Was Shakespeare a Good Actor?

In his day, performers received little respect for grueling work. Yet the playwright strode the stage for more than 15 years—and then changed the acting profession forever.

Tom Hiddleston stars as Coriolanus at The Donmar warehouse in London in 2013.

Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, today, will bring an outpouring of written appreciations for his works. Many, though, will likely omit or only fleetingly mention one fact: Shakespeare’s first acts of creation were not poems or plays, but the characters he gave life to as a struggling actor.

This is no small omission. The stage is where Shakespeare taught others to lose sight of him, where he taught himself to lose sight of Shakespeare. The first lesson served him as a player, the second as a playwright. Omit the stage, and you omit the origin of William Shakespeare.

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The widespread disregard of Shakespeare’s acting career stems, in part, from the low esteem in which actors were held long before, and long after, Shakespeare strode the stage. When he joined the profession sometime in the mid-1580s, actors were already marked as undesirables by England’s vagrancy laws, which mandated that traveling troupes had to find aristocratic patronage. Rogue players ran the risk of being flogged, branded, and finally hanged. The harsh law was rarely enforced in full, but it reflected published mores and polite opinion, both of which held actors as a hybrid of panhandler and whore. Even playwrights scorned them. “Yes, trust them not,” counseled one:

for there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his “Tiger’s heart wrapt in a player’s hide” supposes he is as well able to bombast out blank verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country. 

The warning is from Robert Greene, a Cambridge-educated wit who attempted to take down one player-playwright, the “upstart crow” William “Shake-scene,” to underscore the common opinion of actors as unlearned, unrefined, and generally untrustworthy. That snobbishness is a cousin to the kind Shakespeare typically faced for not receiving an elite education—for having, as his friend Ben Jonson jibed, “small Latin and less Greek.” Even today such condescension helps fuel the “authorship controversy” that has variously reassigned the writing of Shakespeare’s plays to Sir Walter Raleigh, Francis Bacon, and several other aristocrats, including the current favorite, the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, who shared with the others the trappings of good taste: the occasion for refinement, the income for a library, and the impression, if not always the imprimatur, of a university degree.

Elizabethans, though, knew better. As late as 1640, nearly a quarter century after his death, he was still remembered as “that famous Writer and Actor, Mr. William Shakespeare.” John Aubrey, the first of many to try his hand at writing a biography of the Bard, included the estimation of William Beeston that Shakespeare “did act exceedingly well.” While Aubrey’s account is delightfully unreliable—did you know that Shakespeare’s father was a butcher? neither did Shakespeare—Beeston’s verdict is actually strengthened by the fact that he couldn’t have possibly seen Shakespeare play. Born in 1606, or roughly five years after Shakespeare left the stage, he almost certainly inherited the opinion from his father, Christopher, who performed alongside Will in the 1590s.

Like Shakespeare, the elder Beeston knew the gross intimacy of the Globe, where people packed the timbered amphitheater for year-round performances. The least among them paid a penny to squeeze into the pit, chewing hazelnuts and reeking of their trade, mooning up at the players on the squared stage that jutted into the open yard. The rest—university wags, merchants in felt hats, the occasional lord or lady—looked down from the galleries, sniffing pomander and smoking their pipes.

From beginning to end of a Globe performance, playgoers of all classes criticized freely and loudly. They volunteered advice, often hissed, and occasionally hurled an orange or two. When Hamlet admonishes Polonius of the players, “After your death you were better / have a bad epitaph than an ill report while you live,” the same warning might have been applied to an actor of his audience.  A poor player did not last long and tended to make a loud exit.

That Shakespeare endured the judgment of such audiences for more than 15 years, the better half of his adult life, must attest to his skills as an actor. But his achievement is even more impressive if we consider the fact that performance, in the Elizabethan age, precluded anything resembling an official script. Plays were constantly evolving, not only in response to critical reception but merely to meet the demands of a given moment. If a featured player departed or a fresh face joined the company, if the troupe traveled to a smaller venue or some circumstance limited stage time, if a command performance by the Queen saw the Master of Revels strike obscene material, if costumes or props or even a player were for whatever reason unavailable—in all cases, the actors adapted, or they didn’t eat.

For Shakespeare’s readers, the benefit of such shifting demands is a surfeit of dialogue that a single performance could never accommodate, in addition to delightful variants across the Quartos and Folios. For the actors, however, the experience must have been hellish, particularly given the fact that the Globe was not a Broadway playhouse but a repertory theater, and members of the ensemble typically performed six different shows a week. Supporting actors often played multiple roles in a single performance, while a leading man like Edward Alleyn could expect to deliver more than 4,000 lines of verse each and every week.

As a matter of reputation, Shakespeare the actor fell somewhere between these poles. While there is no indication that he was ever a box-office draw—that responsibility was left to the clownish antics of Will Kemp and the brooding heroics of Richard Burbage—he was always classed among the principal players of the company that eventually became The King’s Men, so named for their final patron. Apparently, the royal affinity suited Shakespeare, for he was said to favor “kingly parts,” with legend having Hamlet’s father as his farewell role.

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If, as it seems, Shakespeare never stole the show, that’s its own compliment. To appear before a familiar crowd everyday and to succeed without that success constantly reminding everyone that you, the actor, are busy playing a role—indeed, to leave the audience with no other impression than that demanded by inhabiting a fiction—this is the subtle craft of the character actor, an art of remarkable modesty and extraordinary self-restraint. “[L]et your own discretion / be your tutor,” Hamlet warns the players:

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature.  For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing

Contemporary actors have taken Hamlet’s note. The unifying innovation of the most famous schools of modern dramatic training, the Stanislavsky technique and its American cousins, the various strains of Method acting, is the idea that an actor fails whenever he appears to be acting. Indeed, whenever he is acting. The art that forgets itself is preferred. And while the classical elements of the craft remain—vocal training and body work, script analysis, line reading, the rudiments of dramaturgy—fundamentally, the line between good acting and bad is rather simple:  To be, or not to be.

Romantic authors and their immediate influences seemed to anticipate this innovation when they tried to explain Shakespeare’s powers as a playwright and, in particular, his uncanny gift for creating characters. To “assume the precise character and passion” of his creations, the critic Lord Kames said, the playwright must clear a space within, “annihilating himself” and thereby providing room for the “sentiments that belong to the assumed character.” Shakespeare, above all others, seemed to epitomize such selfless creativity. Another critic, Elizabeth Montagu, compared him to the whirling dervish of the Arabian Nights, “who would throw his soul into the body of another man, and be at once possessed of his sentiments,” while William Hazlitt dubbed him “the genius of humanity, changing places with all of us at pleasure, and playing with our purposes as his own.”

The terms in which these authors describe Shakespeare’s achievement seem to invite comparison to his time as an actor. But his theatrical experience is almost entirely neglected, to the point that it can occasionally seem like even his greatest admirers are straining to overlook it. When Hazlitt attempts to analogize the “art” by which a poet “throws his imagination out of himself, and makes every word appear to proceed from the mouth of the person in whose name it is given,” the word he finds is “ventriloquist.”

Yet if they failed to make the obvious connection between Shakespeare’s considerable experience as a player and his protean quality as a playwright, critics like Hazlitt had a keen sense of what was required for him to channel the soul of another being. “He was the least of an egotist that it was possible to be,” Hazlitt said, a statement that shouldn’t be confused for one celebrating Shakespeare’s altruistic spirit. Hazlitt was drawing our attention to Shakespeare’s capacity for empathy, a quality that the Bard embodied as player, as playwright, and finally as person.

No one better appreciated this quality than John Keats, who regarded Shakespeare as the quintessence of the “poetical Character.” As he would describe that “Character” in a letter to a friend,

it is not itself—it has no self—it is every thing and nothing—It has no character—it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, right or poor, mean or elevated—It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen.  What shocks the virtuous philosp[h]er, delights the camelion Poet.

As Keats envisions it, in order for the dramatic poet to channel the full spectrum of human experience, there must be nothing in him—no habit, no inclination, no sensibility—that might reject an alien spirit. For Keats, such a capacity was purchased at a very high price. “A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence,” he said, “because he has no Identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body.” So, too, is the actor, and his success depends on the same ability to evoke the emotional life of another without the resistance that reminds us of who we are, that marks out our identity.

Shakespeare, of course, famously left few clues about his own identity. Forget the revelations of a love letter or diary. His admirers are so starved for even the most trifling details that Anthony Burgess once remarked, “given the choice between two discoveries—that of an unknown play by Shakespeare and that of one of Will’s laundry lists—we would all plump for the dirty washing every time.”

And yet, however much we might long for minutia of a life actually lived, it seems appropriate that a man who left almost no trace of himself should have furnished the selves of so many others in so many imagined worlds. Perhaps the actor in him understood that his art was contingent on his own disappearance. For Shakespeare, the man, made no effort to proclaim to the world that he was there. Only that his characters were.