Loving Shakespeare

Hello, Internet, today is Monday, July 7th, and I’m really nerdy about Shakespeare.

This isn’t new. And it isn’t a secret to anyone who knows me. I bought my copy of the Complete Works at the age of 16, and have individual copies of at least 20 of the plays besides, plus a copy of the sonnets. I own a plush Shakespeare doll (he’s super cute). I have a t-shirt that says “ROMEO ROMEO WHEREFORE ART THOU ROMEO” on it that I wear unironically in my regular life.

Sometimes, when I’m sad, I pull out a favourite monologue, or the book of sonnets, and read aloud to myself. Preferably while pacing around the room.

No, really. I really do this. Not as work. As therapy.

I was raised on Shakespeare. In my theatre infancy (ie: when I was 13 and painfully awkward in normal social situations but desperately seeking recognition and acceptance), I was introduced to Shakespeare in a summer camp. Being kind of a bookish kid anyway, I soaked up all kinds of information about working with the text that was delivered in a distinctly school-ish and non-summer-camp-ish way. I was greedy for it. Iambic pentameter. Punctuation. Vowels. Consonants, for that matter. I loved all of it, on an intellectual level. I loved the connection it seemed to bear to music (my first artistic love). I loved how many layers there were to dig into the text. And I loved what it taught me about my body, about my breathing, about the places where I can place sound.

Shakespeare was my introduction to acting. Conversely, I suppose, acting was my introduction to Shakespeare, which meant I loved it before high school English class had the opportunity to screw it up for me.

(Disclaimer: my excellent high school employed excellent English teachers who did a fantastic job at not screwing up Shakespeare, and to them I am grateful. I recognize, however, that not everyone’s experience of high school English was as good as mine.)

So, while in high school, I got to do at least one Shakespeare play a year, and often more, thanks to the theatre company responsible for that summer camp in 1998. I “did”, in some capacity, 9 plays by Shakespeare with them. Pursuing a degree in theatre acting continued this trend, and I did another 4 pieces by Shakespeare while in university, excluding the entire Dramatic Literature course dedicated to his plays. (Notably, between high school and university acting and drama courses, I studied Hamlet 5 times.)

Then I finished school and got out into the real world. And this at-least-once-annual trend of performing Shakespeare came to a screeching halt.

It hasn’t been a completely dry spell. I did Hamlet (again!) in 2011. Antony & Cleopatra in 2013. And this week, in Grand Bank, we’re opening Ado, a cut of  Much Ado About Nothing… which has essentially served to remind me how much I freaking love working with this text.

(Which is, perhaps, a good reason to seek out more frequent opportunities in the future… or even to build my own? Time will tell.)

Reasons I love it:

1) Everything is out in the open. 

Wouldn’t it be great if people just SAID WHAT THEY FELT? Well, yes, probably, although if it were left up to Shakespeare, somebody would say something like “I am going to screw with these people’s happiness just because I’m an asshole” and then go about doing exactly that, because a play where everybody announced that they love who they love and want what they want would be pretty darn boring if it weren’t for the bad guys.

That being said, in Shakespeare’s plays, you don’t have to go looking for subtext. I mean, you CAN. If you WANT to. But it’s not necessary. If a character feels a thing, chances are good they’re going to say so. There are two kinds of information in a Shakespeare play: 1) truths; and 2) lies. There is no “3) seemingly meaningless small talk from which we are to derive vital clues about the characters’ lives and feelings”. For example, in Ado, I declare that “I flow in grief.” I will at no point discuss the weather or the progress of our local sports team. And if I were to discuss the weather, let me tell you that it would be because we were suffering some major storm indicative of an overall upheaval in the Order Of The Universe.

Beyond the fact that it makes interpreting what your character wants and needs far easier when they out and out say it, I sort of love the idea of living in a world where you are expected to say what you’re thinking.

2) Just saying the words out loud does half the work.

At least half. Interesting* tidbit: because Shakespeare’s works were written and published before there was any sort of standardized dictionary, spellings are all over the place… if you’re working with quarto or first folio text, you might see the same word spelled three different ways on a single page. Also, punctuation is kind of everywhere. So, assuming that you stop for full-stops, pause for commas, exclaim at exclamation points and throw in an upward inflection wherever you see a question mark, and assuming that you say the words more or less phonetically as printed, you will wind up with a series of vowel sounds and a rhythm that can do a ton of the acting for you.

For instance, ever read Juliet out loud? Seriously, go here and read that speech out loud (pay attention to the punctuation, that’s the whole point!). Go on, I’ll wait.

She’s breathy, right? She’s talking in stops and starts, she exclaims and then questions, she breaks the natural rhythm of her speech (pentameter, because Shakespeare) all over the place… This is the kind of thing that a young girl in distress would do while debating whether or not to fake her own death and end her life as she knows it in order to be with her lover. So, props to Bill for writing it that way, right?

What’s cool about it is that when you start breathing and talking like that, you feel panicked. Feeling distress can cause you to talk that way, but talking that way can also simulate the feeling of distress. Which means that, if you are working with this text as an actor, and you are just saying it out loud, you are at least halfway there.

*I know I’m a giant nerd. Is that interesting to anyone else?

3) “Heightened text” is crazy fun.

“Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears.” The straight meaning of that sentence is “listen to me.” The way that Mark Antony says it is so much more interesting. In this very basic example, “lend me your ears” has a different connotation than “listen up!” It implies that the audience will be giving him a gift, doing him a favour, by listening to what he has to say. It gives them agency – to lend their ears or to keep their ears to themselves – and therefore endears him to them, furthering his campaign to change their minds.

Rhetoric is fun for actors because every word is chosen for a purpose. “I flow in grief” isn’t the same thing as “I am sad.” Grief is different from sadness, and to be flowing in it is not the same as to be mired in it. Assuming that your character is not out to make themselves sound smart (and most of the time, that’s true, although there are some exceptions), the fun is in figuring out why they choose that word or phrase, and to what end.

The end result is that there is always something new to play with, some decision to be made, and that’s what makes these 500-year-old words so exciting.