Chekhov honors Shakespeare in The Seagull by "borrowing" specific literary devices and themes from Hamlet. Both plays begin with characters dressed in black, an outward symbol of inner feelings. In The Seagull, Arkadina recites lines from Hamlet before Treplev begins his play, setting up the play-within-a-play structure also used by Shakespeare in his play. However, the most profound homage Chekhov pays to Shakespeare comes from Hamlet’s charge to his actors on how they should perform their roles in Act III, Scene II:
Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I would as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus; but use all gently: for in the torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters… I pray you, avoid it… Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance: that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing… to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form.
The acting ideal that Shakespeare embodied in this speech, realized four hundred years later in Stanislavski’s production of The Seagull at the Moscow Art Theater, still forms the basis for many plays produced today.
Symbolism of the seagull (bird) is masterfully woven throughout the play. In general, the seagull represents personal freedom, an ideal every character wants but cannot have, due to life circumstances or the actions of other characters. But, it has been interpreted through the years to mean many other things. Can you name some of them?
In 1899, Chekhov began a five-year courtship and marriage with Olga Knipper,
a young actress cast in the role of Masha, who would later create central
female roles in Chekhov’s other plays. With Olga on stage in Moscow
and Chekhov ill in Yalta, their relationship consisted mostly of letters
that chronicle one of the most unusual love affairs in theatrical history.
Even after he had passed away, Olga continued for months to write to her
Today, I went to Moscow and visited your grave ... How splendid it is, if you only knew. After the arid south everything here seems so lush, so scented, so fragrant, it smells of earth and fresh grass, the trees make such a gentle sound. I can't believe you are not among the living!
When his last days were drawing nearer, Chekhov traveled Russia to meet
other writers of his day such as Gorky and Tolstoy. Chekhov's final play,
The Cherry Orchard, opened in Moscow on January 17th, 1904, and to his
disappointment, Stanislavski had again made it a tragedy. The play was
not a great success, and soon after, Anton began taking opium to ease his
pain. Chekhov died of pulmonary tuberculosis on July 2nd, 1904 and today
remains one of the most celebrated playwrights of all time.
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