Monday, April 21, 2014

Trust the Text - Part 1

Special thanks to Saralynn Evenson for the idea behind this post.

I have a theory that the best performances of Shakespeare all start with the acting clues already written into the script by Shakespeare himself. My work on Flewellen and The King of France for Bad Quarto’s 2014 production of Henry the Fift is proof this theory is correct!

Patrick Tucker's research suggests Shakespeare and his actors had busy performance schedules, often doing six or more different shows per week.

Patrick Tucker also suggests Shakespeare's actors never received the full script. This was done to save time writing and to prevent theft of the story.

With only their own lines to work from, the actors had no idea how the scenes would play out until they actually performed it in front of a paying audience. This meant their acting choices had to be bold and deliberate.

How did Shakespeare and his company pull off this impossible task?


Imagine Shakespeare was a composer instead of a playwright, writing symphonies instead of plays.

To write these symphonies Shakespeare selects notes and chords for the proper effect, and indicates when to pause, when to grow louder, and when to speed up. Shakespeare’s musicians would have no problem reading the sheet music because they all speak the common language of music theory and musical notation.

This idea of “Shakespeare as composer” is more accurate than you might believe. Shakespeare used words and grammar like a composer uses notes and measures, creating a notation system with his actors to quickly communicate stage directions and character choices in his scripts.

Does this notation system work? What happens if we defy it?


Now you Lords of Orleance,
Of Bourbon, and of Berry,
You see the King of England is not slack,
For he is footed on this land alreadie.
— Scene 5

This is my first piece of dialogue as the King of France. This is what I know:

  • The speech is written in verse
  • The meter is iambic pentameter
  • The first two lines are each only three measures long
  • There are four , and one .
  • The King references four people by title.

Verse Is Emotional

Language written in verse is more emotionally charged than prose and the character is choosing to speak this way. While speaking in verse suggests the King is fully invested in the invasion from England and has an opinion on the events, the fact that he's still speaking regular iambic pentameter suggest his emotions are still under control.

Short Lines Are Pauses

Short lines in a block of verse indicate a pause for stage business. The pause can be at the start of the line or at the end, but never in the middle. The stage business could be as simple as the King indicating each actor playing the lords. Or it could be used for a slow, methodical walk across the stage. Whatever the reason, it should be a bold, deliberate choice.

Thoughts Are Longer than You Think

The . indicates the end of a thought. The , are small gear shifts within that thought. Even though there are pauses for stage business in the speech, the momentum of the thought must be played through to the end.

Referencing People Means They're on Stage

The King's speech starts with Now you, which is a direct reference to someone in the playing space. This tells me Lord of Orleance, the Lord of Bourbon and the Lord of Berry are most likely on stage with the King during this scene. There may be other people on stage in addition to the three lords, but because the King doesn't reference them he might not know they are there.

The King of England is referenced indirectly, suggesting Henry is elsewhere during this scene.

Titles Reveal Relationship and Status

Addressing a character by name implies familiarity and equal social status. Addressing a character by title is more formal, and implies unequal social status. The King of France is the supreme head of state, and addressing the other characters on stage by their title of Lord suggests the King is still in command of his country.

The King of France references Henry by the title of King of England, suggesting recognition and respect of Henry as a legitimate monarch.


The clues in this speech suggest the King of France is someone very thoughtful, who takes his time and calculates his every move. The King chooses his words carefully, and recognizes that his decisions about the war with England will decide the fate of his kingdom.

To emphasize the slow, methodical nature of the King, I may choose to move slowly and deliberately while on stage. To highlight the King's superior status, I may choose to remain in one place for the whole scene, forcing the other characters to change position.


Whatever my choice as an actor, it must be bold because what I do on stage will influence the other actors' understanding of the scene. The King of France may think he's in command, so all my acting choices must announce this idea. The other characters on stage may disagree, so the actors must make strong choices to announce their disagreement.

Without rehearsal, there's no way of knowing how the scene plays out until its performed in front of the audience. As long as the King fights for what he believes in and the other characters do the same we have conflict, which is at the heart of every great play we love to watch.

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