• John Russell Brown


It is tempting to idealise Elizabethan actors, but Shakespeare did not. While his imagination was fed by what they might achieve, he was a writer and, in common with other dramatists, likely to be very suspicious of what could happen to his texts in performance. Judging from what his characters say about actors, their failures were as much in his mind as their successes. When Shakespeare wrote about a perfect art, it was not about theatre but poetry — about the god Orpheus singing to his lute, when music joined with words to compel attention:

For Orpheus’ lute was strung with poets’ sinews, Whose golden touch could soften steel and stones, Make tigers tame, and huge leviathans Forsake unsounded deeps to dance on sands.

(Two Gentlemen of Verona, III.ii.78–81)


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© John Russell Brown 1996

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  • John Russell Brown

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