Friday, July 13, 2007

For the Actors:

Some notes on Elizabethan character

There are 3 key aspects to understanding the Shakespearean construction of character:

1. The belief in types;
2. The idea of reality;
3. The didactic purpose of art.

1. Types

In the ‘All the World’s a Stage’ speech, Jacques, ‘provides us with a series of little character sketches, all self-contained, each stage apparently deriving nothing from the age before.’ ([Greer) There are ‘rites of passage’ between roles – but the human being is seen as playing stock roles.

An important thing to understand at this point is that these ‘roles’ are not caricatures – Jacques might pencil-in some small details as illustration – but he does use the words ‘Acts’ to describe each period of time – the theatre is aiming to show a complete, not a partial, view. There will appear ‘several’ versions of a type on stage, and frequently one man in one play will act several parts.

If we look at the ‘act’, Soldier in Jacques speech, some interesting detail comes out – applicable to all the soldier roles in Shakespeare’s plays. He is expected to be bearded ‘like the pard’ – marking his masculinity in contrast to the earlier, almost effeminate lover, and marking his rough wildness in contrast with the ‘formal cut’ magistrate.

We might choose to believe ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’ – but, ‘clothes maketh the man!’ – very much so in Elizabethan England where rules on how you dressed could determine your right to move through the country. ( I am tempted to suggest modern airport security checks are not much different.)

A beard, is a beard, is a beard – but can you grow one, how thick is it and do you cut it ? The talliban understand that quite clearly.

‘Jealous in honour’ – your soldier has to measure himself against others – he is seeking an almost Mafia-like purity of honour: Whether it is Pistol or Hotspur.

Sudden and quick in quarrel – how else can you be ‘macho’? There is a tiresome stream of quarrelling youth in Shakespeare’s History plays – frequently indulged by their elder relatives – it is, after all, an aspect expected in this role. It is an aspect disrespectful of rank and nationality; both the French Court and the English campfire display it.

What is genius in Shakespeare is not the ‘breaking out’ of the constraints of these characteristics, but the variation he manages to display within the boundaries – and the consequent depth he is able to take our capacity to reflect.

It is a concept of character that is also very useful in displaying sudden change – the change that so frustrates the method actor: Hal becomes, through the ‘rite of passage’ of coronation a new character type – King.

Falstaff, at the same time, possibly as a consequence of the realisation of his true role, turns to the final act – second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, etc.

This concept of character role extends into real life.

2. Reality

The comparison of ‘The World’ to ‘A Stage’ is a very common idea in the Renaissance – way back in the 15th Century, Pico Dello Mirandola, said at the very beginning of his ‘Oration of the Dignity of Man’,

I have read in the ancient writings of the Arabians that Abdala the Saracen on being asked what, on this stage, so to say, of the world, seemed to him most evocative of wonder, replied that there was nothing to be seen more marvellous than man.

(An alternative translation renders the phrase, ‘on this stage, so to say, of the world,’ as ‘in this theatre of the world.’)

And in Shakespeare’s time:

What is our life? A play of passion
Our Mirth the music of division;
Our mother’s wombs the tiring houses be,
Where we are dressed for this short comedy;

(Sir Walter Ralegh)

Shakespeare himself constantly reminded his audience of this idea –

Antonio: I hold the world but as the world … a stage where every man must play his part, and mine a sad one.

Macbeth: Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage . . .

So what, in Ralegh’s terms, is dressed in the tiring house of the womb? What is it that, actor like, plays its part?

The Human Soul.

To quote Greer again:

The soul was not simply a static entity, like an invisible identity card, but a dynamic principle, the fire breathed by God into the clay. Just as the actor animated different trappings in different situations in the same play, and in different plays at different times, the soul animated the protean body through all its changes.

The body and all it goes through – whether it be ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, or ‘a little time to monarchise’ – is just the costume and action of a brief play – the reality, the living soul, endures before and after the illusion of performance.

But the soul is not accessible – you cannot cut it out, you cannot ask it directly – ‘there’s the rub’.

Like some Elizabethan cult of celebrity, the question was constantly asked – what is the actor really like? What does he use when he acts on the stage that truly reflects the real he?

In other words, what is illusion and what truth?

Method acting tends to look for the ‘true’ person within the uniqueness and isolation of individuality and personality – what actions and history have shaped and moulded this character.

To the Elizabethan this is to deny the fundamental principal of ‘free will’ – how could an outside force ‘shape’ and determine the free soul?

To the Elizabethan the question is, ‘What choices have been made?’

Because, to quote Ralegh further:

Heaven the judicious sharp spectator is,
That sits and marks who doth act amiss;

The theatre can be seen as not just a metaphor, but a real ‘acting out’ of the human situation. Shakespeare never lets go of the play between reality and illusion – and never lets his audience forget the freedom of choice being made – Hamlet’s ‘Thus conscience does make cowards (of us all)’ comes at the end of a question, ‘To Be or ….?’

Conscience is a product of the soul – which was believed to reside in the head - it is a ‘dynamic’ force that interacted with our thoughts giving humans the power to choose, always, between right and wrong.

And like in tennis, where the game is never lost until the last ball, the soul is able to reach god, is free to repent, even up to death.

One of the jobs of the theatre was to illuminate the constant choices being made in daily life and to illustrate the consequences: Art was needed to cut away the detritus of confusion, and the bare stage was a good place to do it.

3. Didactic Purpose

To suggest that Shakespeare and his team were only writing ‘entertainments’ is to miss the significance of the regular, constant and quite widespread attacks that were made on ‘the theatre’ at the time.

The Puritan attacked because acting was seen as lying – imitating speech and actions taught people to be untruthful. Also attacked by the Puritan was the acting of female parts by males (still, and perhaps more, ‘mis-taken’ nowadays), which was seen as just plain evil.

The good councillors of the city of London – and a sizeable proportion of its citizens of worth – disapproved of the theatre not only because of the disease, lewdness and distraction from work engendered by the performances, but also because it raised questions of authority and power.

The need for companies to be ‘under the protection’ of some great Dignity was not only ‘protection’ from prosecution for vagabondage, but also a great way to secure self-censorship from the companies and keep them not ‘off’ the hot topics of the day (Politics and Religion), but within the right, state approved, view.

Plays were used in school to teach boys –serving both as a delight and an instruction. Pupils were taught to ‘read’ pagan classic texts, like Terence, as sources of insight into Christian morality – line by line.

Finally, Sir Philip Sidney’s ‘Apologie for Poetry’ makes the didactic claim, as does Hamlet in his ‘mirror up to nature’ speech – which must surely be a typical Shakespearean ‘quote’ of Donatus on Comedy: ‘imitatio vitae, speculum consuetudinis, imago veritatis’ (an imitation of life, a mirror of manners, an image of truth).

What all of these things have in common is the belief that a public performance of a play, not only could, but would with certainty, instruct. It would present ‘a truth’, which the audience would believe and possibly act on. It would thus be a force – whether for good or evil depending on the content and the audience’s point of view.

Shakespeare wrote knowing he had a responsibility to portray ‘… the relation between God and man, of ways of behaviour both ideal and reprehensible, and the demonstration of ethical issues’ (Greer, pg. 28 ).

Another thing that is very special about Shakespeare is that he not only took this duty seriously – but seems to relish the role of teacher – and teacher of the groundlings: He focuses on the ‘uneducated’ on the un-schooled – but he never compromises or writes ‘down’.

In Henry V, the didactic responsibility (as outlined by Greer) gives an extra dimension to both the action and the actors’ performances. (I’m using Henry V as an example – but I think the idea is applicable to all of Shakespeare’s plays.)

The prologue makes a claim for the King – he is Godlike – the god happens to be ‘Mars’, but that would be seen by the Elizabethan’s as a metaphor for an aspect of the ‘True God’: Look at Michaelangelo’s portrayal of Christ in ‘The Last Judgement‘ in the Sistine Chapel, and you have your Mars/Henry. But also look at the portrait of Elizabeth in armour at Tilbury – that also is Henry.

The actor is playing the ‘role’ of King – but so too is the real King – he has also ‘assumed’ the God-given Role. When the prologue points out the stage is just a show – the audience know that the ‘theatre of the World’ is also just a show.

The prologue goes on to point out that the actors are ‘but ciphers’ - one person represents many – a very clear statement of the representative nature of the characters. Pistol is not the portrayal of a real human, but the distillation of many – his characteristics have been selected not on the basis of psychological truth, but verisimilitude. His purpose is to represent and illustrate.

Just as Shakespeare frequently uses blank verse to heighten the language, so he heightens characters – truth can only been seen through art. The real is to be found not in the slavish reproduction of the illusion of the world, but in the artistic recreation of the hidden truth.

Hamlet’s advice to the actors should not be read as a proto-Stanislavskian manifesto – it is an appeal against excess and illusion – but that illusion is as much the illusion of the world as of the stage.

Quotes from Greer:


Scot said...

Thank you Alan.

Very useful ideas - i think returning to Jacques' speech and highlighting the type-qualities associated with my character when I next perform a Shakespeare play will be a really useful exercise. Thank you for putting me onto it.


Alan K.Farrar said...

You're welcome - good to know I am not only writing for myself!
Remember that Jacques gives a limited number of types - so some of the characters you play might need to be looked at in several plays.

Ian Thal said...

I wonder, when Jacques lists his types of man, especially since he refers to the stock commedia dell'arte character, Pantalone, how much Shakespeare is self consciously acknowledging the influence of the Italian comedic tradition, or how much he is merely speaking for the common social views of renaissance Europe as articulated through theatre?

Commedia, while it had broad character types like vecchi (old men, generally powerful members of the middle class) and zanni (servants, commoners)-- tended to further distinguish them into sub-types: the vecchi became Pantalone, who represented those who gained their fortune through commerce, or Il Dottore who was a parody of the learned class (lawyers, medical doctors, scientists); the Zanni were regional stereotypes: Brighella for Upper Bergamo, Arlecchino for lower Bergamo, Pulchinella for Napoli, Pedrolino for the somewhat more urbane servant who has grown up in the big city. Might Shakespeare have explored his character types in similar ways?