Shakespeare in Parts

January 17, 2008

Academic Shakespeare is shattered. In place of the assumptions of transcendent greatness, universality and entirety, iconoclastic Shakespeare rejects canonical status, eschews ideas of organic wholeness and attacks established hierarchies of academic discourse. Yet, ironically, this abandonment of "Shakespeare for all time" has been accompanied, in the theatre, by an assiduous archaeological sifting after early-modern lived experience, epitomised by the supposedly accurate (re)construction of "Shakespeare's Globe". While materialist criticism has all but washed its hands of Shakespearean genius - witness his downgrading from a compulsory element to just another of many options on the modern undergraduate syllabus - his theatrical popularity testifies to a stubborn ideological centrality: his works remain more widely produced than those of any other playwright, and the Royal Shakespeare Company's recent "Complete Works Festival" was an astounding success artistically and financially.

While the title of Simon Palfrey and Tiffany Stern's collaborative Shakespeare in Parts acknowledges the dismemberment of the supreme Bard on the one hand, it neatly engages with the excavation of "original practice" theatre on the other. The "parts" that it exhumes (or rather resurrects) for autopsy are the constituent organs of the Shakespearean play-text: the individuated "sides" (also "lengths") of the actor, each separate speech of which is prefixed by a two or three-word cue. Each role was physically a roll, committed to memory linearly, conned in isolation. None of the actors would, in advance of its first performance, have a detailed sense of what the play was about, how they fitted into its narrative or even when or from whom their next cue was to come. The advantage was spontaneity, a sustained engagement with the other actors prompted by an intense concentration on what was happening on stage: "Because the cue just might come from anyone, the actor must always remain 'on cue'."

Palfrey and Stern are adamant that the shared intimacy of actors and playwright was more than sufficient to compensate for this lack of ensemble rehearsal as well as the absence of the guiding presence of a director: "Shakespeare really knew these actors; he worked with some of them for 30 years." The rapidly revolving repertory necessitated short runs so that the similitude of imminence that, in the modern theatre, paradoxically necessitates repetitive rehearsal over a sustained period, was, in the theatre of Shakespeare's time, less of an illusion than an actuality: one of the benefits of part-learning is the "drip-feeding to the actor (of) strictly limited amounts of contextual information".

The authors are deft, sometimes over-ingenious, interpreters, proposing that minor cues provide the actor with intimations of his situation. In the case of the incarcerated Malvolio they isolate c(l)ues such as "darke"; "obstruction"; "fogge" (but they overlook "Parson"; "fowle"; "opinion"). Most compelling is their exploration of "repeated cues" which may bring another actor(s) in early and, especially in crowd scenes, "can be a useful means of creating the required polyphony". There are excellent readings of The Merchant of Venice and Macbeth. Shylock's repeated cues invite others to talk over him and so demonstrate his "refusal to listen", while Macbeth's part "fastidiously places the actor in uncertainties". Occasionally the perspicacious engagement with the prosody and arrangement of parts yields far-fetched psycho-biography: as Prospero tells Miranda to "awake", the cue becomes a "psychic chamber beyond capture or apprehension"; caesuras in Richard II's part "represent what is happening 'inside' the speaker ... a new, intensely charged interiority". But, in the main, this is a lucid and persuasive study that successfully infuses academic Shakespeare with the vibrancy and insecurity of live performance: "Shakespeare's actors had to play their parts now, perilously in the present."

Shakespeare in Parts

By Simon Palfrey and Tiffany Stern
Oxford University Press
560pp
£20.00
ISBN 97801992051
Published September 2007

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