Thursday, May 16, 2013

Zounds! Shakespearean Imagery Is A Killer

Imagery seems to be the most difficult thing for the modern actor.  We don't tend to speak in images anymore.  I can say "Grand Canyon" and you know what I mean.  You've seen it in Thelma and Louise or in a calendar or some such thing.  But in Shakespeare's day, people needed imagery to understand things beyond themselves.  Most people also didn't know how to read and write.  Language was primarily heard - and it was in flux.  Shakespeare created over 2000 words.  People had a real love of language.  And so, it is necessary to develop a love for Shakespeare's words - not a masturbatory love, but a real need for the words you are given to express your ideas.

We tend to learn the dictionary definition of Shakespeare's words, get a sense of the lines paraphrased, and call it a day.  But there is so much more.  First of all, the words and thoughts have to hold some kind of personal meaning for you.  None of us can afford to let the lines do our work for us.  The lines don't mean anything on their own.  Words on a page are just that.  It takes the actor to interpret them and infuse them with meaning.  Much as people would like to believe that Shakespeare had no subtext, there is always room for interpretation.  By "interpretation", I do not mean to support Concept-Driven Shakespeare (see below).  All I mean to suggest is that it is quite impossible for any human being to express everything that is going on in every moment.

Does that mean it's necessary to take huge pauses for thought?  Definitely not.  It is suggested that people spoke much more quickly in Shakespeare's day - and they would have to in order for ROMEO AND JULIET to be the two-hours' traffic of anyone's stage.  So, it is necessary in the style of Shakespeare's writing for people to "think on the line" - which basically means that you can't take the time to think about what you're going to say before you say it.  But that's a style, just as much as Chekhov's plays call for a heightened comic realism.

With all of that said, it's important to keep in mind that there is no correct way of saying lines.  The words will necessarily mean different things coming from different actors.  Shakespeare wrote for a specific group of players.  Chances are, you are not 100% what he had in mind.  As such, we cannot get caught up in thinking that there's a right way and a wrong way.  We all have to let our own discretion be our tutor.

Now that we've sussed out the meanings of the words, we need to attend to the Heightened Language.  We have to understand how the language operates in creation of ideas.  If I am speaking metaphorically, I actually need to create the metaphor.  The hidden meaning will not express itself of its own volition.  You can't say something like, "Your mind is tossing on the ocean," without being aware of the ocean.  It's not a colloquial way to say something.  And so you can't say it as though it's just an ordinary way of speaking.  Try it - it will seem silly.  That said, some balance is necessary.  Just because something is poetical does not mean it needs to become poetry - nor do these things need to be acted out or you'll insult your audience.  But you do need to actually create the image.  

It seems that every time I go see a Shakespearean play, I get one of three things.
1.)  A group of people that seem to be channeling Keanu Reeves in an attempt to sound "natural"
2.)  What seems to be the bad-karaoke version of Shakespeare, where people seem to be doing the equivalent of singing along to their favorite Shakespearean character - without allowing it to come from them.
3.)  A mouthful of emoted words in the stylings we would expect to have seen on the renaissance stage.

Rarely, if ever, are any of these actors grounded in the reality of the circumstances of the play or the individual character's intentions.  I think that we can all agree that the first two are just bad acting.  But the third seems to have become an epidemic in our theater.  These actors seem to think that if they speak with gusto, their passion will out.  But in reality, they are "tearing a passion to tatters, to very rags".

No amount of impassioned speaking will create circumstances for us.  We don't need to know how the words make you feel.  Taking our cues from life, only actors try to sound sad or drunk or angry, etc.  Real people try to keep their emotions out of their speech.  In times of great difficulty, real people try their best to communicate.  So should we - especially in Shakespeare.  For some reason, people seem to throw all concepts of acting out the window when it comes to performing in a Shakespearean play - in fact, it applies to classical theatre in general (not to mention musicals), but that's a subject for another day.

I mentioned Concept-Driven Shakespeare earlier.  I'm sure you basically understand the idea.  I've seen things anywhere from HAMLET: 2001, A SPACE ODYSSEY to ROMEO AND JULIET in a mental institution.  But my real meaning applies less to productions than it does to actors.  We play these roles that everyone has seen.  They are standard.  And there is a tendency for people to decide to come up with their take on the role, to do something interesting with it.  I promise you that their is nothing more interesting than your individual humanity.  Shakespeare wrote living people.  And so it is necessary to let these characters resonate with you.

In the last part of this series as we inch closer to opening our productions of HAMLET and R&G ARE DEAD, we'll go into some of the hidden stage directions in Shakespeare's verse, as well as some basic rules that can clear up your communication quickly and easily.  For the first part in this series, please click here:  Shakespeare CAN Be Understood - And How

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


  1. A very thoughtful piece. In the end, we must remember that we, as actors, are communicating with the audience. We are not just repeating Shakespeare's words, but expressing the character's ideas, the images and reality as we understand them. There certainly can be different interpretations of these, but we need to find and then express our truth.

  2. I guess there's a fine line between what the actor is doing and what the modern audience is prepared to receive.

  3. Really loving how concise and put together these blog posts are. A Shakespeare class in themselves!

  4. It takes a lot to trust that my individual perspective is enough without having to add a "spin" to it. Coming from a background of musical theater (where people expect you to look and sound like the person on the cast album), I'm often afraid that people won't like what I have to offer if it doesn't match some pre-conceived notion they have. That's when organic work really comes in. After working in this actor-driven process, there is no other way BUT to bring yourself to it.

  5. My mind was tossing on the ocean reading this. My thoughts were bobbing about because there is so much in this blog to think about especially when my past education and experience with Shakespeare did not really go into much exploration and any that was, to me, was boring. I wish I had had this type of attention and exploration when I was studying Shakespeare way back when. It would have made it more interesting. So now, at least my interest is peaked. It helps that I know these great actors too.

  6. Again, such important insights. I especially love what you say about real people not trying to put emotions in their language; these people don't have time to do that! There is barely a moment in Shakespeare that is not heightened, where the words each character speaks might not have explosive effects, be they violent, romantic, tragic, comedic...It is vital that they communicate clearly, what Patsy Rodenburg calls "witnessing the truth". When an actor truly does this, you don't need a complicated concept or elaborate design, they are more than enough.


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