"Shakespeare is his text, and the way he uses it is just that. So if you want to do him justice, you have to look for and follow the clues he offers. If an actor does that, then he'll find that Shakespeare himself starts to direct him." - John Barton
But how do you know what “his text” is? That’s where the First Folio comes in.
Folio cuts through years of modernized rules of poetry, grammar, and spelling. This unaltered text, while it may look riddled with typos and misspellings, gives you the closest thing to what Shakespeare originally wrote and what was heard onstage 400 years ago.
But why does using “his text” matter? How does it make a difference?
Shakespeare was an actor, playwright, and a poet so he deeply understood how to get inside the mindset of a character and craft intriguing relationships. His characters cannot be confined to the page.
In the rhythm of the verse and the patter of the dialogue you can hear in your “mind’s eye” these rich characters laughing, crying, fighting, and falling in love simply by following what was written. Stray commas, long spaces, and all. Shakespeare’s plays align with the beating of your heart – this is intentional. Folio structure allows you to hear and feel the racing pulses, calculated breaths, and twitching eye of each character as they share their heated passions, heaviest emotions, and darkest desires with us.
Shakespeare knew that sometimes a ridged metered verse cannot contain the human heart. So he would allow it to spill over into the next line, and sometimes the next, giving the line more or less beats than allowed within the standard iambic pentameter to fuel the characters passions. He also did this to leave us a map to character, carefully layered clues and insights left deliberately for the actor so that Shakespeare could “direct him” to speak his verse.
For example, let’s take a look at the “balcony scene” from Romeo & Juliet. In modern editions of the text Romeo’s lines are structured like this:
It is my lady, O, it is my love! (10)
O, that she knew she were! (6)
As you see, his thoughts are perfectly structured into iambic pentameter – perfect, even syllables.
But, when we look at the same lines structured in the Folio, look what happens:
It is my Lady, O it is my Loue, O that she knew she were. (16)
It’s written across one whole line containing 16 beats total.
Can you feel Romeo’s heart racing at the speed of light at the sight of his beloved? Can you feel his thoughts working overtime? Can you feel the excitement, the nervousness, the angst as he realizes she has no idea how much he loves her?
So could Shakespeare. He wanted to make sure everyone that got the chance to say his words clearly depicting Romeo’s overflowing passion and the excitement that is there on the page.
When I started to integrate First Folio into the sound of Classics on the Rocks, the question of “why?” kept coming up. My thought process was two-fold.
First, since our focus is producing classical plays simply “on the rocks” with no concepts, fluff, or filler and our goal is to present these plays as they are, and not what we think they should be. It made sense to use Folio as it is the least filtered version of his plays and will give our company the most authentic, honest production possible.
The second reason I couldn’t have said it better than John Barton “Shakespeare is his text”. Once you know the clues to look for within the Folio, you really can start to feel Shakespeare’s directorial hand guiding you. From how he structures his verse, to the punctuation he uses (or doesn’t use in some cases), to the occasionally strange spellings everything you need to make a smart, informed choice as an actor is right there in his text. It’s up to you to look and listen for what that infamous bard is telling you.
Are you a fan of folio or do you prefer modern texts? If you use folio – what’s your favorite type of directorial clue to look out for? Leave a comment below!