Many actors, both novice and experienced, find Shakespeare a little daunting. Much of the language is archaic, some of the descriptions and imagery are incredibly detailed and complex, and the verse is written in Iambic Pentameter. We often hear our greatest actors talking about how Shakespeare’s plays are the most wonderful material to work with; for those who are intimidated by his work this can be soul destroying.
With a little patience, a good deal of imagination, and a bold spirit of adventure, you will find that not only is it possible to enjoy working with Shakespeare, but that it actually IS the most wonderful material to work with!
Let’s start off with the archaic language. Once you start reading Shakespeare, perhaps stopping now and again to look up words in a Shakespeare glossary, you’ll find that many phrases and terms coined by Shakespeare are still in use today! (I recommend “Shakespeare’s Words: A Glossary and Language Companion” ISBN: 8601404287022) It may be slow-going at first, but after a while you may start to get a feel of what words mean because part of the beauty of Shakespeare’s language is that the writer chooses words which sound like their meaning. Once you’ve worked your way through a scene or an act, and you know what all of the words mean, you can read it again and it will be much clearer.
Next you may be confused by the complex imagery and ideas presented within Shakespeare’s longer sentences. This is where you must allow the language to paint a picture within your mind; trust that once this image is built, it will make sense. You may think ‘This is a strange image, surely Shakespeare doesn’t mean this?’ but this may be exactly what is intended. If you follow where the images and the argument take you it should describe a situation in a very vivid and striking way. Sometimes it will take a few readings of a particularly long section of text before the complete picture is available to you. The following section from Macbeth paints a complex and vivid image but it takes several readings and an unleashed imagination to finally realise the entirety of Macbeth’s thought process. It will probably look like an epic religious painting from the Italian Renaissance, a style with which the writer may well have been familiar.
‘Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubin, hors’d
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind.’
Now let’s consider Iambic Pentameter, the format of the verse. The important thing to mention at the outset is that you can read Shakespeare’s verse perfectly well without knowing anything about Iambic Pentameter because it is written, or encoded, into the lines. This format has rules and Shakespeare frequently breaks these rules in order to create different rhythms within the natural flow of the verse. Therefore, someone who just reads the verse in a relaxed and truthful way will be honouring Shakespeare’s intention without ever knowing the rules.
However, an understanding of the rules will give the actor an insight into which words or phrases Shakespeare wants to highlight, which parts are intended to present difficulties for the character, and which parts are intended to flow easily from the mouth of the speaker.
Just as jazz musicians will alter the timing of notes and phrases in order to add expression and feeling, Shakespeare’s adherence to, or deviation from, the strictness of the Iambic Pentameter will add expression and feeling to the text.
I will very briefly explain the rules; a regular line of Iambic Pentameter will have five sections, each consisting of two syllables, with a stress on the second syllable. Here is an example of a regular line:
‘Again again again again again’
Here is an example of an irregular line:
‘Again again forward again again’
If you say these two lines aloud, you’ll hear that the flow is broken quite dramatically with ‘forward’ because, unlike ‘again’, the stress is on the first syllable.
Here’s an example of a different kind of irregular line:
‘Again again again again tomorrow’
This is irregular because it has an extra syllable; the break in the rhythm comes at the end with an additional syllable.
I could go into far more detail, but in order to perform Shakespearean Iambic Pentameter to a good standard it really isn’t necessary. The important point is to allow any irregularities in the rhythm to be present and to let them guide you as you speak. If the rhythm feels awkward then it should feel awkward to say; if it flows easily then it should be easy to say.
There is a lot spoken about exactly how Shakespeare should be performed but the truth is that we don’t really know for sure. How ‘versey’ should the verse be? The only guide Shakespeare gave us was in the words Hamlet spoke to one of the actors about performance, which incidentally, is not in verse but in prose:
‘Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines.’
This implies a gentle, unforced approach to the language: let the verse do the work, don’t force it against its natural rhythm.
I hope this will give confidence to anyone intimidated by the language of Shakespeare; it’s worth investing a little time, along with a spirit of adventure, to discover why this writer is so highly regarded across the world.