A.J.A. Waldock


If we ask ourselves: what is the distinction of Macbeth among Shakespeare's plays? and, in particular: what quality differentiates it most remarkably from the other great tragedies? surely we must answer: the extreme rapidity of its tempo. Its unusual brevity assists, but does not mainly account for, this effect. Macbeth exceeds by a mere two hundred lines or so the shortest of all Shakespeare's plays, The Comedy of Errors; the longest of them, Antony and Cleopatra, is nearly twice its length. We are tempted at times (as Professor J. W. Mackail has recently pointed out) to confuse difference of length with difference of rate, and to assume, when we are off our guard, that because a play is long it must be slow, and because it is brief it must be fast. Anyone who visits the films will not need to be told that a very short play-a play far shorter than may ordinarily be seen on the stage -can seem intolerably sluggish in its movement. As for Shakespeare, he was too skilful a dramatist to permit any play, even the longest, to drag. Thus, Hamlet is a very long play, but its action, for the most part, is very rapid. And yet, when we compare Hamlet-to take what is perhaps the extreme instancewith Macbeth, we observe a real difference. The action of Hamlet is rapid-for the most part. It is not rapid all the time. The long soliloquies, though so essential for the meaning, slightly retard, while they are being spoken, the pace of this drama. Again, in such scenes as those which present Hamlet's meeting with the players, his colloquy with the gravediggers, his teasing of Osric, the forward movement of the play has become very slow; that is not to say that these scenes in themselves are not very interesting. Once more, the lines in which Polonius enunciates his wise counsels involve, momentarily, the virtual suspension of the action: the drama, as it were, pauses for these few seconds while Polonius delivers himself of his accumulated wisdom.

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