Rehearsing Shakespeare: Character and Language
"It's never about what the actor can do to the verse, it's about what the verse can do to them."
He can be exotically poetic or as clipped, dry and natural as if writing yesterday. Shakespeare's language has remarkable variety, not only in the movement between verse and prose but also in the use of rhyme, song, parody, the twists and turns of rhetorical tropes or spontaneous sonnets shared in the act of falling in love, but also in the exquisite delineation of character. This last element is something he became better and better at throughout his writing life and today lies at the centre of the rehearsal process - the revelation of character through language.
In many ways the writing is as different from modern texts as Renaissance cosmology is from contemporary astronomy. The characters don't use language in the same way we do. However the spectrum of psychological types is strikingly familiar. That is why we love Shakespeare despite the alien nature of his language. The characters are expressed, and explained, through their individual use of words. Speech may be heightened but is always revelatory.
If an actor ever finds themselves thinking: "My character wouldn't say that," then they are missing the point; their character does say that. They are in danger of insinuating what they want the character to be into what the character is. In a sense there is no character in the abstract only what they say. I was working with an actor who was having problems with Hotspur's dying speech in ‘Henry the Fourth’. He felt that Hotspur, being a far greater warrior than Prince Hal, wouldn't have lost the fight, would not be about to become "food for worms". Although all acting is about seeing the world and everything in it from your character’s point of view and his belief in his own capacity was admirable, he was failing to distinguish between his character and his role. He had been possessed by Hotspur's spirit but not his function, between the subjective and the objective. Hotspur dies because his death serves the narrative. However subjectively you feel, ultimately the character is not "yours" it is the story’s, a spirit within a bigger picture: a soul within the verse. Shakespeare's most vital skill was to link complex human feelings with language operating on a higher level of expression so that those feelings take on a vividness beyond the human brain’s usual capacity to explain itself. An actor’s role is their character in interaction with all the larger currents of life beyond their control, understanding or even contemplation.
It is part of rehearsal to talk about the way the verse and prose are structured, how their rhythms work, how the imagery is working within the flow of thought, and how freshness, clarity and being in the moment are compatible to going with that flow. Being real is being real within this context and is never achieved by breaking up the language into awkward chunks of inarticulacy that somehow sound modern.
In the verse sections the underlying iambic pentameter is the skeleton that shapes the passage of the thought through the words, and the words contain the character within themselves. There should be no imposition. It's never about what the actor can do to the verse, it's about what the verse can do to them.
There's a word I use a lot rehearsing Shakespeare - INCREDULITY. A lot of the time characters are using words that reflect their amazement at what the world is, at what the world does to them and others. Words are their only way of expressing this astonishment. The potency of this idea of incredulity in speaking Shakespeare is that it is a way of finding spontaneity and immediacy; a way of being in the moment. To ask an actor to simply be spontaneous is as unhelpful as asking them to be quicker or louder or more energetic. These things are too general to mean anything. But the quality of incredulity (whatever form it takes in a particular moment) is that it puts you in touch with how language (especially poetic language) new mints itself into thought in the instant of speech. Language becoming thought seems a counter intuitive idea; surely thought precedes language, is the basis of language! But it isn't helpful to see it that way when acting Shakespeare. With text as dense, as pictorial, as complex, the act of speaking has to be the act of thinking. The two things are virtually simultaneous but the words are actually explaining to the speaker the reasons for their feelings of astonishment, their incredulity. This is the experience of seeing the world explained by the medium of language. As each word passes through their lips the speaker is being transformed and the world will never be quite the same again to them. Feelings are translated into thoughts through speech, then more feeling is generated by the arrival of the newly articulated thought.
So what is character? Where is it hiding? Sometimes you will hear an actor say that they can't "find" their character, as if he or she had gone missing, is perhaps hiding somewhere in the rehearsal room waiting to be found like an excited child in a game of hide and seek. Once found the "character" can then be examined and imitated. But models or avatars of "characters" don't exist. All that exists is the actor, the text and the other actors. Character is a relative concept. In life we meet some people in whose presence we feel good about ourselves and others who make us feel bad, awkward, inadequate, stupid, ugly. People change each other constantly. Personality is just a series of interactions, always fluid, never solidifying into "character". In this respect acting Shakespeare is no different from acting any other dramatist or, for that matter, simply existing as a human being in real time and place. Sir Andrew, in ‘Twelfth Night’, was a different person to his mother than he is to Toby Belch. He was "adored once too".
Bill Alexander ©