Monday, January 27, 2014

Code Breaking

There is a documentary in the works claiming to have found a geometric cipher in the text of Shakespeare’s First Folio that lead to some sort of treasure.  I really don’t know what to make of this, if it is intended in anyway to be taken seriously.  As an entertainment and a distraction it could be fun.

This idea has occurred to me in the past as a great idea for a thriller à la The DaVinci Code.  Somewhere embedded in the different printings of the 1623 First Folio, there is a code that connects the true author of Shakespeare’s plays, the English crown, the money pit in Eastern Canada, the secret identity of Prospero’s island and the secret society stemming from the medieval theater guilds dedicating their lives to protecting the knowledge that would completely unsettle the governments of Europe et cetera, et cetera, et cetera…

In an online discussion, someone compared the kind of work that Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project (USP) does to breaking a code that Shakespeare embedded in his text.  That is not quite the case.  When we say that Shakespeare left clues in the text, we are not speaking about those kinds of clues.  There isn’t anything hidden in the text, it is rather a method of identifying what stares everyone in the face as acting cues for the actors and not as grammatical errors.

For example: end stops.  In the Folio, end stops mark the end of a rhetorical thought, not necessarily (but not excluding) the grammatical end of a sentence.  A period is not a question mark is not an exclamation point; these all denote a differing tone on which a thought ends.  This does not mean that each tone is always the same specific tone for each period, question mark and exclamation point in the canon, but they are to be treated differently from each other.  Yet, depending on an editor’s interpretation – or on an interpretation that an editor has seen on stage – these can be changed quite frequently from one edition of a play to another.  Does the original period that became an exclamation point tell us some hidden secret about the deeper truth of the play? No, but it does tell us that the line was intended to have less emphasis than its improvement. 

That I just wrote ‘that the line was intended…’ does not mean that the intention was attributed directly to Shakespeare.  What I mean is that it was a period, and any change from that was imposed for any number of reasons –some of which may be good and valid- from the intended, the original (or the closest-to original) punctuation.  Any changes occurring between Shakespeare’s pen and the printing press were made by contemporary professionals with a vested interest in the production of the work and who had an ear for the spoken language of the time.  This is why I give them more weight than changes made by a modern editor.

This is also not to say that we can tell exactly what was intended by these punctuations, spellings, and lineation.  Patrick Tucker, when confronted with questions from his actors about what to do with the pauses, changes in thoughts and specific changes in the way a character’s text is written responds that he doesn’t know the answer, making the choice is the actor’s job.  The fact is that the signposts are there for the actors to interpret in the moment, in reaction to what is happening between everyone in the space and the space itself without the interference of a director, editor or someone else removed from the actual performance. 

To give an idea of the kind of acting clues I am referring to, let’s compare Orlando’s opening words to As You Like It, first from the First Folio* and then from Arden.

As I remember Adam, it was upon this fashion
bequeathed me by will, but poore a thousand
Crownes, and as thou saist, charged my bro-
ther on his blessing to breed mee well: and
there begins my sadnesse: My brother Jacques he keepes                        5
at schoole, and report speakes goldenly of his profit:
for my part, he keeps me rustically at home, or (to speak
more properly) stais me heere at home unkept: for call
you that keeping for a gentleman of my birth, that dif-
fers not from the stalling of an Oxe?                                                            10


As I remember, Adam, it was upon this fashion
bequeathed my by will but poor a thousand crowns,
and, as thou sayst, charged my brother on his bless-
ing to breed me well; and there begins my sadness.
My brother Jaques he keeps at school, and report                                    5
speaks goldenly of his profit: for my part he keeps
me rustically at home, or, to speak more properly,
stays me here at home unkept; for call you that
keeping for a gentleman of my birth, that differs
not from the stalling of an ox?                                                                        10

In the Folio, Orlando’s first thought runs for 10 lines.  The punctuation frames the journey this rather long idea takes, and helps the actor to breathe while driving through Orlando’s lament.  This thought changes direction and runs together the separate ideas concerning money, Orlando’s situation and the comparison to his brother’s.  It ends with a question.  The spelling and capitalization give some indication of stresses that help both the actor and the audience follow what is being said.  An actor can interpret these as notes on the character written into the lines.  The evidence that this is the case, and not a jumble of erratic mistakes collected between the pen and the printing house is that in performance these clues work.

In the Arden, the punctuation and spelling is much more regular.  The period in line 4 comes at a logical and grammatically appropriate place.  This frames Orlando’s thoughts in a different way.  That is not to say incorrectly, only differently.  It is an imposition to the text put there by someone far removed from the performance of the piece.  This needs to be taken into consideration by the actor.  This cleaning up removes a suggestion, which could be ignored by the actor, but it takes away the choice and a possible source of inspiration and influence.

In performance, should an actor choose to use the punctuation from the Arden text in the same manner as he would treat the punctuation from the Folio, it will still work to help frame the thoughts.  The result would be a slower and less dynamic performance since the purpose of the punctuation is to drive to the end stops, and colons and semi-colons demark different ‘gear-shifts’ in thinking which are to be externalized by the actor.  The more end stops, the more potential for longer pauses.  The less ‘;’ and ‘:’ the more measured the performance becomes.  Again, not incorrect, only different.

When a character’s lines are seen in cue script form, there are other clues that can be seen more clearly and quickly interpreted by actors than in a standardized full-text script.  A shift from measured, full lines of poetry to erratic lineation with lots of short or long lines or mixtures of them says something about a character’s state of mind, and that shift in speech patterns informs the actor that something is happening.   The actress playing Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing will notice that although very witty and verbose for the first half of her cue script, she is suddenly faced with short lines for the rest of the play.  Something important happens.  It turns out this shift occurs after Beatrice and Benedick admit that they love each other.  Simple enough.  The Beatrice at the beginning of the play is not the same as the Beatrice at the end, and the fact that the change is shown in the lines tells the actress that this change must be externalized as well.

These are the kind of ‘clues’ original practices seek out.  There is nothing that is not there for the casual reader to see, nor for an actor to use to advantage in performance, should they choose.  And that choice is the important thing for actors.  In unrehearsed performances USP exploits these cues across the board so that the production is unified, with all the actors in the same play.  Four hundred years of productions across the globe have shown us that there are other valid, successful ways of putting Shakespeare on the stage and screen.  Knowing how to read a script using these cues and clues offer the actor another tool in her toolbox.  To remove the possibilities offered by the Folio by cleaning up the texts removes this option from her preparation and interpretation of a role.

While the idea of some hidden code in the text is intriguing, that’s not what we are trying to get at.  In all honesty, I’m looking forward to this documentary.  It promises to be an entertaining afternoon of television.  The ‘code’ that USP and other OP proponents look for promises an entertaining afternoon of theatre.  Please experience the difference.

*I am comparing The Applause First Folio of Shakespeare Comedies, Histories & Tragedies in Modern Type, ed. Neil Freeman with Arden’s 1975 As You Like It, ed. Agnes Latham.

-Andy Kirtland

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