John Barton, Playing Shakespeare

About four or five months ago, I picked up John Barton’s Playing Shakespeare in one of Cambridge’s second-hand bookshops. It’s been sitting on various shelves ever since, but a recent long train journey gave me the time to sit down and read it. The book is based off a TV series of the same name Barton did with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1980s, and has the aim of offering a ‘practical’ guide to performing Shakespeare. Although entering its fourth decade, the book is still popular now, and I enjoyed working my way through its chapters.

As ever, this blog post will concentrate on one particular thing. The thing this time is ‘character’. You see, I read some time back an amazing article by a man called Blair Hoxby, which put clearly something I was slowly becoming aware of, namely that plays, tragedies in particular, prior to the late eighteen-century, weren’t understood in terms of character at all. Indeed, ‘character’ as a concept for judging theatre didn’t even exist, for all it has come to dominate now. Instead, passion, in Hoxby’s view (and mine), is the masterkey for theatre pre-1770 or so. I admit this is a huge idea, one that leads to as many questions about how (or, indeed, if) we should think differently of writers from Shakespeare to Sheridan.

Playing Shakespeare has an interesting contribution to make to this debate, because Barton, writing for the modern actor, addresses character as much as he addresses emotion. What he does, however, is avoid posing the two approaches – modern, Stanislavskian interest in character and motive; and Early Modern emphasis on emotion and passion – in opposition. Less polemic than Hoxby, Playing Shakespeare offers a eulogy of the Bard as someone capable of marrying both ancient and modern techniques. This is from the book’s first chapter:

Yet in Shakespeare our traditions, both the modern and the Elizabethan, come together. I believe our tradition actually derives from him. In a sense Shakespeare himself invented it, with his teeming gift for characterisation and his frequent use of naturalistic language, though he didn’t of course know that he was doing so at the time. That’s why I believe we’ll find that the problem of how to marry the two traditions in fact doesn’t exist once you get to know how Shakespeare’s text works. If the actor gets in tune with it, he’ll find many naturalistic clues and hints about character so that it does in fact combine the two traditions most of the time.

The best example of this is Barton’s way of describing what seem like abrupt emotional outbursts in Shakespeare’s creations. This Early Modern emotional roughness might well seem at odds with modern conceptions of a coherent character, but this is not the case. Take the normally laconic Casca’s suddenly highly charged description of the storm in Julius Caesar as an example:

I’m sure the drastic change here is quite deliberate on Shakespeare’s part. Because a normally cool man goes berserk, the storm becomes more real. It often pays off with Shakespeare to go for each scene as it comes and commit to it totally, rather than try to iron out the inconsistencies. After all, human beings are pretty inconsistent. Again and again Shakespeare writes seeming inconsistencies which are entirely deliberate. I think maybe this is the most important point to make about how Shakespeare builds up his characters.

The point here is that the emotional variety of one tradition ultimately works to generate the ‘character’ of modern approaches.

This is important for me, as I will soon be speaking in Cambridge on the topic of ‘transition’, a term heavily used in the eighteenth century to describe abrupt changes in the emotional state of a character, and the way these changes were performed. Up until now, I was really sure where ‘transition’ went after the 1770s. Barton here gives me a hint: it didn’t go anywhere, but rather was absorbed into critical discourse that focussed more on character, since shifting passions can contribute to the inconsistencies of a believable character. Further, it is kind of reassuring to know that theatre writing of the 1980s is as interested in the same kinds of varied feeling as that of the 1780s. Both Barton and Francis Gentleman analyse, for instance, Shylock’s scene with Tubal, with all its rich incoherency:

TUB. Your daughter spent in Genoa, as I heard, one night, fourscore ducats.
SHY. Thou stick’st a dagger in me; I shall never see my gold again; fourscore ducats at a sitting! Fourscore ducats!
TUB. There came diverse of Anthonio’s creditors in my company to Venice, that swear he cannot chuse but break.
SHY. I am glad of it, I’ll plague him, I’ll torture him; I am glad of it.


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