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Rehearsing Shakespeare: Subtext

"In Shakespeare, characters tend to use language to say exactly what they mean with as much detail and precision as their command of words allows"

How can rehearsals help an actor ingrain the idea of being in the moment in performance? How do you prepare for spontaneity? That seems paradoxical. This is where the concept of subtext comes in and it's an idea that can lead to passionate debate. Most people understand subtext to mean thoughts that lie beneath the text but are not expressed directly by the words. Words that if interpreted in a particular way convey the true intentions and real meaning of the speaker. For instance a character might say in reply to information or the expression of a point of view about someone or something: " I really can't believe that" but imply by a subtle inflection, the precise opposite; to say, in effect, that they can believe it only too easily. We call this irony, (or sarcasm)! But this way of speaking is related to a very modern frame of mind and a way of expressing ourselves that didn't really exist in early modern writing, or indeed thinking. In Shakespeare, characters tend to use language to say exactly what they mean with as much detail and precision as their command of words allows. Irony is seldom present, nor is concealment. There is usually no "subtext" in the modern sense. When Iago deludes Othello about the relationship of Cassio and Desdemona he is lying, as he told us he will do. That's not subtext, that's pure deceit that he has already given us the key to. Same with Richard of Gloucester. Same with Sir Toby to Sir Andrew.

This is one of the reasons Shakespeare's text can often seem dauntingly dense. It is crammed with meaning, often nuanced and qualified at length and strongly imbued with rhetoric and imagery. This elaboration, as opposed to distillation of language, was one of the principal subjects taught in the grammar schools of the day. It had a profound influence on the literary and dramatic art of the late Renaissance. There was simply no space for subtext except in very particular circumstances. Elaboration was the pursuit of clarity of argument, of persuasion, of thinking out loud.

A kind of subtext is present in situations involving disguise. A good example of this is in 'Twelfth Night' where Viola, a naturally honest person but disguised as a boy and consequently deceiving everyone she meets, is forced by her situation to give roundabout and evasive answers to direct and simple questions. There is a powerful narrative reason for her being unable to say exactly what she thinks because she is trapped in maintaining the illusion of maleness. The comedy comes from her efforts to stay as close to the truth of her own feelings as possible while maintaining her disguise. Pretending to be someone else, or to believe something you don't believe, as with Viola and Iago, is the only type of subtext in any of the plays.

It may seem odd trying to define something while claiming it doesn't exist, but it's absence is one of the keys to getting under the skin of the text. When an actor tries to supply a subtext to Shakespeare's lines as opposed to letting the words speak for themselves as thought in action, then a deadening layer of psychological fog will clog the airwaves between their mouths and the listeners' brains. The art of rhetoric, a word we regard with suspicion as implying shallowness and pomposity, was central to Shakespeare's education and his thinking and development. Rhetoric (elaborate and pictorial use of words) was essentially the art of persuasion, of getting your point of view across. Better than seeing it as poetic for its own sake is to see it as a method of getting your own way, either practically or emotionally.

In rehearsal the question should be: "What is the character's argument here"? It's extraordinary how much time the people of Shakespeare's world spend arguing with each other, or with themselves. Ask, what is my argument not what is my emotional state. What am I thinking, not what am I feeling. Clarity of argument makes the emotion happen to you and makes the audience empathise. It connects them to their own experience and helps them identify with you rather than being showered in generalised angst. The words themselves ARE the emotion.

Bill Alexander ©

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