Not long ago, my brother-in-law, David, who lives in San Diego, mentioned that he had been to a session at The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego’s Balboa Park where Barry Edelstein, the Erna Finci Viterbi Artistic Director, had presented some of his ideas about how to study Shakespeare’s texts for the purpose of making them work better on stage. He also was promoting his book, Thinking Shakespeare. I wasn’t familiar with Edelstein’s work, so David sent me a copy, which I have now read and thought about in some detail.
While doing that, I discovered the Edelstein says he was influenced by knowing and working with Harold Guskin, the acting coach, and the actor, Kevin Kline, whom he describes as “the finest Shakespearian working today” (the book was first published in 2007 and I admit to having always thought quite highly of Kevin’s work and tend to agree with this view). I found this interesting as I knew both of these men when we were all students at Indiana University, back in the 1960's. I was actually in a production of Macbeth with Kevin when we were both undergraduates and I may have worked on other productions which he was in. I know I saw him in several. And, I was involved in several shows with Hal, while we were graduate students and fellow members of the Indiana Theatre Company (a Graduate Fellowship-based touring company sponsored by IU at the time). Kevin was a couple of years behind me, and was completing his undergraduate work when I finished mine and started doing my Master’s classes (while touring). I also had the occasion to run into him in the early 1970s (after he graduated from Julliard) while he was touring with The Acting Company. (I was in Hoey Auditorium on the WCU campus, where I was employed, helping them to get set up, when I heard a voice loudly say something like: “Dick Beam, is that you?”) It was Kevin coming in with the cast to see the auditorium where they would be performing later that day. They did Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, which I remember having quite enjoyed.
I have to admit that I was not particularly close to either Kevin or Hal (I was, primarily, a “techie” and they were actors), but I DID know both of them and respected their work. I suppose that this tends to prejudice me towards Edelstein’s work which he says they influenced.
In any event, Edelstein’s ideas put considerable emphasis on using Shakespeare’s text as the basis for one’s approach to a play and/or a character which makes a great deal of sense to me (as essentially similar ideas have been MY preferred practice for a long time). After all, the text, imperfect as surviving copies may be, is all that we really have of Shakespeare’s (or any other playwright’s) actual thinking. If Stanislavski’s (or other people’s) methods and ideas regarding developing a character’s “backstory,” psychology, etc., aid one in his/her understanding of a character, or play, to perform that character, that’s okay by me, but I still think that the specific words and actions the playwright (not just Shakespeare) creates for her/his characters offers the greatest insight into how the playwright saw the character’s functionings (and what she/he “feels”). I must also confess that I tend to approach the “Method” and its variations with some skepticism. I remember reading that Robin Williams once quoted one of his acting teachers as having said: “Method acting can be like urinating in brown corduroy pants; you feel wonderful, but we see nothing.” Since theatre should not just be self-centered, pseudo-analysis, but should actually be done FOR the audience (MY idea, but I DO think it’s the defining idea of theatre). I would suggest that if something (anything) doesn’t provide information to the audience, it MAY be helpful to the performer, but it’s ONLY really useful to him/her, IF it helps her/him provide useful information/understanding to the audience.
What Edelstein says, as I see it, is that it is quite useful to expend a certain amount (perhaps even a good deal) of effort to understand how Shakespeare’s language (verse AND prose) works; how it’s used; what it suggests about what the character(s) are doing; etc.; etc.; etc. No, Edelstein is not suggesting shortcuts, he is suggesting that a close and careful study of the words of the playwright; the language the characters use and any stage directions provided can tell us a good deal about what Shakespeare (or any other playwright) was trying to create. A corollary to understanding this is acceptance of the idea that the purpose of reading/performing a playwright’s play is to understand THAT PLAY. One can do what I would call a “related” play BASED on the original work, but I do not accept this as being the same as the original author’s work, therefore is should be acknowledged that it is an ADAPTATION, “based on” the original work. All too often one sees adaptations, often quite severe ones, claiming (or at least implying) that they are the same as the source work. Romeo + Juliet, the movie may be very similar to Shakespeare’s play, but it isn’t the same, it’s an adaptation and it admits to being such. Not all adaptations, stage or screen, are as honest. However, I digress…
To get back to my main point, my major concern about Edelstein’s ideas (which I, generally, support quite wholeheartedly) focuses on what I would suggest could be viewed as too heavy an emphasis on just studying the rhythmic structure of the language (poetic or prose), the stress patterns. etc. I believe that one should also carefully consider what I believe to be the fact that many playwrights (Shakespeare definitely included) seem to love to “play” with the language; use meaningful constructions, puns, etc. with some frequency; are quite aware of the fact that words can have multiple meanings; and so on.
By way of explanation, let me present my thinking about a brief section of Hamlet, (Act III, Sc. 1,) which is often referred to as the “nunnery” scene. This is the scene where, after Polonius tells Claudius, the king that he is going to send his daughter, Ophelia, to meet with Hamlet, while he observes them. This is so that Polonius can try to figure out if Hamlet’s “problem” is that he is “lovesick” over Ophelia and that’s why he’s behaving strangely. He wants to find out what’s going on so that he can inform the king, Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle. Remember that since Hamlet’s father, the old king, died (rather mysteriously), Claudius, the new king, is now also Hamlet’s stepfather, because he married Hamlet’s mother, quite promptly, after the funeral. Now, for unknown (at least to Polonius) reasons, Hamlet has been acting “oddly.” This seems quite understandable to me, since we know he has encountered his father’s “ghost.” Polonius (“suck-up” that he is) wishes to assist the new king by figuring out what’s going on so he can “help” provide a solution.
So, in III, 1, after the “to be, or not to be,” soliloquy, Ophelia is sent in to encounter Hamlet while Polonius and Claudius observe. It’s important to note that it is quite clearly stated that Ophelia knows that this is the case (her father tells her to do this while the king and he watch), but the audience has NO reason to believe that Hamlet KNOWS this. I suspect that he might well be suspicious, but he HAS reasons (the ghost of his father’s word and his own CHOSEN behavior) to suspect that something weird is going on and that his uncle COULD be keeping an eye on him. Pay careful attention to what happens. Ophelia has just tried to return Hamlet’s gifts to her, saying that they were love tokens which now seem misplaced.
HAMLET: I did love you once.
OPHELIA; Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.
HAMLET; You should not have believed me, for virtue
cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall
relish of it. I loved you not.
OPHELIA: I was the more deceived.
HAMLET: Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be
a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest,
but yet I could accuse me of such things that it
were better my mother had not borne me: I am
very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offenses
at my beck than I have thoughts to put them
in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act
them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling
between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves
⟨all;⟩ believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery.
HAMLET: Where’s your father?
Wait, what just happened? Note the break in language style and general tone. Where the heck did THAT come from? Why did Hamlet all of a sudden, ask about Ophelia’s father? There is NOTHING to suggest an easy answer to this in the text, but Shakespeare didn’t use stage directions much. Harley Granville-Barker (the early 20th C. scholar/director/producer, from whom I got this idea), suggests that something (a look from Ophelia, the movement of an arras, something, possibly something fairly subtle) suggests to Hamlet that they are being watched.
OPHELIA: At home, my lord.
Again a “broken” line suggesting a change in attitude, or something. At this point, I would suggest that at this point Hamlet is convinced that they are being observed AND OPHELIA HAS LIED ABOUT IT! This means that Ophelia has broken her trust with Hamlet, she has betrayed him! From then on, I would suggest that Hamlet’s entire attitude towards Ophelia changes.
Consider this: Granville-Barker argues, and I agree that, up to this point, Hamlet is using the term, “nunnery” with its standard meaning of “convent.” But notice what happens next. (NOTE: There is NO break in the action here, except, perhaps a pause for the broken meter.) Note how the scene continues:
HAMLET: Let the doors be shut upon him that he may
play the fool nowhere but in ’s own house. Farewell.
OPHELIA: O, help him, you sweet heavens!
HAMLET: If thou dost marry, I’ll give thee this plague
for thy dowry: be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as
snow, thou shalt not escape calumny. Get thee to a
nunnery, farewell. Or if thou wilt needs marry,
marry a fool, for wise men know well enough what
monsters you make of them. To a nunnery, go, and
quickly too. Farewell.
OPHELIA: Heavenly powers, restore him!
HAMLET: I have heard of your paintings ⟨too,⟩ well
enough. God hath given you one face, and you
make yourselves another. You jig and amble, and
you ⟨lisp;⟩ you nickname God’s creatures and make
your wantonness ⟨your⟩ ignorance. Go to, I’ll no
more on ’t. It hath made me mad. I say we will have
no more marriage. Those that are married already,
all but one, shall live. The rest shall keep as they are.
To a nunnery, go.
I believe that it isn’t too much of a leap to suggest that at least the first two times Hamlet uses the term “nunnery” in this, later, section, he could well be using it in its Tudor (anti-Catholic) slang sense of referring to a brothel. (In other words, he’s calling Ophelia a whore!) I think it’s possible to take the reference in the last line either way, as I think it’s quite possible that Hamlet really does love Ophelia, but he is, at least momentarily, practically insane with the belief that she has betrayed their love. I think the speech CAN work either way, but, considering how shabbily he treats her in the early part of “The Mousetrap” (play within the play) scene (Act III, Sc. 2) which follows immediately, I believe it’s quite possible to assume that Hamlet is devastated by Ophelia’s betrayal. I would suggest that it takes her death (MUCH later in the play) for him to finally acknowledge, even to himself, that he really did love her.
I think that there are many examples of this sort of subtle, half-hidden use of language throughout Shakespeare’s works. I would also suggest that I’m unconvinced that Edelstein has allowed enough emphasis on what I see as the necessity of not just understanding scansion; use of persuasion; antithesis; the use of line ending in poetic sections; rhythm; tempo; irony; and the other aspects which he discusses in some detail, but in also finding a way (perhaps through the study of editor’s comments) to be reasonably sure that one has considered whether Shakespeare might be using specific words to say more (or even different) things than are contained in a word’s most commonly accepted dictionary definition.
We all know (or should) that there were not even standard spellings and/or punctuation when Shakespeare was writing. Think of all the variety which exists in common usage and slang today. Why would we think that similar variety wasn’t available to Shakespeare, or that he wouldn’t use it? The catch, of course, is that we probably SHOULDN’T, so it behooves us to at least consider (among the many other things we need to think about) that words, expressions, etc., CAN have more than one meaning and that Shakespeare (or other playwrights in history) MIGHT have been aware of those and used a specific word to take advantage of that fact. I wish Edelstein had mentioned that at least in passing.
Still, I would encourage anyone with an interest in Shakespeare, especially as an actor or director, to take a good look at Thinking Shakespeare by Barry Edelstein. It COULD even make a good gift for such a person. Do I think it solves every problem? No, but it has a lot of ideas which I would suggest are very much worth thinking about. I’d encourage consulting it.
I expect to be back in a couple of weeks. Since the holidays are approaching, I think that it’s about time for the annual “Holiday Greetings” post. I HAVE been working on our “Holiday Greeting” letter, which we enclose copies of in the limited cards we send. I plan to have it provide the content for the next one of these posts as I have done for several years so that others who might be interested can catch up on what our family’s been up to in the past year.