Thinking Shakespeare with Barry Edelstein

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 82

How do actors breathe life into Shakespeare’s texts? How do they take language that’s centuries old and make it sound so real and immediate?
Barry Edelstein, the Erna Finci Viterbi Artistic Director at The Old Globe in San Diego, is one of the nation’s most experienced Shakespeare directors. Twice a year, The Old Globe holds an event called Thinking Shakespeare Live! – a master class where you get to watch actors act and Edelstein direct – in essence, pulling back the curtain on the rehearsal room.
In this podcast episode, Edelstein works with Barbara Bogaev to go through a very abbreviated version of Thinking Shakespeare Live!
Listen on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud, and NPR One.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published September 19, 2017. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode Speak The Speech, I Pray You, As I Pronounced It was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the Associate Producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer. We had help from Justin Waldman, Associate Artistic Director at The Old Globe, and from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquardt at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Kurt Kohnen at KPBS in San Diego.

The second edition of Edelstein’s book Thinking Shakespeare: A How-to Guide for Student Actors, Directors, and Anyone Else Who Wants to Feel More Comfortable With the Bard will be published by Theatre Communications Group in the spring of 2018.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: You’re in the theater watching your favorite Shakespeare play. The words are powerful and evocative. The actors are performing them beautifully, drawing you into the play. And, in the back of your mind there’s something you wonder – a question you can’t put aside. Actors take this language that's centuries old, and they make it sound so real and immediate. How do they do it? Is there a secret? Well, it turns out, there is.


From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s Director. Breathing life into Shakespeare’s text – and directing actors so they can make that happen – requires artistic skills not all of us can master, but that all of us can appreciate.

A few years back, Barry Edelstein, the Erna Finci Viterbi Artistic Director at The Old Globe in San Diego, had an idea. To help audiences more fully connect with Shakespeare, he’d stage a rehearsal right there in front of them. Pull back the curtain on the process of creating a Shakespeare production, so that theatergoers can see exactly how the sports car gets built.

Twice a year, The Old Globe holds an event called Thinking Shakespeare Live! – a master class where you get to watch actors act and one of the nation’s most experienced Shakespeare directors direct. Barry agreed to go through a very abbreviated version of Thinking Shakespeare Live! for us in the studio. When he does it in San Diego, Barry generally uses three actors. For us, he’s working with Barbara Bogaev.

We call this podcast: Speak The Speech, I Pray You, As I Pronounced It.

BARBARA BOGAEV: Barry, I am so thrilled that you've agreed to come on our podcast and turn me into a Shakespearean actor with this one simple trick. [LAUGH]

BARRY EDELSTEIN: Well, no, I love this podcast and I'm really honored to be here and you know, Shakespeare is for everybody, so once you learn a little bit about the things that make him work, you can connect with him in all sorts of wonderful and deep ways.

BOGAEV: Well, seriously, I do just want to acknowledge that you're being so gracious in walking us through a Shakespeare master class. And with me, I'm hardly an experienced actor. In fact, one of the high points of my voice-over career was doing a commercial for a Piggly Wiggly supermarket [LAUGH] so, you have your work cut out for you.

EDELSTEIN: Well that's sort of like hurlyburly, right?

BOGAEV: Yes, exactly.

EDELSTEIN: Piggly Wiggly, so there you go. It's just a degree of difference.

BOGAEV: [LAUGH] From Shakespeare.


BOGAEV: But before we start with the coaching, why don't you tell us what inspired you to do these master classes in the first place.

EDELSTEIN: Well, I'm a Shakespeare director, and you can't be a Shakespeare director without great actors to be in the plays. And so early in my career I got involved in American classical actor training, and Shakespearean actor training has been absolutely the partner with my own directing career over 30 years. And many years ago people asked me, “Well is there a book you can recommend?” And there are some wonderful books about Shakespearean acting out there, but none that expressed my own way of conveying this information. So, I sat down to write one and in 2007 I wrote a book called Thinking Shakespeare which lays out these techniques of how an American actor relates to the text, how the text works. And from there I developed it into a kind of 90-minute master class for the general public because everybody finds Shakespeare a little intimidating. And the truth is that once you know the things that a trained actor knows about how the text is built, that intimidation evaporates. So, I've sort of bottled this thing into a lecture that I call Thinking Shakespeare Live!, and it’s 90 minutes, and a lot of fun, and people really respond to it, and I’m thrilled to be able to talk to your listeners about it now.

BOGAEV: Right, and let's talk about this idea—thinking Shakespeare—because it all stems from the concept that Shakespeare's characters are thinking people, as you said in the master class. They have ideas and then they choose the language that will communicate those thoughts. So, tell us more about this. How is this a guiding insight into acting, into performing the plays?

EDELSTEIN: Well it’s just what you and I are doing now. If you were to ask me to describe the weather today I would think about the weather and I would find language that would express exactly what's going here. We think an idea and then we find language to communicate that idea. And as we search our mental hard drive to find the language that we want to use; we will sometimes use simple language, sometimes complex language, sometimes we will speak in long arcs of thought, sometimes we will speak very simply. And that's what characters in plays do. Playwrights have the skill of counterfeiting thought. And what an actor tries to do is identify the character's thoughts and then give the audience the illusion—and in fact, once you do the work, the reality—of thinking the same thought that the character is thinking and then using this language to express that thought.

BOGAEV: So, in the case of Shakespeare is it that the language is in many cases so complex or that Shakespeare's such a towering icon that this very simple idea—what we do every day, we think and then we form language—it gets in the way, so that actors can't access that?

EDELSTEIN: There are layers between Shakespeare's language and us. The language is 400 years old, and the English language has changed enormously in the centuries since Shakespeare wrote it, and it has a kind of unfamiliarity to it that actually one can decode with a little bit of hard work until the language starts to feel much more accessible and much more immediate. And finally, yes, you're right, I think that there is generally the sense of Shakespeare as a gigantic icon, and for many he's remote, and even a little intimidating, and if you've had the misfortune of being exposed to Shakespeare as a child in a production that you found boring, or you know, God forbid, with a teacher who sort of didn't have the knack for making it come to life, you know, you can find it something that's sort of not for you. And so, you can kind of decode it once you know a little bit about the DNA and the structures that put it together.

BOGAEV: Well great let's get to decoding. And in the master class you start by giving examples of this technique from Hamlet and Measure for Measure.


BOGAEV: But start simply.

EDELSTEIN: Do you have them in front of you? Do you want read?


EDELSTEIN: All right, so…

BOGAEV: I do, I have them right here and they're lines—these lines both describe the dawning of the day, but they do it very differently.


BOGAEV: So, I'll give the lines, and you can tell us what's illuminating about them.

EDELSTEIN: Okay, well, let's take a step backward, and let's not think about what they say yet, let's just listen to the words themselves.

BOGAEV: Okay, so the first one from Hamlet. “But look, the morn in russet mantle clad walks o'er the dew of yon high eastward hill.”

EDELSTEIN: Excellent, there you go. What do you mean you're not a Shakespearean actor?


EDELSTEIN: Fantastic.

BOGAEV: You're such a teacher. And then from Measure for Measure. “It is almost clear dawn.”

EDELSTEIN: Excellent, okay, now what do those two things have in common as different as they are? “The morn in russet mantle clad walks o'er the dew of yon high eastward hill.” What does that mean? It means the sun is coming up. That's the thought, the thought is the sun is coming up. Why, that's Horatio in Hamlet in the first scene. Why does Horatio use this extremely complicated figurative language to say the simple idea, the sun is coming up. The second line, “It is almost clear dawn” is the duke in Measure for Measure, it says the same thing, the sun is coming up. So, Shakespeare's capable of writing clearly—“it is almost clear dawn”—simply, straightforwardly, nothing Shakespearean or fancy about it. But then for another character he writes this very elevated, very metaphoric, very figurative thing. And when we work on Shakespeare in the rehearsal room the simple and eternal question is well, “Why? Why is Horatio speaking in this way?” There are a couple of ways to answer the question. You can answer the way you would in a graduate seminar in English, “the morn in russet mantle clad,” so the sun is rendered figuratively as a man in a red cloak, “russet mantle,” an orangery red cloak walking over the dew on the grass of that hill in the east. It's an amazingly beautiful image and you can talk about anthropomorphism in literature, and you can cite precedence from poetry, but that doesn't really help Horatio here. Horatio needs to know, “Well, why am I referring to that?” He's a graduate student in philosophy at Wittenberg University, we know that, a well-read, highly intellectual, highly articulate guy. But what's really going on is he's just had the wits scared out of him. This line comes after Horatio, Marcellus, and Barnardo have seen the ghost of the dead king walking around the ramparts of the building. It's been terrifying, scary, it's cold out, they're all just beside themselves with fear, and wonder at this thing that they've seen. Suddenly in the distance he sees a little glimmer of orange light and the sense of relief, and pleasure, and a sense that this long horrible night is over, and he says, “But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad, walks o'er the dew of yon high eastward hill.” And you can hear in that the relief that sunrise brings. And that's it. Why is he speaking this way? Well, he's speaking this way because he needs to comfort himself after a horribly frightening experience, and he goes to this elevated beautiful figurative, metaphoric language to do it.

BOGAEV: Now that's very interesting because in that answer you address this issue of, why not just, you know, pick up one of the hundreds of graduate theses about the role of imagery in russet dawns in Shakespeare and figure out the line backwards from there. But you're saying that, those kinds of academic insights don't really help an actor.

EDELSTEIN: They are interesting, and fascinating, and wonderful to talk about over a beer after rehearsal. But in the situation he's in, he's a guy talking to other people in this very, very specific situation. And once again we're trying to create for the audience the illusion of reality. We're actually trying to create for the audience reality. These three guys on the ramparts of a castle in Elsinore having had this very frightening experience, and so, we want to implant the thoughts that Shakespeare has written on the page into the skull of the actor playing Horatio, so that in that moment Horatio is thinking, the actor is thinking the very thought that Horatio is having and then the audience sees something real in front of them.

BOGAEV: And the duke in Measure for Measure? He just comes right out and says it's almost clear dawn.

EDELSTEIN: Well for one thing he doesn't have a whole lot of time, right? As you know the situation in Measure for Measure is that the duke is trying to right an injustice. A guy is going to be put to death in the morning, at dawn, for a crime he did not commit. So, the duke comes up with this crazy scheme where they're going to take another prisoner also scheduled to be beheaded and they're going to swap his head for the guy that they're trying to save. And they've got to get this done by dawn, and dawn is almost coming. So, the duke doesn't have any time to talk about men in russet mantles. The duke just has to sound the alarm and go, “oh my God the sun is coming up.” So, he says simply un-metaphorically and directly, “It is almost clear dawn, let's get going.”

BOGAEV: [LAUGH] Now this is wonderful, and let's try to put this into practice with another short, easy exercise. Because I think what we're talking about here is heightened language and simple language, which is one of your categories of language that you use in the master class. And you give a short, easy exercise, an example of that which is “the air bites shrewdly” scene, also from Hamlet. And it's just two lines, so I can handle that.

EDELSTEIN: Well, so part of the technique that we work on in the rehearsal room is to recognize the difference between language that's heightened and language that's simple. First you have to recognize it, and say, “oh that's fancy, that's not fancy.” Because it's a Shakespeare play, it's fancy because that character needs to do something fancy right now. And…

BOGAEV: Right, and that brings us back to “the air bites shrewdly.”

EDELSTEIN: Back to this, sure, okay, so, this is one scene later. So, Horatio, having been scared by the sight of the ghost of King Hamlet, and relieved that the sun has come up, goes to the castle to find his friend, young prince Hamlet. And he tells him, “hey, I saw the ghost of your father last night.” Hamlet is astonished and skeptical, but Horatio convinces him that it's true, and Hamlet says, “okay I'll come out with you tonight, and we'll see if he'll come out again.” And they're standing on the castle roof at night, it's chilly, and he says this one line of verse. Why don't you go ahead Barbara and say it.

BOGAEV: “The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold.”

EDELSTEIN: “The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold.” That's one line of iambic pentameter. Two sentences, “The air bites shrewdly,” period, “it is very cold,” period. What does “the air bites shrewdly” mean? It means a shrew is a little rodent that can get into all kinds of little holes and do damage, right? So, what he's saying is the air is biting me like a shrew, meaning it’s cold. So, what Hamlet is saying is, “it's cold, it's cold.” But the question is why? Why say “it is cold, it is cold,” and specifically why say one version of “it is cold” super fancy and the other version of “it is cold” simply? I mean, look, “it is very cold” is the second line. “It is very cold.” What's Shakespearean about that? When you go into Costco, into the room where they keep the vegetables, right? You say, “it is very cold.”

BOGAEV: It is very cold, yeah.

EDELSTEIN: You know, my wife always say to me, “Will you quit quoting Shakespeare,” right?


EDELSTEIN: I mean, “it is very cold.” There's nothing, right, to a Shakespearean line. So, again why am I expressing these thoughts in these forms? So, we go in rehearsal and we ask. Now I have a production of Hamlet running at the Old Globe right now. And the solution that we came up with is that Hamlet says “the air bites shrewdly,” but he's this educated guy, he too went to Wittenberg, he's a prince. And the actor playing Marcellus, the soldier who's just a grunt, right, not a very educated guy, looks at him with a look on his face of, “what?”, and then Hamlet explains what he meant. And the audience laughs because we understand that the character has chosen to define this very complex metaphor suddenly in much more straightforward and accessible language.

BOGAEV: That's really wonderful. Could you give me the coaching in that? Can we do this as an exercise?

EDELSTEIN: Okay, sure, all right, so I'll give you… let's suppose I'm directing you, I look at that and I recognize one half of that line is fancy and one half of it straightforward. And I say, “Barbara, here's a thought. What if the first half of that line is private, and the second half of that line is public?”

BOGAEV: Why don't I try the one that you've decided on in rehearsal. That it's comedic? That…

EDELSTEIN: Well, let's try it.


EDELSTEIN: It depends on the guy playing Marcellus doing a take after you say, “The air bites shrewdly.” So, your listeners will have to imagine that in the beat between the two halves of the line that the other guy is looking at you with a look of perplexity on his face and then you'll get it. Go ahead.

BOGAEV: “The air bites shrewdly.”


BOGAEV: “It is very cold.”

EDELSTEIN: Oh. Right, so that's, right he doesn't say “huh” and he doesn't say, “oh,” but there you go, that's the idea.

BOGAEV: [LAUGH] Well, I can see it.

EDELSTEIN: Very good, see that's it, you're now a Shakespearean actor because we are asking ourselves, “Why am I talking this way?” And it's never good enough to simply say, “Well, because it's a Shakespeare play, and that's how Shakespeare writes.” In the rehearsal room we're trying to create human reality.

BOGAEV: So, it is this marriage of “Why am I saying these words now?” and “How is the language built?” because this is how you organize your master class, and your teaching, and I think we just talked about heightened language. You also include in these four categories “antithesis.” Now remind us what antithesis in rhetoric is.

EDELSTEIN: Antithesis is… sure. Antithesis is the big, big, big, big thing of Shakespeare. That's the technique that he relies on really most. And antithesis is very simply opposition.

BOGAEV: You mean “to be or not to be.”

EDELSTEIN: So… exactly. “To be or not to be—that is the question” or “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York,” or “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” And you know you can't go more than two or three lines in Shakespeare without finding that kind of opposition. Sometimes it’s dictionary opposites, right? Day, night, winter, summer—sometimes it's a more abstract kind of opposition, so for example, “The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.” Well the opposite of “not strained” is strained, but Portia is using “not strained” and “droppeth” in opposition to each other and the way she's trying to explain what mercy is to Shylock. And you know we hear antithesis in American life all the time. “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” That's antithesis. And if you don't say the words that are opposite each other the thought makes no sense, right? If I got up and said, “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Doesn't make any sense, the words…

BOGAEV: No, but you sound like AM radio. [LAUGH]

EDELSTEIN: Well, oh, God forbid, you know, well, I don't know, I listen to anything.

BOGAEV: Or William Shatner maybe.

EDELSTEIN: Now you bring me to one of the real bugaboos of Thinking Shakespeare. You know, I grew up watching Star Trek and I revere William Shatner, and Shatner actually began his career as a Shakespearean actor at Stratford in Canada, people don't know that. But that kind of over-stressing of words, right the famous Captain Kirk line of, “I will not kill today.” That's bad Shakespeare. And you can get into something like, “to be or not to be—that is the question,” and then you're in the Shatner trap. And the Shatner trap is something to be avoided, and you've got to watch out because it's again not about hammering words, it's about thinking thoughts. So, you sit down with your Shakespeare and you circle the words that are opposite each other. And when you say the text you think it in those oppositional antithetical terms, huge, big idea in Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: Now this seems to lead to the next category of language which you work with, which is verbs, because you're emphasizing the two sides of the thought and you also say it's important as an actor to keep in your mind, in fact to underline verbs, that verbs—they're in every play, they're in every complete sentence. So, why talk about verbs in the master class?

EDELSTEIN: Well, yeah, you're absolutely right Barbara. I like to joke that, you know, you circle the words that are antithesis, you hit the verbs with the yellow highlighter, you know, all you need is a trip to Staples and you're a Shakespearean actor.

BOGAEV: [LAUGH] Exactly.

EDELSTEIN: But actors take action. What we're looking for is the active thing. What is this person doing in this situation? And Shakespeare is an astonishing writer of verbs. His verbs have so much muscle and expressivity, that we as interpreters of Shakespeare learn to lean on those verbs because that's what gives the language its zing, if you will. So, I don't know, you may have some of these in front of you but…

BOGAEV: I do, I picked up some from your master class and it reminded me of what rings in your ears after you leave the theater… Julius Caesar, he “doth bestride,” we walked… “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps...”

EDELSTEIN: “He hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies.”

BOGAEV: And if you don't hit the verbs, what happens? I mean it seems as if the lines just crumble.

EDELSTEIN: Well, you know you get into kind of mumble core, you know, and mumble cores wonderful in a sort of indie movie but in a 600-seat outdoor theater it doesn't really carry, you know. And so, when we're looking at the verbs in Shakespeare there's one speech I love to look at that, that really demonstrates how powerful they are. And that's a speech from Julius Caesar. Cassius has decided that the power grab that Julius Caesar seems to be making where he appears to want to be the monarch of Rome instead of the head of a republic offends him deeply and so, Cassius decides he needs to stop Julius Caesar. And the way he's going to do that is by getting Brutus involved because Brutus is such a respected figure in Rome. And so Cassius goes to Brutus and he gives him this extraordinary harangue about how bad Caesar is and how the republican values of Rome demand that we stop him and in so doing he tells a story about one time when he and Julius Caesar swam across the Tiber. So, why don't you read us that bit about the swimming contest?

BOGAEV: Okay, and I'm going to read it as if I had not just heard your speech about verbs.

EDELSTEIN: Yeah, do that, read it… exactly.

BOGAEV: I'm just going to come to this… the scene they… he's trying to get him to swim, right?

EDELSTEIN: Right, yup.

BOGAEV: “For once, upon a raw and gusty day, the troubled Tiber chafing with her shores, Caesar said to me, “Dar’st thou, Cassius, now leap in with me into this angry flood and swim to yonder point?” Upon the word, accoutered as I was, I plungèd in and bade him follow. The torrent roared, and we did buffet it with lusty sinews, throwing it aside and stemming it with hearts of controversy. But ere we could arrive the point proposed, Caesar cried, “Help me, Cassius, or I sink!”

EDELSTEIN: Great, fantastic, that's fantastic, look at you, look at, that's, you know, come on, you're a ringer.

BOGAEV: I… okay, we're done, good, phew. [LAUGH] No, now make me not stink so much.

EDELSTEIN: Okay, so now, okay, now there are a lot of verbs in that and I want to say for the grammarians listening some of these verbs we talk about “the troubled Tiber,” right, it's an adjective. Okay, we don't care as long as it's a word that comes from a verb; we want to look at it as having a particular kind of expressive power. So, you…

BOGAEV: Should I get my pencil out? And…

EDELSTEIN: You could get your pencil out and just circle the verbs in that speech and you'll hear troubled, chaffing, said, dar’st, leap, swim, accoutered, plungèd, bade, did, roared, did buffet, and then this extraordinary thing: “throwing it aside, stemming it with hearts of controversy,” right? These amazingly expressive powerful verbs—sounds like a play-by-play at an Olympic swim meet. And the director would go to the actor and say, “Now why are you using these unbelievably muscular verbs?” Well, the point is at the end Caesar cries, “help me, Cassius, or I sink.” He cries, “help me, Cassius, or I sink.” In other words, Caesar's a wimp. And this is the guy who wants to take over Rome. So, Cassius needs to dramatize this swimming contest, so that he can show that the guy who's trying to seize power is a sort of sickly, wimpy, failing guy. So, I would say to the actor all right now how much juice can you squeeze out of those verbs as you go through the narration of this swimming contest. So, try it again and there's no going over the top because it's just rehearsal. The New York Times is not coming to review you right now.

BOGAEV: [LAUGH] Oh, wonderful, okay, so I should ham.

EDELSTEIN: Well, I would say rather than looking at it that way why don't you see just how expressive you can make these words feel before it goes over the top.

BOGAEV: Okay gotcha. “For once, upon a raw and gusty day, the troubled Tiber chafing with her shores, Caesar said to me, “Dar’st thou, Cassius, now leap in with me into this angry flood and swim to yonder point?” Upon the word, accoutered as I was, I plungèd in and bade him follow; so indeed he did. The torrent roared, and we did buffet it with lusty sinews, throwing it aside and stemming it with hearts of controversy. But ere we could arrive the point proposed, Caesar cried, “Help me, Cassius, or I sink!”

EDELSTEIN: That's fantastic. So do you hear the difference?

BOGAEV: You get a lot of momentum, yes.

EDELSTEIN: And what else do you start to feel what Cassius is feeling, this envy and this sense of scorn toward this guy?

BOGAEV: Yes, I think it carries the emotion, right, yeah.

EDELSTEIN: Precisely, so what it does is it puts you, Barbara, into Cassius’s brain, or the other way, maybe puts Cassius's brain into Barbara's head and so not only are you portraying this person you are actually thinking this person's thoughts right in front of me.

BOGAEV: So, really I think now we've arrived at one of my favorite of all your techniques, and it's something that we do in radio all the time to sound more like we're talking to an actual living breathing human being when we read copy. And you have actors do this by reading just one line at a time. And you interject questions before they read the next line. Explain how you develop that, why you do that.

EDELSTEIN: Well the majority of Shakespeare's verse is written in a form called iambic pentameter, blank verse. Iambic pentameter, as I'm sure your listeners know, is a fancy way of saying it's got 10 syllables. Five of them are stressed, and five of them are unstressed in an alternating pattern. So, “now is the winter of our discontent,” “to be or not to be—that is the question,” “the quality of mercy is not strained,” “once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.” We don't say it that way, we say it in the way that a native speaker of English would, but we analyze the language according to what the meter tells us it should do and if you go to a rehearsal room of a professional Shakespeare production you'll see people banging on a table to try and figure out, da, dum, da, dum, da, dum, where is the language telling me the stress falls. Now here's the key point: Shakespeare knew that he was doing this. And what that means is that he knew where each line begins and where each line ends. And one of the most powerful techniques in Thinking Shakespeare is to discover that what's happening at the end of each line is an opportunity for thought. The character has a microsecond to figure out what's going to come next. And that moment of what comes next, that's the cue to living thought. And so in the rehearsal room I will sometimes frankly torture the actors by screaming out at the end of a line, what, what, what, what do you mean, what comes next, what comes next.

BOGAEV: I'm sure they love that. [LAUGH]

EDELSTEIN: They hate it, they hate it. And there's a simpler way to do it that is less painful and again it involves a trip to Staples, go get yourself a paper and cover the text, and read only one line at a time. And what you will discover is Shakespeare is laying out the architecture of thought one verse at a time. If you watch a great actor who really knows how this works you will not know that, that's what's happening. It will sound like natural speech, I mean just listen to me talk now. There are strange breaks, there are moments where I stop a second and figure out what's next, there are moments where I breathe. That's all that we're trying to recognize is that it's got a naturalistic kind of feeling to it because we're watching a person think up their language as they go.

BOGAEV: Well, let's try it with the passage that you use in your master class. It's from Merchant of Venice. It's the Portia as Balthazar, and it's the quality of mercy speech.

EDELSTEIN: Great, so would you like me… how about you say a line and I will ask you what comes next at the end of that line.

BOGAEV: Okay. “The quality of mercy is not strained.”

EDELSTEIN: What is it?

BOGAEV: “It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven…”


BOGAEV: “Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:”

EDELSTEIN: What do you mean?

BOGAEV: “It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

EDELSTEIN: I don't get it.

BOGAEV: Well, “'tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes…”


BOGAEV: “The thronèd monarch better than his crown.”

EDELSTEIN: What else?

BOGAEV: “His scepter shows the force of temporal power…”


BOGAEV: “The attribute to awe and majesty…”

EDELSTEIN: What about it?

BOGAEV: Well, “wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings…”

EDELSTEIN: What else?

BOGAEV: “But mercy is above this sceptered sway.”

EDELSTEIN: What do you mean?

BOGAEV: “It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings.”

EDELSTEIN: What do you mean?

BOGAEV: “It is an attribute to God himself.”

EDELSTEIN: What about it?

BOGAEV: “And earthly power doth then show likest God's…”


BOGAEV: “When mercy seasons justice.”

EDELSTEIN: Now what that exercise does, Barbara, is it forces you to think Portia's thoughts one line at a time. So, that by the time you get to opening night you're saying, “The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. 'Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes the thronèd monarch better than his crown. His scepter shows the force of temporal power, the attribute to awe and majesty wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings; but mercy is above this sceptered sway. It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings. It is an attribute to God himself; and earthly power doth then show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice.”

BOGAEV: That is really beautiful. I feel two things when you're doing this, and one is that it forces you to be more spontaneous, obviously because you're talking to someone.


BOGAEV: But it seems to also bring out as you’re thinking about it, as if you're having a conversation really with yourself, which is what we do when we make speeches. We really…

EDELSTEIN: I couldn't agree more, I couldn't agree more, right.

BOGAEV: Right, you feel the duality of the thought within the passage.

EDELSTEIN: And… and you know, look I'm not a terribly good actor and all I know is I can use this technique to simulate spontaneity.

BOGAEV: I had a fantastic time doing this with you and I can see how it would be invaluable for actors in your master class. But what made you think, “oh let's do this in front of an audience?”

EDELSTEIN: Well, you know, I'll tell you the truth. One of the most mysterious things to me of all, I do this thing a couple of times a year at The Old Globe, so here it is a Saturday morning at 11am in San Diego, you know, the most beautiful sunny place in the world. And people come in to sit in a dark room to listen to somebody talk about Shakespeare for 90 minutes. It's really quite remarkable. Now, I think that people really want to love Shakespeare. People understand instinctively that there's something beautiful there, and it can feel remote, so they want ways to connect.

BOGAEV: I think also it's so fascinating to see someone, a master of their craft at work. I don't know, it's like watching Rafael Nadal showing you how he does a back swing, or Beyoncé explaining how the Lemonade video was made. You know pulling back the curtain is irresistible.

EDELSTEIN: I think that's right. I mean, you know, I would be the last person ever to put myself in vaunted company of Rafael Nadal or Beyoncé, God knows, but I have been doing this for 30 years, you know, and so I've learned a little bit about how the material works. And I agree, it's why we like watching cooking shows. To watch somebody put together a beautiful, exquisite meal step by step is a very, very special reward. There's this deep sense of joy that this thing that has felt so distant and that we all know has value. But there's this real sense of joy that we can own it and connect to it ourselves. And you know, Barbara in the final analysis that's the impulse behind the Folger Shakespeare Library, it's the impulse behind The Old Globe, it's the impulse behind all these institutions that deliver Shakespeare to the public in various different ways, which is that the treasures of the culture are for everybody, so it's incumbent upon those of us who are the stewards of these institutions to again and again look for creative, and fun, and interesting, and engaging ways to share this art with the widest possible public.

BOGAEV: Well Barry Edelstein, it's such a pleasure and gracious is the word, you couldn't have been more gracious working with me in your abbreviated master class, thank you so much.

EDELSTEIN: Well, thank you Barbara and you know what, we'll be casting next summer’s Shakespeare festival pretty soon, so I hope you'll send your head shot and resume.

BOGAEV: [LAUGH] Oh, yeah, it's already on the way.


WITMORE: Barry Edelstein is the Erna Finci Viterbi Artistic Director at The Old Globe in San Diego, California. The second edition of his book Thinking Shakespeare: A How-to Guide for Student Actors, Directors, and Anyone Else Who Wants to Feel More Comfortable With the Bard will be published by Theatre Communications Group in the spring of 2018. He was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Speak The Speech, I Pray You, As I Pronounced It was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the Associate Producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington.  We had help from Justin Waldman, Associate Artistic Director at The Old Globe, and from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquardt at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Kurt Kohnen at KPBS in San Diego.

If you've been enjoying Shakespeare Unlimited, I hope you'll consider reviewing the podcasts on whatever platform you get the podcast from. It helps us get the word out to people who haven't heard it, people who might enjoy it. We'd really appreciate your help. Thanks.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world's largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.