Years ago I was friends with an aspiring actor, one of many actors and pseudo-actors that try to make it in the film industry. He had started out as a software developer on the East Coast before having some kind of epiphany (or nervous breakdown) and realizing his purpose in life was to act. Naturally, discussions eventually turned to Shakespeare. I was expecting him to wax poetic on the Bard, but surprisingly, he dismissed Shakespeare entirely. In his mind, Shakespeare just was not relevant to modern society.
I probably should not have been surprised. Going through college, I myself was taught that Shakespeare was one of the greatest writers in English literature, but not much more beyond that. He was great because everyone said he was great. A sort of Elizabethan Kim Kardashian, as it were. It wasn’t until I found a video online of a speech by Ben Crystal, a noted Shakespearean actor, that I was able to really put the problem into words. Simply put, Shakespeare is taught in an incompetent manner. This essay, then, would be my response to that aspiring actor from years ago.
The reason Shakespeare is important for actors is because it exercises critical skills that actors should have in terms of research, analysis and presentation. Because of the manner in which Shakespeare’s works are taught, read rather than acted and discussed rather than witnessed, the works themselves come off a exceptionally dry. They appear to have no relation to the issues of modern life. As Ben Crystal makes clear, the genius in Shakespeare was in his storytelling abilities, not as some static poet (for the purposes of this essay, I’m excluding his sonnets and other poetic works).
Shakespeare is often taught as if he existed in some vacuum, but he did not. In fact, he had to appeal to two opposite classes of people simultaneously. I recall watching a documentary years ago that focused on designers and their thoughts on design. One designer mentioned that he liked to place customers for a product on a spectrum. By solving design issues for each end of the spectrum, he is basically assured that everyone in the middle of the spectrum will be taken care of as well. This is not unlike the problem Shakespeare himself had with his audience.
In Shakespeare’s day, the very poor were situated in front of the stage with the very wealthy surround everyone in privileged seats. If Shakespeare did not appeal to the interests of the wealthy, the theatre would not make money. If the he likewise did not appeal to the interests of the poor, they might disrupt the play, storm the stage or otherwise cause chaos. This would drive away the wealthy and give the theatre company a bad reputation.
Appealing to both ends of the spectrum is no mean task. The wealthy were well educated and expected high-minded language and themes of greatness. The poor were often illiterate and preferred bawdy jokes to monologues on the meaning of life. Both classes enjoyed poking fun at each other. This combined with Shakespeare’s ability to analyse and recreate human nature allowed him to balance these interests. Thus, we read Hamlet contemplating mortality with Yorick’s skull just before two illiterate gravediggers discuss how easily justice and salvation is bought for the rich while the poor are forced to live by the rules. Both classes can laugh at Dogberry, the night constable in Much Ado About Nothing. He’s a low-class character who tries constantly to appear higher than he actually is, thus making a fool of himself to both sides.
The above, of course, is a broad outline. For any particular play, any good actor should be doing research on the character, the character’s class and how the character is portrayed in relation to that class. Further, research should be done on how the character relates to that character’s self, the immediate social circle and the world at large. This informs the nature of the character and the potential experience for the audience.
The necessary research goes beyond the character in Shakespeare’s plays. For one thing, Shakespeare rarely wrote stage directions. This may be because of two important points regarding Shakespeare. First, he was constantly writing, being a very in-demand playwright and second, he worked with the same general group of people thoughout his career. This has given rise to the theory that he didn’t have time to write out stage directions, but rather placed them in the dialogue itself. For example, every “Oh” in Shakespeare would denote a point where the actor would be expected to dramatically emote.
For a modern actor to take advantage of this would require a lot of research into Shakespeare’s writing style, literary and dramatic trends of the day and so forth. Just reading (or speaking) the words isn’t enough. Thought has to be put into why particular words keep showing up or why Shakespeare wanted actors to speak certain words at certain times. Without doing this, the language falls flat.
Shakespeare spoke and wrote in what we now call Early Modern English. It is true that we can understand most of what Shakespeare wrote, but the use of the word “Early” is no joke. The reason Shakespeare was able to add so many words and phrases into the English language was because Modern English was only just being formed. There was a lot of room for defining and redefining words. As a result, many times Shakespeare will write something that made total sense to his time but is completely lost on modern audiences.
One example is in Hamlet. When Hamlet is confronted by King Claudius about the killing of Polonius, Hamlet mentions “a certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him”. What modern audiences will miss is that Hamlet is making a pun on an event called The Diet of Worms which is a conference called by the Holy Roman Emperor in 1521. Because there’s no reason modern audiences will understand this at all, the actor must find a way to relate the basic point while gliding over words that might distract and confuse from that point. This calls for imaginative adaptation from the actor, which is a critical skill in general. Needless to say, Shakespeare’s texts provide ample opportunity for this sort of tactic.
Shakespeare appears distant to modern audiences because of inadequate teaching methods. This has led many, including actors, to feel that Shakespeare is simply not part of their world and a relic of the past. Shakespeare, in fact, is a critical proving ground for actors because the effective portrayal of Shakespeare requires critical skills that serve actors well in any role from any author. An example would be researching the dynamic of the audience that Shakespeare was writing for. This is especially important with regards to class divisions.
Research must also go into how Shakespeare related information in his plays to the actors and how trends in his text reveal how he felt the actors should portray a role. Finally, a dramatic nimbleness must be displayed to enable audiences to understand the basic point of a text while glossing over material that is no longer accessible to modern viewers. All of these create a proving ground for actors and part of the set of reasons that all serious actors should have a high regard for Shakespeare’s works.
It’s too bad I didn’t think to come up with all this so many years ago when I actually having these discussions. Ah, well.