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The Collation

Come Hither, Actors / Textuality

The actors are come hither, my lord.

(Hamlet, 2.2.416)

The twelve members of the recently-concluded Folger Institute seminar “What Acting Is worked together for ten weeks to develop an actor-centered criticism of Shakespeare. Participants had the opportunity to study and discuss actors and acting not only through the Shakespearean theatre history resources of the library itself, but also the first-hand testimony of actors of several generations, all of them currently working in Shakespearean productions. In the artists’ analyses of their encounters with the Bard’s characters, situations, and words—representing over 100 years of combined stage experience among them—we found a living archive for our research.

Lisa Harrow, who in 1969, when she was only 26, played Olivia opposite Judi Dench as Viola at the Royal Shakespeare Company, visited the seminar first. In the 1980s she was a member of the powerful cluster of RSC actors—Dench, Ben Kingsley, Jane Lapotaire, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, and David Suchet among them—who under John Barton’s leadership produced the famous Playing Shakespeare television series and book. Harrow’s career continues to encompass stage, film and television, but she spent an intense and detailed session with us voicing passages from Twelfth Night.

Four actors from the cast of the Folger Theatre production of King John—Kate Eastwood Norris, who played the Bastard Faulconbridge; Holly Twyford, who played Constance; Akeem Davis, who played Louis, the Dauphin; and Brian Dykstra, who played King John himself—then joined us over three seminar sessions. They listened patiently to our probing questions about their craft, and their thoughtful answers, collated with Harrow’s, now constitute the core of our findings. They helped us to understand what acting is by explaining what actors do.

Folger Theatre’s King John, 2018/19 season; opening tableau

Our indebtedness to the actors is large and our gratitude proportionate. But their insights inspired our further engagements with books, documents, images, and objects from the Folger collections, returning us ultimately to the texts of the plays with new perspectives on the art of a dramatist, who, as an actor himself, wrote expressly for his contemporary actor-colleagues and, as it turned out, for actors in every generation since. Attending to the implications of that authorizing premise, we organized the wide-ranging topics of our inquiry into four main headings: Textuality, Temporality, Mentality, and Physicality. Subtopics from these separate categories inevitably overlap and intertwine, but the following summary approaches them as discrete nodal points in a conceptual network that provides the theoretical basis for an actor-centered criticism of Shakespeare, other early modern playwrights, and, by methodological implication, dramatists representing other periods and styles.


Practitioners of an actor-centered criticism of Shakespeare hold this truth to be self-evident: both literary scholars and classical actors devote their attention primarily to a play’s language. The important difference, however, is that critics are free to select phrases and images from any part of the text, whereas actors cannot ignore inconvenient lines they must speak or the sequence in which they appear in the script. This practical constraint invites actors to attend closely to internal contradictions in individual parts and the unfolding of meaning in time.

Academics often assume that actors conceptualize their roles in naively essentialist terms, as if they thought of their performances as the theatrical equivalent of a nineteenth-century essay in character criticism. However, to a classical actor, Lady Macbeth is not a static set of abstractions (not “a monster” or “ambitious”); she is what she is speaking now (perhaps “Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?”). To be sure, the injunction to play a sequence of thoughts rather than a fixed quality is acting advice widely shared among various schools of training. Nevertheless, in classical text and voice work, the understanding of character as mobile and social, changing from moment to moment, seems particularly rooted in attention to character as an effect of language, a mind made by moving through each successive syllable.

Like others trained in the contemporary verse techniques articulated by John Barton, Lisa Harrow warns against playing “mood” or an “emotional wash” rather than “inventing” specific ideas and images as they are spoken as if thinking each new thought for the first time: “Generalization is deadly. Abstractions don’t solve acting problems. The actor’s job is not to superimpose preconceived ideas of a character, but to come as a blank slate and let the language shape you. The character is language. And the contradictions are the character.” Savoring Shakespeare’s liberal use of poetic and rhetorical antitheses to create complex character-effects, Harrow thus crystalized for us what we are calling “textuality.”

On this crucial matter, but not always otherwise, we found a measure of trans-Atlantic agreement on principle. Kate Eastwood Norris, speaking of her Faulconbridge in the Folger Theatre King John as well as her long experience of playing other Shakespearean roles, put it succinctly: “I am defined by the text.” The textual work that she then went on to describe resembles the long tradition of actors’ “parts” or “sides,” which, containing only the lines spoken by the character assigned to the actor and short cues to prompt them, were rehearsed mainly by the actor alone in private “study.”

J. P. Kemble’s “side” for the role of King John (1783), Autograph Manuscript of Kemble’s Parts in 34 Plays in the hand of John Philip Kemble. Act 4, scene 2: “My Mother dead!” Image from Shakespeare in Performance, an Adam Matthew digital database.

Character comes to Norris in the varied repetition of the scripted lines, testing them on her tongue “at rehearsal, at home, or at the beach.” In practical terms, classical actors create subjectivity and social relationships out of sounds in time. Hours and hours of study are devoted to developing “relish” for individual words, mining each syllable for the subtle, precise, emotional, and intellectual onomatopoeia that is pervasive in all human speech; or to dissecting the rhetorical structure of dialogue to find the shape and speed of thoughts.

Common exercises through which classical actors now privately prepare themselves for group rehearsal include: beating the scansion, walking the punctuation, running the length of a verse line, throwing a ball upward at the last strong stress of a line, savoring all the vowels, biting and chewing all the consonants, moving on the key word in each line, moving on each verb, moving on each noun, raising a hand on each multisyllabic word, vocally marking antitheses, and distinguishing items in lists. The relentless specificity of formal analysis in classical voice work is unmatched in literary criticism except perhaps in work such as Roland Barthes’ S/Z or Stanley Fish’s early demonstrations of the phenomenology of reading.

While scholars sometimes take actors’ willingness to talk about trans-historical “human emotion” as indicative of a crudely essentialist understanding of subjectivity, in fact the practice of classical text-work aligns with poststructuralist theories of subject formation through language. As in Althusser’s account of interpellation, the classical actor absorbs language so fully that the words of the received script come from her mouth as if they were her own thoughts spoken for the first time.

As an introduction to our exploration of textuality in the practice of an actor-centered criticism, we turned first to Shakespeare’s sonnets. Barton’s Playing Shakespeare presents them to the actor as a series of compact preparatory exercises. “They are like little self-contained scenes,” he writes, “fourteen lines long. Yet they have the same basic ingredients as all scenes or long speeches.”1 We approached them as dramatic monologues, serving as practical tests for close reading and, we hoped, expressive delivery. But careful textual analysis shows that whole or partial sonnets also show up frequently in the plays as well. They lie embedded in the dialogue, hiding more or less in plain sight, revealing their presence to the informed eye and, with work, the practiced tongue.

The first play we studied was Richard III, whose famous opening soliloquy can be understood in part as a chain of sonnet-like forms: unrhymed, of course, but its dominantly iambic pentameter verse at first organized into quatrains and tercets marked by the anaphora on “Now” (the octave “Now is the winter of our discontent,” “Now are our brows,” followed by the more twisted and indirect ninth through thirteenth lines that voice the problem of warfare turned to courtship, “And now, instead of mounting barbed steeds . . . He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber/ To the lascivious pleasing of a lute”).

This sonnet-like beginning aborts after the thirteenth line, gives birth to another bitter poem, a fourteen-line “descant” (technically a voice or cantus above or removed from other voices) on Richard’s deformity (he delivers a catalogue of nine ways in which he is deformed, a virtual lexicon of an actor’s body language) and then tumbles into fourteen lines on his—and the play’s—plot. No surprise, then, that his first target as he hews his way to the throne is the beautiful widow Lady Anne, from the Lancastrian dynasty whose King and husband-heir he has just slain, and that his “method” is the sonnet forms and metaphors he now masters and deploys as he moves from angry stichomythia to a seductive slower method through the crucial pun on “lie,” and tempts her by claiming “‘twas your beauty that provoked me”) and that his deepest adversaries are a veritable chorus of women, one of whom is his own mother.

So when Lisa Harrow came to our class, having asked us to work up a short speech from Twelfth Night, that anagrammatic text, that story of desire, of “O” (Orsino, Olivia, Viola/Cesario, where Malvolio is invited to insert his imagination and the garbled letters of his name obscenely into Olivia’s Cs, her Us, and her Ts—“O, O, O” indeed), we hoped that she would help us with at least one of three sonnet-style pieces we had prepared: Viola’s resonant expression of and incitement to desire (“Make me a willow cabin at your gate” 1.5.222-30); Antonio’s expression of his “filed” desire for Sebastian (3.3.1-13); or Orsino’s great speech of recognition and reversal of his desire at the crisis of the plot (“Why should I not, had I the heart to do it,/ Like to the Egyptian thief at point of death,/Kill what I love?” 5.1.106-8).

Judi Dench as Viola and Lisa Harrow as Olivia from the 1969 RSC Twelfth Night directed by John Barton

“The character is language.” Judi Dench as Viola and Lisa Harrow as Olivia from the 1969 RSC Twelfth Night directed by John Barton

Coming to a consensus that Orsino is the least well-understood and the most poorly-played character in many of today’s productions, we chose his speech for special coaching. We educed the allusion to Thyamis, the conflicted character in Heliodorus’s Ǣthiopean Historie, which already marks the surprised, dangerously violent turn in Orsino’s affection from Olivia to Cesario. Then we highlighted the bitter sonnet language—“nonregardance cast my faith,” “true place in your favor,” “marble-breasted tyrant,” “your minion,” “tender dearly,” “cruel eye,” “spite”—that graphs and punctuates the transition thoroughly. Although we had scanned and marked the passage carefully and tried to deliver it pointedly and well, our emphases went awry as our breath control faltered, so Harrow had to help us “land” it, including the epigrammatic closing couplet: “I’ll sacrifice the lamb that I do love/ To spite a raven’s heart within a dove.” Knowing what to target, we learned, must coincide with knowing when to breathe while taking aim. Launched into the air with the aid of her steadying hand, Orsino’s words leapt to our intentions and, even if only for a few brief, thrilling lines, flew in the direction they were pointed.

  1. John Barton, Playing Shakespeare: An Actor’s Guide (1984; New York: Anchor Books, 2001), 129.

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