Other Writings

Tears in Shakespeare


published in the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Winter 1996

Did Shakespeare’s actors actually cry on stage? And if so, how did they manage to do it? And what might that say about the emotional “realism” of the acting in Shakespeare’s company?

Characters shed tears throughout the canon; moreover, they do it while being observed by other characters. The words “weep” and “tears” appear more than 600 times in the plays, almost always in reference to someone sobbing in front of someone else: Othello, for example, weeps when he confronts Desdemona (“Am I the motive of these tears, my Lord?” she asks [4.1.43]); Menenius sobs before Coriolanus (“Thy tears are saltier than a younger man’s,” says Marcius [4.1.22]); and Romeo wails in the Friar’s cell (“There on the ground, with his own tears made drunk” complains the Friar [3.3.83]). Often the sobbing is before a larger public: Claudio has “wash’d” Hero’s foulness “with tears” in front of the whole wedding party (Ado 4.1.153-54); and Enobarbus weeps openly amidst Antony’s brigade of also-sobbing soldiers (“Look, they weep, And I, an ass, am onion-eyed” [A&C 4.2.34]).

Sometimes the weeping is contagious, as in the ubiquitous lachrymosity of Titus Andronicus:

Titus: …behold our cheeks
How they are stain’d, like meadows yet not dry,
With miry slime left on them by a flood?…

Lucius: Sweet father, cease your tears; for at your grief
See how my wretched sister sobs and weeps.

Marcus: Patience, dear niece. Good Titus, dry thine eyes.

Titus: Ah, Marcus, Marcus, brother! well I wot
Thy napkin cannot drink a tear of mine,
For thou, poor man, hast drown’d it with thine own.

Lucius: Ah, my Lavinia, I will wipe thy cheeks…

(3.1.136-39, 41-47)

Occasionally, the weeping is from joy, not sadness. Timon cries with happiness during his first banquet (“Mine eyes cannot hold out water, methinks” [Timon 1.2.106-07]), provoking tears of sympathy from his guests (“Joy had the like conception in our eyes, and at that instant like a babe sprung up,” says one [1.2.108-09]), as Apemantus confirms with “Thou weepest to make them drink, Timon” (l. 109) Richard II cries in rapture before his whole kingdom:

I weep for joy
To stand upon my kingdom once again…
As a long-parted mother with her child
Plays fondly with her tears and smiles in meeting,
So, weeping, smiling, greet I thee my earth…

(3.2.4-5, 8-10)

That Richard cries “as a… mother” implies a gender distinction in the act of crying, which is often present in the Shakespearean universe. When Flavius sobs, Timon looks at him in some astonishment: “What, dost thou weep? …Then thou art a woman and I love thee,” (4.3.482-83). In Shakespeare’s world, women are expected to cry and men are not. “Tears do not become a man,” says Celia (AYLI 3.4.3). Contemporary studies indicate Shakespeare echoes a genuinely physiological gender trait. Further Shakespearean examples are in the endnotes to this essay.

But did the actors playing these parts produce real tears – meaning wet ones (“Be your tears wet?” Lear asks Cordelia [4.7.70], presumably determining the affirmative) – on stage? And if so, how did they accomplish this? By some sort of technical trick, or by somehow inducing a feeling of actual sadness?

Weeping real tears “on cue” is of course a very difficult feat: the physiology of crying is not subject to ordinary conscious control, particularly under the pressure and enhanced self-consciousness occasioned by public performance. But producing tears at the right moment has always been the acid test of the actor’s art in emotional roles, known since ancient times as the only way to move the audience. Plato reported on the phenomenon in his Ion dialogue, where Ion, the famous rhapsode (reciter of poetry), tells Socrates that “[when I recite] the tale of pity my eyes are filled with tears” and goes on to say that his weepiness, then produces “similar effects” on his spectators. Ion’s crying, Socrates guesses (and Ion confirms) comes from the performer’s “inspiration,” from having his “soul in an ecstasy,” from being “out of his senses…out of [his] right mind.”

The acting maxim of Horace, in his subsequent Ars Poetica, was si vis me flere, dolendum est primum ipsi tibi: “If you would have me weep, you must first of all feel grief yourself. Actors in the ancient world went to some extremes to “feel” this grief themselves. The Greek actor Polus grieved for his “Orestes,” while playing Electra, by placing the urn of his real son’s ashes on stage with him. The actors of the Renaissance had models, then, for crying onstage, and for stimulating these tears emotionally.

Certainly a verisimilitude of feeling was requisite in Elizabethan acting. With all the crying depicted and talked about onstage, and with the audience so close to the action (up to 3,000 people within sixty feet of the center of the action), the “crying” would appear ludicrous without glistening cheeks. John Webster defined “an excellent actor” by declaring that “what we see him personate, we think truly done before us,” clearly implying a demand for performance that directly reflects the text. The anonymous eulogist of Richard Burbage, Shakespeare’s leading actor, said of that great performer that the roles of Hamlet, Lear, Hieronomo, and Othello “lived in him,” predating the Stanislavski dictum that the actor must “live the life of the character on stage” by three hundred years. In describing Burbage’s Hamlet, the eulogist effused that:

Oft have I seen him leape into a grave
Suiting ye person (which he seemed to have)
Of a sad lover, with so true an eye
That then I would have sworn he meant to die…

That “true eye” of Burbage/Hamlet must have been a wet one, as immediately thereafter Hamlet offers to compete with Laertes in a crying and fighting competition to determine who loved Ophelia most: “Woo’t weep? woo’t fight? …I’ll do it.” (5.1.272-73,76) Burbage cried, somehow, with Hamlet’s tears. “I would have sworn he meant to die,” said the eulogist of the actor. How did he do it?

There are several specific metatheatrical discussions in Shakespeare’s plays, describing characters who are themselves actors, or are acting or seeking to act, and who cry (or seek to cry) during the performance of “plays” within Shakespearean plays.

Shakespeare’s first reference to “performed” crying is in The Comedy of Errors, and involves a crude gimmick: a manual massage of the tear glands. Shortly after Adriana promises to “weep what’s left away, and weeping die;” she changes her mind: “No longer will I be a fool, / To put the finger in the eye and weep” (2.2.203-04). Digital lacrimal duct stimulation can, in fact, set teariness aflow, and presumably that’s what Adriana tries to do.

Falstaff, in improvising the “role” of King Henry at the Boar’s Head, employs a biochemical stimulus to give the proper dimension to his performance: “Give me a cup of sack to make my eyes look red, that it may be thought I have wept, for I must speak in passion” (1H4 2.4.384-86), he commands. Apparently some sort of cognitive dissonance soon takes over the Knight, for by the end of the skit he admits to be crying indeed: “now I do not speak to thee in drink, but in tears” (ll. 414-15). The mere appearance of weeping, together with the passion of the moment (and the headiness of the sack), has presumably lead to Falstaff’s real (if unexpected) teariness.

A different biochemical stimulus is employed in The Taming of the Shrew, In the play’s induction, the First Lord asks his page, Bartholomew, to perform a woman’s role in the play-within-the-play, suggesting that the lad employ, in the inevitable crying scene, a specific and time-tested technique:

And if the boy have not a woman’s gift
To rain a shower of commanded tears,
An onion will do well for such a shift,
Which, in a napkin being close convey’d
Shall in despite enforce a watery eye. (Ind.1.124-28)

The performer’s “watery eye” can arrive either by “gift” or “shift,” the Lord has made clear. But as the gift is strictly feminine (as women cry more often then men in Shakespeare’s universe, as noted above), some special techniques must be employed by male actors – which, of course, means all the performers in Shakespeare’s era. The Lord’s “shift” is the hidden-onion trick, which in fact leaves the boy like Enobarbus, “onion-eyed,” when he (“she”) enters, “her” tears “like envious floods [having] …o’errun her lovely face.”(Ind.2.64-65).
Physical/biochemical stimulations (and crying simulations) of Adriana, Falstaff, and Bartholomew are, of course, crude mechanical devices (even if, as in Falstaff’s case, they lead to a deeper emotional acting “connection” to the “role”). They have led some commentators to believe these were standard Elizabethan/Jacobean acting techniques, however, and that Shakespeare’s professional actors employed like devices. But we must not forget that none of these three characters are actors. Falstaff, laments Mistress Quickly, “doth it as like one of these harlotry players as ever I see!” (2.4.395). In no way are their techniques representative of the best stage acting methods in Shakespeare’s time.

When Bottom the Weaver is asked – in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – to prepare the “role” of Pyramus, he immediately realizes his greatest task: “That will ask some tears in the true performing of it…” (1.2.25-26). As contrasted, Bottom must realize, to a false performing of it. Bottom’s Pyramus is a “sad lover,” as is Burbage’s Hamlet in the eulogist’s reference, and as a sad lover Bottom seeks the audience’s empathy. Only his own tears, Bottom knows, will generate like tears from the audience: “If I do it [i.e. weep],” Bottom boasts, echoing Horace, “let the audience look to their eyes” (1.2.26). Bottom indeed tries to evoke his tears when he gets to his epiphanic moment as Pyramus (“Come, tears, confound,” Pyramus urges himself [5.1.295]). Shakespeare doesn’t let us know if the tears ever arrive (Bottom is an amateur, after all), but the task is clearly approached.

Bottom proposes a situationally-related method to bring himself to teariness: “I will condole in some measure,” the Weaver declares (1.2.27). What Bottom refers to is what actors today call “playing an action;” specifically, in this case, the action of condolement, or grieving. Playing an action – one drawn from the play itself – is surely more emotionally consonant with the dramatic situation than poking a finger in the eye, quaffing a cup of sack, or secreting an onion in a napkin; it is also infinitely less cumbersome, requiring no hidden props or slight-of-hand. Moreover, it is an “inner” method, implying the actor perform with his own emotions, and, consequently, be “moved” in the same way as his character is, generating the same empathy described by Horace and others. The employment of a performed stage action, expressed in an active verb (to condole), becomes a durable link between actor and character; between, in this case, Bottom and Pyramus. Bottom will condole, Pyramus will cry, and the audience will look to their eyes. Thus does an actor’s (own) self-expression (and resultant emotionality) combine with the mimesis of character simulation (text, gesture, costume) to equal theatre magic. Action – or, as we often say today, “playing the verb” – is a more useful, and convenient acting technique than digital or biochemical manipulation of the actor’s physiology.

But for what (or over whom) does Bottom condole? For an imaginary dead-Thisbe? Or for an imagined-dead “Flute,” (the character who plays the role of Thisbe)? Or does the actor playing Bottom grieve, in imagination, for an imagined-dead Thomas Pope, who (possibly) was the actor playing the role of Flute-playing-Thisbe? Or did the actor playing Bottom condole for something/someone else altogether? Someone in his real life, as the actor Polus did with his own son? In sum: if “condole” is the verb, what is its object?

Bottom doesn’t say, and, in this play at least, Shakespeare doesn’t either. To do so would be to leave the light-hearted comedy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and negotiate through the multiple paradoxes of acting theory.

In Hamlet, which is a play about (among other things) acting, Shakespeare portrays an actor crying in much greater detail. When the Player delivers Aeneas’ speech (presumably from a version of “Dido and Aeneas”), Polonius (an amateur actor himself) is amazed to see the Player cry real tears, exclaiming, “Look! where he has not turned his color and has tears in’s eyes!” (2.2.519-20). Apparently the old counselor is so alarmed (or piqued by the professional’s skill) that he makes the Player cease “acting” on the spot. Clearly, the Player is a virtuoso of his craft.

Alone, Hamlet soon meditates upon this player and this event:

Hamlet: Is it not monstrous, that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit,
That from her working all the visage wanned,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit?” (2.2.550-57)

As Ion was “out of his …right mind” so the Player was “in a dream of passion,” and thus able to “force his soul” into a physiological state ordinary persons cannot will themselves into. But this is, at the moment, “monstrous” in Hamlet’s mind, and for two reasons: first, because Hamlet cannot so force his soul (“I know not seems,” the character had earlier claimed [1.2.76]); and second, because acting itself is, in Hamlet’s terms, a Satanic conceit. Only “the dev’l hath power / T’assume a pleasing shape,” Hamlet will say (2.2. 598-89). It was the Duke of Gloucester, soon to be the “monstrous” Richard III, who claimed he could “wet my cheeks with artificial tears, / And frame my face to all occasions.” [III Henry VI, 3.2.184-85.)

That acting – the contrived simulation of feelings – is monstrous is a traditional medieval and Renaissance assumption. The Greeks, after all, called the actor hypokrite. Even Plato, while admiring it, condemned it morally. Bottom, when offering to play the role of Thisbe, realizes he will have to “speak in a monstrous little voice,” (1.2.52). But forcing the soul into the “conceit” (contrivance) of a written text and premeditated directorial instructions is the traditional soul of acting; a Neitzschean synthesis by which drama’s Dionysian expression and ecstasy is marshaled (and this is the “conceit”) into suitably Apollonian “forms.”

Acting is monstrous, to Hamlet, but also essential: before he can become a king, or kill a king, he somehow must be able to “act” a king, and act a king-killer; he must, like the actor, learn to unleash his powers and act on his feelings. (The Prince must become a Player – in both the classic and the modern sense). Thus the Prince’s celebrated dalliances with the Elizabethan players are no mere diversions, they are part and parcel of Hamlet’s learning process, a sequence of “rehearsals” that will, during the course of the play, teach him how to play Dido, how to play Pyrrhus, how to play Lucianus, and how, finally, to play (and then to become, to declare himself) “Hamlet the Dane,” revenger of his father’s murder, and heir to his father’s title. (Hamlet claims this title while leaping into Ophelia’s grave – and crying.) In Hamlet, therefore, Shakespeare embarks on an inclusive – if abbreviated – analysis of acting, beginning with the metonymic problem of tears on cue. But how does he get into the player’s “dream of passion?” It is the same way that Stanislavski was later to describe: through motivation.

…What would he [the Player] do
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears…

The sentence incorporates three key words of Shakespeare’s – and more recent – acting theory: motive, cue, and passion. With motive, Hamlet recognizes that acting – and action (“what would he do“) – must spring from a motivation; and consequently that crying – which is an action – must have a motivationally inciting force. It is not a unique discovery in Shakespeare (“Am I the motive of these tears, my Lord?” Desdemona asks Othello [4.1.43]), but an important one. Motive, etymologically, is the animating propulsion, the “motor,” of both conscious and unconscious human behavior. It is also the engine of emotion; indeed, these two words have a common root (Latin: emovere), reflecting the medieval and Renaissance belief that human feelings result from actual movements of bodily fluids: the “humours” (blood, phlegm, bile, and tears) and/or “vital spirits” whose travel through the body links affect to behavior, and propels feeling into action. Current physiology accepts this, although the terminologies have been changed to neural transmissions, hormonal flows, and the chemical homeostasis and imbalances that generate emotional behavior.

But the fluid mechanics of the stage are, by necessity, the actor’s, not the character’s. Only the actor’s blood (and phlegm, bile, neurons, and hormones) can actually move; only the actor has a character’s “chemistry.” The character, mere words on paper, is finally a literary artifact. The Player know this, and so “moves” himself to deep feeling (and therefore effective persuasion) by wholly absorbing Aeneas’ (and through Aeneas, Hecuba’s) motive. Through the Player’s “acting,” and pursuit of the Aeneas’ (the character’s) motive, he (the Player) becomes emotionally powerful and rhetorically intense. These are lessons Hamlet needs to learn himself.

Thus a notion of character “motivation” – rather than mere external theatrical imperative – appears implicitly in Shakespeare as the linchpin of effective acting. That Stanislavski elaborated on this idea three centuries later in no way suggests it was the Russian director/teacher’s invention.
Hamlet has his motivation, and his “cue for passion” which should trigger it, but unlike the Player he cannot yet “act;” something is still missing. And Hamlet knows what it is.

Yet I,
A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause
And can say nothing… (2.2.566-69)

Hamlet still finds himself where the Ghost had warned earlier: “duller …than the fat weed/ That roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf” (1.5.32-33). He like John-a-Dreams, not in a dream of passion. He can “say nothing” and, unlike the Player, he cannot even drown the stage with tears even when he tries (“O Vengeance! / Why what a fool am I.”). The reason: Hamlet’s motivation to act is powerful, his cue for passion has arrived, but he is unpregnant of a cause. Motivation and cause, though often used interchangeably, refer to wholly different temporal perspectives. Motivation stems from events in the past; cause leans aggressively into the future. Cause includes a goal as well as a rationale; it integrates energy with analysis; it races towards its own completion as much as it serves as a point of departure. Cause provides the force and focus of action; it becomes the “higher calling” that makes action become surrational and (dramatically) inevitable; it provides the specific direction for motive, giving it focus and a future expectation. While a cue can compress the fires of feeling into a timed explosion, cause can put that explosion into a rifle’s barrel. Cue fires the powder; cause selects the target and aims the gun. “I’ll be an auditor. An actor too, if I see cause,” puns Puck (MSND 3.1.80).

And now we must see beyond the peculiarity of the phrase “unpregnant with my cause.” The cause that Hamlet seeks – and which the Player has – is not merely intellectual, and it cannot be acquired through merely rational means: true passion-animating cause enters the body not through the head but through the viscera; its assault is sexual, biotic, and corporally transporting. The great actor (as well as the great tragic hero) is pregnant with cause: cause has become the seed of a new life within, and a new power without. Transcending merely rational, or Horatian, or even Apollonian models, Shakespeare reaches down to the carnal – and up to the spiritual – realms of Dionysus. Acting, in the Hamlet model, synthesizes earthly fertility and divine rapture. The great actor does indeed ape the monstrous, and becomes, in the French phrase, a monstre sacré; on a plane beyond both the mortal and the quotidian. But he/she also becomes the new life force: reproductive and fecund. And when the (male) actor becomes pregnant with (his character’s) cause, gender limitations disappear: the male assumes the “woman’s gift,” along with the male’s, and cries and fights (as one “splenetive and rash” [Ham. 5.1.261]) in an androgynous, self-fertilizing consummation, one (perhaps) devoutly to be wished. Cause has become, as an embryo, a new and inner life, growing within the body; maturing, assuming an independent existence; joining with the character to become the actor’s alter-ego. It is the ecstasy of play transmogrified (suited) into the formalism of the play. It is Burbage’s emotion shaped into a Hamlettian mimesis.

The preceding paragraph extends, of course, into speculation and perhaps meditation (if not whimsy). It is of no consequence in the vast critical literature on Hamlet. But I think it touches on clear indications from Shakespeare as to the life of the actor, the actor (Burbage) in whom Hamlet lived, and to the emotion that great actors feel when these parts live in them, and their tears flow from them.