MY APPROACH TO THE LANGUAGE
First, I am reading from individual Arden copies of the plays with occasional consulting from the First Folio at home. I chose the Arden simply because they are the best. They have the most thorough and helpful notations and the chapters introducing the text of the plays are books in of themselves. The Arden spends good space discussing choices in past major productions, which is helpful for me and interesting to boot, and the editors reliably provide a solid and balanced survey of critical thought on each play. I am also reading along with W.H. Auden’s Lectures on Shakespeare, Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human, and Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare After All, all of whom structure their books with one chapter per play that I am reading as I go. (Auden actually didn’t compile his book; his students collected his lecture material after he died.)
Before reading aloud, I try to make ample time to read each scene and score it. I draw a horizontal line across the page for all major thought shifts, so that when reading I’m thinking to the end of the thought. Then with a pencil I score all the irregular lines of verse. So I don’t score the normal ‘ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dums,’ because regular iambic pentameter is considered the norm. I read for thought and rhythm and score just the stressed syllables so I can keep the flow going. (When reading I don’t often accomplish all I set to do with preferred stresses.)
In prose passages I do look for the intrinsic musicalities of the dialogue and scene, but mostly read for content, mark the thought shifts, figure out what I’m saying, and then just play with it.
I’m ultimately interested in all the types of musicality in Shakespeare’s entire canon from every angle (songs, dances, metaphors, music of the spheres, theory, verse…). From the verse angle, by far the hardest to write about I’ve found, I am trying to discover differences in the musical feel of each play, and by speaking everything out loud (and in order), to gain insights on Shakespeare’s limitless artfulness as a composer, actor, director, and life-long fan. We may not know much about Bill Shakespeare, but we know he wrote verse intending for its meaning to mingle well with its delivery. I have discovered that the extent to which musicality serves the clarity of thought requires its own word, and in the “ABOUT” section I describe what this concept that I call musiclarity is in more detail. Musiclarity is the extent to which the musicality of language clarifies its meaning. By musicality I am referring in large part to staple poetic devices: rhyme, alliteration, assonance, onomatopoetic words and phrases, etc., but also to musical concepts like motivic development, tempo, dynamics, and musical phrasing. I try to apply the latter category like any good metaphor – specifically, yet loosely enough to tease out the imagination.
In illustrating examples, I provide, in essence, where I would start as an actor in preparing to for a first read through. I can’t do much more than that because I’ve got a lot of trucking to do. But I am interested in a public process of writing a book – to be researching aloud, if you will. And I do want to jot down my impressions. What is critical to understand is this: in my blog entries, and even in the readings, I have no intention whatsoever to be prescriptive. This is no ‘how-to’ regarding Shakespeare’s language. I am merely my own text coach as I play all the parts. An actor’s dream, eh? What I hope is that any actor or Shakespeare lover reading these posts and hearing me make at least some choices, may either get tips, ideas or both watching someone stumble through an Elizabethan china shop with a cart load of Arden Shakespeares.
There cannot be any right way to do any of this language. Artists have reinterpreted, recontextualized, and revamped each of these plays in more ways than any playwright could ever boast. No purist by any means, I say adapt away. I enjoy that far-flung Shakespeare field so much actually that I feel compelled to somehow make a distinction of relevance. I try always say to my friends, try your crazy idea with the play. Why not, the plays can take it! It may be brilliant. I do however, in general with Shakespeare, have strong feelings about verse speaking. Many if not most actors do. I would not presume that mine are ‘right,’ but that my experience tells me they’re good approaches, and they make the verse make more sense to my own ears. I believe in Shakespeare. I believe that when Shakespeare isn’t giving any hints to avoid speaking in iambic pentameter, we should at the very least learn the lines speaking in iambic pentameter. I think as a norm that breathing at the end of every line is the best place to start. When irregularities arise in the meter, I try to embrace if not feature their uniqueness by finding the musicality of the irregularity. What’s this new rhythm and what might be the character’s cause for the deviation? Often there’s a kind of triplet in there, or a syllable that wants a whole iamb to itself. Or a defiant line in opposite iambs – trochaic pentameter – that has a wholly different feel and should be embraced as such in rehearsal to see if it’s a compelling choice. If my natural, 20th century read on a line sounds awkward, I look for the rhythms and occasionally pitch changes in the line, in context of the speech, character and given circumstances, that put the stresses in the most clear places.
Admittedly, not a very academic approach. More like tracking a beast and musing what he might have done here in this spot where his back right foot pivoted but his front left didn’t move. As an actor, I simply have to make a choice, and I like to be informed.
Applying a musician’s brain to this activity is only a worthy activity if it reveals theatrical value, which includes clarity of thought, in the verse. And I’ve found that identifying the pattern of stressed syllables in this way leads to a very clear rendering of the thought far more often than not. This makes me trust Shakespeare more. Shakespeare the natural musician, who at the very least had an excellent ear.
SHAKESPEARE & MELOS
As we travel further back in time, from now to the ancient Greeks (and earlier, to the extent that we know), poetry and music get closer and closer together. The word melos in ancient Greek meant BOTH poetry and song. Poetry was song. We don’t know for sure, but historians gather that the plays in ancient Greece, and all poetry recited in that age, was done in a sort of speak-song or chant. This tradition is taken up through the dark ages and medieval era mainly, though by no means single-handedly, by the help of the Catholic Church. Fast forward to Shakespeare’s time and the vestiges of these aural methods are still vibrant; folks were still learning stories, lessons, and information with their ears more than their eyes. Tales were passed down mouth-to-ear, singing songs was a daily activity, and audiences flocked to the Globe ‘to hear’ a play, not ‘to see’ one. The world, mostly still illiterate, was linked far closer to the spoken word than anything on paper. After Shakespeare, thanks to the printing press having caught on, we became a people more reliant on information received through the eye than the ear, to today’s obsession with television, iphones (I have one of both), computers, etc. With Shakespeare we have a portal to the old world where ‘theater’ was a lot more interdisciplinary than it was today. I therefore find that it makes perfect sense to assess Shakespeare’s language through a musical lens. And I leave everything else to the scholars who know better.
In the meantime, the devil is in the details. But when I’m done, if the gods be pleased, I will hopefully have many more interesting things to say than expostulating why a certain character utters a trochaic monosyllabic line in a doggerel passage of quasi-iambic heptameter.