Another of the axioms I try to validate in my online conflagrations is that people in possession of the same facts do not often reach the same conclusion. An interesting occasion where this happened to me recently was a discussion about Shakespeare. The general flow of the discussion had been about the emergence of general story archetypes over a wide variety of sources, and been diverted into the theatre generally (long time readers will remember my discussion of The Iliad as the first Western). Mark began to wax lyrical about the effervescence of Shakespeare’s dialogues, arguing that the characters’ speeches were well wrought and elegant. They were, in his view, several levels above the state of ordinary diction that we were using to discuss them.
This interested me greatly. Shakespeare is renowned as a fine poet, but I am not sure that his characters are so universally well spoken as to exclude the possibility of being matched by real people. I think Samuel Johnson articulated this view best:
But the dialogue of this author is so often evidently determined by the incident which produces it, and is pursued with so much ease and simplicity, that it seems scarcely to claim the merit of fiction, but to have been gleaned by diligent selection out of common conversation, and common occurrences.
– Preface to Shakespeare
Of course, neither of us are experts on Shakespeare; Mark’s studies focusing more on the Roman theatre, and in terms of English drama, on the Jacobean period. Mine own studies have cut a broad but shallow swathe through most periods, but with only a slightly longer-than-average pause on Shakespeare. Therefore, a specific discussion on the language in various Shakespearean plays might be too ambitious an undertaking at this stage. Instead, let’s talk about all dialogue in and out of the theatre generally; much simpler.
Well, as mentioned, I’ve got a lot more experience with real life than any kind of theatre, so let me make a few observations about ordinary speech. The thing I have begun to notice in those casual conversations in the halls of learning as one scurries between appointments, or the banter around the design office, or the preliminary pleasantries with the apes on the construction site… is that there is not any attempt to elevate the diction beyond a very basic level. People simply do not aim to speak well, instead aiming to engage at the most surficial level that will get them through the conversation and on to whatever really interests them. When I consider that this is the bulk of my communication with my fellow man, it is hardly surprising that at even at my utmost I might not match that of a great poet – I simply haven’t had the necessary practice at speaking well. In fact, some authors have specialized in bringing this banality into the heart of their work; most notable in my recent experience are Hemingway and Carver.
There is, I think, a tendency to avoid looking at the dialogue of novelists, unless it is especially emblematic of their work and also makes an un-ignorable deviation from the standard dialectic. I read a very interesting article on the dialogue in The Great Gatsby called Tuning in to Conversation in the Novel: Gatsby and the Dynamics of Dialogue by Dan Coleman. The title was slightly more promising than the article delivering, essentially being a series of character sketches derived from the various dialogues; but even so, a very worthwhile use of a half hour. The reason I bring it up is because he very carefully deconstructs some of the more lively and dynamic exchanges between the characters to show the relatively simple structural underpinnings. Essentially, the very vivacious dialogue derives from a common quasi-cultural understanding of the dialogue’s “purpose”, which is not a conveyance of information, but the construction of the dialogue. Talking, for talking’s state. Freed from the mundanity of information exchange, the characters are free to look for the kinds of compression and metaphorical entities which are abundant in Shakespeare’s soliloquies and comic exchanges.
The point of this foray into ordinary speech is to argue that if we fall short in mortal conversation of the Shakespearean ideal, it may be because we’re not aiming to meet it. This assessment does not square with Johnson’s hyperbolic view of Shakespeare’s method. Unless… you consider what the subject matter of the playwright is generally. Unless you’re a New Realist, your subject matter revolves around what G’Kar described as “moments of Transition and Revelation.” Whether in comedy, tragedy or history, the playwright is interested in the scenes of a person’s life where they are called upon to perform at their best, at a time when their diction might plausibly be raised up with the rest of their endeavours. At the height of your personal tragedy, you might summon up a hitherto unknown eloquence. The author can write this down, and through a concatenation of such exclamations, build a play.
This is to say: we best remember what is most memorable in life. This is an obfuscating process going into and out of the play. The playwright puts in what is most memorable, and from that selection, the audience remembers a sub-set of those experiences. The impression that they form of the play over all is of those most memorable things. My favourite of Shakespeare’s play is Henry V, which I have read several times and seen performed half a dozen times. Even with such exposure, in recollecting the play my mind turns with preference and greatest ease to the magnificent speeches, skimming over the bulk of the play’s action; which while distinct in my mind, can only be brought forth by conscious application of memory.
Having thus investigated some general approaches to dialogue in plays and life, I must concede that in large part any dramatic performance is made or broken by the dialogue. In choosing between the two options of well wrought elevated magnificence and a reflection of the idiom of life, one is faced with a necessary loss of great merit. Imagine a Woody Allen movie scripted by Mark’s Shakespeare. The very awkward inarticulation of Allen’s characters is the basis of the characterisation.
I have so far offered two alternatives: One being that Shakespeare’s merit derives from a careful selection of lifelike passages uttered at the zenith of personal achievement, the other that our memory is selective so as to render our opinion of him greater than a truly universal appraisal would. There is though, an obvious third route, already mentioned, being that his speech really is more precisely constructed than can be approached without refinement and rehearsal. While I am unconvinced that this is wholly true, it is at least as compelling a view as the two previous offerings. Moreover, it accords better with the view taken by both critics and the public at large for over four hundred years. Whatever the method he may have used in the construction of his characters’ words, there is no denying that they are a great strength in his work, overcoming his many failures in plot construction and historical accuracy. Let me end, therefore, with Shakespeare’s own summary of the dramatic arts: the Chorus’ introduction to Henry V.
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword, and fire,
Crouch for employment. But pardon, gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that hath dar’d
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object.
Can this cockpit hold The vasty fields of France?
Or may we cram Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confin’d two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder.
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts:
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ th’ receiving earth;
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there, jumping o’er times,
Turning th’ accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass; for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like, your humble patience pray
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.
(I was tempted by Puck’s last words in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; frankly both of these are obvious and somewhat cheesy choices, but the paucity of my scholarship prevents me chasing down a fragmantery remembrance of a more apt quote.)