Cues, Context, and Collaboration: Our Experience of Reading Early Modern Drama in ‘Parts’

What does it mean to read in ‘parts’?  

Dominic: In Shakespeare in Parts by Palfrey and Stern, they consider how looking at ‘parts’ for each role in a play brings us closer to theatrical production in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Parts would include the full lines for one character and only brief cues, often just two or three words. As you can see in the photos I have taken of my part, the Chorus, they would be rolled up into a scroll and held together by sticks. 


What was your overall experience of reading in parts?  

Poppy: At first, the experience of reading in parts was an unfamiliar one. As a theatre student, I am used to reading through a script in a group, but the experience of only being given your own part was an entirely different one. Having to listen out more carefully to be able to hear the cue line for when to come in was quite difficult at first, as I was unsure when it was going to come and who was going to say it. In some respects, it was quite a stressful experience as I was constantly on edge because I did not want to miss my cue. However, if we did miss a cue we still had our tutor Alison there to prompt us so that the scene could run smoothly. Overall, whilst the experience of reading in parts was at first quite different and uncomfortable, I eventually came to find the process enjoyable and rewarding once I became used to a new method of reading and absorbing information. 

Faith: Reading Shakespeare’s Henry V in parts was an exhilarating experience. It was frightening at the beginning because I was not used to reading in parts, only having prior experience reading entire scripts and seeing everybody’s roles in these scripts. However, as time progressed, I became more comfortable with the strategy involved in reading in parts, although the adrenaline rush never faded. 

Dominic: Certainly, I found it interesting to first experience the story of Henry V in this way because by reading through only the Chorus’ lines I could trace the major changes between different Acts. I recognised my character importantly addresses the audience and carefully weaves the plot together for them. In the prologue the Chorus recognises the complexity of retelling this epic, heroic story on stage as they say, ‘Can this cockpit hold/ The vasty fields of France?’ They humbly request that the audience ‘kindly […] judge’ the play. Despite this challenge, the Chorus successfully leads the audience to new locations and captures the atmosphere at pivotal moments in the play. For example, the triumphant patriotism of the English preparing for war with France.   


Which role(s) did you read?   

Poppy: I got to play a range of roles – the Archbishop of Canterbury, the King of France, Grandpres, the French Soldier, and Michael Williams – which I enjoyed. I found that I could learn quite a few bits of information about both my own roles and other characters’ just from my portions of the script. For example, I learnt that the Archbishop of Canterbury wished for Henry to go to war so that the church could retain both its money and possessions, but also learnt that whilst Henry was reckless in his youth, he had began to take responsibility as King. When reading as the King of France, I learnt that the French perceived King Henry and his forces as a threat and wished to defend themselves by calling on people from all over France to join the fight. As the French Soldier in Act 4 Scene 4, I read in the only scene that took place on the battlefield. However, no physical fighting took place as my character was able to bargain for his life and avoid being attacked by the English forces. This also informed me that the English forces could be easily bought off and did not much wish to fight. Each new piece of information I learnt helped me to gain a better understanding of the play overall, even just from the few characters I was reading for, which I found quite exciting.   

Faith: I played the following roles: Bishop of Ely, the Dauphin of France and Queen Isabel. All three of these roles are particularly important in the development of the play. The Bishop of Ely is the English Bishop who supports the claims that the Archbishop of Canterbury bestows upon Henry V. The Dauphin of France is the son of King Charles VI and Queen Isabel. He sends Henry V a box of tennis balls to mock him, dismisses England as powerless, but is eventually captured during the Battle of Agincourt. Lastly, Queen Isabel is the Queen of France as well as wife to King Charles VI. She gives her blessing for the marriage between Henry V and Katherine, hoping it will therefore eradicate any future conflict that may happen between France and England. If I had to pick a favourite, I would say I most enjoyed playing Queen Isobel of France because her involvement in the play, though is only at the end, is powerful and important for the plot.  

Dan: I played the character of King Henry V. One scene which added a new layer to the character for me was when in Act 4 Scene 6, he orders “Then every soldier kill his prisoners”. Devising this could involve using a sword as a prop, only pulling it out on this line to reveal his intention and true nature as a king and leader. Once given the choice, I was shocked to find that Henry was willing to betray all morals and honour, killing all prisoners of war without second thought.  


Was there anything that you found challenging?  

Dominic: Sometimes the Shakespearian language was quite difficult to navigate. Looking up words was very helpful in order to gain a better understanding of the language. For example, I found out through using the online Oxford English Dictionary that ‘silken dalliance’ referred to frivolous silk. Therefore, the lines ‘silken dalliance in the wardrobe lies/ Now thrive the armorers’ emphasise, through changing clothing to armour, the readiness for battle and the serious duty the English have. Later, the Chorus describes the English camp fearfully waiting before Agincourt with ‘gesture sad/ Investing lank-lean cheeks and war-worn coats’ and I searched up the word ‘investing’, finding it could mean endowing a person with a certain quality or character. Ultimately, through following these words more closely, I developed a better image of the soldiers, with their bodies physically feeling weak, vulnerable and despondent before Henry courageously rallies them to combat. 

Faith: The project also forced to use our previous navigational skills and develop them in new ways, which sometimes was a little challenging. One way we had to use/develop our navigational skills is when navigating the script that we were given. This script only had our own characters’ lines on and a few words from the previous character’s lines as a cue. To begin with this was quite difficult and nerve wracking because we were not used to such a strange layout of script. Usually when you hear ‘script’ you expect to see your dialogue as well as the dialogue of the other characters, which was not the case for actors who performed Henry V in the early modern period. Furthermore, when finding the envelopes that these scripts were hidden within, we had to navigate the building of County Main. This building has many twists and turns with lots of labelled rooms. For many it took a few attempts to find room B114 (The English Literature and Creative Writing Department Office), which required much group effort and teamwork skills to navigate. 

Poppy: I sometimes struggled to follow the plot of the scenes that I was reading in as I was so focused on reading my part correctly or listening out for my cue lines. However, the process of collaborating with my peers in a similar way to how Shakespeare’s company would have done helped with this. I enjoyed talking with my peers about what had happened during the scene and helping one another to understand the play’s events. It was easier to follow the scenes that I was not reading in by listening to my peers. I particularly enjoyed the process of closing my eyes whilst listening to the chorus’ monologues being read and imagining the scene that was set out during those speeches for the audience. This also enabled us as a group to piece together the bits of information which had stood out to us individually in order to create a joint understanding of the scene in its entirety. 


What is the significance of the French language within the play?  

Faith: In Shakespeare’s play Henry V some of the characters speak in French, specifically Princess Katherine, the French Soldier, the Boy, and the Maid. Some other characters from the French side, such as the Dauphin have odd lines that are spoken in French. This is interesting because it shows the significance of the French language in the play. Henry V of England defeats the French in the Battle of Agincourt, in parallel defeating and dismantling their language, forcing the English language upon them, slowly disintegrating their French roots. Furthermore, the importance of these French qualities can be shown through the marriage of Henry and Katherine, symbolic for the union of both French and English. Compellingly, Shakespeare’s inclusion of the French language shows that he understood/ knew the language well, but because the play is dominated by the English Language, he highlights the ever-growing power of the English language at the time; the Shakespearean language.  

Dan: I found it notable when reading my part that my character had given in to the French language. The entire narrative of English colonisation of France ends with a moment of weakness from Henry V aspiring to court Princess Katherine. I believe it was ironic that he gave in to speak ‘je quand sur le possession de France’ in turn acknowledging the French nationality and symbolically becoming colonised by them too. This observation leads me to believe that most of the play’s themes focus on the power of language, especially with the scene of the four commanders of England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland all conversing with a common language: English. In terms of staging for the scene of Act 5 Scene 2, I would personally decide for Henry to be in power. He would be stood up whilst Katherine would be sat, the power would shift when he surrenders to speaking some French, having her stand up and him kneeling to possibly kiss her hand.  


Would you recommend the experience of reading in parts?   

Poppy: Absolutely! It is unlike anything that I have done before but I found it to be a very rewarding experience and allowed me to read and appreciate Shakespeare in a completely different light. In some ways, it helped me to feel more connected to the actors who would have performed this originally and with the play text itself. Plus we had so much fun!  

Faith: Indeed, I would strongly recommend it, especially to the Shakespeare fanatics out there. This is because it offers a different approach and experience to the norm. Therefore, I would argue you gain a different perspective on the development of characters and plot within the play compared to reading the entire text yourself, which is exciting! Also, it was enjoyable working in a group and hearing other interpretations of the plot and characters within the play. But yes, I would recommend it to all individuals especially if you want to step outside of your comfort zone, meet new people and work in a team.  

Dominic: Yes, I would definitely recommend it, especially to people who have studied Shakespeare before but did not feel like they connected with the characters or the plays. Through reading and acting in parts, the story had a vitality which made it so engaging and there was a thrilling mystery about what would happen next, forcing us to listen intently to one another. One fun exercise we did involved standing in a circle and learning the names of the characters people played in order to swap places. This made me appreciate how Shakespeare’s company would have known each other intimately so he even wrote parts with specific players in mind. 

Dan: I would certainly recommend it! This experience not only cultured my knowledge with another piece of Shakespearean theatre, but it also allowed me to incorporate my imagination and focus on other characters especially considering that I didn’t have full access to the script. Every read-through was a story being unfolded by speech as well as by reading; this made it feel like I was an observer as well as an active participant. 

A rehearsal of the siege of Harfleur (Act 3, Scene 3)