Monday, May 6, 2013

Shakespeare CAN Be Understood - and How

You know that bad feeling you get deep down in your gut right before you see a Shakespeare play?  Be honest.

Even if you're a Shakespeare lover, there's always a worry that you won't be able to understand what's being said - and even if you DO understand the text, will you be able to understand these actors?

John Barton (a very important Shakespearean dramaturg) claims that he doesn't really listen to what's being said unless the actors MAKE him listen.  Otherwise, he only gets the most general sense of the lines.  I imagine that many of us share the same difficulty.  Personally, I notice that I easily tune out when it comes to seeing one of Shakespeare's plays performed.  I know many people who have given up on his work entirely.

Essentially, our society come to expect that we won't be able to relate to the actors in a Shakespearean play.  It seems standard for Shakespeare to be performed in heightened acting styles of yesteryear and weird Mid-Atlantic dialects - when in fact Shakespeare's own advice to the players argues that we have to speak to "the very age and body of the time".  First, we have a current tradition of conversational life onstage and a different type of audience than in the year 1600 - both of which need to be taken into consideration.  Additionally, JULIUS CAESAR was initially played in Elizabethan Garb with elements of Roman dress; the Danish countryside in HAMLET more closely resembled Warwickshire than Denmark; and in ROMEO AND JULIET, the households were more specific to English life than that of the Italians.  Lastly, the Original Pronunciation of Shakespeare's text was much closer to the American sound than the current English sound.

I'd like to offer one small piece of overlooked wisdom when it comes to performing in one of Shakespeare's plays: he wrote them in English.  So, you don't need to approach them as though they are in a foreign language.  The audience doesn't need big gestures to understand what's going on.  Yes, there are some big words, but for the most part, his plays are written in the basic syntax of naturalistic speech.  No writer writes exactly the way that people talk - and there are so many vernacular variations that it would be impossible to undertake such a task.  There are plenty of modern writers whose plays that are written in a strange and rhythmic manner.  See Mamet, Letts, Lonergan, and just about anyone else you can name.  None of these people sounds just like you.

But what's so crazy about Shakespeare's language?

"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." - HENRY VI, Part II
"To be, or not to be: that is the question:" - HAMLET
"What's in a name?  - ROMEO & JULIET

Any of the above quotes could easily be said in a modern-day play.  As wonderful of a writer as he may have been, Shakespeare was the least poetic playwright of his day.  His writing is character driven and full of intention.  It was meant to be acted, not read.  He wrote living people.  As has been stated by many scholars:  Shakespeare was the first naturalistic playwright.  And that essentially means that he created the concept of naturalistic acting.

Shakespeare wrote in three kinds of speech: 

Prose - The most commonly used form in playwrighting today. 

Blank Verse (or Iambic Pentameter) - Still the closest verse form to everyday speech, created by Shakespeare.  Blank verse has ten syllables per line, typically with alternating strong and weak stresses: de DUM de DUM de DUM de DUM de DUM.  You'd be amazed how frequently you speak in this basic pattern.  If you look at many other playwrights of his time and before, their verse structures have either too many or too few syllables per line to represent naturalistic speech.  

Rhymed Verse - This is not that commonly used today - except in poetry and jingles.  But he mostly used this form for an effect of some sort.  Many speeches end in a rhyming couplet.  Some ethereal or particularly majestic characters rhyme with frequency.  But this form is less used in Shakespeare's plays.

It is important to note that Shakespeare did not strictly adhere to his rules all the time.  He wrote intuitively.  And though we want to understand his rules, we must still act intuitively in his plays.  "Let your own discretion be your tutor."  Really, when it comes down to it, if you just make sense out of the lines, not for the audience, but for yourself and your scene partner, then the meanings will come across.  There's no need to go crazy about it.  Just "Speak the speech" easily..."trippingly on the tongue". Focus on communicating, rather than getting it right.

In rehearsals for our current production of HAMLET, we've been trying something that seems to work very well.  We ask our actors to keep their energy moving to the end of their character's thought - so they can't pause (even for a breath) until they hit a period.  I was surprised to learn that Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech is actually four thoughts.  It's easy to get so bogged down in the commas and colons and semicolons that it's impossible to keep track of the point being made.  But we don't tend to speak with commas and semicolons.  Punctuation is a device of the writer to communicate sense on a page.  In real life, we speak until we've finished making a point.  It's amazing how much clearer Shakespeare's text becomes when you focus on the point you're making and then use the words to make that point. 

This is the first part in a series of posts about Speaking Shakespeare.  Next up, we'll discuss Imagery, and then Hidden Clues in the Text.

We'd love to hear your thoughts and questions.  Please don't be silent.  Leave a comment.  Let's get a conversation going!


  1. Great post. It might take some work to understand the text as an actor, and even some work as an audience member, but the results are so, so worth it. Can't wait to read the rest in the series - and that image is freaking awesome!

  2. I drink your milkSHAKE-speare.

    ...more to come.

  3. What a wonderful post. I couldn't agree more. I'd love to comment further, but I think you nailed it on the head! Great job.

  4. I feel like the anxiety over understanding Shakespeare is much more debilitating than the text itself. I always try to remind myself of that as I tackle one of his plays, or any of the classics for that matter. It's the same for me when reading novels - if I relax into the journey on which the writer is trying to take me, the story (and understanding) comes more easily. And then - I'm not gonna lie - I feel like a bad ass. :)

  5. I totally agree with these sentiments. Once a person allows themselves NOT to be intimidated by the concept of Shakespeare and lets themselves actually enjoy the language, it becomes a totally enthralling experience. And so many of Shakespeare's words have become an integral part of our every day speech. I'll be playing Polonius in June and here are just a few of the things he says in Hamlet:
    "Neither a borrower nor a lender be."
    "...the apparel oft proclaims the man."
    " thine own self be true."
    "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't."

  6. Thank you for expressing these thoughts, they're so important. It always upsets me when people categorically state that they hate Shakespeare, or assume you have to be an intellectual to appreciate his work. Shakespeare was a supremely human playwright, who wrote for everyone and whose plays encompass virtually all aspects of the human experience. We can't force everyone to be passionate about him, love is subjective, but if more people would abandon their fear of him and give him a chance with an open mind that would already be a huge step in the right direction.

  7. Great article! I've felt exactly what you describe here before I see a Shakespeare production, and nearly every time, I am surprised at how accessible (and universal) the text really is. (Of course, the actors interpreting can help or hinder the process--but then, that is true of any piece of theater!)

  8. You know, if the guy could have only written in English, it would be sooo much easier to do his plays. In Icelandic they're perfectly understandable. Go figure.

  9. Nevertheless, modern audiences are within their rights to have trepidation about Shakespeare, since (1) classical references that would have been familiar to Shakespeare’s audiences (Apollo, Delphos, Jove, Hecuba, Priam, Pyramus & Thisby, &tc.) are now opaque; and (2) Shakespeare’s powerful vocabulary can be overwhelming. Indeed, when both of these are at work, heads spin. Some examples:

    “My traffic is sheets; when the kite builds, look to lesser linen. My father named me Autolycus; who being, as I am, littered under Mercury… With die and drab I purchased this caparison… Gallows and knock are too powerful on the highway:….”

    “….so, after Pyrrhus’ pause… never did the Cyclops’ hammers fall on Mars’s armor … with bisson rheum, a clout upon that head where late the diadem stood… And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed that roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf…”

    It is incumbent, therefore, upon present-day directors either to carve out the incomprehensible bits, illustrate them in a manner that makes them comprehensible, or – as I myself have experienced – instruct the actor to steamroll as rapidly as possible through these passages in order to get to the next plot point. For my part, I am an advocate of judicious, liberal cuts… which segues to the other trepidation people have about Shakespeare… that it’s too loooooong ….!! O dear. Ah, the MTV attention-span….

    But that’s for another blog….

    1. Your point is well taken, but pertains more to imagery - for the which, you should see the second part in this series here:


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