Shakespeare could have been depressed when he wrote his finest and most puzzling works, the actor Simon Russell Beale has suggested, as he examines what inspired the playwright’s “torrent of bile” during a “bad patch”.
Russell Beale, the acclaimed stage actor, said two of Shakespeare’s plays are so extraordinary they must have signalled a darkness in his personal life.
Suggesting Timon of Athens and King Lear are so “savage” they must have been written during a “bad patch”, the actor argues Shakespeare may have “temporarily lost faith in human nature.”
Russell Beale has now examined the First Folio as part of a new BBC Four series, The Secret Life of Books.
Speaking of Timon of Athens, which some believe is unfinished, he said: “To my inexpert eye it looks potentially like rather a good play, but it must have been very depressing to write, “It’s as if Shakespeare can’t stop this flow of invective and bile, like a nervous tic. So perhaps, I’m suggesting, he himself was depressed. He temporarily lost faith in human nature.”
The actor, who has recently played Lear at the National Theatre, added even that play shows the “savage rewriting” of the ending, to kill off key characters and “obliterate a happy ending entirely”.
Comparing the early “quarto” version of the play with the later publication of the First Folio, he noted changes in the play he believes reflected a darkening of mood. “He deliberately changes the end, it seems to me the most savage rewriting of a source material that I can think of,” he said. I wonder if he was going through a bad patch. I know it’s a dangerous game to play, but I can’t believe you do something so violent to your source material as that without a personal investment of some kind.”
Sam Mendes, who directed Russell Beale in King Lear, added the material contains “shocking violence” and was a “truly dark play”.
Professor Sonia Massai, from King’s College London, told Russell Beale it was sensible to consider what was happening in Shakespeare’s life at the time he was writing. “It would be foolish to assume that there is no connection between biography and art,” she told him. “It’s not wise to think of Shakespeare as someone who would write in a kind of disembodied sort of fashion, as if he didn’t belong to a place and a time and a family group and friends and fellow actors, and would be unaffected by what happened around him.”
Examining Timon of Athens, which appears in the First Folio despite appearing incomplete, Russell Beale called it a “real puzzle”. “It’s a play I’ve very fond of but it’s a mess, famously,” he said. “Not printed before the First Folio, Timon of Athens is a profoundly ugly morality tales out foolishness, ingratitude and bad faith. The writing is vital, full -throated. But Timon of Athens is almost impossible to play because Timon’s torrent of bile goes on for what seems like an eternity. So what we have here, although it might look finished, is, I think, a draft. So why is it unfinished? What went wrong?”
He added: “I’ve never been able to convince myself that it’s unrelieved darkness is caused by anything as innocent as a lack of inspiration.”
Sir Nicholas Hytner, the artistic director of the National Theatre, agreed the play “doesn’t fit together”, but warned recent scholarship appeared to show it was written with a collaborator rather just reflecting Shakespeare’s inner turmoil. “At one stage, it was thought it was so fragmented because it reflected something of Shakespeare’s inner life, that he must have been undergoing a nervous breakdown,” he said. “More recent scholarship, pretty comprehensively, has established that it was a collaboration between Shakespeare and Middleton. It feels like somebody, maybe the two writers themselves or maybe the rest of the company, said this isn’t working.”
Was Shakespeare really depressed,
Or just a bit over stressed,
When he was put to the test,
And wrote some of his best?
He wrote a “torrent of bile”,
Which didn’t bring much of a smile,
It was a change of his style,
Which lasted for a short while.
Was Shakespeare in a dark mood?
Yes, some modern scholars conclude,
When his great works are reviewed,
Or, was The Bard being shrewd?
Did life cause a heavy heart,
When practicing his fine art?
Or was he just being smart?
Can life and art be apart?
These questions have been raised,
About Shakespeare’s great plays,
For which he has been praised,
Right up to present days.
© 2014 Ronald J. Yarosh
All rights reserved