Taking a page out of Carol Ann’s book, I sat in on a couple of our High School Fellowship sessions recently. During this program, students study three of Shakespeare’s plays as scholars, actors, and audience members. Guest speakers come in throughout the semester to discuss a new perspective with them as they progress through the class.
Dr. Tuite, a scholar and dramaturge, took the students through a couple of scenes from Richard III in both a facsimile of a First Folio and a modern edition. He called the First Folio a “blueprint for performance.” In the First Folio, there are several words that were capitalized (or not) in ways that would look odd to us, spelling was different, punctuation in some odd-looking places, and more that – to a modern eye – looks funny. These oddities are important for actors to see as they tell you more about who the character is and how they talk. Do they capitalize the word “Woman?” – if so, they might think more highly of women. Does the spelling help a rhyme? – perhaps it makes more sense in OP (Original Pronunciation). Is there a rogue apostrophe? – this might affect a hitch in speech.
These oddities have been edited for modern readers and actors to look more like what they’re familiar with, but the acting choices made in the 16th century run throughout the folio text. Looking back helps us understand what performance looked like, and more about how the characters were originally conceived. For more on Editing Shakespeare, please see our YouTube playlist on the subject with Folger Editions editor Barbara Mowat.
Two days later, the students met Marcus Kyd, a local actor and director, who will work with them on their scenes for their final performance. After the students were assigned their scenes (mostly 2-person, and some groups), Marcus guided them through discovering their characters with four questions you’d want to answer as an actor: 1) Who are you? 2) What do you want? 3) What are your obstacles? 4) What are you going to do about it?
Then he had the pairs sit in chairs facing each other, and asked them to find the “hooks” in the lines of their scene partners that made them want to respond. The conversations in the plays have a lot of back-and-forth action in them – the characters respond to one-another, they don’t speak in a void. When they heard a “hook” they’d raise their hand (multiple hands, if there are multiple hooks), and put it down when their text responded to it.
For example: in Richard III, Act 4, scene 4, Richard is going to ask Queen Elizabeth for her daughter’s hand in marriage (after ensuring the deaths of Elizabeth’s sons, his own wife, and several of his own family members). She, sensing this danger, lashes out:
QUEEN ELIZABETH: And must she die for this? O, let her live,
And I’ll corrupt her manners, stain her beauty,
So she may live unscarred of bleeding slaughter,
I will confess she was not Edward’s daughter.
RICHARD: Her life is safest only in her birth.
QUEEN ELIZABETH: And only in that safety died her brothers.
RICHARD: Lo, at their births good stars were opposite.
QUEEN ELIZABETH: My babes were destined to a fairer death
If grace had blessed thee with a fairer life.
RICHARD: You speak as if that I had slain my cousins.
QUEEN ELIZABETH: Cousins, indeed, and by their uncle cozened
Of comfort, kingdom, kindred, freedom, life.
The colored text is where the characters respond directly to each other. Even in longer passages, one character may run down a long list of hooks that another character then responds to one by one. The students’ homework was to take their scenes home and, based on their exercise, find the hooks in the text that their character wanted to respond to.
And so in a few short days these students approached scenes from plays they’ve read and seen as both scholars and actors – with all the textual clues leading them towards a performance of the text. Shakespeare’s language is not insurmountable for its age, but knowing what to look for as actors makes many things clearer.