Shakespeare: As I Like It Essay, Research Paper
Shakespeare: As I Like It
I know you all and will awhile uphold / The unyok d humour of your idleness. This quotation from Henry IV is the first line from a short monologue that I had to memorize in grade nine English class. An assignment, I suppose, that was to help us appreciate language, understand character and learn discipline. Unfortunately, it was recited to Mrs. Derii at break-neck speed in a low whisper so as not to disturb any of the library patrons snoozing in the nearby study carols. At that time I gave no thought to iambic pentameter, motivation, or subtext. I said my piece and escaped with nary a moment to waste. The world of Shakespeare can be very blurry when seen through the eyes of a thirteen year-old Christian boy. I did not like it and I did not know why.
I did not think we should be studying Greek mythology either. I thought, Why study myth when there were so many valuable facts to be learned instead? The Bible for instance was full of relevant and useful facts that I had learned. I even brought a red, pocket-sized version of the New Testament to school one day to prove Mars was only an idol created by heathen and not the god of war, as we were lead to believe. My plight against the thick-skulled non-believers proved fruitless. Mars had won the battle I thought, but there were many more fields on which to fight.
Thankfully, I no longer see myself as a freedom-fighter shaking my fist at an ignorant school system, albeit still an imperfect one. Having shaken off the coils of my religion, seven years has made me a cynical and embittered old man. This exaggeration is meant in jest, but no doubt I miss the many things denied to me as a child. It is all I can do to rediscover those feelings and experiences of the past and approach them from an
objective, untainted view; to try to remove biases that once held me at bay from enjoying every facet of life s offerings. Important things like career choices and religion have grown trivial. Trivial things such as childhood smells and ice-cream have grown to be much more important. For example, I feel guilty ordering chocolate sundaes at Baskin Robbins nowadays. The question arises, Why not try Smurfberry-Pecan-Sherbert instead? The answer to that question is fairly simple: I probably won t like the taste.
Certainly, though, there must be some flavour that appeals to my taste-buds. This triviality extends into every decision I make and it is through Shakespeare that I have found solace inasmuch as he, I believe, realizes the darkest or the most precious moments in life. My first opportunity to act in a full length Shakespearean play came in the Fall of 1994. The University of Waterloo Drama Department mounted a production of Macbeth and my audition landed me the part of the Scottish Doctor. Of course I wanted to play Malcolm, but that role was given to a far more adept actor than myself (sarcastic undertone). The fact that the Doctor only has two speaking scenes mattered little; I realized I was going to be acting Shakespeare. Actually, that statement is embellished. More accurately, I was a little disgruntled about the decision but thankful nonetheless. The fact remained that I had an integral part in the plot development of the play and the character development of Macbeth s wife. In hindsight I realize this role was a good place for me to start, in that it is better to ease into the style of the text rather than jump headlong.
The elevated language, and more specifically, the iambic pentameter, presented a problem for me in that I could not keep the delivery of the lines fresh. The rhythm of the blank verse trapped me into saying the lines almost exactly the same each time. The
performance sounded believable but the lack of spontaneity kept it from reaching the next level, a level where an actor is able to affect his audience. The Shakespearean dialogue intimidated me to the point where I thought too much about each line. It was only after the fifth performance that I realized there actually was another level to reach. The paradox of planned spontaneity reared its disgusting and hideous head, much to my frustration. I knew to conquer this beast was to become a great actor.
The scene actually contains a line that aptly captures this dilemma. In it, the Doctor remarks, A great perturbation in nature, to receive at once the benefit of sleep and do the effects of watching! Shakespeare is referring to Lady Macbeth s strange, unconscious ability to behave as if she is awake and yet still be asleep. Similarly, a character must appear completely natural on stage without indicating that the actor portraying him is conscious about it. In a sense, acting is almost schizophrenic in that the actor, in order to be totally convincing, must assume a completely different identity and not waver from it. This is a curious anomaly in nature indeed when one stops to express it in words. Taken out of context it even seems quite silly as to why someone would spend an hour and a half every day as someone else.
Perhaps the key to overcoming this paradox is simply not to intellectualize it too much. In other words, just do it. I have found the best way to reach this state is through impulses in the voice and breath. Because these two elements are linked directly to our emotions they can lead us to new interpretations without conscious effort; places that would not normally come out of planning the scene. Allowing the brain to shut off and the diaphragm to react makes me respond to things as I would in everyday situations. This
kind of freedom with our physiology requires a certain comfort level in front of an audience, and this is where trust in one s self becomes crucial. On stage, the challenge is not to think about whether decisions will fit the situation or character. If one truly reacts to the events in a scene then those impulses are probably correct ones. Of course, I am dealing with the fine subtleties one encounters during performance, not necessarily major character decisions about motivation or subtext. This does not preclude, however, the exploration of where impulses take a character during the important rehearsal process. Because these discoveries in me were not made until later, it appears my rehearsal process for Macbeth did not end on opening night.
Following this first toe-dipping into the Bard s pool of works I became involved with Shakespeare in the Park. Cymbeline was being mounted the following summer at the Waterloo Bandshell and the fight choreographer wanted to beef up the scenes involving swordplay. I enlisted to help. My limited stage time and lack of lines was countered by the extensive rehearsals required to learn and hone the techniques of swordplay. Skills such as establishing range, maintaining eye contact and focusing on a target are all crucial to the safety and believability of these stage battles. One quickly learns discipline and professionalism under conditions such as these. Of course, I did not forget to have as much fun as I could in the process. The broadswords were heavy and the tights were constricting but in the end I managed to defeat and defile two Brits at once. Belarius managed to get in a quick stab with his quarterstaff under my arm all to the audience s delight. My experience on this stage will serve as an asset in future productions involving stage-combat.
The following year proved a highly successful one for me as an actor. I managed to put three more plays under my belt before auditioning for The Tempest the following summer. Unfortunately, the company producing it only had nine people audition for a minimum twelve parts. Subsequently, two of the actors took on more than one role while the director tackled the character of Sebastian. I had the splendid opportunity as a young actor to play the dark and manipulative Prospero. I grew a beard to help hide my youth and donned the billowing robes traditionally associated with sorcerers. It was a challenge both vocally and physically to find an interpretation of him that would work for both the audience and me. Thankfully, all the feedback I received was both positive and constructively critical.
In this production I realized how vitally important it is for me as an actor to have sincere interaction on stage. Fellow actors who do not commit wholly to every action they perform affect my response by lowering my drive. Honest and more interesting reactions do not come out of a scene where the participants are only going through the motions of the character. I had always felt this way, but for the first time, I found it affecting my performance. Shakespeare is not simple text to perform. There is a tendency for the actor to rush through the voluminous verse because it may feel unnatural to recite. The actor may even feel he or she is wasting the audience s time. I act because I feel I have something to offer an audience, or else I would not do so. Without that resolve an actor may find it difficult to become emotionally vulnerable on stage.
Studying these plays for performance has allowed me a unique perspective in understanding Shakespeare s motivation for writing. Reading and comprehending the text
allows for insight, but actually becoming the words profoundly changes one s experience with the play. I have never experienced Romeo s true love or Iago s bitter hatred, yet through Shakespeare s verse I have come close; approaching an understanding of their feelings through the author s creativity. By reading Shakespeare s work I appreciate his perception; by acting it I feel his passion.
Shakespeare: As I Like It
Wednesday, October 8, 1996