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What was Shakespeare’s opinion?

Shakespeare is at first frustrating, initially because he is hard to understand, but later on, when one begins to understand the language and plot, he becomes frustrating because one never quite knows where he stands on things.  As I struggled to figure out the answers contained in some of this plays, I gradually came to realize that these plays are all about teasing out the dividing line between the good or admirable and the bad or shameful.  The dividing line is drawn along so many aspects of a particular question of life, and this leads to a very nuanced view of the human experience.  Where does contemplation become an excuse for or cause of inaction?  At what point does professed love become falsehood?  Where does confidence dissolve into self doubt or become corrupted into arrogance?  In Hamlet contemplation is obviously a good thing, when one compare Laertes’ reaction to his plight with Hamlet’s.  But it becomes a bad thing when Hamlet overthinks his predicament and allows the king to live once he has all the proof he needs.  Living the good life is all about towing the narrow line.  Shakespeare is good, and so universally revered though the ages, because he tries to tease out a rough idea of this line though stories and characters and language.  It is the universal, timeless question.  People who give us easy, ready answers are popular but not lasting.

Excuses

Liz and I performed the following skit in class recently:

Amanda:

Did you research that subject we were going to talk about today?

 

Liz:

Oh no; I meant to do that!

But anyway I had no wifi the last few days.

 

Amanda:

Why didn’t you call me?

 

Liz:

I meant to. But my phone broke

And Aidan got his wisdom teeth out so I’ve been busy.

 

Amanda:

I didn’t prepare any lecture.

I wasn’t feeling well yesterday

and I’ve had a really busy schedule the last week.

Tom surprised me with a movie last night.

Did you do that other thing?

 

Liz:

I haven’t read email for the last couple days.

Can you pull up the lecture you were going to do a few weeks ago on your phone?

 

Amanda:

I wrote it, but I forgot to save it so I don’t have it.

Sorry, I keep forgetting to save my documents.

What’s so great about Shakespeare?

When I read Shakespeare in high school, I felt… completely lost.  I actually skipped school one day; not to get out of doing what I was supposed to do, but to get some work done!  I figured if I could just stay home for a day I would finally have the time to figure it out.  Did I?  Well, yes and no.  Yes, in the sense that I figured out the plot, looked up enough of the words that I could understand some of the meaning, and remembered enough that I could pass a test.  But No, in the sense that I never did figure out why we were reading Shakespeare. I didn’t understand why on earth we were reading something that was so hard to follow.  Why couldn’t it just be translated into modern English?  I now have a modern translation in fact.  Why not just assign that instead?

Continue reading What’s so great about Shakespeare?

Reading Shakespeare’s Grammar

I ate the sandwich.

I the sandwich ate.

Ate the sandwich I.

Ate I the sandwich.

The sandwich I ate.

The sandwich ate I.

In modern English, the most common sentence pattern is subject (S), verb (V), object (O), or I (S) ate (V) the sandwich (O). But as this example shows, most common does not mean only possible, and while some of these constructions (“Ate the sandwich I”) are pretty unusual, they are nonetheless grammatically correct.

Unusual word order in a sentence is called inversion. Shakespeare used inversion to create specific dramatic and poetic effects. Inversion can be used to emphasize key words, to create specific poetic rhythms, to give a character a specific speech pattern (think Polonius, for example), or for a variety of other purposes.

Experienced readers “re-order” the words to understand the sentence. They locate the subject and the verb and “re-write” the sentence for clarity (“Ate the sandwich I” is quickly changed to “I ate the sandwich”).

 

Problems with Speed and Meaning

Actors who are good at memorizing often speed through the words because it’s so effortless for you to remember.  Many actors are trying to remember the words, so they naturally put in the natural pauses; others aren’t, so it’s easy to get the engine revved up and lose the audience.

Read that last paragraph quickly, and you can follow it.  Read the following speech from King Lear, and you can’t:

Detested kite, thou liest!

My train are men of choice and rarest parts

That all particulars of duty know

And in the most exact regard support

The worships of their name. O most small fault,

How ugly didst thou in Cordelia show,

Which like an engine wrenched my frame of nature

From the fixed place, drew from my heart all love,

And added to the gall! O Lear, Lear, Lear!

(strikes his head)

Beat at this gate that let thy folly in

And thy dear judgment out!

 

I could say “slow down” but actually it’s not so much that I want you to slow down as to have an intention when you speak and use the words to play the intention.  Slowing down won’t do that.  So, there are two tricks that work well to slow you down.

  1. Figure out your goals, and then before you even start speaking, wait as long as it takes to find that goal inside, and only then, speak.
  2. Go through your lines and underline 2 words per line that you’re going to play.  Then play ONLY those words to the audience.  How to choose?  Usually, it’s a verb and a noun, and usually one of the words is the last word of the line and the other is in the middle. But it depends.

Here’s the speech from King Lear and I underlined a couple of important words per line to play. Always the last word.  One time I underlined three words.

Detested kite, thou liest!

My train are men of choice and rarest parts

That all particulars of duty know

And in the most exact regard support

The worships of their name. O most small fault,

How ugly didst thou in Cordelia show,

Which like an engine wrenched my frame of nature

From the fixed place, drew from my heart all love,

And added to the gall! O Lear, Lear, Lear!

(strikes his head)

Beat at this gate that let thy folly in

And thy dear judgment out!

 

So, those are the tricks.

 

Wait for the impulse and intention to speak.

Play only two words per line, almost always the last word.

 

Homework:

Record yourself doing several of your speeches

Go back and read the speech and record it playing only 2 words per line.

Go back and record yourself again, while waiting for the intention to come to you.

 

What worked: Count till 5 at every period.  Look at fellow actors upstage or downstage ear.