We often get asked by students (and teachers) how we keep 3 shows, and so much Shakespeare in our heads! It has had me thinking, how did I learn so much Shakespeare in such a short time? And more importantly, what do I do to demystify Shakespeare’s language and put it into my own voice?
When I was at school I studied Shakespeare in English. We read his plays out loud, all sitting down in the classroom swapping at every new dialogue line with the teacher reading out any stage directions. We would then maybe watch a movie or two, if they were available, and then toddle off to write our essays. At assessment time you could find the English students during individual study time all silently pouring over their texts as if they were still writing an essay on To Kill a Mocking Bird or some other piece of literature.
Through this process I wrote good essays about themes and the dichotomy of the human spirit, but I never felt close to Shakespeare’s text and words. I loved Shakespeare’s language but never truly felt like it was my language. It was something to be enjoyed from afar, to be written about, something to discuss over tea and biscuits; not something I wanted to really investigate, get lost in a black hole of googling, or something that I could be physically and mentally challenging. Shakespeare was never something that I thought could be mine.
To essay, or not to essay?
There is nothing wrong with knowing the themes of the plays, nor spending time reading the text, or indeed writing essays… But that is not why Shakespeare wrote what he wrote. He wrote these words to be read out loud, to be performed, to inspire and excite people. This is something that I had always known from an academic point of view, but it wasn’t until I was at university studying acting that I really understood the impact of this and how we are usually taught to approach Shakespeare at school.
The thing that I really wanted to know was how could I still sound like me when performing Shakespeare? How could these people that I relate to on so many levels also sound relatable?
The best advice I was given when tackling Shakespeare was “make it your own”, but what did that mean? In my experience, I think that it means something slightly different to everyone so all I can do is give a few pointers and talk through a few of the things that I do when I first pick up a piece of Shakespeare.
What does that even mean?
One of the first ways that I make the language my own is to go to find a dictionary. I know that this might seem a little tedious, but believe me it has helped me more times that I can count! I always go through my text reading it aloud. Whenever I come across a word or a phrase that I don’t understand I look it up in a dictionary. From the simple to the obscure a dictionary can help to demystify what the characters are talking about. A great example of this is one of Hamlet’s famous lines:
“Now might I do it pat, now ‘a is a-praying.”
‘Pat’ often trips me up, and is great because depending on the dictionary/footnotes it can mean a variety of things. Such as: neatly, opportunely, aptly, simple, slick, smooth, but, precisely… The list goes on! If you have lots of time and really want to nerd out have a look at different dictionaries for different interpretations of the same word. Footnotes in your texts are also a massive help: someone else has already had a go at looking through resources and figuring out what characters are going on about! When unlocking Shakespeare it is really about having as many tools at your disposal as possible so get defining those words and phrases.
She said what?
Great, so now I know what the words mean, I know what the characters are talking about and I guess I know what is going on generally… What next, Eleanor? So glad you asked! The next thing I do is get up out of my chair, that is all the “book work” I do. As I mentioned before, Shakespeare is meant to be performed! I would highly recommend finding a buddy (or a small group) and tacking the text scene by scene, speech by speech, reading it aloud. Get up and improvise some blocking. Move where you think you might need to move and be a bit silly with it. If you are studying a comedy I find that this is 100% the best way to uncover the majority of the jokes. If you think it is a little bit naughty, chances are you are on the right track! Jokes in Shakespeare are often full of innuendoes, making fun of how words sound, or simply repeating sounds in an amusing pattern. A great example of a character that does all three of these things is Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet:
“Why, is not this better now than groaning for love?
now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo; now art
thou what thou art, by art as well as by nature:
for this drivelling love is like a great natural,
that runs lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole.”
Once you have read aloud you might want to go back to the dictionary and clarify a few words that still remain illusive.
In other words…
So now you know what the words mean, you have had a bash at speaking the language, and you’ve moved around a bit. Now it is time to literally put the text into your own words. This is also referred to as paraphrasing the language. I find that this is a really important step in making Shakespeare sound like me, so that it fits my body rather than a performer over 400 years ago. There are some online resources around that have already done this, but I think it is always good to do it yourself first and if you get really lost to then check them out. In fact, I think that this is a thing I would recommend for life. You don’t need to spend too long paraphrasing, and it definitely doesn’t need to be word for word. This should be a tool to use to help deepen your understanding of the text. If you still have your buddies around you can discuss (in your own words) what the characters are saying, where they are, and what is happening to them. Often brainstorming aloud can inspire further discussion and really unlock the more subtle layers of the language.
If you have time, and are really enjoying the discovery of Shakespeare and want to explore a little further check out any performances you can, interviews of actors or find a different text with different footnotes. The beauty of Shakespeare’s language is that there is room for everyone to have a slightly different interpretation, it might mean something slightly different to each person. Share your ideas, have fun with the language, see if you can be silly and throw caution to the wind. I love this language so much. I truly believe that you can too. Take Shakespeare’s plays off of their pedestals and throw them around a bit, give them a run for their money and see how much you can pull them apart. This is how I unlock Shakespeare. This is how I perform Shakespeare in my own voice.
Now I could write so much more on my process, but I wanted to give you a taste and to excite you to give it a go and discover how you might make Shakespeare your own and not some piece of literature to be read in silence out of some form of respect. Go forth and enjoy!
— Eleanor – Team M
Some websites/resources that I keep coming back to:
- Shakespeare’s words http://www.shakespeareswords.com – This is my go to website to start off. It has the full texts, synopsis, character lists, word definitions etc. This is also available to buy as a book
- Shakespeare defined http://www.shakespearedefined.com – another great resource/tool for getting those definitions flowing
- Absolute Shakespeare http://absoluteshakespeare.com – the plays, some interesting resources, a bit of variety in this list
- Ian McKellen on acting Shakespeare http://youtu.be/25QcYpYCu4Q – mind the quality of the video but the man makes some fine points
- John Barton’s Playing Shakespeare http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLboSQWmG70j_S2nWkRlncZYW49nLeFKWj – a lot of information but well worth the watch
- Chilli Monologues http://youtu.be/KKn4WFG4Je8 – some chilli Shakespeare fun… Remember Treat Yo’ Self!
So, it’s 2016, 400 years after the death of William Shakespeare. It is a requirement in the Australian High School curriculum that one or more of his plays are studied. His plays have been translated and performed in almost every single language on Earth. There will be at least FIVE Shakespeare plays produced in Sydney alone in 2016.
So hang on a second-
This is an English guy who never even knew Australia existed, he wrote in words that are completely foreign to the majority of Australians, why are we still insisting that school students sit down and decipher his work?
Whilst in Brisbane, in the midst of our north coast NSW and QLD tour, I decided to ask myself this question. I searched through several documents and articles writen by literary scholars and professors, and the resounding reason was this:
“He is the greatest dramatist, the greatest poet and the greatest prose writer in the history of the language.”
Now, for me, if I place myself is the shoes of a year 9 student trying to read Macbeth for the first time, this statement isn’t going to mean a whole lot to me. If anything, it would probably turn me away even more, making his literature something reserved for only the scholars and intellectuals of our society. So I dug a little deeper. I came across a website debate of which the topic was ‘Should Shakespeare still be taught in schools?’ The votes were 51% no, 49% yes. I am aware that this is only one online poll with an unknown number of votes, but some of the written answers were quite profound.
“Shakespeare’s language is so old that it is almost the same as making them read Italian or Greek.”
“As a high school student, I personally find works of Shakespeare irrelevant to life today.”
“When in the world would we use his material any where else than a high school exam?”
The overarching response from the students on this poll were that, sure, he is the greatest writer the Western world has ever known- but what if I have little interest in literature? When will I use his work if I am pursuing a trade or one of the many career paths that have nothing to do with drama or art?
These questions arise time and time again in our Q&A sessions after our shows. I know for a fact that I experienced the same problems in high school looking at his work. I think the issue is that it was only after school finished, out in the world that I became aware of how what I had experienced of Shakespeare was relevant to me. When I was in school, obliged to study his work, in a time where the human experiences of the plays were unknown to me, how was it going to be possible for me to engage and enjoy reading his work?
I would encourage students feeling this way to think outside the box. Outside the confines of your English classroom and think deeper about the people Shakespeare is writing about.
He writes Juliet, the 13 year old girl, (A year 8 or 9 student today) obsessed with myths and fables about love, (not dissimilar to learning about love from Twilight) and we get to witness her experience of her first love. We learn the foolishness of Romeo’s haste, and the potential consequences of rashness. The characters in Hamlet explore grief to us, with Hamlet’s inability to grieve, Ophelia’s destruction by grief, and Laertes’ outward rage in dealing with his grief. The Friar and Nurse in Romeo And Juliet demonstrate that age and experience do not equal guaranteed success! Macbeth explores the dangers of ambition, Iago of Othello ironically teaches us to be aware of jealousy, for it ‘It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.’ I could go on all day, believe me.
Shakespeare’s plays weren’t written to be read. They weren’t written for the classroom. They are words writ to be spoken aloud, performed and observed. So try and engage with the characters as people, not just fiction, and trust that even if you don’t see value to these plays today, one day later in life you will experience circumstances or emotions not dissimilar to those Shakespeare explored. Just turn on the news and you will see the things he wrote about. The US presidential campaign could be compared with Richard the Third. Warring nations and religions are no different to ‘two households, both alike in dignity’. Everyone will experience grief. Perhaps Shakespeare is a reference- a comfort in dark times, an explanation for why people act the way they do, or simply an escape from the ‘slings and arrows’ of everyday life. Once you sift pass the confusing words, (which I assure you isn’t difficult or something to be embarrassed about, actors/ directors are constantly referring to dictionaries or footnotes to understand a scene or a phrase.) you are able to enjoy his plays as stories. He was a storyteller, and a masterful one at that. He wants to ignite our imaginations and present the follies and intricacies of humankind.
I think what I have spoken about here is presented well in this version of the Seven Ages of Man speech. Click the image for this version, by the late Billie Brown. It is a beautiful and emotional performance of a speech simply about human life.
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.