Mary Chater
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Rehearsing Shakespeare: Character and Narrative

"The art of rehearsal is to capture moments of potential change, when the direction of life hangs in the balance, when a character might behave or react in an unexpected way."

There is another way of looking at character: not in relation to language but to narrative, to storytelling. Drama students are taught that narrative is character in action, that it's the things characters do and why they do them that make stories. This way of looking at acting as storytelling means that character does exist and that, shaped by circumstances of birth and life experience, people acquire certain mental characteristics that lead them to behave in certain ways. So language turns into narrative because it is the way characters seek to discover the meaning of what made them, their backstory, and to reveal or conceal themselves to other people. 

In ‘Twelfth Night’ Sir Andrew wants Sir Toby to know that he was once adored just as Toby says Maria adores him. It gives them something in common, they can compare experiences, after all - they are friends aren't they? What would happen if, at that moment in the play, instead of ignoring this invitation to learn more, Toby were to say: "Tell me about it. Sit down. Let's talk about you for a moment, it's not all about me." He doesn't because he's too selfish, he doesn't want to know about anyone else as he's really only interested in having his own ego fed. But if he did, just for a moment, let kindness intrude on his plan to soak Andrew for every penny he can, then the story would develop in a different way. But most people are not like feathers in the wind of every passing moment. Personalities tend to be stuck in grooves, compelled by needs and desires. This is how character drives narrative. The art of rehearsal is to capture moments of potential change, when the direction of life hangs in the balance, when a character might behave or react in an unexpected way. For instance after Andrew has said: "I was adored once too," Toby might pause for a second, look at the man he is conning and think: "Does he deserve this?" Curiosity and sympathy for another could visit the vain knight just long enough for his gull to sense an openness into which he could pour out his heart to his friend. He might begin to speak . . . but the moment passes, the hunger for money shifts the con artist back into his groove and all we get is: "Let's to bed, knight. Thou had’st need send for more money."

In Shakespeare's four great tragedies the stories are propelled by the principal character being possessed by a side of themselves that overwhelms everything else about them. With Macbeth his ambition, a smouldering ember, is blown into raging fire by his damaged wife. Othello's jealousy, which he never knew he had, is brought to the surface by a jealous and lying "friend". Lear's pride becomes enraged by the innocent honesty of his youngest daughter. Hamlet's intellect makes him his own tormentor. We all have these characteristics latent within us - pride, jealousy, ambition - but narrative thrives on them becoming enlarged by encountering the cross winds of other personalities with different backstories and other passions. Shakespeare took drama to another level by taking types from the medieval morality plays who actually went by names like Pride, Jealousy and Ambition, and turning them into complex human beings almost like you and me. 

Bill Alexander ©


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