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What was the acting like in the Shakespearean theatre?I want to know about how the...

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bandh2010 | Student, Grade 11 | eNotes Newbie

Posted November 26, 2008 at 10:40 AM via web

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What was the acting like in the Shakespearean theatre?

I want to know about how the actors portrayed themselves on stage; certain traits or characteristics?

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robertwilliam | College Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

Posted November 26, 2008 at 10:52 AM (Answer #1)

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Great question! Unfortunately, I can't match it with a great answer: we don't really know. There's a little bit about the style of acting in Shakespeare's day that we can glean from the plays themselves: "A Midsummer Night's Dream" gives us a clue as to how they might work, learning scripts overnight and rehearsing (with a "director", as we'd call it - Peter Quince!) quickly before a performance.

Hamlet, of course, tells us something about what Shakespeare wanted from his actors:

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to
you, trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines.
(the whole speech can be read at the link below) 

We know a little about the styles of his actors from what roles we think they played. Richard Burbage was the first Hamlet, Brutus, Othello and King Lear (among many others) - though, to be honest, from a range that wide, it's difficult to tell precisely what he did.

Robert Armin and Will Kempe were the two key comedians. Kemp's style seems to have been larger than life, playing (and we only know this thanks to scripts which name him) Dogberry in "Much Ado" and Peter in "Romeo and Juliet" - Armin's style was darker and he could sing: he was Lear's fool, and probably Feste as well.

There are some clues, then. And if you want more information, the book I've linked below is superb!

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playsthething | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Assistant Educator

Posted November 26, 2008 at 11:34 AM (Answer #2)

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The only thing I'd add to that really terrific answer is a bit about the scale of the acting.  It must have been quite large and bombastic.  Imagine, there were no dimming of lights to quiet the audience, the rowdiest part of the audience were standing (and eating and socializing, etc.) closest to the stage, and the theatres were large and open-aired.  Those three qualities would require the actors to speak loudly and forcefully.  As for their movement, there was probably very little.  The actors would enter, hit their spot and declaim their lines.  There was very little rehearsal, and the only parts of the plays that were really rehearsed were the fight scenes (for safety's sake).

A great way to get a sense of this is to watch the first fifteen minutes or so of Laurence Olivier's "Henry V".  He opens the film in Elizabethan style, giving glimpses of backstage, audience, and on stage techniques.  You have to assume that Olivier, playing Henry, is attempting to do Henry the way Richard Burbage might have originally played him.

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enotechris | College Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

Posted November 26, 2008 at 1:09 PM (Answer #3)

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In Elizabethian theatre, the actors used cue scripts.  These were small scrolls on 2 dowels the actor would read from.  Shakespeare's (and other's) use of punctuation isn't the same as today; these were actually stage instructions (blocking.)  An actor only had his or her lines on their cue script; no one would have read the whole play prior to a performance.  Each actor's cue script was copied from the author's master script, which was kept under lock and key.  Rehearsal time was a few hours before performance, if it was needed, and a company might do King Lear in the morning and Romeo and Juliet in the afternoon.  Actors weren't assigned a specific part for the run of a production; often actors would switch off.  The best way to appreciate Shakespeares' actors is to watch a production as it was done in Shakespeare's day, or as an alternative read the First Folio once you understand about the punctuation stage directions. 

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