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Posts Tagged ‘mixed genre’

If you haven’t already come across it, the Interesting Literature blog has some great posts, all laden with myth-busting facts about literature. The Shakespeare post is particularly good!

Here are my favourite Shakespeare gems, pilfered from many peers and academics over the years, and now lovingly handed over to you.

This information really changed the way I read and watch Shakespeare. Go forth and be wise.

1. Shakespeare is writing parts for specific people. In early modern plays, actors were typecast; they would play the same role in each play, particularly if they were the clown. Shakespeare wrote for two specific clowns in his career. His first was a man called William Kempe, an actor famous for his physical, slapstick and buffoonish style of comedy. Shakespeare’s earlier plays revel in just this kind of rambunctious, silly clowning. But after a disagreement (about what, we don’t know) Kempe quit the company. The clown that replaced him was a man with a very different theory of comedy: Robert Armin. As a result, we see a new ‘clown’  generating the comedy in Shakespeare’s later works. Fools like Touchstone in As You Like It are given verbally complex speeches, bursting with riddle, word-play, and always overlaid with satirical seriousness. The fool in King Lear sings the same song that the fool sings in Twelfth Night. It’s likely to have been Armin’s special set-piece, especially because we know Armin was a singer and Kempe was not.

William Kempe, from biography.com

William Kempe, from biography.com

Robert Armin, from findagrave.com

Robert Armin, from findagrave.com

2. Actors learnt their lines from cues. They were given ‘parts’ to practice, which only consisted of their lines, and then a three word cue of the last line before they were due to begin speaking. Always pressed for time, rehearsing was limited, and often actors would have no idea what was going on in the rest of the play until a final rehearsal, or in some cases, until the actual performance.

3. Actors wouldn’t stay in character. Learning from ‘parts’ meant that actors were part focused, not play focused. Unlike today, where we consider the best acting to be ‘realistic’, Shakespearean actors would not have had the same sense of keeping a character consistent throughout the play. In fact, they would often flop out of character on stage when not speaking.

4. Shakespeare didn’t always write in ‘acts’. From 1608 onwards, Shakespeare’s company performed in the indoor theatre Blackfriars during the winter, and the outdoor Globe in the summer. It’s at this point that Shakespeare first starts writing in acts. On a practical level, this was because Blackfriars was lit by candle chandeliers and 4 act breaks were needed to allow the candle wicks of these candle chandeliers to be trimmed. Pretty neat, huh! Of course, you could argue that Shakespeare’s new structure was simply borne out of a new interest in classicism and a corresponding desire to formalise his plays. But that is in no way as cool a fact.

blackfriars playhouse

Blackfriars, from orwhatyouwill.wordpress.com

5. Loads of people walked around semi-blind. It might seem like an obvious fact that the overwhelming majority of the groundlings would not have worn glasses. But as somebody that spends my whole life forgetting my glasses, not being able to see well enough to find where I put my glasses, and as a result seeing everything through a blurry haze, I sympathise with the groundlings all the way at the back of the pit, with poor eyesight, only laughing when everyone else laughed. It wasn’t assumed that everybody could clearly see the acting; as a result, a lot of gestures on the stage were huge and over-blown in order to communicate the drama explicitly enough.

6. The play would not have been viewed as exclusively ‘Shakespeare’s’. Actors would frequently change the lines written by the playwright. The best example of this is Hamlet’s final line: “The rest is silence. (Hamlet dies)”. In the 1623 folio edition of the play, however, we have “The rest is silence, o, o, o, o.”  The prolonged wailing of Hamlet as he dies (and an obvious contradiction of Shakespeare’s ‘the rest is silence’) is thought to be an addition by the actor likely to have played him: Richard Burbage, the most experienced actor in the company. Having played many tragic heroes, Hamlet’s swift death was perhaps not quite dramatic enough for him.

The Folio, from peterharrington.co.uk

The Folio, from peterharrington.co.uk

7. Similarly, two or more playwrights would often collaborate to write one play. A famous example of this is the play Sir Thomas More. Scholars think Thomas Heywood, Thomas Dekker and Shakespeare all joined forces here. Interestingly, the sole surviving manuscript for this play is the only place scholars think they can detect Shakespeare’s handwriting.

8. If Shakespeare is mixing tragedy and comedy, he’s likely to be mixing other things too. He wrote a number of ‘mixed genre’ plays: plays that can’t be neatly defined as either ‘tragic’ or ‘comic’. Othello, as a tragedy underpinned with comedy, is a perfect example of this. In this play we also have a mixed marriage. And a title that ostensibly brings together two incompatible things; a ‘Moor Of Venice’, where a Moor (North African) can presumably be in Venice, but not of, as in from, Venice. Shakespeare is reconciling opposites: black/white, soldier/husband. More brilliantly, this play has more compound words, (i.e. a word formed by joining two or more words) than any other Shakespeare play!

9. Shakespeare is always referencing the physical space in which his plays are being performed. For example, the insignia on the flag of the Globe theatre was either Hercules or Atlas holding the globe on his back. So any references to Hercules or Atlas in the plays are always meta-theatrical – a nod to the raised flag above them.

Michael Wood, In Search of Shakespeare

To marvel at Shakespeare some more, watch the Michael Wood documentary In Search of Shakespeare. Here’s the first episode:

Finally, if you like history and enjoy amassing as much information as possible, go and read historian Dr Lucy Worsley’s blog. SHE’S GREAT.

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