Were Shakespeare’s Actors Any Good?

We know what people do with Shakespeare’s words now, sure.  And in general we can point to an Orson Welles, Ian McKellen, John Gielgud, Derek Jacobi and say, “Those, those are good actors.” But I’ve often wondered about the people who originally created the roles.  Were they any good, to our standards?  Or was it completely different?  How we interpret Shakespeare changes.  Compare the Hamlets of Kenneth Brannagh, Richard Burton, and Laurence Olivier.  Going back farther we’d have Gielgud or Barrymore.  But what if we kept going, all the way back?  I’m not asking if a modern audience would *like* it.  They probably wouldn’t, given the different expectations.  What I’m asking is, were the actors “good”?  Would you look at a person playing Falstaff, his facial expressions however slight, and say “Damn, that is heartbreaking.”  Or would he have been more concerned with annunciating everything so perfectly that he could be heard in the cheap seats? Know what I mean?

6 thoughts on “Were Shakespeare’s Actors Any Good?

  1. I wonder about this all the time. If you gave me one ride in a time machine, I don't think I'd hesitate for a second: we're going to see Hamlet at the Globe. But would I enjoy it? Standards for what is "good" acting are cultural; they can change pretty substantially in just one human lifetime. I imagine the standards in Good Queen Bess's day might not be very much to our modern tastes. Words like "bombastic" come to mind. But I guess we'll never know.

    And I do think it's fair to say that Shakespeare's writing is "better" in some sense than any actor, past or present, that has performed his work. Each generation brings different things to the work and takes different things away from it. I regard everything about the original performances of the plays as illuminating, but but "definitive." I suppose you could have a definitive performance of, say, "The Merry Devil of Edmonton," but of "King Lear?" Never.

  2. Of course they were good! Of course a modern audience would like it! Haven't you guys seen "Shakespeare in Love"? That's what I loved about the movie! My dream of going back in time and seeing "Romeo and Juliet" played by Shakespeare & his men and loving every minute because they were SO GOOD! It had to be good. Don't burst my bubble.

  3. I know exactly what you mean, Craig. I've often thought that if the opposite were true – were we to take Shakespeare in a time machine and bring him here to see a performance – he'd spend most of his time saying, "…I never thought of it like that! That's bloody brilliant!"

  4. I think the closest we can come to knowing what Elizabethan acting was like is the start of Olivier's Henry the Fifth

  5. Arlene Weiner says:

    We can infer from the scene in which Hamlet instructs the players that Hamlet thought some actors' practice was not good–and, if we think Shakespeare shared Hamlet's opinion, we can infer that he didn't like overly hammy acting. But he didn't despair of the actors–they could take direction. Shakespeare himself started as an actor. There was no lighting, there was little in the way of scenery–it was all voice and movement. By the way, at the Globe, the cheap seats were closer to the stage, and you had to stand.

  6. I'm with Carl–of course they were good; the best around, apparently. They had access to the writer/actor and he wrote more naturally speakable verse patterns than anyone around. And a modern audience would love it; once they got used to the idea that the 4th wall isn't made of impenetrable glass. This is where the art of "rhetoric" can be used to great effect. Asides and soliloquies can include everyone and don't simply and selfishly take place in the actor's head alone.

    Craig, although Shakespeare mentions it as the quality of a poor actor (so he must have been privy to it) I think 'bombast' as a general–and acceptable– rule was more a product of the Restoration technique. They may have been forced to turn the wonderful technical practice of inclusive rhetoric into something else because of everything else going on around them.

    As far as how good they were– I don't know the truth of it, but I read that Burbage could bring an audience to tears.

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