for characters to worry
about what an action will mean on earth, they have to wonder whether or not it will damn
in the afterlife. His construction of tragic heroes, though,
is where Shakespeare made his biggest innovation. Greek tragic heroes are mostly good people
who whiff it, but Orestes, Oedipus, Pentheus aren’t as … complicated .. as Hamlet,
Othello, Antony and Cleopatra! The philosopher Hegel said that Shakespeare’s
big innovation was to put thesis and antithesis into a single character. So it’s not Orestes versus Clytemnestra,
or Pentheus versus Dionysus. It’s Hamlet versus … Hamlet. Deep, yo. Basically, no one does radical psychological
interiority like tragic Shakespeare. This sets him apart from, well, everyone…
but also his contemporaries. In most Elizabethan revenge tragedies, the
revenger becomes more evil the more evil he does. Makes sense, right? But Shakespeare never lets the heroes of his
revenge tragedies become dehumanized. They’re thinking; they’re questioning;
they’re trying to figure out if what they’re doing is right and if there are alternatives. We never stop feeling for the heroes of Shakespeare’s
tragedies, and this emotional engagement is a lot of what makes them so sad, and terrible,
and great. To see this in action, let’s explore one
of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, “King Lear.” A play set in some fairy tale, hurricane-ravaged
version of ancient England, that was first performed at the Palace in 1606 and probably
written the year before. Adjust your screen brightness, ladies and
gentlemen, because things are about to get dark. Light the way, Thoughtbubble:
King Lear decides to retire, which is not something kings do. But first he makes his daughters stand up
before the court and praise him. His older daughters, Goneril and Regan, make
kissy faces. This disgusts his youngest, Cordelia, who
says nothing, so her father takes away her inheritance and banishes her. He also banishes the loyal courtier Kent. Meanwhile, Edmund, the bastard son of the
Duke of Gloucester, is hatching a plan to frame his half-brother Edgar. It works. Even though Lear is retired, he still wants
to live like a king, but his older daughters are like, what if you didn’t? They refuse to house his retinue of soldiers,
so Lear walks out into a terrible storm, followed by the disguised Kent and the fool, who soon
goes missing. They meet up with Edmund, who is pretending
to be a crazy beggar called Tom o’ Bedlam until he can unframe himself. The older daughters decide they’ll have
to fight Lear, and when they learn that Gloucester is trying to help him, they have his eyes
plucked out, saying, “Out vile jelly!” They give Gloucester’s land to Edmund, who
they are both obsessed with. Because Edmund is hot. Edgar, the non-hot, non-sociopathic one, finds
his father and promises to help Gloucester commit suicide. But it’s a weird trick. Gloucester lives. Cordelia has come back from France to help
her father, who has gone mad. There’s a fight. Lear and Cordelia are taken prisoner and Cordelia
is strangled before Edmund, suddenly overcome with remorse, can free her. Edgar kills Edmund. Goneril poisons Regan. Goneril kills herself. Lear dies of a broken heart. Gloucester dies for no reason. They try to make Kent king, but he says he’s
going to die, too. Everyone is sad, the fool is still missing,
and… scene! Thanks, Thoughtbubble. I may never feel happy again. So at the beginning, Lear makes a couple of
wrong calls. He’s wrong to give up his kingship and expect
to live like a king. He’s wrong to ask his daughters to perform
their love rather than to honestly feel it. But throughout the rest of the play, we see
him wrestle with and regret his bad decisions. He’s never depicted as a monster or a sinner
who can’t be redeemed. He’s a sad and increasingly crazy old man
who asks for our sympathy and probably gets it. There are a couple of exciting reversals:
Lear’s team is going to win. No, it isn’t! Oh wait, yes it is, but … everyone we care
about is dead. One of the really clever things Shakespeare
does, is withhold recognition. There’s some discrepancy between the quarto
and folio versions, but in his last moments, Lear seems to imagine that Cordelia might
still be alive. Shakespeare asks us to decide whether it’s
better to live with this comforting illusion or to accept the harsh, unvarnished truth. We made it. And now maybe we better understand what it
is to be human and to fail and suffer and… [[swear, swear, swear]] whatis? Stan? Has that been you the whole time? You’re not my dad’s ghost! Okay. Next time is going to be a little more cheerful
as we look at Shakespeare’s comedies and a genre that critics went on to call the romances
or the problem plays. Because—spoiler alert—there are some problems. Until then… curtain!


  1. Edwin Martínez Author

    Edgar, not Edmund, is the one who disguises himself as Tom o' Bedlam. I think Edmund would be uncapable of such a feat.

  2. JustMe 101 Author

    Thanks for this video! Sorry if this is really annoying but I would love it if in (especially the science ones) the description said what the video said. Sorry it really helps me remember though 💙

  3. petr ramx Author

    calling the name of the scottish tragedy is misfortune, but if you name the protagonist, Macbeth, then nothing wrong is bound to happen, now if you excuse that slippery floor is not going to fall on itself

  4. FlesHBoX Author

    Soo, there is a debate over on Folding Idea's comment section of his 50 shades video about whether or not that is you, Mike, reading Mr. Grey's lines…. I'd really like to know, because it certainly does sound like you…

  5. Volk551 Author

    Better to know the pain filled truth than sweet lies, for though sweet when truth become known the sweetness becomes bitter poison, that damns the soul. Truth is painful, but though that truth you shall know how to live know how to be better, as to not fall in to the sweetness that lies can bring you.

  6. mustardsfire22 Author

    What I love about Akira Kurosawa's Ran is that it takes the story of King Lear and makes it A. Make sense. and B. Resolve every thread, for the most part. Plus it's visually one of the most beautiful films of all time.

  7. Sydney Willis Author

    Could you guys talk about the Macbeth taboo in one of the episodes please? I’ve heard about but never knew where it was from.

  8. Katie Behrens Author

    Loved the video, but I get the feeling Thought Cafe is not too familiar with King Lear? Some of the story elements could have been way less confusing with a change of scenery (like all of Act V on a battleground).

  9. Beeble Brox Author

    Beckett > Billy Wobblesticks

    People know of Shakespeare because there weren't copyright laws. Nor dictates post mortem about a playwrights work. IOW, it's tough to get Samuel's work out there to the public as compared to William's. So anyway…

  10. CBV123 Author

    You're doing a great job with this series even if I have a couple of notes from my own education. But then, this is a crash course now, isn't it?

    As to costuming, all my theatre history classes indicated that the actors wore what we would consider "street clothes". Meaning there really wasn't much costuming just as there wasn't much scenery at the time Shakespeare's plays were first performed. It was all done through "spoken scenery" because audiences at the time and place were much more in tune with metaphor and imagery from language because their immortal souls depended on it, as taught in church. Modern audiences don't think that way, so a lot of the depth of the text is usually lost on us. It wasn't until later, particularly with the Realism movement, that we got elaborate sets and costumes.

    As to Hamlet, what sets him apart is an idea called "self overhearing". Before this most playwrights constructed an argument and a speech as a whole item and had their actors speak it to the audience. But Shakespeare had Hamlet hear his own words and change his position because he persuaded himself. Missing this point is why most English teachers tell their students about Hamlet's "inability to act" when in fact he's acting throughout the whole play. Shakespeare's plays are not "English literature", they're drama — they're meant to be seen and heard, and that's a very different experience than just reading them as a closet play. Also Hamlet is a "revenge play" meaning it has to follow a certain structure and rules. For instance, the reason Hamlet doesn't immediately kill his uncle Claudius is because the structure of that type of play requires the villain not only die but also go to Hell. Having just confessed his sins, he would presumably go to Heaven so Hamlet needs him to sin again before he dies.

  11. CBV123 Author

    Also, I would add that Shakespeare was being more Roman than Greek when it comes to depictions of violence. The Greeks told you about what happened off stage, where the Romans were more likely to depict acts of violence on stage. The Romans borrowed heavily from the cultures they conquered but adapted their stories to conform with Roman virtues. More Roman plays survived than Greek ones, so that fueled a lot more of the Neoclassism Movement which I'm sure is coming up.

  12. Michael Arcaro Author

    Overall an excellent video! But as someone whose studied Shakespeare for years, many of them with a specific focus on this play, there are a few critical points that I feel should be brought up. First, Kent and Gloucester are both Earls of their respective places where you imply that the former goes by such as a personal name and claim the latter to be a duke. One of the interesting things that we see in many of Shakespeare's plays is that characters of noble stature are often known by the places they rule (creating bit of interesting confusion in the play we looked at in the last episode – Richard III). In this piece in particular, it goes to the extreme that the both of these men as well as the Dukes of Cornwall and Albany (the husbands of Goneril and Regan respectively) in addition to the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy transverse the actions of the play without the audience knowing their given or family names. All in all, a bit of a nitpick, but something I feel is worth mentioning. Second, and in my opinion the more prominent of the issues, is that the thought bubble implies that Edgar dies at the end of the play along with all of the other named characters. In reality though, he not only survives, but is the one offered the crown after Kent turns it down in some of the original versions of the play (the others have it fall to Albany and in either case, the one who gets the crown gives the final line of the piece). By and large though, this is a truly descent video!

  13. Emily Niedbala Author

    Can you please stop saying the name of the Scottish Play? I’m about to start a show, and I can’t have this kind of thing around me
    I’m generally not a superstitious person, but when it comes to theatre, that $#!+ is real

  14. Tom Will Author

    Looking forward to the new King Lear adaptation the BBC are doing, Anthony Hopkins as a king driven slowly mad shouting into the storm, yes please.

  15. Raymond K Petry Author

    …'ahh' yes—CUES—and when the actor skips/forgets a cue line it's a scramble to RING THAT DOORBELL NOW, (or the era equivalent)…

  16. Maxwell Williams Author

    If this series doesn't comment on Artaud, or Meyerhold, or Appia, or any of the lesser known crazy/cool stuff, I will lose it. They've never let me down before though, so I can't wait!

  17. Somphoth Siratsamy Author

    Lol Shakespeare's deliberate description of a figurative elaboration. By the way, women could never have a part w/ lines in the beginning of theatre. Not until theatre had commune to other cities.

  18. Vrixton Phillips Author

    Anyone who hasn't read King Lear certainly should. It's my favorite of Shakespeare's and has the best insult tirade, to say nothing of those excellent lines such as "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child!"
    Also there's an excellent performance with Ian McKellen as Lear that… might be on YouTube lol. Apparently Anthony Hopkins is going to be in an upcoming BBC movie with Emma Thompson as one of the elder sisters, in a more modern take. I'm stoked

  19. Rachael Lefler Author

    I may be wrong but my personal hypothesis is that the comedies were primarily written for the working class and the tragedies were primarily aimed at the ruling class. That's why they tend to prefer teaching the tragedies in HS English classes, because they were about the big philosophical questions faced by nobles, not laborers. More relatable in modern times, when everyone is more like the nobles of that time, especially with public schools.

  20. Scott Macky Author

    "They meet up with Edmund, who's pretending to be a crazy beggar called Tom O'Bedlam" at 9.00 minutes. Correction: Edgar not Edmund.

  21. SixPomegranateSeeds Author

    The people who survive these things are usually the ones who don't initiate any BS. Like Edgar, Benvolio, and Horatio. They're the ones who survive and get to tell everyone exactly how everything went to heck in five acts.

  22. Stephanie Hight Author

    A heartfelt "Thank You!" for not thought bubbling "Titus Andronicus." Had to do that one for a college project. Yeecchhh!

  23. Abhinav Tiku Author

    People complain about George R.R. Martin killing off beloved characters. Shakespeare got in on the ground floor when it came to murdering his darlings!

  24. Ben McLuskey Author

    Ummm, Edgar becomes the king at the end, he doesn't die. Also you left out Goneril and Regan's husbands who are somewhat integral to the story.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *