Performing Shakespeare: Unlocking the Text by FelixPosted: Monday 11 April 2016
When we’re touring, we often get questions from students about how to perform Shakespeare effectively – especially given that the language can be quite hard! Sometimes when we’re looking at a whole scene, or an entire play, it’s tough to know where to even begin! So that’s the topic of this blog: how to begin unlocking the text, and discovering clues about the scene.
Let’s look at an example of a short excerpt from Romeo and Juliet:
Give me a torch. I am not for this ambling.
Being but heavy, I will bear the light.
Nay, gentle Romeo, we must have you dance.
Not I, believe me. You have dancing shoes
With nimble soles. I have a soul of lead
So stakes me to the ground I cannot move.
So, right from the first line, we’re given a clue as to the nature of the scene. Romeo says “give me a torch.” This means it must be dark. It seems obvious, but little clues like this are often overlooked. Also, historically, the torch-bearers never danced (as they had to provide the light for everyone else) so Romeo is also trying to make sure he doesn’t have to dance, by carrying the torch. This idea of Romeo not wanting to dance is supported by the second half of the line, “I am not for this ambling.” Romeo is pretty clearly saying that he does not want to go.
In the next line, we get a clue as to how Romeo is feeling. “Being but heavy,” suggests he is feeling sad or depressed. Shakespeare often uses words that we recognise in modern language, but he uses them in a different way. Nowadays the word heavy usually means something with a lot of weight, but here, Romeo is describing himself as being weighed down by sadness.
The second half of the line shows Romeo’s wit, and Shakespeare’s clever wordplay – “I will bear the light.” Literally, Romeo is saying he will carry the torch. But there’s more to it than that! The heaviness that Romeo complains of, suggests a burden that he is carrying. Shakespeare continues this metaphor with the word “bear,” meaning to carry, and adds a clever pun with the antithetical word, “light.”
So we can see the opposites or antitheses in capital letters: “Being but HEAVY, I will bear the LIGHT.”
Mercutio answers him with some straightforward teasing. “Nay, gentle Romeo, we must have you dance!” But even here, the word “gentle” gives us a clue as to Romeo’s nature.
In the next lines, we get a little clue as to Mercutio’s physicality – the way he moves. Romeo says “you have dancing shoes with nimble soles.” He’s not telling us that Mercutio has come wearing ballet flats, he’s describing Mercutio’s agility and speed. This gives us some ideas about who the character of Mercutio is.
He then continues with another pun, or wordplay, this time using homophones. Having just referred to Mercutio’s “soles,” he then talks about his own “soul.” Two words that sound the same, but have different meanings. This use of wordplay and quick-wittedness that Shakespeare gives to Romeo throughout the play is one of the most important characteristics of who he is: he is a poet, intelligent, quick-witted and romantic; a gentle soul.
In the last line shown here, Romeo returns to the image of heaviness by referring to his soul being made of “lead.” Lead is one of the heaviest metals, but it is also a cheap and common metal, often associated with dullness. So we get a stronger sense of his depression and melancholy here. Romeo tells us that because his soul feels as if it were made of lead, and therefore very heavy, he is pinned to the ground by it, and can’t possibly dance.
As we start to unlock the language of Shakespeare, we can see just how many clues he has left for us as to who these characters are, and how we could play them. In just six lines of text, we have exposed all sorts of clues and ideas about Romeo and Mercutio, their relationship, and the time of day (or night).
Hopefully, this helps you guys who are learning scenes for English or Drama, and shows you that you don’t need to be intimidated by the language, but just go through it, line by line, word by word. Once you begin to dig below the surface, you will find that there is a wealth of clues and ideas just waiting to be unlocked! Good luck!
Felix – Team Capulet.