Although he’s immortal, Shakespeare died 450 years ago. We all have been touched by his insights on what it means to be human, even if we aren’t intimately familiar with his plays and poetry. I grew up in Brazil, speaking our local version of Portuguese: “Ser ou não ser, eis a questão.” Miraculously, in translation, too, Shakespeare retained his power.
To celebrate this anniversary, I took a bit from Hamlet and added my spin to it—my translation, as it were. Hamlet is directing a play, the hidden purpose of which is to unmask his father’s murderer. He gives a speech to his players, counseling them on how to act. Some people believe that Shakespeare uses this dramatic occasion to manifest his own convictions as regards what we might call the ideal actor . . . which might be an embodiment of the ideal human being. If you’re a musician, dancer, actor, stand-up comedian, politician, public speaker, orator, or priest, you’d benefit from pondering Hamlet’s advice. And if you’re just a normal human being sitting at a Starbucks and checking your emails, sit up and listen!
Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue.
Be lightfooted, agile & clear.
But if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines.
“As lief” means “as gladly.” If you start huffing and puffing, we’ll get a better huffer puffer—such as that fool the town crier—to do it in your place.
Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently, for in the very torrent, tempest, and (as I may say) whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.
Don’t overdo the exterior aspects of your act. Keep your cool even when you-as-an actor and you-as-a-character are in the eye of an emotional storm.
O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise.
It’s disagreeable to watch a ham play down to cheap tastes. Robustious: vigorous in a rough or unrefined way. Periwig is a highly stylized wig worn as headgear in olden days. Groundlings: spectators with inferior tastes.
I would have such a fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant. It out-herods Herod. Pray you avoid it.
There were several historical figures called Herod at the time of Jesus. Details apart, we’ll just consider them a bunch of wicked people. When you overplay, you’re more wicked than Herod. Termagant is a harsh-tempered or overwhelming woman; or an imaginary deity of turbulent character, often appearing in morality plays; from Italian trivigante, referring to the moon wandering between earth, heaven, and hell. Such deities include Selene, Artemis and Persephone.
Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure
Art is like a mirror, showing things in an enhanced manner and allowing us to see our own selves in that enhanced manner. As a performer, become invisible, so that your listeners and viewers can see the mirror of art (rather than the person of the artist) and, through the mirror or art, see themselves in a new, powerful, meaningful light.
Now this overdone, or come tardy off, though it make the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve, the censure of the which one must in your allowance o’erweigh a whole theatre of others.
By emoting you can make shallow listeners laugh, but you’ll upset discerning spectators. It’s better to please one discerning spectator than a whole theater of undiscerning ones.
O, there be players that I have seen play, and heard others praise, and that highly (not to speak profanely), that neither having th’ accent of Christians, nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of Nature’s journeymen had made men, and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably. Reform it altogether!
If you force the emotions in your music making or acting, you’ll be so phony as to become abominable. Give up the phoniness already!
And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them, for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the mean time some necessary question of the play be then to be considered. That’s villainous and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it.
Don’t let the clowns run loose and overwhelm the play. The play is more important than the player; the music is more important than the musician. Don’t let gimmicks and effects distract you or your listeners from the more serious matter of the music itself.
Go make you ready.
Let the fun start!
©2016, Pedro de Alcantara