Friday, 9 April 2010

Shakespearean Text in the theatre

Text in the theatre is a great paradox, being at once necessary and at the same time utterly dispensable. This is further confused in English by the term “playwright”. Playwright is usually defined as “one who writes plays”; but if one looks at the spelling one finds not “write” but “wright”. If something is wrought it means it is brought into being or created. To “wright” a play therefore does not necessarily mean writing but creating in the largest sense. This could be a pedantic exercise in semantics; theatre uses language to communicate. But what is language? If language is just a series of words following more or less certain grammatical rules then the only form of communication is literary. However, language is very much more than words and communication between humans exists on many different levels. The theatre uses all these levels to get to the point where the communication is ultimately through the language of emotion.

So, the actor communicates. The playwright’s job is to create connecting series of emotions which the actor can use (if he is sufficiently open) Does this have anything to do with writing?
The actor, faced with a text, should be able to immerse himself within the text, to take and be taken by the text. At this level the actor creates and doesn’t just interpret the role because although the text is controlling the external direction, the actor is using a total language, not just words, to communicate. The actor dives into the text, appropriates it, wraps around his emotions and emerges in front of the audience with a creation based on the text but completely unique to that actor, his body, his psyche, his talent. That is acting. Ultimately one has to ask if the text was really necessary in the first place and would it be possible to “wright” a play without text?

Shakespeare – as all good playwrights – “wrought” for actors. In his case specific actors. At no point in his life (or for a century or so afterwards) were his plays considered literature. His plays were created to be spoken. To understand this fully one has to look closer at the 16th century. Printing had been around for a century or so and was still a laboriously painstaking process. English was primarily a spoken language and the idea of “writing” in the sense of literature was new. Even when poetry was written it was to be re-spoken at some future date. The written word was essentially a sound encapsulated and consigned to paper only to release its meaning when it became a sound again. So the English of Shakespeare is a series of sounds and he paid a great deal of attention to the auditory value of his creations. He never dreamed that people would sit and read his plays silently.

If one thinks of Elizabethan/Jacobean drama more as music than literature, then we come closer to an understanding of how Shakespeare wrote. Coded into the structure of his writing are instructions to the actor – where to pause, which words to stress, etc; in much the same way as a composer instructs the musicians through the use of bars and symbols. Being able to decode these instructions helps the actor to be able to create the character out of the text. The actor only had access to his cue script and at no moment would he have seen a copy of the complete play. This implies a totally different approach to preparing a production from that which we use in the modern theatre. The companies performed a different play every day and according to Philip Henslowe’s diary, over a period of 37 weeks his company performed 33 different plays and on only one occasion was the same play performed on 2 consecutive days.

So not only did the actors have to work at a, for us, unbelievable speed, they were also working from a position of relative ignorance of the plot as they only had their cue scripts. Any notion of rehearsals as we understand them would be out of the question. How long would it take a modern company to create a repertoire of 33 plays? The working practices employed meant that the actor learnt his text from his cue script and with the aid of a plot sheet (similar to those used by the Comedia Del Arte troupes) posted backstage, knew when to enter, exit and the basics of the action. This would have led to a highly improvisational style, given that the actor only had the vaguest knowledge of what the other actors on stage were going to say.

Taking into account these working practices, Shakespeare wrote for his actors, giving them everything they needed to create their characters in their lines, as well as indications about practical things like entrances and exits. The actor had to create his character alone and it therefore follows that all the necessary information must be contained within the lines and how they are written. Switching from verse to prose and back again, deliberately distorting the iambic pentameter, Shakespeare guides the actors through the emotional roller coaster of his plays. The most stunning aspect of Shakespeare’s genius is the way he created a mosaic, each character separately pursuing his objective, in many cases in direct conflict to the other characters on stage at the time, both linguistically and emotionally. One example of this is Macbeth Act II scene ii after the murder of Duncan. Looked at separately the two characters are in completely different plays. Macbeth is in a Greek Tragedy, using long Latin based words and creating highly dramatic poetised images, whilst Lady Macbeth is using short one and two syllable words and speaking in a very down to earth language. One can imagine the surprise for the actors when these two styles collide on stage, in front of the audience, as they would not have known each other’s lines.

Shakespeare uses the whole range of linguistic devices available in the English language and they are employed for the actor to use when creating his character. Many musicians will say that the only way to really understand a piece of music is to play it. The same is true for Shakespeare. Only by saying it out loud will the meaning become clear. A series of repeated vowels or consonants will resonate on the actor in the same way as playing a piece of music will resonate on the musician. By saying the lines, the actor lives them. The thoughts, philosophy, emotion, even psychology are only released when given voice.

Shakespearean text, therefore, is more akin to a musical score than a written text. This is perhaps true for all good drama.


  1. Thank you Colin for taking this workshop and showing us how "simple" Shakespeare can be. By un-learning what "they" say and simply letting the text do the work for us, we've made some fascinating discoveries and produced some wonderful work. Appreciate it :)
    Kat Duynstee

  2. Awesome stuff - and exactly what we are about at the State of Shakespeare. This post could be on one of our pages! Thanks for your clear thoughts - and writing!

  3. Colin your metaphor about Shakespeare's and musical scores really resonates. And the idea of Shakespeare as a play"wright" working in an essentially improvised genre seems spot-on. It raises a very interesting conundrum: how does a modern actor strike the best balance between honoring the text and honoring the spirit of improvisation? This is definitely a thread we will continue to pursue in future conversations. Thank you!

    1. This question is precisely the subject of the workshops. A detailed analysis of the verse, its structure and the way Shakespeare manipulates the players to experience what the characters themselves are going through.

      I would like to draw your attention to a long conversation on LinkedIn ... where this is discussed at length.

  4. I would like to draw your attention to a long conversation on LinkedIn ... where this is discussed at length.
    Just commented, although briefly because the string seems to be petering out. Aside from the "scholar v. actor" sidebar, the debate is exactly what we explore in our interviews. How does an actor take the map that Shakespeare provides and turn it into performance? There is no doubt that Shakespeare is best understood in performance...and each performance will offer something different based on the choices the actor makes. We hope to make clear that, while there are definite routes an actor needs to follow, Shakespeare's text is rich in its variety! Thanks!