Last summer at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, my play "Shakespeare Rising" (which was
then called "Hamlet's Shakespeare") was given three readings under the direction of Henry Woronicz, the personable, distinguished, and gifted director and actor. The New American Playwrights Project which is produced by Chuck Metten for the Festival invites three new playwrights each year to workshop their developing plays, benefit from their directors' insights, and, finally, profit from a structured interchange with the audience after each performance.
At one of these Question and Answer sessions, this question came from the audience: "From how many of Shakespeare's plays do you draw the quotes that appear in your play?" I honestly didn't know the answer. But Henry said, "About eight, I think." Hmm. Interesting. Apparently, the quotations were from the plays I was most familiar with, either from seeing many productions of a play, (especially "Hamlet"), or from repeated readings ("King Lear"). But the words of Shakespeare that came most readily to me were from the plays I had performed in: "Twelfth Night," "Othello," "Richard III," "Merry Wives of Windsor," "The Taming of the Shrew," "Romeo and Juliet," "Measure for Measure," and "All's Well That Ends Well"--even a very bad production of "Julius Caesar" in which I had played Cassius.
I have suspected for a while now that acting Shakespeare is a tremendous way and perhaps the ultimate way to absorb Shakespeare, the language of his rhythms. the flow of his language. And, more, acting Shakespeare requires an actor to go within the life of his character and to participate in the life of the particular play. Rehearsals expose the actor to the sequences of the language which take on layers of meaning with each repetition.
My plays about Will are written in a form of Elizabethan English. Of course, I'm not trying to write the way Shakespeare did. I can't. Who could? But as I am portraying imagined scenes from his life, I'm trying to give them a flavor of the period by giving an Elizabethan flavor to the language. Occasionally, when the right moment pops up, one of Shakespeare's phrases or lines will come to me, and I'll use it in a line of mine. These words of his are recognizable, not, I hope, in a distracting way, but, rather, as echoes of a familiar and beloved voice.
An example: In the second play of my trilogy, the one about Judith Shakespeare, Old Judith is having a conversation with an English clergyman, the Rev. Ward. The Rev. Ward is trying to pump Shakespeare's daughter for personal details concerning her late father's life. As she goes along, she makes up stories that are to her father's discredit, and the Rev. Ward scratches out one of his notes, saying "God pardon sin." That's not my line. That's the line of Friar Lawrence in "Romeo and Juliet," when Romeo says, "The sweeter rest was mine." And Friar Lawrence replies, "God pardon sin. Wast thou with Rosaline?" It was simply sitting there, very close to the surface, and out it popped. And, in the mouth of the shocked Rev. Ward, it even gets a laugh.
I don't claim to be an expert on Shakespeare's language. I've read a little bit about his habits, the expressions from his Warwickshire life that he did not change in all his years in London. He rarely used the word "yes." He almost always said "aye," instead. That kind of thing. (I don't know at the moment which scholar to credit for this piece of information. When I find it, I'll note it on this blog. I had thought it was Michael Wood, and the passage I checked did talk quite a bit about the Warwickshire dialect used throughout Shakespeare's writing career, but it didn't specifically mention the yes/aye issue. It's somewhere!)
For me, Shakespeare's plays are about language, as much as they are about anything else. When one director of a play I was in informed me not to be concerned that a fellow cast member was routinely PARAPHRASING ("The audience won't have the book on their laps; they 'll get the drift, and never notice the difference."), I knew I had made a horrible mistake committing to this production. A wise friend of mine told me later: "You wanted the role, but you should be more careful whom you accept gifts from." A wise friend indeed.