Tiffany Parker
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Rehearsing Shakespeare: Elizabethans

"we have to feel the rawness of life as Elizabethans did without the cotton wool of modern comfort"


They were like us. They were not remotely like us. They loved and hated and feared, laughed and died like us but they also believed profoundly different things about the nature of human existence within the physical world. But they were confused too, like us, their most fundamental beliefs were being challenged, they feared chaos both in the social and cosmic realms and this fearful uncertainty is a drumbeat through Shakespeare's plays. Tapping into it is the heartbeat of the life of rehearsal.

The other day I heard an astronomer say that science can only tell us what 10 per cent of the universe is made of, stars and planets and other material left over from the Big Bang, but the other 90 percent is a mystery: they call it dark matter and know nothing about it at all. Well the Elizabethans who either read or heard about the astronomer Nicholas Copernicus were being told something far more mind blowing than that. He was suggesting that they should discount the evidence of their own eyes and the centuries old teaching of their church. They were invited to forsake the idea that the earth was the still constant centre of the universe, that the Sun, Moon and planets circled around us, that the stars were fixed points of light embedded in a revolving transparent sphere on the other side of which was Heaven, the realm of God and his angels. Copernicus said this was not the case after all, rather the Sun was the motionless object around which we revolved along with the planets and the moon and, yes, that meant we were moving, the earth was moving under our feet travelling in a vast circle through the sky and spinning too, like a child's top, even though we couldn't feel it. The huge majority of Elizabethans refused to believe this of course, despite Galileo and his telescope. Instead they continued to believe what generations before them had believed and what the Church, whether Protestant or Catholic, taught, that Earth was the centre of God’s creation with Hell deep within and Heaven beyond the stars. The challenge of Galileo and Copernicus caused a mental crisis in the Elizabethan world which is perfectly expressed in a poem by John Donne, Shakespeare's contemporary. Here are lines from "The First Anniversary":

"And new Philosophy calls all in doubt,

The element of fire is quite put out;

The Sun is lost, and the Earth, and no man’s wit

Can well direct him where to look for it.

And freely men confess that this world’s spent

When in the Planets and the Firmament

They seek so many new; they see that this

Is crumbled out again to his Atomies.

T'is all in pieces, all coherence gone."

This was from about the same time that Shakespeare was writing ‘The Tempest’. Donne was eight years younger and would have been in his early 20s when the older man was gaining attention with his first successful plays. He was a passionate theatre goer and a friend of rival playwright Ben Jonson who knew Shakespeare well and respected him deeply. Imagine the three of them talking late into the night in The Boars Head or The Cardinals Hat. Did they believe the globe of the earth was travelling through space spinning like their heads after too much talk, too much wine, too much thought? Whether they personally did or not the hugeness of the idea transfused itself into their work - especially Shakespeare's.

Elizabethan sensibilities in some ways barely make sense to us now. Many of them would have been to an animal baiting show or a public execution in the same week they saw ‘Hamlet’ or ‘Twelfth Night’. They lived in a world where there was no electricity and the dark of night was truly dark, in rooms where you could not see your hand in front of your face unless you lit a candle. Rehearsing once with the actor playing Juliet I asked her, when she got the chance, to watch the shadows a candle makes on a white plastered wall and then think about Juliet's line imagining the naked Romeo: 

"Come night, come Romeo, come thou day in night,

For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night

Whiter than new snow upon a raven's back."

The new snow, his skin; the raven's back, the darkness; but the wings? Why "the wings of night"? That is the flickering effect of the light that only a candle makes on a bare wall.

Every Elizabethan would have recognised the appropriateness of that image instantly, we have to find the way of making a modern audience see it too; but first the actor must see it.

They were like us: they were not like us. They accepted that Justice might involve being part of a crowd watching a man having his guts cut out on a platform stage in a public square believing torture was a valid part of punishment, then on a day ‘Much Ado’ was playing at the Globe applaud with relish as Benedict says about the villain Don John: "I'll devise thee brave punishments for him. Strike up pipers!"

He is talking about torture, then calls for a dance. The cruel and the merry within the same thought. You can't shy away from this kind of paradox in rehearsals; you have to embrace it. You can't rationalise the moment by saying Benedict doesn't really mean it, that he's only joking. To do that would be to evade the truth that for the Elizabethans viciousness and laughter co-existed in a way we find difficult to understand. There is tragedy lurking in the comedy, and comedy roguishly present in the tragedy. 

Many of the comedies include a kiss between lovers towards the end. This would involve a young man in his mid-twenties to thirties kissing a young boy aged between 12 to 14 full on the lips in a portrayal of eroticism that would now be illegal.

The cold was colder, the dark darker, journeys that now take hours would take days or weeks. Medicine was random, unimaginably inadequate by our standards, death frequent and constantly anticipated at any age. The fear of death was generated anew every Sunday by the sermon that you would be fined for not attending. The message was crystal clear; if you followed the church's rules you stood a chance of going to heaven, if you strayed you would go to hell. Virtually everyone believed in the doctrine of Sin and Salvation, and the reality of an individual’s continued existence after death. Everyone understood a reckoning was coming.

Throughout Shakespeare's 20-year career the theatres were closed roughly every two years for some weeks or months because of the plague. In ‘Twelfth Night’, after her first meeting with Viola, Olivia, realising she has fallen in love, says: "Even so quickly may one catch the plague!" Everyone in the audience was afraid of the plague, everyone knew the authorities closed theatres because the tightly packed gatherings there were known to be one of the principal ways in which it spread. In the rehearsal room director and actor have to find the way of showing that Olivia is frightened as well as excited, that's the point of the image. Love was sometimes depicted as a disease that gained entrance into the heart through the eyes, that’s why women were encouraged to keep eyes lowered to the ground in male company. 

The realities of life and the social and religious belief systems of the period thread their way inextricably through the texts, and we must try to react to them in rehearsals not pretend they don't exist. Portia, in the ‘Merchant’, is overjoyed at Bassanio making the right choice of caskets, so winning her in the bizarre marriage lottery invented by her father. She speaks about her happiness to her future husband and in front of witnesses saying this: 

"Happiest of all, is that her gentle spirit

Commits itself to yours to be directed,

As from her Lord, her Governor, her King." 

This was simply the received wisdom of the age with its passion for order: the world was a better place if women obeyed their husbands, were "directed" by them, just as subjects obeyed their monarch. You can find this belief stated over and over again in Elizabethan literature. But to us the implications of this idea are at least as indigestible as the casual anti-semitism that runs through the same play. Given my basic thesis that to distance yourself from the language by using modern irony or turning a blind eye to the actual meaning is to rip the heart out of the thought, my approach in rehearsal has been that Portia means what she says in that precise moment with every fibre of her being and doesn't care who knows it. This is as achievable in modern dress as in Elizabethan. It's what she feels and we can decide not to like her for it if we choose. They are on the front foot all the time the Elizabethans, and we should not dampen their passion with a wink. They were physical, they thought their feelings were in their blood not their brains. Coursing through their veins, they believed, were substances called "humours". To be at ease with yourself these liquids needed to be in balance: there were four of them, blood which controlled the characteristics of happiness and positivity, yellow bile which made you angry, black bile that made you sad and phlegm which offered passivity and acceptance. They didn't think a person had simply to strive to be happy all the time any more than we should. What would we do without anger in the time of Trump, without the capacity for sadness in the face of suffering, or the ability to accept the inevitability of disease and death. We know these things are in our minds, but the Elizabethans thought they were in their bodies and their behaviour and their language reflects exactly that. In the rehearsal room we have to discover ways of expressing this, to feel the rawness of life as they did without the cotton wool of modern comfort.

When we are acting Shakespeare we can be like us, but we have to be like them as well.

Bill Alexander ©


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