Shakespeare’s Poetry – Clues for an Actor

>>For many actors, doing a Shakespeare play
can be very intimidating. How do we as actors fully inhabit these complicated, multilayered
characters, while still being true to the poetry of the lines? It can all be very daunting.
>>Luckily, genius that he was, Shakespeare’s already done a lot of the work for us. The
language in here has enough clues in the verse and the word choice to help an actor get a
running start. So, let’s say I’m playing Romeo in “Romeo and Juliet” and I’m thinking about
Romeo’s soliloquy in Act II, Scene 2.  Now, every actor has different methods in how he
or she goes about first attacking Shakespearean text.  But as an example, let’s take a look
at the first couple of lines:>>Pretty famous words, huh? But just reciting
them on stage doesn’t really do me any good. So what hints does Shakespeare lay within
the poetry of the lines to help inform my acting choices? So, the first thing I do is
look at the meter and scansion of the lines. Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter, lines
of five iambs or feet, each of which is comprised of two syllables, the first syllable of which
unstressed, the second of which is stressed. This generally translates to ba-BUM-ba-BUM-ba-BUM-ba-BUM-ba-BUM.
Now, while you won’t come to the theater and hear me say: “But SOFT what LIGHT through
YONder WINdow BREAKS” The meter does give me clues to the forward motion of the lines,
and a hint to which words are important. After all, if I just read the line as scanned, the
full words that pop out to me are:”Soft! Light breaks!” That’s a pretty good summation of
the line. So what else do I find if I mark up my text? Well, a couple of things; for
instance, I find that envious, in this line, is actually pronounced en-vious, two syllables.
Instead of en-vee-us, I’ll be saying en-vyus.  Arise, fair sun! And kill the envious moon.
And in line 2, “it IS the EAST and JOO-li-ET’S the SUN” could be one version of the scanned
line. Or, if we believe that Juliet should be two syllables, as it’s often pronounced
throughout the play, let’s scan it that way: “it IS the EAST (pause) and JOO-lyet’s the
SUN,” now this makes for irregular scansion, but allows for a natural break in the middle
of a line.>>This natural break in the text and meter
is called a caesura, where modern editors sometimes put a semicolon or a colon. And
that hints at a change in thought for me. Perhaps I, as Romeo, could think about the
first line and a half of text as seeing a light in the distance as I get my bearings,
when BLAM! CAESURA!– I think about Juliet, and she immediately takes over my mind.  “But
soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east (!!!!!) and Juliet’s the sun!”
So here I am, playing Romeo, thinking about Juliet, whom I’m comparing to a bright star
in the sky. In line 3, why do I say “arise” instead of “awake”? Or “fair” instead of “sweet”?
So, I have to think as an actor about Romeo’s smitten state of mind, and how badly I want
Juliet to appear at that balcony above me. How nice to have open-mouthed vowel sounds
like the ones in “arise” and “fair” to depict my lovestrucked pleading. “Arise fair sun”–
yea, I feel pretty much like a slack-jawed teenager with a crush. Of course, there are
often rhythmic variations within these iambic pentameter lines: a foot could have two unstressed
syllables, it could be inverted, or perhaps a line could have a total of 11 syllables,
perhaps indicating something about the character’s mental state. Switching over to the Scottish
tragedy, let’s take a look at the first two lines of Macbeth’s famous soliloquy, in which
he sees the image of  a phantom dagger hovering in front of him. “Is this a dagger which I
see before me? The handle towards my hand?  Come, let me clutch thee.” Both lines have
a “feminine ending.” That is, an eleventh unstressed syllable at the end of the line.
Shakespeare’s meter here clues the actor into Macbeth’s mind, as the Scottish lord stalks
through the castle at night to kill the king. Macbeth is so overcome with adrenaline, so
pumped up with energy, that he’s speaking out of rhythm. Now, these examples barely
scratch the surface of studying Shakespearean text; numerous essays, and books, and schools
of thought exist on the matter. But just by reading Shakespeare’s poetry out loud an actor
can begin to get clued in on the very density of his characters.

3 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s Poetry – Clues for an Actor

  1. this is really helpful… I may have to watch it a few more times b/c you were speaking really fast, but I like it! Thanks.

  2. Does anyone know the best Shakespeare dictionary definition work that explains all the phrases that we "modern" people have forgotten.?

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