How art thou out of breath when thou hast breath to say to me that thou art out of breath?
“Breathing correctly is the key to playing Shakespeare’s verse”- Giles Block, Speaking the Speech
Giles Block was the “master of words” at the Globe Theatre. His book, Speaking the Speech, is in my opinion, an absolute must-read for anybody interested in performing Shakespeare. I share his quote with you for a couple reasons.
First, I think it’s 100% accurate. The key to Shakespeare is your breath.
Secondly, breathing is something we often take for granted while rehearsing and performing not realizing the effect it can have on our performance. But if you approach breathing the way a singer does, as the foundation and anchor of every thought, it will provide you with so much more. A simple little thing like breathing effectively allows you to create emotional phrasing, color, and tone that adds that extra layer to a performance that is so much more compelling to the audience and more satisfying for you.
The question is how do you know if you are breathing correctly?
The answer lies within the text – or more specifically the punctuation.
Shakespeare’s verse structure captures the rhythm of the human heart. By utilizing his punctuation and your breath you can create beautiful phrasing that adds nuance to the character and captures the sounds of humanity.
Typically, when you speak it’s for a specific reason. Whether you want to get someone’s attention, to share your love, or even to get me to stop talking. Conversation always has a goal or intention behind it. To achieve that, we use phrasing. Have you ever noticed that you never run out of breath when you’re talking to someone? It’s because your breath is connected to your thought and you know exactly how much air you need to say what you need to say and how you need to say it. It’s natural, so we probably don’t even realize it. But Shakespeare knew this and as such – he gives the actor clear “breathing spots” so that they can hit the ideal phrasing and rise to the emotional depth these rich characters require.
There are a couple of simple rules to using your breath and punctuation while performing Shakespeare:
Breathe at the beginning of every new line
Breathe at hard punctuation (periods and colons)
“Catch” your breath at soft punctuation (commas and semi-colons)
Phrases that begin and end with commas are considered “add on” thoughts
Phrases that start after hard punctuation are considered “new” thoughts
The first syllable after any punctuation should be stressed
These are not hard and fast rules – but theses can act as a solid guideline especially when we are using Folio text as it gives the cleanest foundation to start with from which we may layer in our own interpretations of the lines.
Let’s go back to our line from Romeo and Juliet and focus on the punctuation.
It is my Lady, O it is my Loue, O that she knew she were. (16)
2 commas and a period. What can we possibly take from that?
Shakespeare gives us a gift in the long, luscious,expressive “O” but he gives you even more by providing a comma right before each “O”. If you follow “the rules” the comma gives you a spot to catch your breath, immediately before letting it out, with a beautiful sighing “O it is my Love”, and then when he feels breathless with excitement at the sight of his beloved, he quickly catches his breath, and while doing so, realizes she hasn’t got a clue that he’s there and so when he catches his breath he lets out second now exasperated “O that she knew she were” can be released with everything he has left..
For the record, all choices are valid. At the end of the day it is up to the actor and director to use their own interpretation of the lines but using these rules are often the trick to tuning in to the true voice of the character. Following the punctuation allows you to breathe truthfully in the moment as the character. That breath creates life and life is full of emotions. Shakespeare’s writing has so much emotional life in it, so where and when you breathe is the key to adding depth to the life that you are creating on stage.
How often do you notice yourself focusing on breathing, and where it happens during rehearsals and performances? Share it with us in the comments section.