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

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

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."

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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).

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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).

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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.

I recounted one wine-soaked dinner I had with Hall in which he pounded the table and lamented that the art of verse-speaking had been lost because only a few directors and actors observed the pause.

What Hall didn't quite do, and what Edelstein did for me, was explain why the pause matters. I had initially taken a strictly literary view of it: that the pause turned each line into an aesthetic unit, a one-line sonnet of sorts, comparable to Pope's jewel box rhyming couplets, where glittering reflections of reflections required the closure of a pause to flicker off each other.

But Barry Edelstein showed me an entirely different way of looking at the pause. I audited one of his verse-speaking classes, and suddenly the scales fell from my eyes.

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Pay attention because this will change your life. What Edelstein suggested is that the pause at the end of the line Hall was insisting on was not a static stop. Even Hall now calls it a "slight sense break," rather than a pause. Edelstein says it's less like a break than a springboard; that in reading or speaking Shakespeare one should read a line and, when one comes to its end, take a brief moment as if one were thinking up the next line. In that evanescent moment, Edelstein believes, the actor "finds" the next line, and the "springboard" of inventing it gives the words a renewed energy.

It sounds like a slight, subtle adjustment, but it changes everything—take my word for it. Or don't take my word for it. Here's Edelstein in Thinking Shakespeare: He's adamant in saying the end of the line is not a pause, because calling it that makes it seem like a static wall one stops at. Instead, he writes, "[T]he line ending is an opportunity for thought."

And to make it all less abstract, he provides an ingenious way of dramatizing what he means: "The Paper Trick," Which I am reproducing here because I want you to get down whatever edition of whatever Shakespearean play or poem you wish now and give it a try, and then you'll always be in my debt:

Get a blank sheet of paper and cover the entire speech except for the first line. Read that line and when you get to its end move the paper down just enough to expose the next line. Read that then the one beneath, again repeating this process until you've reached the end of the speech. ... Many actors find this exercise revolutionizes their approach to Shakespeare.

Yes! Ordinary readers, too. It changes the way you read to yourself and the way you read out loud.

He then takes several Shakespeare passages and how they should be read, using the end of the line to hesitate for a moment of thought, an action that propels one with new energy and intensity into the next line.

Consider this famous speech from Thinking Shakespeare and how Edelstein annotates what the actress should go through in speaking it:

The quality of mercy is not strained.
breath—(what is it?)
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
catch-breath—(where?) 
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
breath—(what do you mean?)
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.
breath—(what else?)
Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes
catch-breath—(what?)
The throned monarch better than his crown.
big breath—okay and?)

Believe me, it's a revelation. It doesn't preclude the use of modernist Method sense memory acting but tends to seek the emotional memory of the character himself rather than the actor. Here's one of my favorite examples of how it changes everything: the prologue of one of Shakespeare's greatest works, Henry V, which begins (with my Edelsteinian annotations):

O for a muse of fire that would ascend
[where?]
The brightest heaven of invention
[including what?]
A kingdom for a stage princes to act;
[and what about the rest of the people in the theater the audience?]
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

It is a method, a way of thinking through what Shakespeare was thinking, which allows one to gaze more deeply into the "bright heaven of invention" that Shakespeare has bequeathed us. It makes you wonder whether Shakespeare didn't compose this way, which is the really exciting notion. One gets to feel the birth of his thoughts in 10-syllable bursts.

Anyway, it was exciting to me that the Public Theater had brought in someone as smart as Edelstein for a new Shakespeare initiative. Meanwhile, there's this summer's promising Twelfth Night, directed by Daniel Sullivan. At a book party for Edelstein's new book, Bardisms,on Shakespearean quotes for all occasions, I ran into one of New York City's great homegrown Shakespearean actors, Michael Stuhlbarg, whom I'd seen in a number of Central Park productions. He talked about how he'd done a Twelfth Night in which he played one of Shakespeare's great comic roles, Andrew Aguecheek, the gulled suitor in the play who participates in gulling the censorious steward Malvolio. And how, when it goes well, the complicated scene, featuring Malvolio and a fake letter, can sometimes "just take off and fly."

That's what happens in the best Shakespeare: It takes off and flies. Maybe that's why it is best in the open air.

I've had so many peak moments of Shakespeare in the Park, from Papp's all-night-long staging of four history plays back-to-back-to-back-to-back to James Lapine's Midsummer Night's Dream to Brian Kulick's The Winter's Tale. Even mediocre productions are somehow endowed with magic just by the beauty of the setting. I asked Barry Edelstein for his observation about the Delacorte effect, about what makes Shakespeare in the Park so singular. Here's what he wrote back:


For me, it's that it's such a perfect and essentially New York experience. Everybody flees NYC in the summer, and so there's always a feeling that if you're one of the ones who's stayed in town, you're somehow the real McCoy, and the city rewards you with very special charms. Shakespeare in the Park is one of them.

The ritual of the all-day wait on line in the Park (even though I don't have to do it anymore, I still remember with great nostalgia my student days sitting there, hanging out with other New Yorkers, then waving hello inside the theater). The beauty of the sunset over the Belvedere Castle, the lovely summer air. Then the surprises, like birds flying in, winds whipping up, and rain falling as if on cue. It's just romantic and magical. But also, there's the Joe Papp angle, the idea that there is no problem in human society that can't be eased at least a little by having Shakespeare thrown at it.

Free Shakespeare—one of the great cultural achievements in human history, made available for all, for free: this is a powerful notion. Even when the productions aren't good, they're still Shakespeare. And when they are good, which lately they've tended to be, it's a cultural Trojan Horse: the pleasant outside makes you open yourself to it, and then, once you've let it in, Shakespeare does his devastating work: ravishing you with his love poetry, wrenching you with his strangled Desdemonas and suicidal Ophelias. You end the evening more human than when you began it. Isn't that what theater is supposed to do?

Beautiful! I like the part about the real New Yorkers being the ones who stay in the city in the summers. I love New York in the summer. The secret to New York in the summer—Cheever knew it; The Seven Year Itchcaptured it—is that the city in the summertime is hot in both senses of the word, sexy being one. And there's no more beautiful, hot, sexy place than the Delacorte. I'm guessing she'll do that line like the sexy joke it is.