Shakespearean actor training and my literature classroom

One of my more recent research interests is how acting theory relates to the training of Shakespearean (or, more generally, “classical”) actors.  There’s a great deal to be said about how different methods—and, yes, I use that word very, very carefully—affect how an actor approaches a classical text, especially since different styles can result in vastly different performances.

Book Cover for Speaking the Speech

Cover of Giles Block’s Speaking the Speech, which features an image of Timothy Walker as Malvolio in a 2002 Globe production of Twelfth Night. Click the book cover for the Amazon listing.

As I’ve been wading through the sources available in our library, I was pleasantly surprised to find that most of the books directly related to “Shakespearean actor training” are text-focused, and one of my favorites I’ve encountered is Giles Block’s Speaking the Speech: An Actor’s Guide to Shakespeare.  Published in 2013, Block’s guidebook serves as a summation of his practices for text direction, based on his work as “Master of the Words” at Shakespeare’s Globe in London.

This semester, I taught Twelfth Night in my British literature survey course, a class which attempts to cover Beowulf to Virginia Woolf and beyond.  Even though my students are in a general education literature class (not an acting class!), I discovered that so many of Block’s claims in Speaking the Speech were invaluable for equipping my students (and myself) to speak more intelligibly about the Shakespearean text, not just the play’s characters, themes, and conflicts.

Because of time constraints (after all, I have to teach nearly all of British literary history), I could only spend a few days on Twelfth Night, but several things I learned from Speaking the Speech stuck with me as I prepared for class:

  1.  Block claims that Shakespeare’s blank verse is “the sound of sincerity.”  I’m used to explaining to students how iambs (dee dum dee dum dee dum) mirror our own commonest speech patterns, and I’ve also made an effort to incorporate Stephen Greenblatt’s claim about blank verse in Will in the World, which asserts that this is how early moderns imagined humans would sound if they were “greater than they are.”  But I had never heard of blank verse being designated as a “sincere” meter.  As Block points out, this designation has interesting implications for characters like “honest Iago,” who sounds honest by way of his verse but is actually deceitful.
  2. Take a “top-off” breath before each new line.  I love to have students read aloud in my classroom, and I think that Block’s idea of giving readers permission to breathe before a new line (rather than holding one’s breath in order to read through a moment of enjambment or just to finish a sentence) is actually really freeing.  This focus on the breath also causes you to reflect on the significance of why certain content is held within the boundaries of a single line, which leads to Block’s claim that….
  3. “End-stopped verse is the sound of confidence.”  Block offers a counterpoint to this by noting that “[r]agged form captures the sound of emotional disturbance.”  To ask students to articulate why a particular line’s presentation might mirror the “sound of” an emotion can be incredibly helpful for talking about the relationship between form and content.
  4. Divide a speech into “thought units.”  Most thought units, according to Block, can be contained within a grammatical sentence.  I returned to the idea of thought units quite a lot while discussing Twelfth Night‘s “patience on a monument” speech with my students.  Viola/Cesario focuses on layering images in this speech (especially when she describes her grieving “sister”), and mentally dividing it into thought units can help make her rhetorical goals clear.
  5. Prose is more complicated than we usually think.  It’s easy to only discuss prose as a vehicle for comedic or lower-class characters, but Block makes some really interesting claims about the function of prose, such as, “Prose is a language that says one thing to hide another.”  I had never considered prose as a mode of concealment, but it makes a lot of sense when you consider just how many of Rosalind’s speeches to Orlando in the Forest of Arden are in prose; she is in hiding, and perhaps her language is designed to echo that condition.

There’s so much good stuff in Speaking the Speech, too much to discuss here, and I have a feeling I’ll keep returning to it in the coming semesters.  With only a few days to talk about Shakespeare in my survey class this year, I wasn’t able to incorporate everything from Block that I wanted.  NeverthelessI think what I appreciated the most about Block’s book was its emphasis on the idea that Shakespeare really does give us everything we need to speak his words effectively.  The catch, of course, is that we have to know what signposts we’re looking for, and a guidebook like Block’s can put us on just the right wavelength.