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Rehearsing Shakespeare: Age

"capture the spontaneity of personalities less ironic and less understated than ourselves"

We know from the text that in ‘The Tempest’ Prospero's daughter is 15 years old. A betrothal happens during the play of a kind Jacobean audiences would have been familiar with. Miranda is pledged to Ferdinand, overseen by her father, in an improvised ceremony involving just the three of them. Imagining beyond the end of the play we can assume, once everyone is back in Naples, there will be a full wedding. Maybe by then Miranda will have passed her 16th birthday, a perfectly acceptable age for marriage in that society. Not however the average age which has been estimated at between 20 and 23. Rosalind, Viola and Portia all of whom head towards marriage in their respective plays would seem to be about that age, though no one mentions it. So Miranda is very young which means she is both vulnerable and malleable. Her manipulation into a union that neatly fits the schematic demands of the play - old enemies reconciled through dynastic bonding - is not a comfortable idea if you are trying to look at the play naturalistically and through modern eyes. The issue in the rehearsal room is how old do you play her; do you ignore or cut the age relevant text? 

The situation for Juliet is different, and Romeo and Juliet is a much less schematic play that carries within it a far more complex approach to age and marriage. She is, again according to the text, 13. In the early part of the play before she's even heard of Romeo Montague she is being set up in an arranged marriage against her will. But here her father seems to make it clear that he regards 13 as too young to get married.  There is disagreement between her parents, her mother is all in favour and, rather shockingly, points out that she was 13 when she gave birth to Juliet. Lady Capulet can't be more than 27. This means she is probably considerably younger than her husband, who from the characterisation of his speech, it's rhythms and repetitions, seems closer to 60 than 40. This matters in rehearsal because the ages of Miranda and Juliet are important narrative elements. They are significantly more innocent people than the shrewd Viola, the witty and sophisticated Rosalind or the confident, clever and well educated Portia. Shakespeare's intention is partly to explore their vulnerability within the different circumstances of each story. Originally both Juliet and Miranda would have been played by actors who were exactly the right age for the parts. Not the right sex, but definitely the right age. The boy players tackling these roles just before their voices broke would have naturally placed an emphasis on the importance of the characters extreme youth to the two story lines. This is why casting the parts now is notoriously difficult. Coming out of drama school these days most actors would be, on average, somewhere between 23 and 26, at least 10 years too old for either character. Several years of training will, potentially, have equipped them to handle the language but there is a huge psychological difference between 13 and 26. That's a massive acting challenge. 

This raises a bigger question about age and casting in Shakespeare. The average life expectancy in the late 16th century was 47 years. In London, where most of the theatres were, it was 35 years in the wealthier parts of the populace and 25 years in the poorer. The vast majority of people in Shakespeare's London were young. The average age of Francis Drake's crew on the Golden Hind during his first circumnavigation of the globe, was 25. The implication is simply that most of his characters were conceived of as considerably younger than we tend to think of them. Because of our longer lives we fill up a casting gap. If we didn't, no actor over 50 would ever get to play a part. Burbage, Shakespeare's leading actor, was under 40 when he played King Lear, textually 80. Of course he wrote older people, as well as Lear there's Polonius, Justice Shallow, Falstaff and so on, but the age was acted not real. In certain plays perceived old age is the subject of tragedy or satire or pure comic ridicule, but we need to be aware that Beatrice and Benedict were not intended to be in their mid-40s. 

I believe this contemporary re-imagining of many key characters as middle-aged, or what is now middle-aged, has profound implications to the way we tend to see and do Shakespeare today. It is because we are older and more sophisticated and more ironic; more cautious, self-conscious, and more self-aware that we sometimes find it hard to access the untempered, unsophisticated, incredulous passion and anger, joy and fear that surges and eddies through the plays, and is an aspect of the characters youth. Furthermore it is bound up with the totally non-naturalistic devise of endowing characters with powers of speech beyond the normal; putting exquisite poetry into the mouth of a 13 year old girl or breath-taking imagery into the mind of a murderer. We moderns value irony and understatement so highly it is hard to get into the heads and capture the spontaneity of personalities less ironic and less understated than ourselves. What we most fear is that the language and hence the acting will seem over the top. At least this is certainly the problem many English actors have with Shakespeare. The instinct to use our modern sensibilities, prejudices and habits of thought as a guide to an early modern individuals behaviour is so strong because we fear appearing ridiculous. It may well be just an English condition. There is something wry and undemonstrative about the English character now that wasn't the case in the 16th century when we were looked on by our European neighbours as particularly volatile, unstable and over emotional. They put it down to too much beef in our diet. Sir Andrew says: "I am a great eater of beef, and I believe that does harm to my wit." Wit meant reason.

Every day in the rehearsal room is a search for how to combine the subtle with the fiery, the understated with the emotional; about how to blend the modern mind with the Renaissance mind which valued the cultivation of manners and gentility precisely because brutality and suffering were so much closer to the surface of life.

Bill Alexander. ©



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