Stanley Wells
Shakespeare For All Time

Shakespeare's fools are mostly wise; they hover on the edges of the play's action, enabled by their classlessness to move easily between high and low characters, glancing obliquely in anecdote, jest, and song at the follies of their social betters: 'He uses his folly like a stalking-horse, and under the presentation of that he shoots his wit,' says the Duke in As You Like It of Touchstone, whose name, meaning a piece of stone used to test the quality of gold or silver alloys, hints at his function.

Entertainers within the play, the fools entertain the audience too, both directly in songs and comic set pieces such as Touchstone's disquisition on the lie (5.4.67-101) and indirectly in a complex interplay of significances perceived by the audience but not necessarily apparent to the characters for whom they are intended. Paradoxes associated with wisdom, or wit, and folly, the possibility that a 'wise' man such as Malvolio in Twelfth Night may be more truly foolish than the fool Feste or even the drunken Sir Toby Belch, and that fools may exhibit their own kind of wisdom, recur endlessly in Shakespeare's plays. Paradoxically wiser than those around them, fools live on a threshold of communication which can induce a strong sense of melancholy. Touchstone is Shakespeare's most robust fool, with something of the clown about him; more subtle and more characteristic is Feste, who entertains the lovesick Orsino with the intense melancholy of a song which, as Orsino says, 'dallies with the innocence of love,/Like the old age':
Come away, come away death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid.
Fie away, fie away breath,
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.
My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
O prepare it.
My part of death no one so true
Did share it.

Not a flower, not a flower sweet
On my black coffin let there be strewn,
Not a friend, not a friend greet
My poor corpse, where my bones shall be thrown.
A thousand thousand sighs to save,
Lay me O where
Sad true lover never find my grave,
To weep there. (Twelfth Night, 2.4.50-65)
Actors have suggested that the song's extremity of lovesickness obliquely mocks Orsino's, but if there is an element of send-up here, it is virtually submerged in sympathy. And no one could be more sympathetic than the apotheosis of Shakespeare's use of the character type, the Fool of King Lear, whose very namelessness assists the sense of a disembodied intelligence existing purely for the sake of his master (like Ariel in The Tempest). Lear's Fool accompanies him into the storm with selfless loyalty—'But I will tarry, the fool will stay,/And let the wise man fly'—and goes to bed in the noontide of his life when Lear's folly burns away in madness.

As Shakespeare sought narratives which he could turn into drama he must have had an eye open for episodes that he could develop into extended stretches of theatrically effective action. Some such scenes are relatively simple in structure—the overhearing scene (4.3) in Love's Labour's Lost, in which each of the lords reveals that he has broken his vow by succumbing to love, succeeds by the brilliant neatness of its design, the balcony scene (2.1) in Romeo and Juliet is for most of its length a duet, and Lady Macbeth's sleep-walking (5.1) is little more than an interrupted soliloquy. But it is easy to underestimate the amount of imagination, intellectual skill, and sheer practical stage craft that went into the fashioning of such ambitious and extended scenes as the trial of Shylock (4.1) in Tbe Merchant of Venice, the forum scene (3.2) in Julius Caesar, the play scene (3.2) in Hamlet, the opening scene of King Lear, the multi-perspectived overhearing scene (5.1) in Troilus and Cressida, the banquet scene (3.4) in Macbeth, and the amazingly complex denouement (5.6) of Cymbeline, in which revelation succeeds revelation with dizzying virtuosity. The playwright had not only to imagine himself into the minds of the characters in these situations, and to write their speeches, he had also to shape and plot the scenes with concern for dramatic pace and rhythm, for the practical resources of his stage, and in such a way that his actors had time to make their entrances, and to change costume when necessary, and that they never needed to be in two places at once.

Before Shakespeare sat down to write he had to do a lot of preparatory work. More for some plays than for others. A few give the impression of being composed on the wing. There are signs in the first printing of Much Ado About Nothing brilliant though it is, that Shakespeare made it up as he went along—for instance, at one point the text as first printed reads 'Enter the Prince, Hero, Leonato, John and Borachio, and Conrad' even though only Don Pedro (who was called Don Peter at the start of the play) takes part in the following dialogue with Benedick, who is already on stage. There is a legend that The Merry Wives of Windsor was written hastily to please Queen Elizabeth by showing Falstaff in love. Literary critics have complained that the Falstaff of this play is a pale shadow of his other self and the play notably includes a far higher proportion of prose over verse than any other. But the plotting is dextrous and the dialogue lively; audiences rarely complain.

Most of Shakespeare's plays, however, bear witness to a massive amount of what Dante Gabriel Rossetti called 'fundamental brainwork.' Romeo and Juliet, though greatly valued for its lyricism, is architectonic in layout and design, its action punctuated by the three appearances of the Prince, always as an authority figure—first as he stills the brawl between the followers of Montague and Capulet, next at the climax of the second violent episode, culminating in the death of Mercutio, and finally as he enters to preside over the investigation into the lovers' deaths and to apportion responsibility for them. The play's characters are carefully conceived to complement and contrast with one another, the preparations for the Capulets' ball at which Romeo first sees Juliet are ironically echoed by those for her marriage to Paris, and each of the play's three love duets—one in the evening, at the ball, the second at night, in the garden, and the third at dawn as the lovers, now married, prepare to part—is interrupted by calls from the Nurse.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.