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Shakespeare's Language

Lyn Darnley on Shakespeare's Language


Lyn Darnley

Lyn Darnley

Photo © RSC / Ellie Kurttz

Lyn Darnley is Head of Text, Voice and Artist Development at the RSC, and initially worked in the theater as an actor and as a broadcaster and television presenter. In this interview she shares her love of Shakespeare’s language and reveals why Shakespeare’s writing has been so enduring.

About.com: Why is it important to approach Shakespeare from a voice perspective?

Lyn Darnley: There’s a real need for voice and text work because we don’t live in an aural culture anymore. Instead, we live in a visual world where children are educated through the eyes from primary school onwards. In Shakespeare’s time, you would go to “hear” a play, not “see” one – and those listening skills are in decline. And so the actor needs to develop his or her ear because the conventions of entertainment have changed.

About.com: How do you go about helping Shakespearian actors rediscover this?

Lyn Darnley: We go into rehearsals and work as part of the creative team supporting the director and actors by allowing them to explore these physical and aural dynamics of language. I think that language is becoming very cerebral and we are now separating ourselves from its primitive dynamic. Today, we tend to ask “what does that word mean?” rather than “what does that word do to us when we speak or hear it?”

The power of the spoken word is something that goes back to the Greeks and Romans in an age before technology. The most powerful thing is the spoken word. So my work is about going back and looking at the real visceral energy of language and what its prime purpose is. And that requires a fair amount of dexterity and physical technique because we’re much less engaged with language now. Speech is less engaged. We don’t speak with the same muscularity, energy or dynamic like people did before there was a visual back up for communication.

Shakespeare uses the power of language – and so, an actor must use his language actively and expressively to drive the play. The thing about Shakespeare’s plays is that they weren’t driven by scenery, they were driven by the language and it’s really important to get back to that idea.

About.com: What do actors learn about Shakespeare by approaching the text from this perspective?

Lyn Darnley: They learn that he has incredible insight into human behavior way before the word psychology was invented. Shakespeare has a real understanding of how language bubbles through the subconscious and displays character. So an actor can actually use the language to find the character. They don’t have to do what modern actors do like finding out what the character had for breakfast and so on! In Shakespeare, it’s the language that gives you the motivation. Actors should start with Shakespeare’s words, use them and make them active.

Spoken language is primarily a vibration capable of physically impacting upon us in the same way music does. So, Shakespeare’s language conveys much more than its literal meaning because it’s layered with sound, dynamic, explosion – language is actually very violent. Sometimes actors need to find that violence in the language.

About.com: So the sound and rhythm of Shakespeare’s language helps create his characters?

Lyn Darnley: Yes, absolutely. You can physically feel it when consonants collide or when vowels are open, long, short or squeezed. If you look at Ophelia from Hamlet, you can feel those tight vowels in her sound which ultimately translates into performance. We also help actors discover the structure of Shakespeare’s language. If you look at the Julius Caesar’s rhetoric you begin to understand the way the man thinks. The way in which he chooses to persuade others through his rhetoric gives us an insight into the way his mind is working. Shakespeare’s characters are not always bullish in their approach – they often take a more subtle approach. What does that say about them? What does the imagery they use say about them? What does the lexicon they use say about them?

About.com: Is iambic pentameter as scary as it seems?

Lyn Darnley: Yes, it’s very scary! And professional actors find it scary too! But here’s the thing: the English language is naturally full of rhythm, full of stressed and unstressed sounds. Iambic pentameter is simply an unstressed sound followed by a stressed one repeated five times. It’s very close to the natural rhythm of the English language, so it works very well. Ten beats coincides nicely with the length of a thought. But Shakespeare becomes really exciting when you break that iambic pentameter rhythm. The energy in performance comes from when you go against the iambic.

You don’t need to study iambic pentameter – you just need to feel it, which will come naturally from speaking and listening to the text.

About.com: What advice would you give to newcomers to Shakespeare?

Lyn Darnley: I would say don’t expect to get everything the first time you see a Shakespeare play because the format is different. For example, the word order is very different, but you get used to this very quickly. The more you subject yourself to the language, the more you will understand. Perhaps start by reading some of the sonnets or some of the inspiring speeches from the plays – like “Now entertain conjecture of a time,” from Henry V when Shakespeare takes us to the portside in Southampton and the chorus speaks about the ship sailing off.

But I think that the most important thing is to speak Shakespeare, not read it. This is because you need to get it into your body. The words need to affect you though the sound and through the muscular activity in the mouth. The words can’t do that on the page!

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