Reading Between The Words

I’m always torn when reviewing a major piece of work, like Richard Burton’s Hamlet.  On the one hand I want to watch it straight through, taking notes, and do one long and detailed review.  But I watch it so piecemeal over time, spotting and then forgetting crucial moments I want to specifically call out, that I feel the need to put up a post every time I have an idea.

Right now I want to pursue that second idea.  You know the scene where Horatio meets up with Hamlet, and they go through the whole “I saw him once”, “I think I saw him yesternight” exchange?  Hamlet has a line where he says, simply, “Saw? who?” and Horatio answers “My lord the king your father.”

I’ve seen it done with confusion, as if Hamlet has no idea what Horatio’s talking about. I’ve seen it done more throwaway, like Hamlet’s only half paying attention to Horatio, too busy daydreaming about his father.

Burton’s version has this great long pause between “Saw” and “who” where the whole scene comes together, and I think it’s just wonderful.  It’s like he starts the thought not really paying attention (not even looking at Horatio), “Saw….” and then as he says it, he realizes what Horatio means.  And then the whole tone of the scene shifts because now he’s not sure he wants the answer.  He turns to face Horatio, and the “Who?” is scared, defensive, like “I think I know what you’re about to tell me and I’m not sure I like it.”  Which really makes sense, when you think about it.  Someone doesn’t just tell you they saw the ghost of your dad and you just get all excited and say “Oh good I hope I get to see him too.”

The rest plays out like an interrogation, and I have to watch it again but I could swear that Hamlet in this instance isn’t too crazy about the idea of his father coming back, he’s terrified.  There’s even a great moment where Hamlet, seated, is asking his questions – “Armed? Top to toe?” when he suddenly jumps up and *states*, as if he’s a lawyer trying to prove his case, “Then saw you not his face!” This was surely a Hamlet who would have been happy to discover that this was not, in fact, his father.

Anyway, I’m not too much farther into the movie so I can’t go deep, but I wanted to stop there with an idea.  Can you spot another scene, preferably in a movie version so it’s captured on film, where there’s a moment *between the words*, one of those moments that’s entirely on the actor and not the words, that turns the scene for you?  A facial expression, a physical posture, what have you.  Something that, without any words, says everything?  I looked for a YouTube version of this particular scene to embed, but I can’t find it.  There are several other Burton clips online, so hopefully I can make use of those in later posts.

16 thoughts on “Reading Between The Words

  1. One of those lines that befuddles the editors, no doubt. Either they run it together with the next line: "My lord, the king your father", making an eleven beat line or they leave it alone and run Hamlet's line after that:"The king my father?" together with Horatio's line–again, a totally unnecessary adjustment resulting in an alexandrine, or six foot line. (Always what they do as I've seen it) This happens not a few times, to say the least, in all of his work. Shakespeare leaves room for the actor to decide. But you'd hardly know it by reading modern versions of any of the plays with all of the structural emendations. This is one of the few they have chosen to leave as is. But they couldn't bear to leave room for Hamlet and Horatio to "act" any more with the two lines I mentioned. They had to make "perfect poetry" of them.
    He most probably knew when his lines didn't "add up to enough beats"–that, or he couldn't count.
    Burton makes the most of it. And indeed, as you've noted, it spurs further creation. It does this by building on that single inspirational source–a line with only two syllables– stemming from just leaving the text alone—-an exception rather than the rule. This is what's meant by allowing direct the play through the rhythm of the text by observing the choices he makes available to the actor in the mere structure of the poetic line alone. It's pure genius, acting-wise.

  2. I am not a huge fan of following the meter to a science in performing Shakespeare anyway. (Especially when one considers how many things can be made more accessible when it is ignored.) This is one such great example of that in action.

    We know Burton played the scenes and the character differently every few nights just to keep it interesting, so we can't know for sure if this is how he delivered that line on other nights at the Lunt-Fontaine. However, his choice on that night is perfect in both it's realism and it's suspense. (Not easy to provide that when we know what is going to happen next almost as well as we know our middle names.)

  3. Ty Unglebower said…"I am not a huge fan of following the meter to a science in performing Shakespeare anyway. (Especially when one considers how many things can be made more accessible when it is ignored.)"

    Whose "meter"–the editors', who have destroyed the original, or Shakespeare's, as written in the folio and quartos?

    The point I was making was that editors have traditionally adjusted the original meter to suit poetic purpose, which doesn't suit performance. Shakespeare wrote for actors. And you can bet that when it came to performance factors the director of this particular production (Gielgud) was very much interested in Shakespeare's meter . Once again, my whole point. Indiscriminate acting between the lines and ignoring HIS meter, (made necessary by modern emendations of said meter) can make for some very boring Shakespeare.

  4. Moments of editorial opacity can drastically chance how a moment is received. I was reading an article a while back for a theatre theory class and the author brought up the moment in Mac. where he hears of Lady M's death. Mac hears her scream and asks Seyton to go see what has happened. Most editors then add that Seyton leaves, but this is not in Shakespeare's text. Therefore, when Seyton tells Mac that his wife is dead, he has not actually gone anywhere to figure this out. This plays up the character's demonic attributes (notice Seyton is pronounced the same as Satan.) That drastically changes the feel of the play in that moment.

    Also, JM, for an interesting explanation of versification check out this:

    I'm sure you are already familiar with the things he says but I thought it was presented in an interesting way (particularly the comparison of black verse to the limerick). Check it out.

  5. Thanks Monica.Appreciate the link. I listened to the whole lecture. Well done.
    I conducted a master class on R&J for the cast of professor who had taken his students there the year before. He had nothing but good things to say about the center. Since he and I see eye to eye on quite a few things having to do with the text in performance, apparently they're doing some really great stuff there in their return to SHAKESPEARE.
    It's not only what he wrote; just as important, I believe, is how he set it down or laid it out. I'm constantly referring to the text for clues about how he might have been thinking as an actor AND a poet simultaneously. I'm never disappointed in my search.

    The Seyton bit is a great example. Oxford (and I believe many others as well) has Macbeth "poetically finish" Seyton's "The Queen my lord is dead" with "She should have died hereafter." Certainly Seyton's revelation might give one "pause"–in more ways than one. I know it did me when I played M. Those half lines are a definite place for gear-shifting, esp. since M. has the Tomorrow speech immediately after them. Jeez! How obvious. And indeed Seyton is there from the top of the scene! It's amazing the liberties they take while they shackle the actor. Do they believe NOTHING went on besides the lines? It's all an opportunity for invention, time written in to shift the tempo directly in front of them and they remove it.

  6. In the fall I'm actually joining the M.litt./MFA program that the Center offers with Mary Baldwin College. (So, of course I think they are amazing.)

    Going back to the text is always a must when trying to understand a character. Looking at the layout of a characters lines tells you so much about the character. Just tonight I was complaining about how much I hated that Celia's line: "I charge thee, be not thou more grieved than I am." (AYLI I.iii)ends on an unstressed syllable, making it a "feminine" ending. Then I realized she was stressing her grief by adding that unnecessary 'am.'

    Every bit of verse that Shakespeare gives us is there for a reason. There isn't some universal thing we have to pull out of a bit of verse but if we can ascribe it some meaning the performance of the line will be all the more effective.

  7. I’ve spent a long time thinking about whether to reply or not because I think that Monica and JM probably won’t like my point of view. 🙂

    I am not an expert on performance criticism or acting, so my opinion rather mirrors the “uneducated” audience’s opinion but somehow I feel that focusing too much on metre can also restrict dramatic performances. Couldn’t it maybe also influence the actors too much in a way that they feel obliged to follow the metre very closely instead of bringing their own interpretation to their performance? I don’t know… this is just a thought and, as already mentioned, I am not an expert and maybe my critique is also based on the fact that I am not a native speaker of English and that the metre doesn’t come to me naturally. Or maybe it is also because I personally like to focus on Shakespeare as text instead of play-text with the purpose of performance.

    Don’t get me wrong. I also see the importance in a shift from prose to verse or two characters sharing a line of iambic pentametre but I fear that these very close readings make other important factors fall out of focus too much.

  8. Of note also: At the top of that scene Celia and Ros.speak in prose to one another. After the entrance of the Duke the shift is to verse (necessarily because of his station) but they continue after that speaking to each other in verse. Things have gotten a little more serious and S. shifts gears both poetically and dramatically. It's up to the actor to recognize these shifts and play them as they choose. The only thing didactic in terms of Shakespeare's "direction" is that the actor recognize the opportunity to invent SOMETHING in response to it, as you have with that particular line. All of these clues are made all the more obvious when looking at the lines as laid out in the Folio and Quartos. I would advise every actor serious about understanding what's really going on to consult a copy of the plays in their original layout.
    Hope you have great success at the Center. It's nice to know that there's a continuance of some of the work that began at at Riverside in the late 80's. The more aware we are of what's going on in the text, the better the productions of his work will be, the more people will "get it", the more popular his work will become.
    PS. I know now that you'd probably love Richard Flatter's book "Shakespeare's Producing Hand". It's out of print but copies are available on line at Amazon through sellers–not too expensive either.

    Sorry for what would seem like a detour Duane, but it has everything to do with how and why we act ON the words or between them.

  9. R u kidding, J? I like to think that discussions like this are exactly the reason why Shakespeare people like to hang out here! I'd much rather see a conversation like this than the one about Sarah Palin's wardrobe.

  10. Right Katja. Great point.
    As John Barton says, it's a marriage of the two. Or, to quote Hamlet "Anything so o'erdone is from the purpose of playing." Important to remember is the idea that we either follow the strict version of poetry set out for us by modern editors (ie. the view that it's mainly literature) and let them dictate to everyone including the reader. Or we try to discern exactly what S. might have been doing as poet and director/actor. Neither standpoint should be mutually exclusive of the other, but should compliment the other.I'm kind of a different animal in that I don't set up camp in either "fort", the strict academics or the performance advocates, but think I've found the middle ground. But in either case it's still the text that we're dealing with. The fact that most of the time what S. actually wrote is ignored while restricting us to a literary editors viewpoint about what's going on is the real danger in any interpretive foray. If we skip one aspect we're only viewing the possibilities from one side. I'm not insisting that literary viewpoints in themselves are either incorrect or not worthwhile. –Far and away to the contrary. But when they exclude what S. was doing by eliminating or adjusting it to suit only their purpose they in effect eliminate what S. might have been doing as a possibility. And therein lies the real restriction to both reader and performer when it comes to interpretation.
    By the way, since iambic pentameter follows the rhythm of native English to a T (especially as S. played with and adjusted its rhythmic boundaries) getting more facile at the meter should help greatly with the language itself. Just a thought.

  11. I don't watch or attend as many plays as I should. I've just finished Hamlet. There are many lines that leave one wondering how an actor would deliver them. For example, when Polonius says the most straightforward and remembered lines "This above all: To thine own self be true." how should the actor read this given that Polonius is the master spy of the realm. All of his actions are the complete opposite. Should the actor say it like he means it, should he emphasize "To thine own self be true." In other words, at Elsinore truth is good only for oneself and not for others, or does he mean, "my son, you're a pion, you must obey and be true to me"…

    That's my self's worth of true.

  12. Ah Shakespeare. So many choices.
    Duane, didn't we do a marathon on Polonius and his intentions in the not too distant past? I can't remember the subject line.

  13. whoops! I should RSS these comments. and do a google search for previous posts.

    C'est exactement ! et passionné de Shakespeare ! I can't help it. Je suis également un passionné de français.

    If i find some time I'll put in my two cents worth on the "to thine own self…" post. If I can find something new to say.

    Oh, risking a comment that may have been covered before, how about how the final speech of Katherine in the Taming of the Shrew? How should that be played? In DC, the actress was booed. It just may be impossible to recite these lines. I thought the actress struck the right tone… I'll save that for later.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *