When we set-up a “Let’s Play”, it’s usually to demonstrate the particular emotions that a character or characters are going through; or to show some particularly interesting bit of action, but this “Let’s Play” serves a different purpose.
I hope it will demonstrate some of the uses of language that Shakespeare uses to help his actors (both those of his own time, and those of our time). It is often said that Shakespeare’s plays don’t have many stage directions. Actually, there are huge numbers of stage directions buried in the text of the play itself, and so there’s no need to write yet more as stage directions.
Shakespeare wrote most of his plays for the same (or mostly the same) group of players known as The Lord Chamerlain’s Men (from 1594) and then after Elizabeth’s death in 1603, and the accession of James I in 1603 – The King’s men. He was a player with the group, as well as a playwright, until around 1608. So for perhaps 15 years he wrote for the same group of actors. During that period, the conventions of how he used the script to tell the players how it should be played developed and changed.
The Merchant of Venice is a fairly early play – prhaps first performed in 1596, and so the conventions he used in the script were in a fairly early stage of development. This makes them particularly useful for us to see how they worked, and the beginning of Acct One Scene One, is as good a place as any to start.
The scene is fairly simple: Antonio arrives on stage, and he tells us he’s feeling glum. He’s with two associates: Salarino and Salano, and they try to cheer him up (and also tell the audience a bit about Antonio, a merchant with ships at sea).
Before we play the scene, it’s worth noting a few points about the sppeches:
- Antonio’s speech starts with a monosollabic line (all the words in it are of one syllable):
“In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.”
and most of the words in the first speech are monosyllabic, and quite simple.
Lines which are monosyllabic are often significant, and they usually need to be taken at a slower speed, and perhaps said with significance.
The whole speech is what John Barton, of the RSC in the ’60s and ’70s calls a ‘naturalistic style’.
- Salarino’s first speech is not in the same style. He talks of ‘Argosies with portly sail’; ‘the Pageants of the sea,
Do overpeer the petty Traffickers’. This is not writing in a naturalistic style. It’s what Barton calls ‘heightened language’.
- It seems to me that Salanio, the third speaker, speaks somewhere between the two. Not so heightened as Salarino, but not so naturalistic as Salerino, but what do you think.
But if we these two different styles of speking: naturalistic; and heightened; how does it affect how we play the speeches, and particularly how we should play the ‘heightened’ speech? It seems clare that Salerino is trying to cheer Antonio up, so perhaps his speech is given in a slightly humorous way. Salanio’s speech seems to me to need to be said with more sympathy for Antonio’s situation, and so the different characters start to differentiate themselves.
But the real way to find out how the speeches should be said is by playing them. So you’ll find below the three different characters set up for three different players, in heightened text. Get three of you together, allocate your parts, and play the scene:
Once you’ve played the scene, then swap the roles around, and play it again, and then a third swap. After playing it a few times, you should have developed different styles for the three players.
And now, hear how John Barton works this scene with Ian McKellan (Antonio) and David Suchet (Salarino) from Episode 1 of the best series I know on acting Shakespeare, called Playing Shakespeare, available on DVD:
But best of all is if you play it yourselves.