Playing Shakespeare

An Actor's Guide
3 Books Donated 15 min

part one

Objective Things

chapter one


The Two Traditions

Elizabethan and Modern Acting

[The following actors took part in the program that

forms the basis of this chapter: mike gwilym, sheila hancock,

lisa harrow, alan howard, ben kingsley,

ian mckellen, david suchet.]


Playing Shakespeare. Not reading him or writing about him but playing him. Over a thousand books or articles are written about him every year. In 1980 there were 195 books and 877 articles, many in Japanese. And yet very little is put on paper about how to act him. I think I can guess why. I have been urged to write about this but I have always felt I couldn’t do it. I thought that the sort of points that need to be made could only arise truly in the living context of working with actors. On this subject each actor and his experience of acting is worth many books. So what I shall be saying in Playing Shakespeare is by itself worth nothing. It only has value if it comes alive in the performances of living and breathing actors.


The best guide to an actor who wants to play in Shakespeare comes, I think, from Shakespeare himself, who was an actor. Listen to Hamlet’s advice to the players. It can’t be quoted too often.


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. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus. But use all gently. For in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness . . . Be not too tame neither. But let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature . . . For anything so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as t’were, the mirror up to nature.Hamlet: III:2


I believe that speech goes to the very heart of it. It’s one of those utterances which seems a bit simple and limited at first, but if you live with it you will find that it begins to resonate and to open doors. I also believe that in the Elizabethan theater the actors knew how to use and interpret the hidden direction Shakespeare himself provided in his verse and his prose. I believe that the kind of points we shall be making in these workshops work best in the theater, not by a director telling an actor about them but by an actor learning them, largely by experience, and applying them for himself.


There are few absolute rules about playing Shakespeare but many possibilities. We don’t offer ourselves as high priests but as explorers or detectives. We want to test and to question. Particularly we want to show how Shakespeare’s own text can help to solve the seeming problems in that text. Of course, much of it is instinct and guesswork. We will try to distinguish between what is clearly and objectively so and what is highly subjective. I hope that if I’m too dogmatic the actors will challenge me. I should also make it clear what I’m not talking about. I shall hardly talk at all about directing, and at first I shall try to keep clear of interpretation. We won’t talk much about individual characters, and we shall say even less about plays as a whole. We shall simply concentrate on finding out how Shakespeare’s text works.


Of course what we say is bound to be personal. We don’t believe that there’s only one way of tackling Shakespeare. That way madness lies. But out of the infinite number of questions which come up when we work on him we have picked the ones that seem to us the most important at this time. Another actor or another director would rightly stress things differently or violently disagree with us or stress points which we shall leave out. What we say will of course be colored and limited by the fact that we are the products of a particular time. One bit of me is uneasy at holding forth about Shakespeare. I am not a pundit but a man who works in the theater at this moment and I can only talk about what seem to me the main needs and problems at this moment. I am deeply aware that these sessions will probably seem outdated and odd before many years are past. That is the nature of the theater. We can only speak about what we think and feel at this time.


We shall look at many short individual passages, often cut down, from many different plays. I believe they can all make sense out of context and that those who don’t know the play in question will still be able to follow quite easily the points we are making. As ever, the audience is quite as important in all this as the actors. If we don’t reach our audience we fail. We must make them listen and share and follow the story. But above all, listen. It’s so easy for an audience not to listen, particularly with a knotty and difficult text. I may be cynical but I don’t believe most people really listen to Shakespeare in the theater unless the actors make them do so. I certainly don’t. I know that it’s too easy for me to get the general gist and feeling of a speech, but just because I get the gist I often don’t listen to the lines in detail. Not unless the actors make me. What I want to explore are the ways in which they can achieve that.


But you may say, “All that’s very fine, but what’s so difficult about acting Shakespeare? What’s the problem?” Or indeed “Is there a problem?” Well, yes, I believe that there is. Two things need to come together and they won’t do so without a lot of hard work and much trial and error. First, there’s Shakespeare’s text written at a particular time and for particular actors:


Cut me to pieces, Volsces. Men and lads,

Stain all your edges on me. ‘Boy’! False hound!

If you have writ your annals true, ’tis there

That, like an eagle in a dove-cote, I

Fluttered your Volscians in Corioles.

Alone I did it. ‘Boy’!Coriolanus: V.6.

Secondly there are the actors today with their modern habit of mind and their different acting tradition, based on the kind of text that they’re more used to:

len: (Mike Gwilym): ‘S great ‘ere.

pam: (Lisa Harrow): What?

len: Why did you pick me up like that?

pam: Why?

len: Yeh.

pam: Sorry, then?

len: Tell us.

pam: ‘Ow many girls you ‘ad?

len: No, I tol’ yer my life.

pam: ‘Old on.

len: What?

pam: Yer got a spot.

len: Where?

pam: ‘Old still.

len: Is it big?

pam: ‘Old still.

len: Go easy.

(She bursts the spot on his neck.)

pam: Got it!

len: Ow!Saved by Edward Bond


Well, there we are. The two chief ingredients with which we start rehearsals are Shakespeare’s text and a group of modern actors who work mostly on modern plays. How do the two come together? Let’s start with the second as the more accessible. Our tradition is based more than we are usually conscious of on various modern influences like Freud and television and the cinema and, above all, the teachings of the director and actor, Stanislavsky. I suspect he works on us all the time, often without us knowing it. So let’s ask ourselves what are the most important things in an actor’s mind as he begins work on a modern text. No, any text. What are the most important things to go for?


David Suchet: We might do worse than start with something Stanislavsky wrote: “If you speak any lines or do anything mechanically without fully realizing who you are, where you come from, why, what you want, where you are going, and what you will do when you get there, you will be acting without imagination.”


Ben Kingsley: Or, to put it in our own words, what is our motivation, our objective or our aim or our intention? We use lots of words for the same thing.


Sheila Hancock: Here is Stanislavsky again: “On the stage there cannot be, under any circumstances, action which is directed immediately at the arousing of a feeling for its own sake.”


Lisa Harrow: Or, in other words, we must beware of playing only the quality or general emotional tone of a speech. For instance, if we have a sad speech, we mustn’t just sound sad. What we play must be specific and fresh.


Alan Howard: So we must dig into a character socially and psychologically.


Ian McKellen: Yes, socially, which means being concerned with other people, our audience and other characters on the stage, impersonated by the other actors. It’s not enough to be aware of our own thoughts, our own feelings, our own words. We must listen to the words and understand the feelings and the thoughts of the other characters.


I think the most basic thing in all that is the importance of asking the question “What is my intention?” If we had to reduce our modern tradition to one single point I think it would be this. It is practical advice which always works and always helps the actor. Yet it is often confusing to people who approach a text from a literary or non-theatrical viewpoint. It seems to them to imply that we are saying a playwright always has a character’s conscious intention in mind when he writes a given line, but of course that isn’t necessarily so. A playwright can write a play without asking that question constantly or even most of the time. All that we in the theater are saying is that to ask that question is the way to act without falseness. It always works, though of course many other elements are involved which we shall be looking at.


Mike Gwilym: On the other hand we all know the sort of actor who won’t speak at all until he feels absolutely the inner need to do so. Huge, long pauses. By the time he’s ready he’s brilliant, but the audience is fast asleep. So perhaps it’s good also to remember the story told of John Gielgud. When he was asked, “Now, Sir John, what exactly is your intention at this point?” he answered, “To get onto the stage.”


Yes, here and elsewhere, we will find that we can hardly ever make any generalization about acting without adding some sort of qualification. Here is an overserious theatrical practitioner who in his way is also talking about intentions:


David Suchet: “I should like to cite examples of game beats in the opening scene of King Lear. The game Lear wishes to play with his daughters, which might be called ‘benevolent father and loving children’ leads us to a model of the transactions needed to play it successfully. Now the child in Lear’s child is cathected (which may be a symptom of old age, what we call second childishness) . . . Hence Lear’s opening kick comes in the form of benevolent Parent and his social action is ‘to divide his kingdom.’ However, his object is ulterior and comes from his Cathected Child . . .”


From an article by Arthur Wagner

in Tulane Drama Review, Summer 1967


Beware of jargon. It can lead to talking about acting taking the place of actually doing it. Though we’re exploring something complex and we must not overlook those complexities, we must all of us try all the time to be clearheaded and simple.


Well, I hope we’re reasonably clear about what our modern tradition is. Actually it’s a great deal more modern than we know. The key technical terms we use were not known to Elizabethan actors. They have only come into existence during the last hundred years or so. “Characterization” in our theatrical sense is a mid-nineteenth century word, though “character” in the sense of a part assumed by an actor comes in a hundred years earlier. “Motivation” seems to be a twentieth-century term and in its theatrical sense it hasn’t yet got into the Oxford Dictionary. It’s the same with one of our favorite words in the theater, “naturalistic.” This is salutary. I’m not decrying our modern tradition, merely trying to put it into perspective. It perhaps suggests how surprising our acting style would have seemed to the Elizabethans.


Ian McKellen: I don’t know that I agree with that. I suspect that actors through the generations have tried in their own terms to be real. After all, Hamlet’s advice to the players seems to be good advice that a modern director might give to modern actors: don’t be too theatrical, don’t saw the air too much, but think about the reality of the situation. What is modern about our approach however is the jargon that we use. As you’ve just pointed out, “motivation” is not a term that Shakespeare’s actors would have understood. But the feeling behind what “motivation” means, I suspect, Shakespeare and his actors would have understood very well.


Yes, they didn’t have the word “motivation” but Hamlet does talk about having “the motive and the cue for passion.”


Alan Howard: I think that Elizabethan actors had an instinctive apprehension of all this. They didn’t have some of the distractions that we have in our day. They depended more than we do on the spoken word. It was like food, and they probably used words much more sensually, almost eating words.


Yes, one of Shakespeare’s characters says as much. He says of another character, “He hath never fed of the dainties that are bred in a book. He hath not eat paper, as it were: he hath not drunk ink.” “Eating words” is a useful phrase.


Mike Gwilym: What exactly do you mean when you say “naturalistic”? That word can mean different things to different people, can’t it?


Yes, you’re right, we must define it. By “naturalistic” I mean the acting style and the kind of text which is the norm in the theater and film and television today. The deliberate attempt to make everything as natural and lifelike as possible. But there are two other words we ought to explain. We’ve touched on playing the quality of a speech as opposed to the intentions behind it. Let’s try to clarify that by looking at an example. Give us the opening line of The Merchant of Venice.


Ian McKellen: “In sooth I know not why I am so sad.”


Now that simple line can be said in an infinite number of ways. On the one hand you could go for the mood and the quality of it. Try it, for instance, sadly.