The question I often get is: "What makes a Shakespearean actor different from a regular actor?" As if we separate ourselves from the common flock... pshaw! :D
Well, I'm here to disavow you all of a common notion - that acting in Shakespeare is hugely different/better than acting in any other type of theater. It's not.
Acting in Shakespeare is not fundamentally different from acting in a contemporary play. The basic skills involved are the same. There are, however, some important differences between classical texts (and especially with Shakespeare) that if you wish to perform it you should be aware.
Differences between Shakespearean Acting and Modern Acting
The most significant difference between acting Shakespeare and acting in a contemporary play is the importance in Shakespeare of the text (the words) – that is, from the actor’s point of view, the character’s speech. In Shakespeare, the speech of the characters is far and away the most important – and powerful – element of performance.
The reason that the characters’ speech is so important is that Shakespeare has put just about everything that happens on stage (including all of the thoughts, fears, hopes, dreams, and schemes of the characters) into the characters’ speech. As a general rule there is no “subtext” in Shakespeare. What the character wants, thinks, feels, fears, and experiences is explicitly stated by the character in the character’s speech.
In contrast, in most modern plays, the characters often hide or disguise their real feelings, thoughts, and intentions; their words usually hide as much as they reveal; this almost never happens in Shakespeare. Shakespeare is almost always verbally explicit; his speeches are revelations, a release of the character’s immediate and authentic feeling and thought.
While Shakespeare’s language is the most powerful element in his work, it is also the most difficult element for contemporary readers and actors. In order to understand and enjoy Shakespeare, the full impact of the text – which can seem so unlike the language we are used to speaking – must be understood and felt. This problem is even greater for the actor than it is for the reader or the audience member, since the actor must be able not only to fully understand the text, but to communicate that understanding in an immediate way to the audience.
I have recently noticed that outside of acting classes or lectures, there really isn't somewhere online that a person has given other actors tools or tips for greater understanding of Shakespeare’s texts in both reading and performance. Some of you may already know many of these, some may not. Please bear with my didactic nature.
One of the most important tools for understanding and communicating Shakespeare’s text is to discover (and play) the antitheses. An antithesis is the setting of one word (or group of words) against another word (or group of words) with an opposite or contrasting meaning. Famous examples of antithesis in Shakespeare are:
To be, or not to be. . .
His disgrace is to be called boy; but his glory is to subdue men.
Fair is foul, and foul is fair. . .
What he has lost, noble Macbeth has won. . .
Unless the antitheses are noted (and played) by the actor, the meaning and force of the speech is lost. Moreover, especially in longer speeches, unless the actor uses and plays the antitheses, the speech tends to become unintelligible. The antitheses shape and clarify the thought.
Another tool for understanding and communicating Shakespeare’s text is to notice, lift, energize, and play with the verbs. Much of the force and energy of Shakespeare’s speeches come from his choice of verbs. Moreover, a character’s use of verbs tells us much about the meaning – and the emotional content – of a speech. Characters reveal their emotional states through their choice of verbs. For example, note the very active verbs said by the very active Macduff in Macbeth:
Let us now
Hold fast the mortal sword and like good men
Bestride our downfall’n birthdom; each new morn
New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows
Strike heaven in the face.
The actor must (1) notice the verbs; (2) use to verbs to help understand the emotional force of the speech; (3) feel and stress the power of the verbs (make the verbs sound like the action they express); and (4) make the verbs your own – that is, consciously chose them in the process of speaking them.
Verbs and adjectives also provide opportunities for the use of onomatopoeia — words that sound like the thing they signify. The speech quoted above offers many opportunities for onomatopoeia: hold fast, bestride, howl, cry, strike. The actor can add force and color (and clarity) to these words by making them sound like what they mean.
Sound and Sound Patterns
Always look for opportunities to use the sound of the text. Listen to the text and play with the possibilities of sound. Always look for and use opportunities for onomatopoeia other sound patterns – especially words and sounds that are repeated in a speech.
In Shakespeare, words and sounds are often repeated. Sometimes the sound patterns form a rhyme, sometimes not; sometimes they come at the ends of the lines (usually a two-line rhyme, which is called a couplet), and sometimes within the lines. The sound pattern might also include repetition of a word. Consonance is a poetic device characterized by the repetition of the same consonant two or more times in short succession, as in "pitter patter" or in "all mammals named Sam are clammy". Consonance should not be confused with assonance, which is the repetition of vowel sounds. Alliteration is a special case of consonance where the repeated consonant sound is at the stressed syllable, as in "few flocked to the fight" or "around the rock the ragged rascal ran". Alliteration is usually distinguished from other types of consonance in poetic analysis, and has different uses and effects.
Shakespeare loved to create sound patterns in his speeches – and audiences love to hear them. As actors, we need to (1) notice the sound patterns and (2) use them consciously to give the speech clarity, force, and color. Your job is to find them, play them, and make them come alive.
Look for and play the images (in phrases and groups of words) that Shakespeare creates and try to communicate the fullness and reality of that image in your mind and to the audience. Some examples of images in Shakespeare are:
Now is the winter of our discontent…
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…
Where we are,
There’s daggers in men’s smiles…
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.
Realize, dont report
A great teacher once gave me some very sound advice about making a speech come alive -- "realize, don't report." Meaning, if there is a point at which the character suddenly realizes something extremely important and conveys it through the lines, that can make the words take on a life of their own. Look for them in each Shakespeare speech. Does the character undergo a realization in the course of the speech? If so, the speech will be more interesting, more engaging to the audience, and more fun for you to play!
Irony and Double Meanings
Irony is not rain on your wedding day. Nor is it a free ride when you've already paid. Irony is when words convey a meaning opposite from their literal meaning or when an action has an effect exactly opposite from what was intended. There is both comic irony and tragic irony. Look for irony in all of Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare loved irony and so do audiences. Realization of Irony is what makes characters and audiences connect at a very human level. Learn to love it, find it, and play it.
It’s about the Action (Not just the Words)
Shakespeare’s speeches are not just words: they are actions (something the actor is doing) and events (combinations of actions that lead something to happen on stage). Plays are not made up of words, but of the actions played and events created on stage. Discover what happens (the action) in the speech and do it! Discover the events and make them happen – bring them to life on stage! But make sure that you are aligning the words to the actions that you are presenting. "Suit the action to the word and the word to the action."
To be continued...