05 September 2009

Acting Shakespeare

I’d like to look at Shakespearean acting, particularly since I have criticized some actors (and, by implication, directors as well) over the years. In an excerpt from Soliloquy! The Shakespeare Monologues, edited by Michael Earley and Philippa Keil, Earley makes several points that I believe many actors overlook when cast in a classical play. (The excerpt appeared in “On Acting Shakespeare,” Back Stage 7 Oct. 1988.)

There are certainly many ways to get into Shakespeare effectively, and every actor and acting teacher has her or his techniques, but Earley approaches acting Shakespeare by using the text for clues. He passes over the context for the most part, however, and I see the trouble starting at this point. As Earley remarks, “all actors, especially young ones, approach Shakespeare’s [lines] with awe, fear, and trepidation,” afraid, it seems, to consider them anything but Poetry with a capital ‘P.’ As renowned acting teacher Uta Hagen says in Respect for Acting, this gives us “all the Hamlets [and] Gertrudes . . . who never ate or slept or even breathed like human beings . . . .” She advises actors to make a modern, line-by-line translation so that they know the meaning of a speech before approaching any other acting task.

Once the actor understands the lines, it’s time to attack the character’s intention. Earley reminds us that Shakespeare was himself an actor writing for an actor-dominated theater. It’s easy, therefore, to conceive that he put acting hints all through his scripts. Of course the plays contain lots of information, such as social status and age, circumstances of the scene, and environmental conditions, but Earley directs the actor to something unique to verse plays: the poetry. He wants us to consider the rhymes, rhythms, and juxtapositions of the words. Earley says that Shakespeare “really gives the actor a score.” Obviously, none of these clues, all open to the actor’s interpretation, are available if the actor doesn’t do the homework. From past and recent shows, I conclude that some actors don’t understand how important this work can be.

Scanning the poetry, Earley notes, provides important guides for the actor. The stressed syllables, he believes, highlight the line’s import. In Hamlet’s remark to Ophelia, “Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow,” the stressed words thou, chaste, ice, pure, and snow show where Hamlet’s attention is. Earley also demonstrates that extra stressed syllables in irregular lines are also important, especially because they are irregular. In Hal’s response to Falstaff in 2H4, the king says, “I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers” (V.5). There are several possible readings of this line, but all of them include extra stressed syllables; one such reading puts emphasis on the words know, not, old, man, fall, and prayers; this pattern of stressed words imparts a threatening intent to the lines, Earley suggests. (It isn’t important that anyone agrees with Earley’s interpretation of the clues; it’s identifying the clues for your own interp that’s valuable.)

Since most of Shakespeare is blank verse, lines that rhyme stand out, indicating that they’re probably important. That doesn’t mean the actor has to punch the rhyme, but if Shakespeare decided the character thinks these words are important, then the actor ought to think they’re important, too. Sing-song monotony, however, is not the goal, either, so Earley makes a case for the punctuation and the broken line. Semi-colons and colons should be seen as breathing spaces, and the broken line as a pause for thought. Just because Shakespeare wrote in a specific rhythm--ten syllables alternatingly stressed and unstressed--doesn’t mean he didn’t expect his characters, and therefore his actors, to pause, stop, and wait occasionally.

The sounds and tempo the words make are also meaningful. William Butler Yeats, another poet of the theater, explained when he read some of his works that he was going to do it “with great emphasis upon the rhythm” because he’d worked so hard to get it in the poem. With a vocabulary of over 30,000 words, Shakespeare wasn’t limited to one or two words for each meaning; certainly, as a poet, he selected words for both meaning and sound. And not just the sound of individual words, but the rhythms they create together is also significant.

These aren’t answers, but hints too often ignored by actors who want to make the poetry sound like common prose speech. As Yeats insisted concerning his verses, “I will not read them as if they were prose.” This is one aspect where context comes into importance. One of the most damaging decisions an actor or director can make is to treat Shakespeare’s characters as if they were ordinary, modern folks, say out of an afternoon soap opera. Ordinary folks don’t talk poetry, but, possibly more importantly, they seldom get as passionate as Shakespeare’s characters do.

Can you imagine a Romeo without a consuming passion for Juliet?

A Tybalt whose hatred for Romeo is all macho posturing?

A Lysander who feels nothing more than puppy-love for Hermia?

A Helena with a teenage crush on her Demetrius?

Shakespeare’s characters are rarely cool or dispassionate. What seems to be missing in cases when a production of Shakespeare goes wan is the ability to come to grips with the poetry on any level other than ordinary speech. Flattening out the poetic rhythms inevitably flattens the poetic content, too. Portraying such loves and hates requires much more than volume and poses. Or merely handling the poetry with aplomb. There must be a belief that convinces us that the lovers literally cannot live without one another; that the enemies would go to any lengths to defeat each other. If an actor’s unable to handle heightened language, he’ll likely be equally unable to raise the stakes for his character above the quotidian concerns of everyday people. It’s this lack of high-stakes acting that strips the characters in those productions that fail to soar of their grand passions and ultimately renders them unbelievable and unsatisfying. Remember here one of Shakespeare’s clearest acting lessons: “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” (Don’t forget, either, that the dramatist, while warning against overacting, added: “Be not too tame neither.”)

The upshot, missed apparently by many actors encountering Shakespeare, is that “the actor must give the words their due recognition in the act of performing them,” as Earley writes. “There are no easy and simple rules to follow except obeying Shakespeare’s sound score. . . . Shakespeare traffics his words through their vocal colors. And he gives you paths and byways that lead you through a speech until you begin to act him with your own kind of courage and authority.” It wouldn’t be inappropriate to say of Shakespeare, “It’s in the words!”

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