Early Modern Drama in Parts. Group 1

The group staging ‘The siege of Harfleur’

‘What? Egg!’ No, it’s Shakespeare! Over the last four weeks we have been reading Shakespeare’s ‘Henry Vin parts. This meant that we were given our own lines and our cue lines only. We were not provided with a plot or other people’s lines. This encouraged us to work as a team and listen to one another as well as presenting itself with challenges. We would love to share with you, through personal anecdotes and an overview of our general experiences as a team, the unique opportunity that presented itself to us in the undertaking of this task. Hear from the students themselves and see what you think!

“Having studied Shakespeare at multiple times throughout my school career, I was lead to presume that I was quite well versed in the Shakespearean ways. However, within the first hour of this project I was shown to be very much mistaken. Throughout my life, whenever I were to read a Shakespeare play I would have, splayed out in front of me on my desk , covered in highlighter and scribbled notes, the full text. More often than not it would be a school edition, specifically written for GCSE or A-level, with notes and modern translations neatly typed in the margin. So to find myself, four weeks ago, with a stack of paper containing my lines and my cue lines only, was somewhat of a shock. I realised how much I had relied on reading the whole text; taking it away and studying each character’s words, learning how other characters are referred to, learning context and plot. All of these things I would do. But that was no longer an option as I stared down at the stack of paper containing only the opening chorus monologues and a few seemingly random cue lines.

Luckily I was given the role of the chorus, which meant my lines and dialogue were confined to the start of every act, compacted into a monologue. This meant that my main challenge was not having to listen out for cues, but having to eloquently read long, verse, monologues. This meant I spent some time outside of the seminars reading over my speeches and familiarising myself with the words, especially pronunciation. For example, ‘But pardon/ gentles all the flat unraiséd spirits…’. This line comes from the opening monologue and provides an example for words containing an accent, meaning I had to add an extra syllable into its pronunciation.

Furthermore, another interesting thing about playing the chorus was the fact that once my opening monologue was over, my role was to then sit and listen to the rest of the play. This was particularly interesting because my monologues were not only ‘setting-the-scene’ but also providing a summary of the act to come. This meant as I sat back and listened carefully to my peers’ dialogue, I watched the contents of my monologue unfolding. Therefore, by reading Shakespeare in this way, in these ‘parts’, I came to the realisation of the role and point of the chorus. For a Shakespearean actor, they had not read or studied the play before, they did not have the whole script and they were unaware of the plot. Therefore the role of the chorus monologues opening the act is vital. Each actor (even for the audience when it is performed) listens intently to the chorus to learn what their character will be doing in the next act. By reading Shakespeare in this way I was shown why there are so many long and detailed descriptions scattered within his work, because his plays are entirely oral. The plot, characters and settings are all hidden in the words, and they are exposed when you are forced to listen to the play, instead of read it.”



The group reading through Act 2

“A struggle I came across, particularly in earlier sessions, were scenes with more than two or three people speaking. To highlight 2.1 as an example, the scene, which has five characters, also has the repeated use of the cue-line ‘the humour of it’, including twice for Pistol, the character who I read. However, someone else must have had the same or a similar enough cue-line, that we ended up going around in circles and were never able to finish the scene, because I never received the cue ‘That’s the even of it’, which would have led to my penultimate line. In stark contrast, 4.1, which is a duologue between Pistol and Henry, was far easier to follow, as we were simply going back-and-forth, therefore the cue-lines mattered less and we only had to listen out for whenever the other person finished their line. This speaks, perhaps, to a major problem when it comes to staging a show in parts, that even the most attentive actor can be misled by their script, if there is nothing to discern which cue is who’s, if the same cue is used repeatedly. Like in 4.1, 2.1 would have been easier, if there had either been less people on stage, which would have robbed the scene of its complexity and diminished the importance of Pistol and the other characters within the narrative, or if there had been some indication as to who was speaking each cue, which would have defeated the point of writing and reading in parts. 

From an analytical standpoint, this issue also caused problems in my understanding of my character; both because I was too busy trying to get the scene back on track to take in what Pistol was saying, and because the disruption broke the flow of the scene and we never saw its completion, so I was never able to read his last lines in context. This would have mattered less from an audience’s perspective, who might have found it easier to follow, but, as an actor, it left me confused as to who my character truly was. This problem was remedied in later sessions, both 4.1 which gave interesting insight into Henry’s perspective of his former friend and 3.6, a far more emotionally-driven scene in which Pistol begs for his friend, Bardolph’s, life, showing a more sympathetic and nuanced side to a character I previously believed to be quite shallow and one-note, purely there to provide comic relief, due to my misunderstanding of 2.1. This is perhaps a benefit to reading in parts: that, without the entire script or a director to guide them, an actor is forced to create their character, from the little information they are given. Though it took me a while to fully understand Pistol, and I am aware that I likely still have misinterpreted some of his scenes due to the tricky nature of parts, I can say that, in comparison to other productions I have been a part of, reading the play in this manner has allowed me a deeper understanding of him than I would any other role I’ve played, because the parts have forced me to dig deeper than I would usually have to.”



“The play, of course, being a well-known classic of Shakespeare’s works felt refreshingly re-awakened through the act of performing the roles ourselves. The experience was immersive and, I felt, gave an insight into the contextual period of the play itself as well as the excitement, frustrations and creativities of the original cast of the play. A moment that I felt encapsulated these emotions was when facing the modern challenge of the differing use of language in the script. For example, in Act 4 particularly, I was faced with many words that I did not know the meaning of, and that are quite uncommon in the modern English dialect, such as ‘Tarry, my cousin Suffolk’. My lack of knowledge of the meaning of words such as these left me sometimes confused at the meaning of the line as a whole, and as such I found myself having to go away and research the words I had noted as unclear in each session in order to better understand the line and scene as a whole and the emotions and world of the character that I was playing. This made me reflect on the common statement that Shakespeare is supposed to be heard rather than simply read as it would typically be in an educational setting; when listening to other people perform, I was able to gain an understanding and clarity of what they were saying and the world of their characters, even though I would not have understood every individual word they said. It was interesting to see this effect take shape and reaffirmed the notion for me that Shakespearean plays are supposed to be performed and that something is inevitably lost when it is simply read.

The group discussing the dialogue together

 It was also particularly challenging to practise ‘doubling’- the act of one person taking on two separate roles/characters- which would have been a common practice in traditional Shakespearean theatre. This was most evident when, at one point, I found myself with the dual roles of ‘Exeter’, and ‘The Duke of Bedford’, as it transpired that the two characters were actually in conversation with one-another in the scene in which I was doubling them, so this meant that my que line for one character would be the last line of my first character. This was very confusing, but very entertaining and rewardingly challenging too!

I felt that performing the play in parts helped to develop more acute listening and problem solving skills and was a more immersive experience than simply reading a play. I felt absorbed into the world of the play and the characters themselves, and as the weeks went by found myself curious to see the story unfold, despite already knowing the play. I ultimately felt that ‘reading in parts’ was a useful method that allowed for a deeper level of understanding and multi-dimensional criticism of things such as the characters themselves, the methods used to perform the parts and the process of collating meaning and contexts to work towards developing our web pages.”