Coloured Pens and Punctuation

The Joys of Text

Most of the company have had at least one session of verse-nursing now that we’re into Week 4 of the project. So I’ve seen a lot of very colourful parts. Yes, I know that sounds wrong, but “part” is the proper term for the scripts we work from, with lines and cues only. It’s the term of the times, as in Peter Quince: “Masters, here are your parts”. It just sounds a bit wrong to us. “I need to study my parts…” Hmmm.

The fundamental principle behind this acting is trust: trust the playwright to give you what you need, trust your fellow players to work it with you. Everyone who’s taking a part in Two Gentlemen has taken our day-long class at some stage over the last two years. That’s when Dewi and I give everyone a rapid but thorough grounding in the principal skills required to act from a part. This covers stagecraft (eg, no walking without talking) as well as textual clues to character etc. There’s a lot of laughter and lightbulb moments in the class, it’s a long day but god fun.

At this stage in the study process for Two Gentlemen, it’s mostly about meter, meaning and punctuation and how those feed into character, hence the need for coloured pens to mark the various discoveries on the page.


In class: Matt Williams, Laurie Stevens, Elena Harding



I know that debate rages regarding how much attention should be paid to Shakespeare’s punctuation, and reasonably so, but it is still a valuable source to be investigated.

The idea that we could have, in any existing printed version, exactly what Shakespeare wrote or intended is impossible. The element of human error is just too powerful. Start with Will scratching away with his quill by lamplight; move on to the scribe rewriting the parts and misreading as he goes; then the player misreading and misremembering; then to whoever doctored the text before it was set for type, adding whatever they recall or think was said and how; finally the type-setters making their own choices of carelessness or expediency… No, we cannot possibly say we have anything definitive in our text; but how do we know it is not worth looking into when the First Folio is about as close as we can get to the playhouse performance book?

Our choice is this: using the approach of Patrick Tucker, we first assume each point of punctuation is correct, and see what that brings to the text. It affects interpretation, frequently challenges an assumption, and only rarely proves to be unhelpful. We always get a swift and constructive answer to the punctuation dilemma this way, as you always know if a comma or full stop us misplaced or unnecessary if you begin by obeying it. And it never ceases to surprise me, how character is changed by punctuation. If you remember that players of the time had no help from directors, no long days in the rehearsal room discussing options, this must be where they found their direction. At the least, it’s a nudge towards what those who heard the words spoken remembered them sounding like in performance; at the most, it is what the writer imagined when writing.

We have to be so careful not to judge on punctuation. So far in Two Gentlemen, I’ve taken out three commas in total, which is far more than ever I’ve removed from collected scenes. That says something about the typesetter of the text and/or the person who typed the text up, organically continuing the tradition of human error inextricably entwined with the First Folio. Having taken out three, I was quicker to condemn a fourth when working with Matt Williams, only to realize that it was better left in. We are so quick to judge, to think we know better than the text, and I have to ask why? When taking what you are offered is so valuable, so creative, why do we have this need to know better? As yet, I have no answer, but some day…


Oliver Hewett as Casca, Matt Williams as Cassius



So, punctuation gives us help towards phrasing, creating character and personality with crystalline details and precision. Its closest partner in crime is the textual starting point for study: meter.

Shakespeare’s verse structure is common knowledge; all school children will hide at the mere mention of iambic pentameter. For us players of the verse, it’s another acting tool, an indication of how the character is feeling. If you take it that the rhythm of a person’s speech is affected by their emotional state (which it is, let’s face it) this works well.  If we take it that a ten syllable line indicates a character is “normal” or basically OK with how they feel, then elevens and twelves (even the occasional thirteen) show us something above and beyond normal, with more active emotions, stronger opinions. Bingo! For the actor, at least.

Any lapse into prose suggests a change of attitude, a relaxation conceivably, certainly a change of tactic. If you have nothing but prose? You’re probably a servant, or not well-educated, or just very relaxed (as in Much Ado, a play with high status characters, but mostly in prose until the emotional chips are down).

The most fun for me are the characters that hop in and out of prose and verse, because then we are most deeply connected to a character and their experience of the play’s story. A switch from meter to prose is a major switch in tactic or mood for the character, and hence a lot of fun for an actor.

Again, this brings coloured ink on to the page, as everyone finds the “lumps” and changes in their meter, where the iambic skips or morphs as the character’s emotions change. And we all have a lot of fun speculating (at this stage) as to why those skips and changes happen. Three of Angela Harvey’s lines were very puzzling, as they were set like verse, but were too long and much too irregular in structure to be anything but prose. We had great fun coming up with possible acting applications for this; and I added to my own store of knowledge that were Will and meter are concerned, there are no holds barred and absolutely anything is impossible.

Of course, meter also nudges you towards significant words in a line, again suggesting character and personality (from words come opinion, from opinion comes personality). It is always very exciting to find other clues or needs in a line that force you to go against the meter – well, exciting for a text geek, anyway – as Will is so good at giving the player a problem when the character has a problem. It’s another of the ways that the no-group-rehearsal-based-performance-thing actually works: make the player feel what the character feels in real time. Genius, and really so simple!


Angela Harvey at the Rose Playhouse, Bankside



First Folio spelling can be very odd, and has quite naturally been corrected by a succession of text editors. But it’s very useful if you look straight at it, as with punctuation.

Sometimes it’s apparently phonetic, like my newest favourite from Two Gentlemen: “reskewed”. Sometimes it hints at pronunciation of the times, like “shew” instead of “show”, and an extra “e” at the end of words (frequently after an “r”) inviting a more rhotic, or West Country sounding, pronunciation. For more on Original Pronunciation, check out the dynamic work of Ben and David Crystal, who literally wrote the book on that. More often, we find it hints at character: tricks or habits of speech, and opinions (again) when emphasis comes at end of words. Character accent also pops up this way. I got very excited by the word “haveringe” turning up in one part for Two Gentlemen; can we have a Scottish character in Verona with a strong opinion about delay, I wonder?

Apparently-random extra capital letters are another big First Folio thing. As with the spellings and funky punctuation, they have been “corrected” in subsequent texts. Again, we follow the principle that they may be deliberate, lending greater importance to the words they begin, and again they lead us towards opinion and personality. They so often bring unexpected clarity and purpose to a line; I miss them in edited texts, they’re seriously helpful to an actor.

Don’t take my word for any of this. Get a bit of First Folio text, compare it to an edited version, read both out loud and see what you get. I know there are serious and well-founded problems with the First Folio, with all its inconsistencies and weaknesses. The foibles of the various identified type-setters are a well-researched truth. The various “good “ and “bad” quartos, folios and octavos are equally well-researched for their reliability. But in just dismissing the potential practical applications of the Folio’s idiosyncrasies, are we not in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Why not try them out, practically, and see where they lead you? I have no idea if what we are ending up with is “what Shakespeare intended”, but I do know it works, and it’s thrilling stuff.


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