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  • Shannen Tan

O Shakespeare!


Earlier this month, Paul Adams of Singapore Repertory Theatre kindly extended an invitation to me (and other theatre freelancers) to attend a Professional Shakespeare Training workshop with Simon Purse which explores the principles behind the work of Patrick Tucker's Original Shakespeare Company. What was a supposed 3-day workshop had been tightly squeezed into a 3-hour workshop that explored the First Folio text and experience unrehearsed Cue Script performances.

To be honest, I always have been a little apprehensive about performing Shakespeare. Personally, I felt I had not been exposed to the texts enough to proclaim a masterful understanding of The Bard's writings. I used to stand for hours in Kinokuniya reading Shakespeare to supplement the bare exposure I had in school. I had to revisit The Life and Death of King John for an audition but other than that, it has been kept to the minimal. So I was glad to have attend this enlightening, albeit, short Shakespeare workshop that provided me a wealth of information while debunking wrongly held preconceived notions. I took some notes and am sharing my takeaways here.

Historical Context of Plays in Shakespeare's Era

Simon Purse provided us the following conundrum: How did Elizabethan actors rehearse for shows when (a) not all actors will receive the whole script because it was tedious to hand write at lengths for all characters (b) actors had back-to-back shows in the theaters so much so they had to have been prepared for a handful of shows at one point of time?

The answer was that they didn't.

Elizabethan actors had to rely on hidden instructions in the play. In fact, Elizabethan audience pay double for the 1st show because theatrical gold happen from Cue Scripts for the first time. Those of us who have been involved in rehearsals will understand the joy of discovery when exploring a text that seemed hard to emulate for further shows. This had bigger implications for actors in Shakespearean plays. For instance, in The Life and Death of King John, when the Bastard finds out his parentage (not going to say here because spoilers and its not a popular Shakespeare play), the actor himself also just found out the truth of the character's biological father. For Shakespeare, the subtext is the text. Clues were generally conveyed through a variety of well-known methods - rhyme, alliteration, assonance, repeated words, simile, metaphors, change of address etc. Those techniques that we have learnt to dissect during Literature class had to be employed in the Elizabethan era as well.

Here's an example of assonance from Romeo and Juliet, Act 5, Scene 1:


(gives ROMEO poison) Put this in any liquid thing you will

And drink it off; and, if you had the strength

Of twenty men, it would dispatch you straight.

There are 11 "ie" sounds and inevitably, when this is said, your mouth is shaped as if you are smiling. A great way to spot the assonants is to use the Dory whale voice.

Another example of a change in address can be found in As You Like It, Act 3, Scene 1:


Me Vncle.


You Cosen,

Within these ten daies if that thou beest found

So neere our publike Court as twentie miles,

Thou diest for it.


I doe beseech your Grace

Let me the knowledge of my fault beare with me:

If with my selfe I hold intelligence,

Or haue acquaintance with mine owne desires,

If that I doe not dreame, or be not franticke,

(As I doe trust I am not) then deere Vncle,

Neuer so much as in a thought vnborne,

Did I offend your highnesse.


Thus doe all Traitors,

If their purgation did consist in words,

They are as innocent as grace it selfe;

Let it suffice thee that I trust thee not.

The change of gears, so to speak, from "you" and "thou" could be indicative of clues relating to proxemics. Similar to the French language of "tu" and "vous", while both relating to another person, the usage underscores the relationship. The former is for casual usage, while the latter is for polite usage. The Duke use of "you" towards Rosalind is indicative of a speech in a public domain. Perhaps him switching to "thou" could be indicative of speech in a private domain and thereby necessitating both actors to be of close distance.

The General Happenings and Rules on a Elizabethan Stage

In the wings of the Elizabethan stage, there will be someone with a big stick to prod actors at approximately 10 lines before their entrance. This is to ration the actor's energy. The actor would know the specific phrase provided in his Cue Scripts prior to his lines as a cue to enter. He would have to constantly be on alert to catch that specific phrase. While this keeps the actor very present in the moment, it gets rather tiring. Hence, the prodding of the stick is very much useful to get the actor to pay heed to the happenings on stage.

The actor must speak the moment he enters. The rule is that if you don't speak, don't move. This is an anti-thesis to film acting where it is preferred for the actor to move prior to speaking. Other rules include if you are not involved in the scene, do not get in the way. Follow the instructions in the lines. Cross the person you are talking to and face them. With regards to this, it parallels the 180 degree axis rule of film. Do not intentionally exclude the audience, especially in a thrust stage, by cheating your profile. Just cross and face the person you are speaking to. While this is said very easily, a lot of conscious effort had to be expended during the workshop to make sure the blocking was right. Simon Purse agreed that it was hard and laments that a lot of on-going British theatre falls prey to this.

Other Takeaways

Here is a list of big takeaways I had from the workshop. Some of it were new information to me and some were simply points I had not considered in full.

  • "O" is to be replaced by an emotional sound. It is not "Oh".

  • "Doth" is commonly mispronounced. It is pronounced as "do" of "does" + "th" sound.

  • You need to decide where the asides are.

  • A soliloquy is not an honest articulation of the characters' innermost thoughts. (E.g. Iago lies)

  • "We" can be used as a royal pronoun for an individual. The use of Royal We turns the individual into a majestic narrator. (See Margaret Thatcher's "We have become a grandmother for the hoo-ha that ensured her use of such majestic verbiage)

  • If you say "My Liege" you must present your neck to whom you are speaking to (i.e. Present your forehead to the floor.) The use implies you submit to another and he/she has power to chop off your neck as he/she pleases.

  • Iambic Pentameter tells you what word should be stressed and emphasised. A good exercise would be to drop and exhale on the stressed words to find the rhythm of the text. ("Let me the knowledge of my fault bear with me")

  • It is important to differentiate between simple and complex lines. For instance, some had argue that Romeo and Juliet were in love because their lines fell into perfect sonnets. However, well-articulated statements are emotions recollected, not the emotion itself. In Romeo and Juliet's hour of death, the finally proclaimed their love towards each other very simply. The tragedy is not that they were star-crossed lovers who were separated. Rather, the tragedy is that they fell in love too late. Another instance is the following from Act 5 Scene 3:


Come Mountague, for thou art early vp

To see thy Sonne and Heire, now early downe.


Alas my liege, my wife is dead to night,

Griefe of my Sonnes exile hath stopt her breath:

What further woe conspires against my age?


Looke: and thou shalt see.

Initially, the Prince makes a bad joke over Romeo's death and this is in contrast to the simple line being said later on. He conveys his sympathies in that simple but truthful line and this is a clue that Mountague must have reacted in a way to elicit such a response.

  • Do not play the situation. To illustrate this point, the following is from Act 5 Scene 3:


This is the place,

There where the Torch doth burne


The ground is bloody,

Search about the Churchyard.

If there is where the torch burns, this means that the place where they are standing at is dark. If the place is dark, how does the Watch know that the ground is bloody? One would have to fill in with the acting. Another example would be from the same scene:


Soueraigne, here lies the Countie Paris slaine,

And Romeo dead, and Iuliet dead before,

Warme and new kil'd.

For the entire scene, there had been no mention up until this line that the Watch had found Romeo's body. It can be said that it is only now that the Watch had found his body as he said it. Simon's favourite interpretation of this line is when the Watch tripped over a dead body in the dark only to realise that he found Romeo.

Ending Notes

One of my favourite takeaways from this course is finding out that Shakespeare's father was a glover and in those days, children of glovers would help make small stitches to form long tubular shapes (much like the fingertips of a glove) and it was a Elizabethan version of a condom. Apart from this fun fact, a good reminder was that Shakespeare was not writing to be beautiful. It is important for us to let go of preconceived notions when we approach The Bard's text.

Also, while the notes are written and taken down by me, all learning points are credited towards Simon Purse. If anyone has a chance to attend such a workshop, please do so! After 3 hours, I felt like my eyes have been opened towards what was once so intimidating to me. Apparently, he comes to Singapore quite often. Hopefully, I would be able to attend a full-length course with him one day.

(Please visit : for more)

With that, I end of with two wonderful videos of Andrew Scott playing Hamlet and talking about handling such a famous monologue.

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