New Central Park Shakespeare boss Barry Edelstein on the best way to "speak the speech."

Scrutinizing culture.
June 17 2009 3:56 PM

The Best Way To Speak Shakespeare

It will make you catch your breath.

Anne Hathaway. Click image to expand.
Anne Hathaway

Will she do it as a dirty joke? I'm talking about a certain line in Twelfth Night that can be read either way, innocuous or salacious. And I'm talking about Anne Hathaway, the beautiful Hollywood ingénue most known for squeaky-clean roles (though there was Havoc and the ex-junkie she played in Rachel Getting Married). Anne Hathaway, who, as I'm sure you know and will nevertheless be told incessantly, has the same name as Shakespeare's bride, is doing Shakespeare in the Park this summer.

I'm getting a glimpse of one of the first rehearsals at the Delacorte Theatre, nestled amid Central Park's meadows, and Ms. Hathaway is coming up to that controversial line (well, controversial among the dozen or so of us who care), a line that can be tossed off innocuously or read as a really bawdy, problematically sexual jest.

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I've been sworn to secrecy on the actual details of this rehearsal, so I can't tell you how she did the line that night or how she'll do it the night you see it. (It officially opens on June 25.) But, anyway, it's what I love about watching Shakespeare rehearsals, almost more than watching actual performances: You get to see the way gifted actors can take a line that's static and singular in the black-and-white text and give it a range of multiple persuasive alternate readings and a subtle spectrum of emotional colorings that one might not imagine when one sees it in print, or sees only the singularity of the final choice in performance for the public. (There's a line in Twelfth Night about "the trick of singularity," which can mean a multiplicity of things, but which suggests that singularity is an illusion that collapses multiple possibilities into one, like multiple clowns squeezed back into their tiny car.)

Seeing the alternate readings conflict with and yet color each other in rehearsal has seemed to me to be a heightened way of experiencing Shakespeare. Yes, reader, I'm a rehearsal freak. And it's just so freakin' beautiful up here at the Delacorte, surrounded by New York's facsimile of the Forest of Arden, presided over by the looming turrets of Belvedere Castle. As the light wanes the night sky grows velvety; the set is velvet green turf. The city hums distantly. This is the best place in the world, this romantic fusion of art and nature.

The line in question comes in the third act. Hathaway, playing Viola, a young woman shipwrecked on the seacoast of Illyria who disguises herself as a young male page in the court of Orsino, is engaged in raillery with the jester Feste. The jester slyly takes note of her androgynous, beardless appearance and tells the cross-dressed page, "Jove in his next commodity of hair send thee a beard."

To which Viola replies, "By my troth I'll tell thee I'm almost sick for one, though I would not have it grow on my chin."

Here's where an actress can turn the line into a sexual reference if she wants to. Once, at another rehearsal of another production, I overheard another Viola and her director discuss how to play it. If she emphasizes chin, then she's indirectly but unmistakably wishing for the "beard," the hair, to grow elsewhere, leaving little doubt where that elsewhere is. On the other hand, if she emphasizes the my in "my chin," then she seems to be wishing that the beard would grow on someone else's chin, not between her legs.

It's hard to figure out why she'd care whether a beard was growing on somebody else's chin. The scholarly Arden footnotes both the sexual and nonsexual readings of the line, although its explanation of the latter—that she wants somebody else's beard on her chin—seems reminiscent of the puritanical bowdlerizing of editions past. The footnote says that "... with emphasis on my Viola would like to possess Orsino's beard (and thus) him, rather than one of her own." 

Frankly this is tortured nonsense; if you don't do the dirty joke, you're repressing the vitality of the sexuality Shakespeare embedded in the line, the kind of body-part joke he rarely resisted. It's a play shot through with sexual references, and this one would be missed. So much depends on the inflection.

I'm here to reflect upon Ms. Hathaway's inflection, speculate about her wish for a beard—and to rhapsodize about the singular beauty of Shakespeare in the Park (its "trick of singularity") because the Public Theater's artistic director, Oskar Eustis, made the exciting decision to put a director named Barry Edelstein in charge of its reinvigorated Shakespeare enterprise. It had originally been the invention of the legendary Joe Papp, the sublimely obsessed Shakespearean who, in addition to launching Shakespeare in the Park, an inestimable gift to New York, was responsible for innumerable innovative indoor stagings under the auspices of the Public Theater (further downtown, at Astor Place).

I say exciting because although Mr. Edelstein is more soft-spoken and self-effacing than Papp, he has one of the most livewire minds for Shakespeare I've ever encountered. He has an impressive Oxford, Juilliard, Public Theater, and Classic Stage Co. background as a director and teacher of Shakespeare. But it's as a thinker about Shakespeare, and a thinker about how Shakespeare thought (he's the author of a brilliant recent book called Thinking Shakespeare), that I've found him in a league of his own.

While the estimable Daniel Sullivan is directing the current production of Twelfth Night, Edelstein is laying the groundwork for making the Public's Shakespeare more of a repertory company with its own acting studio, which I imagine will incorporate his revelatory way of teaching actors how to speak Shakespeare's verse lines.

I know that in working for seven years on my book The Shakespeare Wars, and in talking with a great number of scholars and directors, I never came across anyone who did more to change the way I read Shakespeare than Mr. Edelstein. His book Thinking Shakespeare is so far superior to anything that has emerged recently from academia that it confirmed my feeling that directors—at least certain gifted directors: Edelstein, Brian Kulick, and Edward Hall, for instance, the younger generation—are much better scholars of Shakespeare, much more able to find the spectacular treasures buried in each pentameter line, than most current, grim, theory-shackled academics.

In The Shakespeare Wars, I describe the debt I feel I owe Edelstein because he disclosed to me a new way of reading and speaking Shakespeare that changed everything for me. It came in the context of a chapter I was doing about the controversy over Sir Peter Hall's pause. Hall, one of the century's greatest Shakespeareans, the founder in the 1960s of the Royal Shakespeare Theater, has become famous for his insistence on a certain way of speaking the lines of Shakespeare's iambic pentameter verse (which features 10-syllable lines divided into five daDUM, daDUM feet).

Hall insisted that the end of each line of verse should be followed by a brief delicate pause, to maintain the "line structure" of the 10-syllable unit, rather than have the actor seek, more "naturalistically," to flow his voice around to the beginning of the next line.

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