Hamlet’s Advice to the Players

In the endless mess of schools, classes, books, websites, and video learning how to act/speak well (especially with Shakespeare’s text) can be daunting, confusing, and just downright hard. How does Ian McKellen do what he does best? What makes Patrick Stewart so easy to listen to? Or Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi?

There are a lot of wonderful resources out there that can help; I’ve blogged about a few that may help. But when looking for a real concise, simple (though not easy) resource why look any further than the works of The Bard himself?

Shakespeare’s own melancholy Dane has a speech in which he instructs the tragedians how best to play.

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc’d it to you, trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand thus, but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who (for the most part) are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise. I would have such a fellow whipt for o’erdoing Termagant, it out-Herods Herod, pray you avoid it. Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance: that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature; for any thing so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. Now this overdone, or come tardy off, though it makes the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; the censure of which one must in your allowance o’erweigh a whole theatre of others. O, there be players that I have seen play—and heard others praise, and that highly—not to speak it profanely, that, neither having th’ accent of Christians nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellow’d that I have thought some of Nature’s journeymen had made men, and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably. O, reform it altogether. And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them, for there be of them that will themselves laugh to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the mean time some necessary question of the play be then to be consider’d. That’s villainous, and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it. Go make you ready.

Over the next few posts I will be dissecting the speech and discussing individual parts of it so that I can cover some specifics of the advice about acting. In the mean time: look it over, familiarize yourself with it. It’s a good one to know.

We begin with Trippingly on the Tongue –>

Not Full of Sound and Fury

On monday night I saw a solo performance night (followed by a tribute to) a wonderful local actor who is a genius actor. Especially when it comes to acting Shakespeare. He has half a century of experience acting and teaching Shakespeare and there’s really no one better.

There’s something incredibly humbling yet superbly inspiring in seeing a performance by a seasoned actor… one whose YEARS of training and experience have given them a great deal of wisdom and huge sense of ease in performance. Younger (and I don’t just mean kids, teens, or college) actors have a tendency to show an audience how hard they’re working and expel so much energy that we may lose track of the story being told. Emphasis is placed all over the place and it become a show “full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.”

“O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags…” A WISE actor knows that their lines should seem to just fall out of their mouths. To just talk to the other characters and the audience. Text that is ingrained into an actor’s soul because it has been there for years, as well as the wisdom of how to effectively tell a story to (not AT) an audience create a truly spellbinding performance.

Actors: aspire to this kind of performance wisdom. I sure do — I’m trying to figure out how to be like someone who has had more years experience than I have existed — I’ll let you know if I ever figure that one out. Everyone else: be aware of it this quality in people in performance. If movies are all you have access to, that’s fine. But there’s a different sort of magic when you’re right there in front of such a powerful actor.

Next time you see a play by Shakespeare (or not), recognize if the actor is proclaiming their lines or if they’re just talking. Are you seeing “a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more,” or “A showing of a heavenly effect in an earthly actor”?

Yakko, Prince of Denmark

Since a few of you seemed to like Animaniac’s take on Midsummer, I’ll share with you their excerpt of Hamlet.

I really like Animaniacs. It’s one of those smart entertaining, yet educational show fun for kids as well as their parents. That show has songs that are responsible for many students being able to learn state capitals and all the U.S. Presidents.

Shakespeare Blog Carnival #4

Happy July everyone! The days are getting hotter for me and places with air conditioning are very appealing. So is staying inside and reading, but I’m much too busy for that. I’ve noticed that I haven’t been setting enough time aside to post here as often as I’d like so I’ll try to be more diligent about that and keep you entertained at least every couple days. In this fourth edition of the Blog Carnival there are a few posts that I will be sharing with you that will hopefully educate or entertain you in some fashion. So here it is!

nandita shares the post, Justice, Scalia and The Merchant of Venice. It’s a law blog (say that 5 times fast) but it ties it in to certain legal actions taken in one of Shakespeare’s plays. Think about the questions it raises. Discussion welcome in the comments.

Hannah discusses some interesting casting decisions in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in her blog post, When I a Fat and Bean-Fed Horse Beguile.

Did Shakespeare’s plays originally use horses on stage? Craig Bryant explores the possibility in “A horse! A horse! My kingdom…”. Who knows for sure? It may have been a big crowd pleaser to ride through the groundlings…

Duane Morin wonders What Exactly Is A Collier?. This simple question sparks an interesting discussion on Shakespeare bawdy wordplay and intentions.

That concludes this edition. Stay tuned for more Bardy Bawdy fun here and elsewhere in the ShakesBlogosphere. And now Feste the clown will wrap it up with a [slightly edited] song…
A great while ago this post began
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that’s all one — the carnival’s done;
And we’ll strive to please you every day.

Quotable Quotes

William Shakespeare is quite possibly the most quoted author on the subjects of love, life, death, words of wisdom, and clever insults. When naming a baby, a new product, a group, or other we may hear Juliet’s words, “What’s in a name?” And perhaps later in the evening, “Parting is such sweet sorrow.” When washing my clothes you may hear me say “Out, damned spot!” and in reply to when I’ll take out the garbage: “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow.”

Some phrases have found their way into our every day lives; more importantly, some have found their way into our hearts. When reading a work of the Bard it isn’t too difficult to find a line or short passage that has immense meaning to you at that moment in your life. Maybe it expresses the way you are feeling or is very good advice for something pertinent in your life.

Now it’s time for show and tell! What are those phrases you use regularly (and for what?) and are there any passages that you have found apply directly to your life now, or maybe some that you connected with some time ago?

One that seems to keep me semi-optimistic through life (especially in hellish situations) is “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” – Hamlet (II.ii). And Feste’s words in Twelfth Night seem to ring true for the way I am in public… “Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.” I think of more soon to post in the comments…

Now it’s your turn!

Animaniacsummer Night’s Dream

I just had to post this. If you haven’t seen this before, shame on you. If you have, it’s time to see it again.

If Music Be The Food of Love…

I really enjoy all the singing that Shakespeare writes into so many of his plays. It can do so much for a production: Give time for a costume change, give an audience a break from so much speaking they might not understand, lets an actor or two show off their musical skills, maybe even allows an audience to connect more to the current action. Music has a way of affecting people in some cases that words alone just can’t.

The Willow song in the Emilia/Desdemona scene near the end of Othello has such gravity to it. Most of us know what’s going to happen to Desdemona and hearing this words with mellow music could provide a very cathartic experience.

The songs in As You Like It can easily transport us away from the court to the more relaxed, more harmonious Forest of Arden. Feste’s songs in Twelfth Night have the potential to be very entertaining as well as moving. Orsino seems to be deeply moved by a song he sings. Folk songs are sung by very merry (or drunk) characters, just like merry (or drunk) people in real life do of course.

Some of the music of these songs still exist — a few were actual popular songs from Shakespeare’s day. In performance however, most theatre’s don’t search for the original tune. It usually doesn’t fit their concept. In fact, many directors will cut songs out of the plays. Saving time is always an issue when producing one of these works, but so much can be lost when cutting a song. It’d be much better to cut out a passage of banter with humor or very old references that no one will understand than to cut something that could be much more entertaining.

When a production chooses to keep the songs and has some really good music to accompany the words, the effect can be really fun. Even magical. The inverse is also true. Really bad music or a horrible singer can really kill the moment. Who wants to listen to Titania being sung to sleep with a song and a voice that would make the dogs of the neighborhood howl?

The music is another wonderful piece of the wonder of Shakespearean performance. Music is another element that can be different in every production of a play. Composers will always be able to come up with new music to go with the words and fit the play’s concept – just as new actors and new directors will continuously be able to bring their own unique work to Shakespeare’s text.

Play on, give me excess of it…

The Story Simple? O Simple!

I’m currently involved in a production of Twelfth Night, not too far into rehearsals. During a recent discussion of the text involving the director the question of “who is protagonist and the antagonist” was raised. There didn’t seem to be a happy answer. Before the conversation took a turn to something else, the last view that was pressed upon us was that Viola was the protagonist, and Malvolio (although he does not strongly hold this position) is the antagonist.

Malvolio is really less a part of Viola’s story and more a strong figure in the sub plot involving Maria, Toby, Andrew, etc. who play a really nasty trick on Malvolio. I heard some interesting thoughts on who Viola’s real antagonist is… what are your thoughts?

A few of us could have kept the discussion going for quite some time, but we had things to do. We also compared the characters to Commedia dell’Arte stock characters, which is somewhat part of the concept. I was having trouble with a lot of what was going on…

Shakespeare’s characters and stories are not simple. They usually don’t have one easy plot with a clear single protagonist and antagonist. These are not stock characters. Some fall into categories nicely while others are a little harder to pin down.

You might think this is all obvious but I think it’s something that shouldn’t be taken for granted. As I re-examine the primary and secondary plots in the plays and think about the complex characters it’s all rather exciting, wouldn’t you agree? Clean cut and simple can be boring sometimes. The Bard gives us many complex stories with twists and turns with plenty of ambiguity… but the possibilities created from the unanswered questions are what keeps the plays alive. New works of art are created every day that use one of Will’s scripts. It’s truly awesome.

In case you were wondering what my involvement with this production is (and I know you’re so curious about my activities): I’m playing Feste, the clown. I need to brush up on my juggling skills.