Early Modern Drama in Parts. Group 2

As an exploratory topic in the summer term of our first year being undergraduate English students we were introduced to ‘Shakespeare In Parts’ and over the course of four weeks we learned how to act in parts as an Early Modern actor would, through reading William Shakespeare’s Henry V (1600). Unlike modern acting where we would be provided with the entire script, we only received our individual parts, including doubling, and brief introductory cues.

Act 4 Scene 2 Table Read

For the introduction to Early Modern Drama in Parts we were asked to arrive at our first workshop with two 28cm long sticks, and from there it was explained to us that we would wrap our parts around them to create a ‘roll’, or ironically, ‘role’. This acted as a nice introduction to the physicality required for rehearsing an Early Modern play. 

The process itself was straightforward and easy to understand as the cue lines themselves indicated the actors about to speak. Admittedly, there were some mistakes as it took us a moment to settle into this method, though most of the time, turn-taking ran smoothly. 

Another strength of Early Modern drama in parts was that the readings took a Stanislavski approach. This added realism because an actor’s reaction became more authentic rather than if they had the whole script, being able to know what was coming and how to react accordingly. The process also meant paying close attention to each speaker, helping to connect us further as a group – with all of us being equally new to the practice. Through ‘playing by ear’ the scenes felt more naturalistic than if they were interrupted by any directions that were given separately and from this experience we learned to read directions from within our own speeches. 

Through our first table read we learned that the Chorus played a vital role in setting the stage, and it took a particular focus in Shakespearean theatre. The allusions to ‘O’ in the opening speech are indicative of the circular and open-roofed theatres (such as the Globe itself), that would have been used in the period that Henry V would have been performed. The reference to this also brings us (as the actors) into close contact with the practicalities and the 3D space an actor has to interact with, had we performed in Shakespeare’s time. The repetition of ‘O’ also implies how Shakespearean theatre used wordplay to create ‘theatre magic’ and invited the audience to use their imaginations. This is due to the ‘O’ being able to represent zero, and so, by multiplying the cast by 10 or zeros, the chorus gives the audience responsibility for the creation of the armies later in the play. ‘O’ also acts as a grandeur statement to the audience as it shifts attention to the stage and silences the audience quickly in a rowdy and filled theatre.

Furthermore, the Chorus is important as it starts each act and sets the scene (this isn’t done for other plays such as Hamlet, and Romeo & Juliet only has one Chorus at the very beginning). In doing so, the Chorus also provides the audience with historical context to the play and makes the experience much more immersive. Understanding the way that Shakespeare’s plays would have been performed in his time helps to clarify some of the language, metaphors and expressions used. For example in the Chorus for Act 4, there are many allusions to the darkness of night – this would then signal to the audience that they were to picture the next scene(s) in darkness. This would have been necessary for an audience in Shakespeare’s time because depending on where the play was performed, i.e. the Globe would have been performed outside during the day – and therefore, without modern technology, Shakespeare used this method to signal to his audience that it was now night time.

Act 2 Scene 2 Table Read

Due to the assistance of table reads first, blocking Act 3 became easier to interpret, as we had already agreed upon certain power dynamics. For example, in Act 3 Scene 1, we had picked up in the previous table reads a sense of comradery between Henry and his soldiers and noticed Henry’s ability to relate himself to the common man. In consequence, we established that the actors playing as soldiers would stand side by side with the king in a slight crescent shape, protecting him within, and placed Henry in what we imagined to be, upper stage centre, as a commanding presence. Despite this preparation, blocking did introduce some new challenges involving movement. Initially, those of us playing soldiers stepped forward with each of Henry’s urges to charge throughout his speech, but because Henry (played by Demi) was in a brace and had to remain sitting on her throne, we left her behind as we charged. This awkwardness, however, allowed us to realise the importance of blocking a scene correctly and it gave us a wider understanding of how movement on stage is just as important as the words themselves. The blocking we resolved to use involved staying by the King’s side but altering our body-language to correlate to spoken directions, such as ‘tiger’ and ‘greyhound’, and consequently was much more subtle and accurate. By blocking the scene and running through it slowly we could provide live feedback to each other, including encouragement to shout rallying cries which helped maintain the energy of the scene.

We were also forced to focus less on our scripts and more on our performance, and its interactive nature meant it was easier to get into character and turn to the characters we were talking to. This had a manifold positive effect as it gave each participant more confidence in their own performance. Significantly, in Act 3, cast members gained confidence to apply accents, including upper-class English, street London, French, Welsh, Irish etc. which, in turn, meant we could understand the humour of heavily accented characters, including mockery, and how a Shakespearean audience might engage with foreign language parts. For example, the French was relatively easy for us to understand as the scene was shaped as a lesson, involving both English and French, repetition and familiar sounding words. Also, at the time, more English people than today would have spoken or understood French as English and French rule was very entwined in the Late Medieval period. Slang and unrhymed prose also indicated when Henry’s past lowlife friends were in the scene, as opposed to verse for court. 

When it came to performing roles, King Henry’s part was initially uncomplicated due to scenes such as his speech to the troops in Act 3 Scene 1. He seemed an uplifting figure of heroism (before ambiguities later emerged). I associated his heroism with vocal projection and clarity. His positive traits were emphasised by the Dauphin’s arrogance and foolishness conveyed through his metaphors and perverse obsession with his horse. Whereas the Princess of France was a daunting role due to the language barrier and accent. However, in Act 3 Scene 4 our tutor Alison, in her part as Alice, gave her interpretation first of the deliberate mispronunciations for the Princess to recite. The dialogue’s light-hearted back-and-forth also required less work than heavier scenes. Contextual factors contributing to the performance of our roles include Shakespeare’s consistent work with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, where he considered the actors’ inherent traits. Our roles were given regardless of shared qualities between actors and their characters. However, when roles did happen to align, those performances helped us further engage with the plot. Also relevant to our understanding of the play was noticing the French nobles i.e. the King and Dauphin, speaking little French. Henry doesn’t speak French, besides attempting to impress Katherine in Act 5 Scene 2. This was due to the growing importance of English, with the Treaty of Troyes (1420) following Henry’s successful campaign, being written in English besides French and Latin.

We realised quite quickly it was more difficult to listen to other people’s roles than expected. This was due to a combination of us being unfamiliar with the language and unable to follow along due to having only our own parts in front of us. We were advised to listen with our eyes closed when we weren’t reading to hopefully improve our focus. For some people this proved very useful as it enabled a greater focus on the words spoken and the rhythm of their performance. However, this proved very distracting for others as they found themselves daydreaming instead.

Act 3 Scene 1 Outside Roleplay

Despite some difficulties, table reads proved to be incredibly helpful, as in a group setting whenever you didn’t understand what was occurring, someone else was able to fill in the gaps and increase your understanding of the scene. This was especially interesting when we came to understanding and debating the true nature of Henry’s personality. It’s clear that the play was written with bias as it’s written from the English perspective. The English are unsurprisingly depicted as more heroic, strategic and chivalrous than the opposing French army, who are instead seen as lustful, arrogant and rude. Henry in particular is shown as loyal to his men and a brave leader despite his own men’s doubts and he is also shown as merciful at different points of the play, such as when he spares Williams in Act 4 Scene 7. However, this same scene can also be seen as more nefarious as we could argue that rather than being merciful, Henry is actually buying off Williams as Williams has the power to undermine his character due to an earlier act of deception. This scene, along with many others that include violence, creates a conflicting notion of King Henry – we see two sides of the same coin as at times he is the benevolent, model Christian king while also a crafty and perhaps cruel king.

If we adapted this for the stage, technicalities such as lighting, sets and costumes would need to be considered. However, due to the lack of stage directions, much of the aforementioned is open to interpretation, particularly, whether we would want to portray more of Henry’s heroism or cruelty. In Shakespeare’s theatre, there would have been minimal resources for set, music and lighting, so costumes would be relied on for inferences on character. Though detail is also lacking here. There are some indications of props from ‘cloaks’ to weapons, but even here liberties can be taken in the design, and most props aren’t character-specific. For example, crowns are assigned to Henry, the Dauphin, Princess of France, to indicate royalty but aren’t described with particular designs to imply character traits. Royalty as a whole may also be seen in holding sceptres, or shields with emblems. Different colours can represent different armies or nations. In terms of adapting the play, further research would be needed for typical clothing worn by those of higher status, such as the Duke of Exeter, what armour and weapons would have looked like, and also clothing indicative of the lower class. To make up for some of the things we don’t know, we can turn to the dialogue, as one of the key things about Shakespeare is the setting, weather, props, costumes and so on are self-contained within the spoken words.

Act 4 Scene 1 Table Read

In conclusion, as a shared experience we enjoyed the process of acting in parts, though it had its challenges. Those who found this experience a more effective method of rehearsing state that it gave the initial reading more depth and clarity as we had to listen more intently to one another, mimicking real life conversation, and we can infer that, ultimately, this was the way Shakespeare intended to write and rehearse character and so is the truer practice. On the other hand, those who found this method less effective state that it was because it proved more challenging to focus on analysing the characters and the scenes, as you cannot revisit other people’s previous passages. Overall, it was a fun yet challenging experience that gave us new insight into how Early Modern drama was performed.

Group 2 (left to right): Demi, Gabi, Robyn, Angelina