Monday, February 10, 2014

Things Left Unsaid

With Shakespeare, we focus on the words.  That is all we have, and as actors, our words are our character.  But what sometimes gets my attention are the things that characters do not say, or at least what is not written down.  The words that Shakespeare chooses are just as important as the words he does not.  My favorite example comes from Macbeth.  When Lady Macbeth enters, she is reading a letter from her husband telling her of his news and the prophesy of the three witches.  When she finishes the letter, her first words are:

Glamys thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be
What thou art promis’d:

Lady Macbeth’s first, personal words in the play make a short line, only 9 beats, denoting an unfinished thought, or some action.  In this case, the thought is finished in the next line, but why this pause?  There is a one-syllable word that will fill this line and finish this thought: king.  That would give Lady Macbeth’s first thought a simple full line of pentameter:

Glamys thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be king.

Instead, Shakespeare gives her a pause, and substitutes for what could be a simple, one-syllable word, four words that take half a line of pentameter.  What does it say about the character?  She cannot even say the word king.  Why?

Another example, also from Macbeth is much more conjecture on my part.  The Porter, as he stumbles to open the door for MacDuff and Lenox before they discover the death of the king, likens his job to manning the door to hell.  He asks who is at the door, guessing who it may be and why they are in hell.  My theory is that these comments are not directed to unseen characters off stage, but to the audience.  Rather than ending the list, the litany can go on and on in a back-and-forth between the Porter and the audience for as long as it is funny and can find different professions to mock while MacDuff and Lennox continue knocking at the door.  ‘What are you? Oh, a teacher? This is why you’re going to hell.  And you?’  Knock, knock, knock.  ‘A writer?  See you soon.’ Knock, knock, knock.  ‘How about you?  An architect?  Ha!’ Knock, knock, knock. ‘I’m coming! I’m coming!’

Why isn’t it written down?  My theory is that Shakespeare knew his clowns and their ability to get on with the audience.  While there was a good mix of people in the audience, there was no guarantee of who would be there watching.  Let the actors work the crowd.  The more humor that can be gotten here and the better rapport that can be generated between the Porter and the audience, the funnier the next bit becomes with litany of affects of alcohol.  It also gives the audience a bigger relief of tension between the murder and its discovery.  While there is not necessarily textual evidence for this, the familiarity that Shakespeare had with his company would allow for the possibility of this type of freedom in performance.

When examining the texts as closely as one must when employing original practices, as much importance must be placed on the spaces and pauses between the words as on the words themselves.  Even these can be used to find significant clues to characters. 

Have you encountered this before, finding that the pauses or avoidance of certain words in a line is a signal about a character?  Has anyone else found a place where it may appear that Shakespeare left something open for his actors to riff on or extemporize?  Leave a comment and share your thoughts and experiences.

-Andy Kirtland

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