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Rehearsing Shakespeare

The fundamental truth about acting Shakespeare is that thinking and speaking are the same thing.

Virtually single-handed Shakespeare invented an art form through which human beings could look at themselves, think about themselves, and potentially change themselves. This had never been done before. He was operating in a sympathetic environment. Late Renaissance England was a place full of enquiry, curiosity and adventure. Hamlet calls it ‘holding the mirror up to nature’, human nature in all it's strange complexity and unpredictability. Any member of his audience was being invited to understand by witnessing vivid examples how, for instance, a man might smile a lot yet still be a bad person. Individuals almost certainly knew this from their own private thoughts and experiences, but the stage could give them electrifying reflections of their intuitions and could make them concrete, clear and exciting - could make them feel less alone with their fears.

In example after example Shakespeare revealed publicly just how strange and familiar men and women could be. This gave those who saw his plays the possibility of real self-knowledge, of acquiring mental tools with which they could understand, challenge and maybe re-shape themselves and their passage through the world. Much about the way the world was changing in his time was generating a thirst for self-contemplation that went beyond the ideas and instructions offered by religion. The suggestion that a principal purpose in life was to know yourself born in the classical world and re-born in the European Renaissance echoes through the plays:

‘I have much ado to know myself’
‘To thine own self be true,
‘I am I’
‘He did ever but slenderly know himself’
‘To know my deed t'were best not know myself’


The choices were stark and brutal in the medieval world: follow the Church all the way to heaven or go your own way to hell. This choice had shaped the thinking of generation after generation of women and men from all classes of society and at all levels of intellect. The proposition was simple - your body might die but your mind remained alive, forever, in one of three possible places: Heaven, Hell or Purgatory. The last was the place for those who had been neither all good nor all bad, in other words, the vast majority. The prison term was flexible according to God’s assessment, but the punishments were beyond brutal. Hamlet’s father tells him all about it. The priests of the day told their congregations all about it - graphically - once a week. Fire and much more for unimaginable stretches of time. What effect must this have had on the human mind? Was it really like that? Everyone must have thought about it a lot, so to go to a theatre, a very new kind of place and very different from a church, and hear Hamlet think about life after death as an undiscovered country must have been astonishing. The Reformation by consigning the idea of purgatory to the realms of superstition was opening minds to a huge range of speculative possibilities regarding the nature of life and death. Hamlet is the child of the reformed philosophy and in the new theatre you went to hear him thinking. A clever mans brain is made audible to enrich our own thoughts, to take us beyond the grip of doctrinal fear. 

The fundamental truth about acting Shakespeare is that thinking and speaking are the same thing. When an actor first realises this and understands the significance, it can be transforming. The sound of a word coming alive in the air triggers other words that begin to explain the individual to themselves. This is the process of knowing yourself. Whoever the character is, cynical or innocent, ambitious or humble, angelic or brutish, they face revelations about the world with a kind of constant incredulity and these moments of comprehension, whether in dialogue or soliloquy, force a complicit response in the listener. This was all new at the time and it always needs re-discovery. No two soliloquies in Shakespeare work in quite the same way because no two people are quite the same. This is the creation of character in its modern sense; personal and inimitable. In rehearsing we always have to ask if such a thing as character actually exists because the deeper we dig into our characters and ourselves the more we realise we are all actually several people, we don't just have one character. We try to have, but mood, circumstance, place, time and especially other people mean that we are always changing, always in a state of flux - like nature itself. The examination of people and their inter-relationships, the constant triangulation of mixed desires and thwarted loves pulses through all the plays like an iambic heartbeat. Young lovers, middle aged lovers, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, fathers and sons, sons and mothers, form the first detailed kaleidoscopic examination of the human mind and heart. It stands today as a blueprint for understanding ourselves. Heart and Brain, Body and Soul, Wit and Will, Reason and Emotion the raw material of conflict that makes the Shakespearean rehearsal room one of the most exciting places on earth.

Bill Alexander

 #Blog #BillAlexander #TheMerchantofVenice

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