Thursday, October 08, 2009

Playing Shakespeare - Irony and Ambiguity

Isn't this a cool painting? It's called "All the World's a Stage," and it's by James Christensen.

I managed to watch disc 3, episode 1 of Playing Shakespeare earlier this week, and was delighted that John Barton, Shakespearean director and host of the show, tackled not only irony and ambiguity but also included sonnets in the examples.

Shakespeare's sonnets, except for the most popular, elude me. I love the sonnet structure and words themselves are rich, but finding meaning is hard. Hearing them delivered by a skilled actor makes them far less slippery.

I've been slowly making my way through James Shapiro's excellent book, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, so it was especially interesting to hear Ben Kingsley deliver Sonnet 138 (When My Love Swears), which Shapiro discussed at length in the chapter on the case of the purloined sonnets (see here for my post on that topic).

Backing up to irony and ambiguity, Barton coached the actors to play up whatever irony can be detected in the words themselves by stressing specific words--what he termed speaking in capital letters or inverted commas--and using facial expressions to excentuate the double-meaning of the words. However, many passages are ambiguous--it's not a fluke that the plays and characters have been discussed vigorously for the past 400 years--and the ambiguity allows the actor to interpret the character and situation and emotion and motivation and the trick is to convey that interpretation to the audience so that they are not confused or lost by the performance.

There was a wonderful example in which Richard Pasco delivered the speech from Richard II that includes the wonderful lines,
For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;

Pasco delivered this first as he did it when he played RII, presumably with the RSC. Then, coached by Barton, he played up irony, with RII mocking himself. Finally, a third time, again at Barton's urging, he delivered it much more quickly. Seeing the three versions one after each other was truly marvelous. I think a mistake most actors make with regards to Shakespeare must be delivering the lines too slowly and too reverently. The quicker pace in the third rendition added a level of self-mockery that I hadn't anticipated.

Alan Howard also did a great back-to-back variation on the speech that the herald Mountjoy delivers to Henry V when he first comes to propose, on behalf of the Dauphin, that HV ransome himself in lieu of battling the French. The first delivery was a typical haughty tone. The second was a tone of mock sympathy that really drove home the arrogance and was delightful.

To end the session, Michael Pennington and Tony Church played Hector and Ulysses from the scene in Troilus and Cressida in which they survey the walls of Troy and discuss what is to come. Barton had them play this scene 3-4 times, and it was amazing to see how subtle variations such as sitting versus standing affected the interaction and tone between the two. In this final scene, Barton drove home the point that irony is completely in the realm of interpretation. When you move from blatant sarcasm (i.e., unambiguous sarcasm that jumps off the page at the reader), to irony, you move from the objective to the subjective.


  1. Reading this made me think of the song in Kiss Me Kate called "Brush Up Your Shakespeare." Don't know why but now I have Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore singing and dancing stuck in my head!

  2. How interesting Jane! I'd like to get and watch this set of DVDs as well as read J. Shapiro's book. Let's see what I can do! Have a nice weekend!

  3. Pasco not only played Richard for the RSC he also played Bolingbroke in the same production. He and Ian Richardson alternated the roles and it was a fascinating experience to see them on consecutive evenings. I actually preferred Pasco in both parts but had he not been there I would probably have really enjoyed IR's Richard. (He wasn't really a Bolingbroke.) The reasoning behind it was much to do with the mirror imagery that runs throughout the play and with the notion that one character is the mirror of the other. In the final scene, when the groom comes to Richard in his cell, it was actually Bolingbroke in disguise and Richard clearly recognised him. It was definitely the best production I've ever seen.

  4. I must get back to reading 1599! Your post highlights the necessity of seeing Shakespeare performed and the skill of actors and directors in interpreting the text. I want to see a play now!

  5. Ann - Sounds like a marvelous performance you saw, and certainly memorable.

    Margaret - yes, I want to see a play now too! But I think the next live production of a Shakespeare play will be my kids' high school production of Much Ado that's planned for Feb.