When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim, / Hath put a spirit of youth in everything …

Today is (supposedly, roughly) the birthday of William Shakespeare. April 23, 1564. (Title of the post from Sonnet 98.)

One of the things I think about when I think about Shakespeare, is my late great teacher Doug Moston, who died in 2003. Moston (whose father, by the way, was Murray Moston, the man who gets his hand blown off in the hallway in Taxi Driver) was one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. Moston was responsible for getting Shakespeare’s first folio from 1623 published in facsimile. It’s indispensable for actors, I think, but would also be fascinating for anyone interested in Shakespeare.

I am not a scholar. Anything I know about Shakespeare I learned by doing. This is just an actor’s perspective on language. These plays are meant to be spoken, not read. I speak with authority but hopefully not arrogantly, or like a know-it-all. Again, I learned by doing, by trying to SPEAK those words and ACT them. Just so we know this going in.

In more modern versions of Shakespeare, many editors have ironed out or “modernized” his punctuation. Some of the additions are defensible. But, less defensibly, many editors have added punctuation, sometimes to the detriment of the meaning of the lines. Huge no-no! Here’s what I mean: modern editors look at these plays as academic texts, works of literature, as opposed to scripts meant for actors to play. If you have the plays in facsimile (ie: how they looked in the first folio), you can see the uncorrected unmodernized English. Modern editors have sometimes added exclamation points, which I find not only insulting but wrong. An exclamation mark is an extremely important – and evocative – punctuation mark and actors pay very close attention. An exclamation mark is directorial, in other words. An exclamation mark says “The emotion behind the line should be THIS.” It’s the difference between “Oh my God.” and “Oh my God!” Shakespeare used very little “emotional” punctuation marks in his work. It’s mostly just straightforward periods and commas and question marks. Actors are sponges. Actors delve into a text in ways that leave scholars in the dust. They analyze everything, everything is meaningful. There’s a reason why most actors, upon getting a role, cross out the emotional stage directions put there by the playwright/editor – “haughtily”, “sternly”, etc. Actors want to make their own choices, and once something like “sternly” or “haughtily” or an exclamation mark !!! – is imprinted in the brain, it is very hard to get rid of it. You don’t want to LIMIT your choices at the very start of the process. In the end, you may very well choose to say the line “haughtily” or “sternly” or with three exclamation marks in your line-reading, but you want to get there on your own. So actors see something like an exclamation mark, and they play it. But once you learn it was some crusty professor in 1946 ADDING a punctuation mark to Shakespeare’s text, thinking to himself, “Well, this line obviously should be shouted, or said with intensity”, it changes the game a little bit. I don’t want some editor to tell me how to play Lady Macbeth.

“Play to the lines, through the lines, but never between the lines. There simply isn’t time for it.” – George Bernard Shaw to actress Ellen Terry on performing Shakespeare, 1896

The good thing about the first folio is that it is the earliest evidence of a Shakespearean text put together (apparently) by his peers, people who knew him or worked with him. It’s the closest we’ve got. The first folio bears close studying (I recommend every actor having at least a copy of it, so you can compare with the modern versions. Compare/contrast can be very revealing.)

First folio page of Romeo and Juliet:

Years ago I wrote about working on a monologue from Cymbeline for some audition. Michael was staying with me and we were talking about it. We were in my little one-room apartment, and I did the monologue for him. (Because of one mess-up I made with one word I now call it the “twixt clock and cock” monologue. We couldn’t stop saying “clock and cock”.) As I was working on the monologue, I wanted to compare the modern text in my little paperback with what was in the folio.

Here is the comparison. Line by line. (All the “s”s in the folio are “f”s. You get used to it.)

Riverside Shakespeare:

False to his bed! What is it to be false?
To lie in watch there and to think on him?
To weep ‘twixt clock and clock? if sleep charge nature,
To break it with a fearful dream of him
And cry myself awake? that’s false to’s bed, is it?

Folio version:

Falfe to his Bed? What is it to be falfe?
To lye in watch there, and to thinke on him?
To weepe ‘twixt clock and clock? If fleep charge Nature,
To breake it with a fearfull dreame of him
And cry my felfe awake? That’s falfe to’s bed? Is it?

Let’s look at the differences. In the Riverside, the first “false to his bed” is presented as an exclamation. But in the folio, it is a QUESTION. I cannot even tell you what a huge difference this makes in the playing of the moment. But it also makes a huge difference in terms of the monologue’s MEANING. What is Imogen DOING here? What is she actually saying?

My interpretation: when it’s a question, she, after reading his letter, is still trying to process what her husband just said to her. She is in a state of shock when she says it, where she repeats what she just heard. “False to his bed?” She’s stunned, disoriented. She can’t believe this has happened. Whereas, with an exclamation mark, like in the Riverside, she immediately jumps to anger and hurt. She is pissed, defending herself. “False to his bed!” (Subtext: the NERVE of that guy!)

Like I said, this is how actors read a text. You’re looking for how to play it, how to lift it off the page.

Also, let’s look at the last line:

In the Riverside, it’s all one sentence, with commas added by an editor: “that’s false to his bed, is it?” It’s all one thing, one thought, with a small hiccup at the final, “is it?”. But in the folio, it’s chopped up by a question mark. “That’s false to his bed? Is it?”

Read both versions out loud.

In the folio version, her thought process is still erratic (Olivier was right: the thought is IN THE LINE), so she’s asking one question: “That’s false to his bed?” Then she realizes she is not done, and questions again: “Is it?” You can feel Imogen processing the betrayal IN the punctuation. This is how we, as humans, actually speak. In the Riverside, it’s ironed out, and in the ironing process the thought itself has changed.

In the same way Shakespeare does not overdo the use of exclamation points and emotional punctuation, there are also almost no stage-directions in his plays (as written, at least) except for: Enter and Exeunt. (Of course there is a notable exception from Winters Tale, which my sister Siobhan has called “the funniest stage direction ever”: the famous Exeunt pursued by bear.) Shakespeare put all of the stage directions INTO the language. If the scene is supposed to be at night, Shakespeare will have the character ask for a torch, or talk about how he can’t see. In this way, he gets multiple things done at the same time, especially for his era, where lighting effects weren’t a possibility. The action, the props, the setting, the motivation, everything, is in the language.

Modern playwrights would add a stage direction to fill in the blanks: Horatio picks up a torch and squints through the darkness. I knew a wonderful playwright once who took the cue from Shakespeare, merely because she had been burned so many times with productions of her plays not being true to her intent. She said, “I have learned that if you want a character to be drinking a cup of coffee during a scene, if you think it is crucial to your plot that your character drinks coffee, you have to have the character say, ‘I am going to have a cup of coffee.’ It has to be in the language, not in the stage directions.”

Back in the day, there weren’t extensive rehearsals for Shakespeare’s plays. And because paper was expensive and scarce, often they wouldn’t be given the whole script, they would be given only their part. (That’s where the word “role” comes from: each part was printed on a “roll” of paper, and so you would be handed your “roll” to learn.)

Doug Moston made his students play scenes that way. He would have parts written out on “rolls” of paper and you would have to get up with other actors, and try to make the scene happen, only having your part in front of you, the other actor only having his part in front of him. It was so fun!

People make jokes about lines like “O! I am slain!”, but if you think about it: that is a stage direction placed in the language. That line tells the actor (who might not have the whole play at his disposal): “Okay. Die now.” Shakespeare doesn’t put into the text: Elaborate sword fight. Macbeth dies. (If you see something like that in a modern version, 9 times out of 10 it was added by an editor.)

Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets is a book I adore, even though I read it only because I was MADLY!!! IN. LOVE. with a poet at the time, and he recommended it, and so now the book still has a wafting atmosphere of heartbreak, because I lost my freakin’ mind when that thing ended. I grieved like an Italian widow. But still: if that guy gave me one thing, it’s this book – which has become an essential part of my library, one I refer to so often the book has literally fallen apart.

Lives of the Poets is a survey of English-language poets, from Richard Rolle of Hampole to Les Murray. What makes this book unique and also accessible to someone like me is that Michael Schmidt is not an academic (Academics make me feel dumb. I stay away!) He is a publisher and a reviewer, a poetry fan. He does not use the distancing and incomprehensible language of literary theory, or postmodern lit-crit or any of that. His style is clear, concise, readable.

How he deals with Shakespeare is especially interesting. Because Lives of the Poets spans so much time, Shakespeare is just another name on a long long list … and yet of course he overshadows pretty much everything before he arrives and also after. His shadow stretches backwards, so that the poets who came just before him don’t stand a chance. Their role in life was to be a prelude. It is hard to get Shakespeare out of the damn way to see what else might have been going on. James Joyce is a similar figure.

Here’s what Schmidt has to say about Shakespeare, and Poems vs. The Plays:

The greatest poet of the age — the greatest poet of all time, for all his corruptions — inspires in publishers and in other writers a kind of vertigo. For Donald Davie Shakespeare represents “a vast area of the English language and the English imagination which is as it were ‘charged’, radio-active: a territory where we dare not travel at all often or at all extensively, for fear of being mortally infected, in the sense of being overborne, so that we cease to speak with our own voices and produce only puny echoes of the great voice which long ago took over that whole terrain for its own.” This is true of the plays. But had Shakespeare produced only the epyllia, the Sonnets and the occasional poems, we’d have a much more proportioned view of him, smaller in scale than Jonson, Donne, Spencer and Marlowe. The poems are excellent, but it is the language and vision of the plays that dazzles. The slightly absurd scenario of Venus and Adonis, the excesses of Lucree and the unevent brilliance of the Sonnets would not by themselves have changed the world. Venus and Adonis was, it’s true, Shakespeare’s most successful poem. By the time he died, ten editions had been published, and six followed in the two decades after his death. There was money in that large, bossy, blowsy goddess almost eating alive the pretty lad. Nowadays it is read because it is by Shakespeare. And Lucree, with its cruel eloquence, its harsh tracing of one of the most brutal tales of rape in the classical repertory, while better balanced and constructed, touches unreflectingly on matters that require a less restrained psychology than the poet can provide…

This is a story about poetry, not drama or literal prostitution; the plays I’ll leave to someone else. I’m concerned with “the rest”, a handful of works that the poet took most seriously; the epyllia Richard Field published, the 154 Sonnets and “The Phoenix and the Turtle”. I could add songs from the plays, but once you dip into a drama, where do you stop? A monologue is like an aria, a description can be like a whole pastoral or satire. And which songs are Shakespeare’s, which did he pull out of Anon.’s bran tub? Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love’s Lavours Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venic, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Hamlet, Measure for Measure, Cymbeline, A Winter’s Tale and The Tempest all include detachable songs, but the plays snared them and that’s where they belong.

Shakespeare is so much at the heart — is the heart — of this story that even by skirting around him we take his measure. Apart from his genius, Shakespeare had some real advantages. The world for him was new, as it had been for Chaucer. There were the navigators’ discoveries, there was the rising power of the monarch, new industry, new learning.

And now (you can sense reluctantly) Schmidt talks about the plays.

Drama could be profitable: this discovery coincided with “the coming into the field of the first pupils of the new grammar schools of Edward VI”, men who did not resent or distrust commerce and entrepreneurship. A new class of “mental adventurers”, the classically educated sons of merchants, made the running. Marlowe was the son of a cobbler, Shakespeare of a prosperous glove maker of Stratford-on-Avon, where the poet was born in 1564. Both were provincials, one educated at the grammar school at Stratford, the other at King’s School, Canterbury. They were harbingers of the social change that would culminate in the Commonwealth.

One of Shakespeare’s advantages was an apparent disadvantage. He was not university-trained. “When Shakespeare attempts to be learned like Marlowe, he is not very clever.” That is part of the problem with his epyllia. But Ford Madox Ford reminds us that he had “another world to which he could retire; because of that he was a greater poet than either Jonson or Marlowe, whose minds were limited by their university-training to find illustrations, telles quelles, from illustrations already used in the Greek or Latin classics. It was the difference between founding a drawing on a lay figure and drawing or painting from a keen and delighting memory.”

Sidney advises: “Look in thy heart and write.” In the Sonnets, Shakespeare takes Sidney’s counsel without the platonizing the great courtier intended. The heart he looks into is singularly complex and troubled, and the poems he writes from this impure “I” are as full of life as the plays.

I’ll let Puck’s words that end Midsummer close this post.

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

Came across a very fun article which lets you know only a couple of the phrases invented (or co-opted) by Shakespeare :

Eaten out of house and home
Pomp and circumstance
Foregone conclusion
Full circle
The makings of
Method in the madness
Neither rhyme nor reason
One fell swoop
Seen better days
It smells to heaven
A sorry sight
A spotless reputation
Strange bedfellows
The world’s (my) oyster

Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.

Maybe you were born to greatness, Will. Maybe you achieved it. Maybe it was thrust upon you. Or maybe Christopher Marlowe or Edward de Vere wrote all the plays, and you just get all the credit. I’m with my dad who said, in regards to the authorship controversy, “It doesn’t matter to me at all.”

What matters is the work. We have the plays and poems. They’re ours.

Recommended reading:

First Folio of Shakespeare in Modern Type

The Riverside Shakespeare

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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7 Responses to When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim, / Hath put a spirit of youth in everything …

  1. This is both educational and so heartening to me. I’m an online grammar/essay-writing tutor (pays the bills), and I’m daily annoyed by the disrespect commonly shown to grammar, syntax, and punctuation. Commas and periods organize, as does paragraphing; sentence structure dictates rhythm, which by itself contributes so mightily to tone and meaning; exclamation marks are as directorial on the page as in performance. (Ditto all-caps.) When you write, your reader is your actor. If I were still doing workshops, I’d focus a whole session on what you’ve written here.

  2. Forgot to mention I’m totally with you and your dad on Who the Heck Cares? Reminds me of that old philosophy joke about how the Iliad and the Odyssey weren’t written by Homer but by another Greek with the same name.

  3. Melanie says:

    My favorite:
    One fell swoop
    Happy birthday, Will!

  4. Mike Molloy says:

    Hi Sheila, regarding the acting class you described:

    “Doug Moston made his students play scenes that way. He would have parts written out on “rolls” of paper and you would have to get up with other actors, and try to make the scene happen, only having your part in front of you, the other actor only having his part in front of him. It was so fun!”

    –how did you know what was your cue, the first time or two you went through something? How did they know back in the day? Did the rolls include enough of the other characters’ lines to give you the cue, or did a stage manager give the prompts or something?

    • sheila says:

      Interesting question! This is the brilliance: in general, because of how good Shakespeare was, the final lines are often prompts to the next actor – “what say you?” and etc. But mostly – it’s up to the actor to suggest – in behavior, intonation – that “okay it’s your turn now”. It also FORCES you to listen to what other people are saying. you can’t wait for your cue beause you don’t know what the cue is. You MUST listen. It forces you to be in the moment. It was so cool!

  5. Mike Molloy says:

    Ah, interesting that it can work like that!

    Also, I remember asking this question a year ago, but I must have got distracted by other things before your answer came in, because I never saw it till now, funny! Glad I clicked the link again on this anniversary.

    It so happens I caught a performance of Hamlet yesterday afternoon at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, I didn’t realize the timing was so apt. Not much use to anyone far from the greater Twin Cities but for what it’s worth: It was fantastic! The company really made it come alive.

    • sheila says:

      Oooh Mike that sounds great – always a treat to see Hamlet live, it’s such a BEAST of a play – and so … weird. It’s amazing how long Hamlet doesn’t do anything. lol Just sits around and thinks about it. so glad to hear the cast did it justice.

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