most friendship is feigning; most loving mere folly

Directing Discount Shakespeare: As You Like It In Forty-Five Minutes has made my weeks more exciting. For one thing, I picked a really good cast. They show up every night enthused to tackle the material. For another, I’m happy to be back in the theater again. I love having a show in production.

But mostly, directing’s been fun because it gives me a chance to play John Barton twice a week.

I have to restrain myself from turning every rehearsal into a Lecture on What Professor Coldheart Thinks About Shakespeare. That’d be immensely boring. Plus, while I think Shakespeare’s continual performance over the last four centuries is no accident, I don’t think he had a God-like command over language. There’s not an hour’s worth of debate to be had over each word choice, each change in accent, or each metaphor.

Shakespeare was a pro, and pros work under deadline.

But reading Shakespeare with an eye toward performing it does yield a tremendous amount of insight. And if I can’t bore my cast, I can certainly bore you.

Here is an excerpt of a monologue from Jaques, companion of the exiled Duke, from Act II, Scene 7 of As You Like It:

I must have liberty
Withal, as large a charter as the wind,
To blow on whom I please; for so fools have;
And they that are most galled with my folly,
They most must laugh. And why, sir, must they so?
The ‘why’ is plain as way to parish church:
He that a fool doth very wisely hit
Doth very foolishly, although he smart,
Not to seem senseless of the bob

First, the obvious bits: what is Jaques actually saying in plain English? Jaques is petitioning the Duke to become the fool in his exiled court. He’s explaining the ways a fool enforces order in the court: those whom he offends the most must laugh the most as well. If a court jester offends you, you should laugh louder than anyone else. Making it clear that you feel offended jeopardizes your reputation.

That’s just a matter of careful reading and interpretation, but it’s essential. Shakespeare wrote his lines in blank verse (iambic pentameter) to make them easier to remember and deliver. As such, it’s very easy to deliver a Shakespearean monologue prettily without having the slightest idea what it means. Anyone who has an ear for rhythm, can fake a British accent and can project their voice can stumble their way through a soliloquy.

Second, why did Shakespeare use the words he did? This we can only guess at, since he didn’t leave footnotes. In fact, the surviving texts we have aren’t written in exactly his hand: they were copied from show notes, meant to be read and memorized by actors but never kept.

So, my guesses:

  • And why sir, must they so? The ‘why’ is plain as way … that a fool doth very wisely hit doth very foolishly …: There’s a lot of opportunity in here for a quick-tongued actor to play with words here. We have “why,” “why” and “way” in rapid succession, as well as “fool doth very wisely” and “doth very foolishly.” There’s opportunity for good sing-song bouncing between internal rhymes here.
  • as plain as way to parish church. Shakespeare devotes a lot of text to making fun of churchmen. As You Like It is no exception, with the bumbling vicar Sir Oliver Martext. This is probably meant sarcastically, especially considering the reasoning that follows is hardly “plain.”
  • fool / wisely / foolishly / smart / senseless. Parallels and inversions on the notion of being wise or smart and being foolish or senseless. Note that Shakespeare doesn’t use the latter two in that same meaning: “smart” means “to feel a pain” here; “senseless” means “not feeling.”
And that’s only about half of the line.

This isn’t just fodder for English majors, mind you. Think how odd the idiom “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” would sound if you heard it without the emphasis on “old” and “new.” Those are the most important words in the metaphor: the contrast between old and new, and the implication that past a certain point learning is impossible. Shakespeare used similar contrasts and parallels in his metaphors. Recognizing them, and learning how to call them out, will make your performances more memorable.

If you still don’t believe me, watch some more of those Playing Shakespeare clips online. The difference between watching a half-good amateur stumble through King John and watching Patrick Stewart deliver it should make it clear. There’s more to Shakespeare than being loud and British.


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