Deanna Constable

from On Our Way To A Performance With The Bard

Triangulating Shakespeare
More knowledge gives us more choices. That's what it seemed like in our Shakespeare class for with each new idea that was presented to us, out sprang many others. There was not a moment in the class where there was any stagnation of thought or growth. The instructor designed the class so that the students would have three parts to play: historian, play goer, and performer. Each of these parts were strengthened by the others so that by the end of the class, we each had created a whole, which could be said to be an "artist."

The first part of the class we were asked to be historians. To be an historian of Shakespeare meant that we had to continually ask ourselves what was Shakespeare's historical background from the clues we find in his text. We looked into trends concerning the law, sexuality, superstitions, and in some cases, fashion, (cross-dressing, for instance). We even delved into some of the gossip floating around at the time that he wrote his plays, such as the possibility of King James being a homosexual. Understanding about his time truly added some fresh and lively air to what at first seemed to be as stale as words on a page that meant nothing.

We learned legal practices of the time, concerning both church and state. This knowledge helped us understand more of Shakespeare's plot decisions in all the plays that we looked at. The historical background of the royalty, not only in England but in France as well proved also to be very interesting. Now when I look back on Henry V, I have some insight on the king of France, the actual courtship of Henry and Katherine, and the possible reasons for the war (ie. the Salique Law). The historical aspects of the plays increased my interest and excitement so that with each new presentation came almost a new way of looking at an old play.

After sampling some historical tidbits and still trying to digest them, our class got familiar with being audience members/film critics. This role was surprisingly easier than we first anticipated. This ease can be attributed to almost being mesmerized by the director's choices about how to present the play. My role as a historian melted quite nicely into film critic. I had been amazed at how Shakespeare selected his historical facts, I was all the more focused on the director's selectiveness to Shakespeare's text. A case in point: I focused in on Orson Welles's portrayal of the three witches in his version of Macbeth. I then had more to compare with when looking at Polanski's version of the witches and then with Kurasawa's.

Each of the films had something of merit in them, and each created from Shakespeare so that they really could be called "Polanski's Macbeth" or even chanted to a different title like Kurasawa's Throne of Blood. The thought came to me that by adding on to one piece of art made it a completely different creation. This realization has helped me to appreciate, not the director so much as Shakespeare, for it is his genius that inspires others to recreate his work. The two films that stand out in my mind as being the most satisfying were the BBC production of Macbeth and Kurasawa's Throne of Blood. Perhaps the BBC version satisfied my conservative tastes for theatre and Kurasawa's version brought out the mystical aspects which make the play so intriguing to me. In any case, with the help of the lecture on performance theory, I had a better idea of what I wanted to see in films as an audience member/film critic with the historical background under my belt.

The next aspect of the class was in some ways easier than the first two, and in some ways harder because of the first two. Our professor called on us to do something that most of the people in the class had never been done before. He asked us to take a character, produced before only in our minds by printed words, and breathe life into it. To many, this task seemed paralyzing. I remember when our professor had given out the cast list and people gasped, "But I thought I could help with the set! I didn't think I would have ACT!" I thought them a little silly for their reaction to acting perhaps, because it is one of the things that gives me the greatest pleasure and it usually comes to me with ease. I found, though, that with what I had just learned about Renaissance England and the creative tendency for directors to "recreate" Shakespeare's plays, that the art of acting was harder. I had to ask myself questions about my character, Feste, such as "I know what my idea of a fool is, but what was Shakespeare's or even my director's?" or "If I decided that my Feste was a more lyrical type of fool, how could he fart and not lose this quality?"

It started to happen to us at close to the same time, all of us started to realize what a responsibility we had to give the most valid reading of our character. This meant using the skills of the historian and play goer that we had previously learned, together with our own intuitive instincts about human reactions to form a realistic, non-stilted character.

This course gave us the key to searching within ourselves for the "truth" in our performance. By attaining the background on Shakespeare and trusting our own responses to his words, we had more choices to work with that made us more comfortable in a strange medium. I feel that I have had a more rounded acting experience than usual due to the research and discussions of the class and the journey of discovery that we all went through on our way to a performance with the Bard.

We found that we had a friend and guide in Shakespeare. This was perhaps the most unexpected pleasure of the class. I knew that in taking the class I would learn about Shakespeare and his time, I knew that I would see different versions of Shakespeare's plays being performed, but I had no idea that Shakespeare would almost jump out of the page saying, "Deanna, when you bring Sir Toby in, do it "haltingly" as if maybe you were concerned about his wound or he's winded and he needs the time to gather himself." To my surprise, Shakespeare was at every rehearsal sitting next to the director or walking with us as we went from entrance to exit. never before was there a feeling so strong that the playwright had lovingly given us the keys to our own performance.

The experience for me was very personal. I had never before acted in a full length play of Shakespeare and I was nervous. That apprehension turned first to frustration, then to absolute pleasure. These dear people who, for the most part, had never acted before gave me the most wonderful gift: the gift of knowing that Shakespeare is in every person if they chose to look within themselves.

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