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Decoding First Folio: Misspelled Words or Actor Clues?

Playing with Text

“Play with the text.” A common yet vague note. A note that can easily send an actor spinning in circles. But if you know what to play with - this note is all you need. This is where First Folio comes in handy.

Let’s take a look at a couple quick passages from the Merchant of Venice. In Act I. Scene ii we meet Portia, and her lady in waiting Nerissa for the first time. It’s a great exposition scene, that can be a lot fun for both the actors and the audience. I want to point out these sections specifically, because they highlight the importance of spelling when it comes to finding clues.

Let’s look at the modern-type section first...

Portia: Good sentences and well pronounced

Nerissa: They would be better, if well followed

It’s pretty straight forward. Portia is reluctantly agreeing with what Nerissa had said, and Nerissa (like besties often do) playfully ribs her to get her going. But when we get into the Folio things start to get interesting...

Portia: Good sentences, and well pronounc’d.

Nerissa: They would be better if well followed.

Look at how “prounounc’d” is spelled in Portia’s line. It is missing the “E”; now look at Nerissa’s “followed”...isn’t that weird that in the very next line, the “E” is added? Was it a typesetting mistake? Maybe, but I don’t think so - remember this is a time,when books were becoming more and more available to the public, and mistakes like that could very easily cost time and money at a time when there was little of both. Besides, the father and son team who is credited with printing the Folio were the most reputed in London at the time. Or the argument could be made that what they were copying from was messy and hard to decipher. Again it’s possible, but I don’t think so. I believe Shakespeare wrote those differences that way on purpose, and left behind a beautiful clue for the actors to see what’s really going on. Let’s play, shall we….

When you look at the entire scene notice that it is all in prose, which is usually an indication that the heart of the matter is being skirted around. Think of prose as the sound of people who are either nervous, unsure of themselves, or are trying to hide something from the other characters onstage. In this scene, both Portia and Nerissa, are trying to keep their minds off the unpleasant situation that Portia is stuck in because of her father’s final will.The prose has a very specific purpose - it’s keeping them floating from thought to thought, to avoid the topic at hand (which happens to be a certain lord who has caught Portia’s eye.) So looking at the whole scene, and then focusing on this quick little exchange between the two girls while paying special attention to the spelling, what do we hear?

A good rule of thumb when working on folio is that when the “ed” is written in full it should be pronounced. So with Nerissa’s line “They would be better if well followED’” put the extra stress on the “ED”, notice what happens?

It turns the line from prose into verse.

What a glorious thing to find, in the middle of this all prose, one simple little 10-beat line in verse. For anybody playing Nerissa, this clue is a gift. One hint of heartfelt truth amongst all the playful banter. This is your chance to“play with the text” and have so much fun.

Let’s take a look at another section of the same scene - this time paying even closer attention to the spelling.

So our ladies have been gossiping about the parade of men who have come to woo Portia - think of it as the Elizabethan version of Tinder - swipe left, swipe right - and so far every guy has been a swipe left.

In most cases, modern interpretations assume there was a misprint in the Folio spelling the word viley as vildly accidentally adding a “D” instead of an “L” Portia’s line is really very simple: He is vile in the morning, and even more vile at night.

Here is the modern text...

Nerissa: How like you the young German, the Duke of Saxony's nephew?

Portia: Very vilely in the morning, when he is sober, and

most vilely in the afternoon, when he is drunk:

But what if, Shakespeare was actually doing something else. What if rather than a misprint he was actually giving the actor a clue as to how to approach and pronounce the line. When you read the folio spelling imagine it with your best, exaggerated (think saturday morning cartoon character), German accent. The strange spelling suddenly makes sense, no? Perhaps, Shakespeare was having some fun at the expense of this poor drunk German, and his accent?

Here is the folio version…

Nerissa: How like you the yong Germaine, the Duke of

Saxonies Nephew?

Portia: Very vildely in the morning when hee is sober,

and most vildely in the afternoone when hee is drunke

It works surprisingly well doesn’t it? How many of us when mocking or gossiping about someone do we use silly sounding voices? Between the use of “vildley” and the long form spelling of “hee” the pronunciation and mocking gets even sillier. You can almost hear the riotous giggling from these two girls as they have a good laugh at this poor guy’s expense.

So there you have it. Two examples of how using Folio makes “play with the text” a freeing note to be given.

What do you think? Have you ever been given the note “play with text” and not known what to do with it? Share with me in the comments below - I’d love to hear your thoughts and would be happy to support you!

If you would like to dig deeper into First Folio, whether you're preparing for an audition or an upcoming performance, I would love to connect. Feel free to reach out to me here for verse coaching - we’ll have a lot of fun, and you’ll find hints in the text that will give you a whole new spin on your delivery.

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