A couple of months ago, I told you about my visit to The Shakespeare Forum. After my first night participating, I knew I wanted to be more involved, so I signed up for their 6-week Verse & Text class. I gotta tell ya, this class was AWESOME. For 6 weeks, in 3-hour sessions, we delved into the writing of Shakespeare, and how to make sense of it. And really, it’s SO MUCH EASIER than your high school English teacher would have you believe.
Here’s the thing about Shakespeare’s plays:
They’re not meant to be read in a classroom;
they’re meant to be PERFORMED.
So, our job as actors is to activate and personalize the text so that our audience knows what we’re saying, and can easily follow the plot, even if the words are unfamiliar. Because, truthfully, Shakespeare’s lingo isn’t very different from our own. It’s just that when it’s written in verse, as opposed to prose, it can get a little tricky, because it’s not as straightforward.
I learned so much in those 6 weeks, but mostly I learned that Shakespeare doesn’t have to be scary or intimidating. Once you have a better understanding of what you’re dealing with, it’s actually a lot of fun to play with! We did an exercise in which we discussed each other’s speeches, and how to mark out the meter, which syllables to stress, etc. In that exercise, I found that three actors, myself included, each had different readings on the same two words. And here’s the magic of it: none of them were wrong! Each reading gave a slightly different color, and told a slightly different story, but they all could work within the world of the play and the scene.
One of my biggest takeaways from the class was that the whole idea of “iambic pentameter” is different from how I’ve always understood it. Perhaps, like me, you were taught that Shakespeare writes in Iambic Pentameter: 5 feet per line, 2 beats per foot, the first beat is unstressed, the second beat is stressed. Great. That’s true. Sometimes. Especially early in his career. But as Shakespeare grew more adept with writing, he played with meter more and more, so by the time you get to his later plays, the meter is all over the place! Additionally, Shakespeare didn’t always write in verse. Often, he wrote in prose. So that means when he switches to verse, there’s something important happening with your character. Just like in a musical, when a character starts singing, it is because spoken words are simply not enough to convey their emotions, and so they HAVE to sing. Likewise, in Shakespeare, when a character is speaking in prose, then suddenly starts speaking in verse, it tells you something about what that character is experiencing. For example, the first speech I prepared for class was Emilia’s “But I do think it is their husband’s faults” speech from Othello, Act IV, Scene iii. The text begins in prose: “Yes, a dozen; and as many to the vantage as would store the world they played for.” It then switches to verse: “But I do think it is their husbands’ faults/If wives do fall: say that they slack their duties…” The switch from prose to verse tells me, as the actress, that Emilia is now speaking her Truth to Desdemona: that if a wife were to cheat on her husband, or otherwise wrong him, it is only because that is the treatment she has received from him.
They gave us so much information in those 6 weeks, that it would be impossible for me to sum them up in a blog post. So for now, I’ll tell you about one of the tools they gave us to use to decipher and personalize what’s on the page: Using the Shakespeare Lexicon to define words we may not be overly familiar with. You see, Shakespeare was a REALLY GOOD writer, so the words he chose to use were chosen very carefully. If there’s a word that you don’t immediately recognize, or suspect that your understanding of that word may be different from how Shakespeare intended it, LOOK IT UP! Figure out what it means, specifically, to you, as an actor; THEN you can figure out what it means for the character.
I learned so much in this class, and came away with a renewed excitement for Shakespeare. Maybe that’s the nerd in me, but I loved picking apart these speeches and scenes, and I am eager to perform and study more Shakespeare as I continue in my career. My hope is that I would be able to look back over my Verse & Text notes and handouts and use those tools to give a great performance that really resonates with my audience.
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