The meaning of words.

Language has changed a great deal since the early modern period. Discover the impact of this on the way we stage plays today.

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Edward II was written in the 16th century, set in the early 14th century and will be performed to a 21st-century audience in a building that has the central goal of recreating the performance conditions of the early modern stage.  

This convoluted series of perspectives brings with it a number of challenges and questions. For example, how do we deal with obscure allusions and references? How do we work with words that are no longer in common usage or now have different meanings? How do we stage peculiar and antiquated codes of etiquette from the day?

Meanings

It sounds obvious, but the Oxford English Dictionary can be one of your most valuable tools in staging renaissance drama. In the full OED you can not only find the definition of every word in existence but the changing usage of each word through the last 1000 years. Of course, if a word has an archaic definition it’s unlikely the audience will know that no matter how the line is played. However, knowing the precise definitions of words and occasionally their dual meanings can give us insight into the relationships between characters, illuminate jokes, or crystallise meaning.  Take, for example, the word ‘minion’. This is the kind of word that we think we know. A cursory Google search brings up the definition:

a follower or underling of a powerful person, especially a servile or unimportant one.

This is how we would mostly use this word today (Despicable Me films aside). However, if you look up this word in the full OED you get, among others, the following definitions:

  1. A (usually male) favourite of a sovereign, prince, or other powerful person; a person who is dependent on a patron’s favour; a hanger-on.
  2. A male or female lover. Also (frequently derogatory): a man or woman kept for sexual favours; a mistress or paramour.
  3. A fastidious or effeminate man; a fop, a dandy.

All of these were in usage when Edward II was performed, and so the fact that Isabella frequently calls Edward’s male lover Gaveston ‘minion’ takes on a new significance. It tells us more about what those at court think about the relationship between Gaveston and Edward, not only from the perspective of sexuality but also of what is proper from a hierarchical perspective.

It’s often the words you think you know that yield up the most interesting rewards. From other productions I have worked on I can remember us finding out the word ‘fire’ was synonymous with venereal disease. Some of this knowledge will not be helpful for the audience, but most of it can offer the actor a new perspective on the lines they are playing. 

George Nichols is the Assistant Director for Edward II and After Edward, a contemporary response to Christopher Marlowe’s play. This is part of a blog series about the processes and ideas in these two plays.