Reflections on Playing the Duke
When I registered for English 510, I knew I was enlisting myself for 10
weeks of serious study. I did not expect it to be primarily enjoyable; I
just knew it was what I needed at this point in my Masters career. I wanted
another chance at studying Shakespeare and a chance to act. I wasn't disappointed.
I felt uneasy about the research part of the course for most of the quarter, although my interaction with Shakespeare as a scholar-critic went better than I expected. I was prepared to feel very small studying Shakespeare, since he seemed to be so well-studied by critics. Once the quarter got started and our class was meeting regularly, I prepared myself for even more intimidation. One of the peculiar traits of graduate students is an insecurity about our own mental capacities: we made comments at random, not listening to each other, not maintaining any kind of topic unity. We got better at working off of each other's comments as the quarter progressed.
When I finally settled on my research topic, I started to listen and to participate more in class discussions. Now that I had a real interest in one aspect of Shakespeare, I become more comfortable as a scholar. Gathering information and articles for my archive was fun! I found an abundance of relevant books and articles on alcohol and festivity in Shakespeare.
Writing the research paper, I struggled with having confidence in myself as a critic: my topic had gotten too big and I couldn't figure out how to include the opinions of the critics and my opinions in the same paper. Finally, while I was hammering out the fifth draft, I managed to find a thesis. Hooray. From there the writing came easier. I knew which critics to include, and I managed to piece the argument together with a line of reasoning of my own. My thesis eventually went something like this: alcohol in Shakespeare is used as a symbol of festivity and deviance--more festivity when Elizabeth reigned, more deviance when James reigned. The whole paper still seems unwieldy and loosely reasoned. I have let it rest, for now.
The second aspect of the course was interacting with Shakespeare as a spectator. I enjoyed doing this. I watched Verdi's Otello, the Olivier Henry V, the BBC Twelfth Night, the Polanski Macbeth, and parts of the Kurasawa Macbeth. Thinking back to my impressions as I saw these various productions of one man's plays, I can make one comment: how the director interprets the play determines how I interpret the play. The Polanski Macbeth and the Kurosawa Macbeth are so different that I wouldn't have known they were based on the same play. When I watched the Polanski production, I was sickened by the gore. Kurasawa's production had my trying to figure out Japanese honor codes. My focus for each was entirely different.
I saw three different productions of Twelfth Night. The BBC production on video, the San Francisco ACT live production, and our class' production on video. In comparing these three, I notice something about culture. All three productions had a different tone: the British tone was very subtle. Expressions on characters' faces were slight, muted. One of the reasons for this is that it was produced strictly for the camera, expressions can afford to be subtler. But I think it also has to do with culture. Brits are generally more reserved. In the BBC video, Viola sees her lost brother for the first time in many years, and her eyes fill with tears; her voice stays at the same pitch. They embrace. The final scene, filled with emotion as it is, has a minimum of tone changes in the BBC production.
The live ACT production had plenty of rollicking emotion throughout the play, but it seemed to be there haphazardly, as if the whole play were meant to be an American vacation to the Bahamas. The ACT director seemed to be pumping the audience for laughs--at Shakespeare expense. Many of the lines were changed, many of the overwhelming emotions that individual characters were meant to feel were sacrificed to the party spirit that this production was trying to create. Yes, they performed on a big stage: this made it neccessary to play up emotions. The ACT production did so at the expense of subtlety and tenderness.
I think our class production did well in the area of tone. The set at Madonna was a comfortable size so that we could truly feel our emotions without having to overplay them. Although the video camera missed much of the individual emotions, I saw them when I would watch scenes as an audience member. We shifted tone rapidly, dramatically, expertly and appropriately: Brette's desperate, breathless monologue when she first meets Cesario, Kim's whisper of "Olivia" in her speech that wins the countess' love, Toby's sudden pity on Malvolio when he sees he's gone too far. We took Shakespeare seriously--whether we were enacting a revel or a love scene.
The third aspect of the course, performing Shakespeare, was the most rewarding and is the hardest to write about. Throughout the play's production, I had a variety of emotions. At first I was scared to death at playing the Duke. It wasn't the gender switch that scared me, it was the falling in love part. The first few times Kim and I practiced our scenes together, I thought I would certainly have a problem pretending to be attracted to her in the least bit. Eventually, though, she wooed me. It was Kim/Cesario, or just Kim, or just Cesario--I don't know. But as soon as we got into daily rehearsal, I forgot all about how hard it was to play a man in love with a woman playing a man. It was me as the Duke and Kim as Cesario. Gradually my fear turned to respect for Kim as an actor and affection for her as a person.
After I realized that those scenes were becoming easy, and to some extent, real, I felt something else--confused. Twelfth Night celebrates interchangeable gender/affectional preferences, and I had gone along with it. I, Jennifer, had been wooed. By Kim? By Cesario? I don't know even as I write this. But who wouldn't be attracted to a blue-eyed blonde who speaks in Shakespearean prose? Yet I never expected to be confused in that area when I agreed to play the Duke.
As I memorized my lines and practiced being in love with love, my respect for this flowery duke grew. Initially I underplayed him because I think I was afraid to take him seriously. Yet once the lines began to sink into my daily thoughts, I began to learn from this lovelorn Orsino. He had a quality of perception and sensitivity that I lacked. It wasn't until show-week that I fully identified with Orsino's emotions in the play's final scene. With the energy of an audience contributing to the emotion of the last act, I felt Orsino's humiliation. Devoted to love, unable to recognize Viola's love for him, and shunned, Orsino is crushed--even by his faithful page, Cesario. I was crushed every night we played that scene. It felt good to be rescued when Sebastian walked in.
Another angle on playing the Duke was makeup. I expected to be laughed at, but noone laughed at me. In fact, they believed me. All those times that Kim and I spent giggling about my chest were silly. The audience didn't seem to notice. Some people even came up to me and asked if my beard were real.
Now that production is finished (for this quarter), I miss the Duke. I miss his attendants, his page, his petrarchan love. Sometimes I'll drive the freeway and say his lines, which are still firmly rooted in my consciousness. I've called Kim, more out of wanting to know she's still around than anything else. The course in total was a huge experience--broadening, challenging, even fun. I'd do it again without hesitating.