Shakespeare's Globe

RSS Rehearsal Notes 3

In his third blog post Mark talks about the difficulties of improvising Shakespearean-style insults, and how easy it is to over-complicate speaking even one half line of verse.

Transcript of Podcast

The Trial Scene

We were talking about Elizabethan society and how it just was racist towards Jewish people and it is a mind set of this play. However, in The Merchant of Venice the story of the play is that it is particularly Shylock who is doing this particular vengeful thing.

In the trial scene, the director is encouraging us to interject and to vocalise reactions, to shout how enraged we are by what Shylock is saying, but if I don’t have any lines then anything that I might say feels weak in terms of what Shakespeare would have come up with. If you are only saying a couple of words that you are making up it is really hard to do, beyond going: ‘Aye Aye’ or ‘Nay!’ It feels like we need to insult Shylock and it is hard to improvise that. And it feels wrong, improvising Shakespeare, it feels like shouting out in church.

Gratiano is a bit like a football supporter, especially in the trial scene when he taunts Shylock. I wanted to show that in more than one scene. In an earlier scene, when Bassanio chooses the right casket to win Portia, I was naturally responding by going: ‘GET IN!’ I did it a couple of times before I got told off, not for making the interjection, but because it had to be more Shakespearean.

So I went on a website that creates Shakespearean insults for you, but they were a little bit too comedic. They were all like: ‘Thou hornswaggling baum bat’, or something silly. I think in the trial the outbursts need to be more menacing. I was looking at Romeo and Juliet, to see if there is anything I could pinch. The characters are young and the fighty types, like Gratiano, and there is all that: ‘do you bite your thumb at me?’ but I haven’t found anything I am confident about using.

Shakespeare is so specific that if you start just kind of hurling kind of general abuse of something it doesn’t feel like you’ve really nailed it. Especially when I do have the chance to say: ‘O be thou damn’d, inexecrable dog!’ (Act IV, Scene i, L.128) That is a very specific insult. I got on to describe this image of how a wolf spirit has entered him and that is making him behave inhumanly.

So we have been working on making these interjections and yesterday when we did a run, and basically nobody did any at all! We are at the stage where we are feeling if we don’t have any lines then that is deliberate. Shakespeare didn’t want me to make a reaction at this stage. The danger is that you get that kind of terrible Shakespearean thing of big gestures without vocal which feels so eggy and generalised.

You do feel that Shakespeare is like Opera or music, pulling around the lines, or certainly breaking them up, is forbidden; even if it is not actually forbidden by the director.

Text Work

I have never felt before, in any other job, so rushed. I don’t know why I feel that. There is so much work to do with the language. You feel like you want to emphasise so many of the words. Text work is good but you can end up confused. For example in my first scene Antonio says:

I hold the world but as the world Gratiano,
A stage where every man must play a part,
And mine a sad one. [1.1.77-79]

To which I reply:

Let me play the fool [1.1.79]

When you start doing text work and analysing that one line, you think, right well, he said: ‘mine is a sad one’, so you thing well, ‘let ME’ (as opposed to you) ‘play the fool’. So the emphasis is on ME. And then you start talking to Giles [Block, the text master] and he says: ‘well Antonio is saying he’s going to play a sad part and what Gratiano is saying is, what I want to play, if different parts in this play of life are up for grabs, then the part that I want to play is the FOOL.’ So you think, right ok I will emphasis ‘FOOL’. So then the line should be said:

Let ME play the FOOL

And then you’ll notice that Gratiano says ‘Let’ quite a few times in the first few lines:

With mirth and laughter LET old wrinkles come
And LET my liver rather heat with wine

So Gratiano frequently says: ‘please allow me to do these things’. This suggests the idea that maybe Gratiano’s back story is that he had a strict father and the reason that he wants to be big and wild and loud, is because his strict father didn’t let him do anything. So Gratiano is saying: ‘LET me do this, LET me do that’. So then you think ‘let’ is an important word and so you start saying:

LET ME play the FOOL

And then you read on and the whole of Gratiano’s speech is about not being about rigid and constrained. It’s about playfulness. So then you start thinking, ok, right, so it is:


Then you realise you are emphasising every single syllable. You feel like that you are shouting every word in every line because you are trying to get all this colour and emphasis in it.

If you think about something too much, the danger is, you turn off from really listening to what Antonio’s saying. But I have to also be aware that the line is a half line which finishes Antonio’s half line, so you have to come in immediately in the right rhythm, and not having a pause.

On top of all that I have to be aware of how I say things. I talked with Jan [the vocal coach] about how I don’t raise my soft pallet when I speak, which creates a nasal sound, and that is my natural speaking voice. It is particularly a problem on words that begin and end with an ‘M’ and ‘N’, which are closed sounds. The second word of my line is ‘me’ and ‘me’ is a narrow sounding word anyway, so I have to work on raising my soft palette.

I haven’t chosen yet how to say that line yet!

There seems to be a lot to get in, in a short space of time, and it seems to be very easy for it to kind of run away from you.

These comments are the actor's thoughts or ideas about the part as s/he goes through the rehearsal process – they are simply his/her own interpretations and frequently change as the rehearsal process progresses.

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