Shakespeare's plays have inspired a variety of interpretations over the centuries. Shehrazade Zafar-Arif, who's completing her MA in Shakespeare Studies at King’s College London, lists and explains some of the differences.
How to perform or adapt Shakespeare when he has been performed over and over since his own time? The question has prompted a variety of performances, from Elizabethan dress to modern day, as well as films, novels, even comics. This undercurrent of anxiety, the fear that yet another performance of Shakespeare might somehow cause him to go stale, to become cliché, has revealed itself in different ways: productions of Shakespeare plays either try to update them and do something new, by playing with setting and gender; or they adhere to the 'Original Practices' style, incorporating costumes, acting practices and even casting methods from Shakespeare’s day.
Shakespeare was a product of his time. He did not exist in a vacuum, but was irrevocably tied to the theatre company, theatre practices, acting practices and social circumstances of his era. Revisiting the practices of his time does not somehow resurrect him into the modern age, but is part of an attempt to dip into a period we do not know enough about.
The biggest difference between theatre in Shakespeare’s time and theatre today, one that arguably coloured many other aspects of 16th- or 17th-century theatre practice, was that it lacked something modern theatre companies find invaluable: a director. If we define a director as someone who supplies direction – directing the actor’s body and movement as well as his or her inflection, directing the audience’s gaze on the stage, directing interpretations of a text – then the burden for direction in Shakespeare’s day fell on the text and the actor.
The actor inevitably became a kind of self-director. This was largely facilitated by the acting practices of the period. Each actor was given not the whole script but only his own ‘part’: his lines along with his cues, which were the last four or five words of the actor who would speak before him. A ‘plot’ of the play – a summary of the entrances, exits and other notable actions – would hang in the tiring house (the section of a theatre reserved for the actors) behind the stage for actors to consult.
Rehearsals as we know them today did not exist in Shakespeare’s day either. Actors would memorise their lines on their own, or experienced actors would practise with the younger actors who were apprenticed to them. Often the main actors would sit through a reading of the entire play with the playwright, and the entire company would rehearse the fight scenes and the jigs, which were dependent on precision and timing.
These practices were a product of necessity and practicality: paper was expensive and companies did not wish to risk having too many copies of the play lying around, so each actor was supplied the bare minimum. Candles were also expensive, so actors could only rehearse during the day. A company like Shakespeare’s typically put on six plays a week, which gave them little time to rehearse.
All this put the onus on the actor to direct his own movements and gestures, as well as on the text, which supplied countless small cues to an actor not necessarily found in stage directions: Cordelia’s ‘no, sir, you must not kneel’ reveals that Lear will kneel before her, and Banquo’s ‘Good sir, why do you start, and seem to fear…?’ signals Macbeth’s reaction to the witches’ prophecy. Such acting practices seem unfathomable in the modern theatre world, which is preoccupied with details and information: producing backgrounds for characters, each actor being familiar with the entire script; months of rehearsal with the collaborative effort of a director, producer, set designer, and countless others.
However, this has not stopped modern theatre companies drawing on acting practices from the 16th and 17th century. Unrehearsed performances are especially popular, such as Emma Whipday’s Two Lamentable Tragedies, which follows the same practice of giving each actor only his or her ‘part’. Many actors and directors such as Philip Bird and Patrick Tucker argue that it gives a performance a sense of vitality and spontaneity, as each actor does not know for sure what the other is about to say, and the play becomes a sort of extempore (spoken without preparation) game. The Globe’s Read Not Dead series, which puts on lesser-known and never-performed plays, allows its actors only the morning to rehearse, and then has them perform the play with scripts in hand. But even the Globe does not adhere to authentic rehearsal practices when following 'Original Practices' style during its regular season, suggesting that some gaps simply cannot be bridged.
Another crucial difference between performing Shakespeare in his time and now is that there were no women actors on the early modern stage – all female parts were played by boy actors. This was hardly as jarring as it might be today. Boy actors, typically between the ages of 14 to 22, were seen as somewhere in between men and women. There were even instances of men in the audience falling in love with a boy actor thinking he was a woman – which says less about the ingenuity of their costumes than it does about how gender was viewed in Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare poked fun at this deception in plays like The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night and As You Like It, which feature a woman disguised as a man – played by a man who is pretending to be a woman. The text often pokes fun at, and draws attention to, this disparity, with Viola in Twelfth Night telling the lovelorn Olivia that ‘no woman has; nor never none / Shall mistress be of [my heart], save I alone’.
This practice has more recently inspired a number of productions in the original style featuring an all-male cast, such as Mark Rylance’s Twelfth Night, in which Rylance himself played Olivia. Such productions have been criticised for reducing the already scarce roles for women actors in Shakespeare, and led to a series of all-female productions, as well as productions where a quintessentially male part is played by a female, such as Maxine Peake playing Hamlet in the Manchester Royal Exchange production. The Reversed Shakespeare Company’s recent ‘gender-bent’ production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream switched the genders of all the play’s characters, most of whom are defined by their gender roles and expectations.
But perhaps what most affects the way Shakespeare is performed in modern times is the one factor that cannot be controlled by directors and theatre companies: the audience. Based on the little we know about the audiences of Shakespeare's day, their expectations and mindsets, the way they perceived the theatre and what they took from it, were completely different from our own. Even if we had a way of controlling audiences, we couldn't hope to recreate their experience they had of Shakespeare's plays.
In the 16th- and 17th-century playhouses, there was no concept of the fourth wall – the imaginary wall between the stage and the audience. Early modern audiences were acutely aware of the artificiality of what they were seeing, and were comfortable with the theatrical illusion being shattered. They would not sit silently during the performance and would often move about to get a better view, so that actors often had to compete for the spectators’ attention. Wealthier patrons often attended the theatre to be seen as much as to see, and by the 17th century, playhouses had become social spaces. Such audience members would sit onstage or in the galleries behind the stage, putting themselves on display. At court performances, many attended more to see the monarch than the play itself.
Shakespeare, like other playwrights, was aware of the mentality and expectations of his audiences and was constantly playing with and responding to them. This is seen most obviously in soliloquies and asides, where actors address the audiences directly, taking them into confidence, but also in the use of disguises that are painfully obvious to audiences but not to other characters. This created a sense that the audience were in on a private joke against the characters in the play, putting them simultaneously within and outside the world of the play. The plays frequently drew on language that referenced the theatre, acknowledging the physical dimensions of the playhouse, the audience and the actors. The Chorus in Henry V wonders, ‘can this cockpit hold / the vasty fields of France?’ and asks audiences to ‘imagine, think when we talk of horses, that you see them.’ The famous ‘all the world’s a stage’ speech in As You Like It is simultaneously a reflection on the theatre-world analogy so popular at the time, as well as a wink and nudge to the audience.
Modern audiences, meanwhile, are accustomed to sitting in reverent silence during a performance, and find the breaking of the fourth wall more jarring. However, it has become a feature of Globe productions to have actors address the audience or even move among the spectators in the yard – not a practice from the early modern period, notably – incorporating them into the performance. The structure of the Globe makes it easy for the actors to connect with the audience, especially those in the pit. Particularly during crowd scenes, such as Antony’s funeral speech for Caesar, it is easy enough to imagine that the audience becomes part of the world of the play. When Mark Rylance addressed the English army as Henry V at the Globe, one member of the audience called out, ‘We’re with you, Harry!’
One thing that 16th-century theatre and modern theatre have in common is a love of special effects. Though the stage was relatively bare and contained few props, Shakespeare’s audiences had a great love for the visual and for spectacle. The first-ever storm on the early modern stage was staged in Julius Caesar, using a rolling cannonball to create thunder. Early modern plays also used cannons and fireworks – the smell of gunpowder would have been particularly potent for early modern audiences after the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 – as well as music and tricks of candlelight in indoor theatres to convey a sense of the supernatural. In a play by Robert Greene called Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, which features a magician’s duel, the stage direction calls for a fire-breathing dragon to fly across the playhouse. Sadly, however, we know very little about how such effects might have been staged.