William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet Prince of Denmark and Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie are both products of their time though both plays continue to be appreciated and receive critical acclaim. Differences between the lives of the playwrights, the support they received in writing and producing their plays, the type of audiences viewing the plays, the venues in which they plays were performed, and the cultural events of their times are reflected in their resulting works of literature.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet was written around the year 1600 (Farnham 931). Its contemporary audience was Elizabethan, and Shakespeare’s plays reflected particular cultural and political concerns of its audiences as part of his technique used to draw audiences to the theatre. According to Empson, one of the major themes in Hamlet is that of delay (17). Delay in resolving characters’ or plot problems in a theatrical piece is a difficult technique for playwrights to employ because the danger is it will appear as a contrivance. As Empson points out, using delay puts the playwright “at the mercy of anybody in the audience who cares to shout ‘Hurry up,’” therefore turning what is meant to be a serious drama into a farce as others in the audience laugh at the impatient exclamation of one of its members (19). In using delay, Shakespeare assumed the theme was important to his contemporary audience.
Historical research shows that two important political individuals at the time of Hamlet’s initial performance increased the audience’s interest in characters like Hamlet who delay making up their mind about important actions. For example, Robert Deveraux, the second Earl of Essex “was, or had just been, refusing to make up his mind in a public and alarming manner” (Empson 17). This included disagreements with Queen Elizabeth over strategy in England’s dealing with Spain, an unfavorable truce with rebels in Ireland, an attempt to reconcile with Elizabeth who declined to forgive him, and in 1601 an attempt to cause the citizens of London to rise in revolt (“Robert Devereux” 1). In addition, Queen Elizabeth herself “used vacillation as a major instrument of policy,” something which would have made the populace uneasy because though she was believed to be dying, “she still refused to name a successor” (17). The Elizabethan audience would therefore have understood the underlying political commentary concerning royalty delaying in decision-making and considered it an apt criticism of the current situation rather than a simple plot device to extend the length of a play.
It is clear that one reason Shakespeare decided upon Hamlet was as a means of political commentary. However, even the goal of creating political commentary has its foundation in a couple of other reasons for the writing of Hamlet. The demands of the audience were important, and there was “a revival of the taste for Revenge Plays” at the time (Empson 20). While the audience’s tastes were one reason for the selection of Hamlet, Shakespeare also had to please the demands of his patron, Southhampton, who was more politically motivated by the problems surrounding the Earl of Essex (Empson 21).
In addition to satisfying the desires of audiences and a patron, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre itself was highly competitive with other theatres in its vicinity in what Empson refers to “the War of the Theatres” (24). This competition was based both on popularity as well as the theatres’ ability to provide apt and entertaining productions reflecting the interests of their contemporary audiences. The Globe Theatre was a large venue; theatre itself was a prime form of entertainment for all classes of the populace at the time, because television, radio, and other forms of mass media were not yet invented. Today, consumers expect to get information and entertainment from a variety of sources; television and Internet news provide information and political commentary, movies and sitcoms provide entertainment varying from serious drama to slapstick comedies, and much of our media is now on-demand. In Shakespeare’s time, this was not possible, so audiences flocked to theatres to get news and political commentary as well as entertainment in one place.
Hamlet itself speaks to its major themes through the words and actions of its primary character, Hamlet. Revenge being of primary importance is established when Hamlet speaks with the ghost of his deceased father. “So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear,” the ghost speaks before telling the tale of his demise at the hands of the current King (Hamlet 1.5). An example of Hamlet’s indecision which leads to his delay in taking revenge is found in his famous speech as he speaks, “To be, or not to be – that is the question:/ Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer/ The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune/ Or take arms against a sea of troubles/ And by opposing end them” (Hamlet 3.1).
Tennessee William’s play The Glass Menagerie was first performed in 1944 (Williams, 926). Its contemporary audience was experienced in other forms of media, especially movies, yet like Shakespeare, Williams’s play relied on the audience’s current concerns in order to them to the theatre. As the narrator states to the audience, “the background [of the play] is a crisis in society, for the depression decade is teetering on the brink of the second World War” (Gassner 391). Therefore, major themes in Williams’s work include flux and stasis. However, rather than creating a grand political commentary in the tradition of Shakespeare, Williams “experience of the depression inclined him toward the political left. His interest was primarily in individuals rather than social conditions” (Gassner 389). Though the background of the play is one of flux, the characters’ lives in The Glass Menagerie are curiously static. It seems that Tom could work in the shoe factory for the rest of his life, that his mother will eternally live in the past of her southern belle youth and hawk magazines to her friends, and that his sister will never leave home or her collection of little glass animals.
Although there was much going on in America and the world that Williams could have easily chosen as a subject for his play, he instead chooses to examine personal lives. In 1944, Williams himself wrote of the theatre, “I have never for a moment doubted that there are people—millions!—to say things to . . . We come to each other, gradually, but with love . . . With love and honesty, the embrace is inevitable” (Gassner 387). The idea of “embrace” suggests that Williams viewed theatre, the playwright, its actors, and audiences as people involved in a highly intimate experience.
Nothing could be more intimate than a playwright using details of his own life as inspiration for his plays. In an interview with Williams by Robert Berkvist, Williams claims there is not much autobiography in his plays “except that they reflect somehow the particular psychological turmoil I was going through when I wrote them. The early ones are relatively tranquil, like ‘Menagerie’” (2). Berkvist also asks Williams if his mother is in any of his plays, and Williams replied, “In all of ‘em, I would guess . . . She had the gift of gab. I must say she contributed a lot to my writing—her forms of expression for example. That underlying hysteria gave her great eloquence. I still find her totally mystifying— and frightening” (2).
In spite of Williams’s claim that there is little that is autobiographical about his work, The Glass Menagerie appears to use a lot of material from his years in St. Louis. Like the main character Tom, Williams spent time employed in a factory or at other odd jobs while working on his writing (Williams 926). His family’s situation was not nearly as stark as that of the Wingfield family in The Glass Menagerie; his father was not absent from home, his older sister had no physical defects, dated men, and did not have a glass collection, he had a younger brother, and his mother said, “The only resemblance I have to Amanda is that we both like jonquils” (Williams 926). The Glass Menagerie is not intended as autobiography, but its inspiration from Williams’s own life is clear. Notes at the beginning of Scene One of the play state, “The scene is memory and is therefore nonrealistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches” (Williams 927).
Therefore, if not autobiography, the question to be answered when asking why the play was written and what it was responding to should be based on Williams’s own words, that it reflects the “psychological turmoil” he was going through when he wrote it. Unlike Shakespeare, Williams did not have a dedicated theatre or patron supporting him in his writing. Gassner wrote, “All was not well when Tennessee Williams predicted an inevitable embrace between himself and the theatre” (387). Like his protagonist, Tom, Williams was living in poverty, struggling at menial jobs while working at his writing. It is easy to imagine that a less determined playwright would succumb to the monotony of those jobs, fall into depression, and give up writing altogether. Perhaps that temptation for him existed as Williams wrote The Glass Menagerie. In his interview with Berkvist, however, Williams said, “I have going for me this incredible hereditary strength and resilience . . . I am intent upon survival because I don’t think there’s anything but oblivion as an alternative” (4). Just as “Tom’s going out into the world was a necessary and wholesome measure of self-preservation,” Williams’s persistence in writing and offering his play to the public was his own means of self-preservation (Gassner 392). His persistence paid off, for The Glass Menagerie was his first commercial success, saving him from poverty (Williams 926). It is this use of psychological intimacy that allowed Williams and his audience to embrace and for the play to be well received.
It is interesting that in his 1975 interview, Williams says, “We don’t have a Royal Shakespeare Company here” (Berkvist 4). His statement appears to imply that Shakespeare had it easy when it came to being a playwright, with plenty of monetary and popular support. While in a sense that may be true, a difference between Williams and Shakespeare is that Williams enjoyed the ability to write about any subject that struck him as valuable or interesting. Shakespeare as a playwright was much more beholden to his patrons in his selection of subject. Both playwrights and their pieces are products of different aspects of their time, and despite the differences, both have provided the literary canon with lasting masterpieces.
Berkvist, Robert. “An Interview With Tennessee Williams.” The New York Times, 21 Dec. 1975. Web.
Empson, William. “"Hamlet" When New.” The Sewanee Review 61.1 (Winter 1953), pp: 15-42.
Farnham, Willard. “Introduction: Hamlet Prince of Denmark.” The Complete Pelican Shakespeare. Ed. Alfred Harbage. New York, NY: Penguin, 1977. 930-932.
Gassner, John. “Tennessee Williams: Dramatist of Frustration.” The English Journal, 37.8 (Oct. 1948): 387-393.
"Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 23 May 2012
Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet Prince of Denmark.” The Complete Pelican Shakespeare. Ed. Alfred Harbage. New York, NY: Penguin (1977): 933-974.
Williams, Tennessee. “The Glass Menagerie.” Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense. Ed. Laurence Perrine. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch (1984): 926-971.