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Shakespeare's Folio: Why "We" and "Wee" Aren't the Same

In our first installment of #FolioFriday, I talked about the value of using folio spelling as a clue when beginning to work on a new classical text. This week, I want to take an even closer look at the way Shakespeare uses spelling, specifically “long form” spelling.

What is long form spelling?

If you remember the second example in my previous post, the word "he" was spelled "hee" as a means of indicating that the line should be delivered with an exaggerated accent. This spelling of “he” as “hee” is what I mean by “long form” spelling. Additionally letters (typically an extra vowel) are added to a line to indicate emphasis and pronunciation.

Today I want to look at what long form spelling can do to the rhythm of verse and how that impacts your character choices as an actor. Let's look at the infamous Act I Scene vii scene from the scottish play when Mr. & Mrs. Macker’s faceoff and "screw their courage to the sticking place.” Here's the full scene for reference.

The scene begins with Mr. Mackers sharing with the audience his fears about going through with killing Duncan, when the lovely Lady M arrives conflict ensues.

Depending on staging Lady M hears either very little of his musings, or a fairly large amount. Let’s assume in our production she does hear most of the speech. and she is, to say the very least unhappy with Mr. M for waffling.

The scene is in verse and Lady M’s lines follow a fairly clean and standard iambic pentameter. This makes it easy to fall into a rapid rhythm and pattern with the lines - that unintentionally creates a scene with little rise and fall and nothing but routine sound of bickering. Unfortunately, the result is one-sided and shrewish Lady M rather than focused and determined future queen. But did Shakespeare leave any clues for us to discover a new approach to the text that would add some nuance, depth, color, and further insight into their relationship?

There is a reason that I call this the “Screw you courage to the sticking place and we’ll not fail” scene. Aside from being memorable (and regularly quoted even to this day) that line is the apex of the scene. It is the turning point for the scene and everything that comes after and it’s that line that I want to focus on here.

When you look at the Folio spelling of it, you’ll see:

Macb. If we should faile?


We faile?

But screw your courage to the sticking place,

And wee'le not fayle:

Short sweet and to the point. This is the crux of her argument. Man up, do it, and it will be fine.

To the untrained eye, it would seem the printers of the Folio making mistakes - either they couldn’t read the pages that were given to them, or we’re just being sloppy, but we know better.

Those “misspelled” words are clues left behind for us to find, decipher, and turn into powerful moments of theatre.Given that “WE” and “FAIL” are both spelled properly during the scene, and even in the same line. I think we can rule out that the printers were sloppy, or they couldn’t read the handwriting.They were printing exactly what was given to them. So the big question is why would Shakespeare do that? Why spell faile/fayle and we/wee differently?

What I want to bring into focus is the long form spelling. Take a moment now to say the word “WEE’L” outloud exactly how it’s spelled. What do you notice? Do you pronounce it differently at all? For me, it kind of slows down in my mouth. It’s relaxed not terse as though I’m riding on a merry-go-round saying “wee!” It has a long, drawn out sound to it.

Now, try the same thing with “FAYLE” - speak it aloud now. What do you notice? Do you find that because visually you see a Y causes you to create a more lateral “a” than when you say “fail?” Do you find yourself elongating the word? I sure do. Now let’s put that together with the rest of the line.


We faile?

But screw your courage to the sticking place,

And wee'le not fayle:

Almost instantly you’ll find the final line slows down.

Why would Shakespeare want that singular line to sound slower than the rest of the scene? What value do the elongated vowels bring?

It’s possible that Lady M, sensing her husband’s anxiety and seeing his fear realizes she needs to change her tactic with how she deals with this situation? Or perhaps she realizes that he’s not listening to her and she needs to change her tone to get him to hear her? Or maybe it’s simply for dramatic emphasis. The choice is yours to make as an actor. What’s important to note is the roadmap Shakespeare has provided indicates a tempo change in your patter. It is from this line forward that Lady M changes her tone from one of quick accusation to one of calm nurturing. Isn’t it amazing how two small spelling changes can provide a crucial and valuable clue that will help add nuance to your interpretation of the character? This is what it means to “use the text.”

There is another interesting thing that happens after that line... you may have noticed that Mr. and Mrs. M have a lot of shared lines throughout the scene. In the first half of the scene, there is the sense of the characters cutting each other off, and talking on top of each other and not to each other. After, “wee’le not fayle” the shared lines become more evenly paced and...shared. They are on the same page - thinking as one. So you see, Shakespeare, even from the past is directing us through his text. Providing us with clues to slow down, speed up, and stay connected. As the ever great John Barton says, “Shakespeare is his text.”


~ A tangent on punctuation ~

Since we are talking about the Scottish Play and there is just so much to say on the topic I wanted to add just a slight tangent on punctuation…

A little bit of punctuation history - the question mark (?), in Elizabethan times was also a substitute for the exclamation point (!) Imagine swapping out one or both of the question marks for exclamations points within that scene - things start to get interesting, no? Is Mr M’s line a question, an emotional outburst, both?

Could it really be…

Macb. If we should faile!


We faile?

But screw your courage to the sticking place,

And wee'le not fayle:

This is great thing for the actor playing Mackers to mull over and explore during rehearsal. The same is true for Lady M. It could be a straightforward exclamation topping his energy as if to say, “so what!”, or she could be incredulously asking him if he really believes that this plan will fail. Either way the punctuation gives you a lot to play with. How cool is that?

Happy playing!

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