Director’s Notes: The Language of Shakespeare

by Kurt Spenrath on November 15, 2011

It is a real joy to be working on Hamlet Live! with a skilled group of professional actors. they have all learned how to avoid the pitfalls of classical text, and how to be compelling with the work. Rather than focus on how awesome my cast is, this week I will be blogging on a few challenges that students of acting should look out for when tackling Shakespeare.

A particular problem in larger centres where there are many more actors than roles, (places like Toronto, New York ect,) is that many actors like to keep sharp by taking scene study classes. This is an excellent thing to do, because keeping sharp, and maintaining skills and work habits are a big part of the job of acting. Unfortunately, a lot of the practice is devoted to working on five and ten minute scenes. This is not the same as rehearsing a play. In a scene study, one pushes the envelope of experience as broad and as deep as one can while maintaining credibility for a single scene. If you do that in the first scene of a play, you have an extremely long two hours ahead of you. Part of the trick is pace, and leaving yourself somewhere to go. This is part of the reason that in the Saint-Denis style of training favoured in Canada’s top theatre schools, a lot of attention as one progresses through the stages of training is placed on full production of plays. (In Saint-Denis training one spends a year getting comfortable in your own skin, finding a natural voice, training and strenghthening the body [working from the inside], a second year studying stylized and classical acting [working from the outside], and a final year synthesizing technique and exploring special skills). In my personal opinion, a group of five actors are better off pooling their class fees and renting an empty room for a week to stage a full play, than they are attending a scene study class. They might play to no one but friends, family, and hard core indie theatre fans, but they will be better off for having had the ice time.

The above mentioned tendancy to blow a full load on every scene can be magnified by classical text. The words can seem so rich and evocative that they invite an actor to really get lost in them, or to really chew the life out of them. The sense of catharsis, in speech and performance, can be very addictive. What to an audience can look like melodrama and the gnashing of teeth, to an actor feels like good, honest hard work. But just because you are sweating, it doesn’t mean that you are believable or interesting. Sometimes a hint of madness is far more compelling than frothing insanity. The trick is to climax at the same time as the audience, as close to the end as possible.

Another challenge to believability is blank verse itself. High school students need to be particularly aware of this. Many high school teachers have a limited foundation in classical text, and as a result place inordinate stress on iambic pentamater. It is easy to grasp and easy to teach, the result being that the da-duh da-duh da-duh… rhythm is hammered into impressionable teenage minds. Certainly, for advanced text analysis or performance, an awareness of meter and scansion can give very strong hints about what is important in a text. An academic awareness, for example, that the first thirteen lines spoken between Romeo and Juliet add up to a perfect Elizibethan sonnet, does help explain the instant attraction. There is mental connection to the level that their conversation is poetry. Similarly, it can help deduce pronunciation, as in the case of R&J where the first time Ro-me-oh is spoken with three syllables is by Juliet as she savours the name of her love. His friends would simply call him Rom-yo. Good info for an actor and an academic.

This said, iambic pentamater can be a trap for the actor. It must be remembered that the reason Shakespeare wrote in this style was because it most mimicked natural speech. He was trying to write in a way closest to how people actually talk. He was not trying to create elevated text. In the century before Shakespeare there were many competing meters and structures of writing. The first known blank verse in iambic pentameter only coming in 1561, with the production of Gorbuduc, and the form not reaching popular use until the 1590’s. He had a plethora of far more elevated (and popular) poetic forms to choose from when he adopted blank verse. He made a choice for naturalism over artifice, for conversation over declaimation.

Young actors need to know that they don’t need to help the iambic pentameter. It is already written that way and nothing you do will change that. Even when reading aloud in English class, it is best to avoid that awful da-duh da-duh da-duh cadence. Just speak the speech. And if you think a line makes more sense with a contrapuntal or double stressed phrase, you are probably right. Shakespeare would have intentionally placed double stresses and feminine endings for dramatic effect, to illustrate either the imperative or baffling nature of a thought.


I have never been a long sleeper. As a kid I was always up early, and on cold dark mornings in northern Alberta, that often meant frosty weekends in front of the CBC. Sunday mornings were always a weird treat, with re-runs of The Little Rascals and The Lone Ranger. (The great curse of the infomercial is that it spelled the death of strange near-public domain re-runs.) But the really big treat was the booming introduction to Patrick McGoohan’s television masterpiece “The Prisoner”. Considered by many the greatest tv show ever produced, each week started with a recap of the prisoner being taken to “The Village”, where he would be informed that he was now known as simply “Number 6″. Every week a chill went down my spine as the thunder cracked, with Mcgoohan in silhouette on the beach, shouting a line of blank verse, “I am not a number, I’m a free man!” His reading was impeccable. the line could have been:

I am NOT a NUMber I’M a FREE man!

But Mcgoohan was too cool for that. He new he needed that double stress:

I am NOT a NUMber I’M a FREE MAN!

The first reading can make perfectly good sense, but damn the second reading was good. He wasn’t just FREE, he was the MAN.

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