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  • Rehearsing Shakespeare: Embodiment, Collaboration, Risk and Play . . .
  • Christian M. Billing

Practice was not helped by Plato who offered intellectuals [ . . . ] a justificatory discourse which, in its most extreme forms, defines action as the ‘inability to contemplate’ [ . . . ]

Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice.1

[I am] a substance the whole essence or nature of which is to think, and that for its existence there is no need of any place, nor does it depend on any material thing; so that this “me”, that is to say, the soul by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from body, and is even more easy to know than is the latter; and even if the body were not; the soul would not cease to be what it is [ . . . ]

René Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy.2

An ounce of behavior is worth a pound of words.

Sanford Meisner.

I. How to Make Shakespeare: Rehearsal as Tripartite Knowledge3

In Act 2 Scene 2 of Ben Jonson’s Epicoene, Sir Jack Daw is ridiculed with typical Jonsonian venom for revealing the erroneous supposition that titles adorning the spines of books in his library are in fact the names of their authors. In a breakthrough moment in rehearsals for my 1999 production of this play, Paul Warwick (playing Dauphine) turned to Warren Young (playing Sir Jack Daw) and commented, on his line: “Is the King of Spain’s Bible an author?”: [End Page 383]

I’m insulting you, Warren. It’s about pretension. You think the titles are the authors because you’ve never cracked the spines; you haven’t read the books. They’re status symbols for you, not knowledge—and you don’t even understand the joke, because I’m not making it for you.

From that moment onwards, Warren’s Daw never looked back: realizing that he was the type of man who didn’t crack the spines of the books in his own library enabled Warren to effect a disengagement with (the oftentimes too-prevalent) actor’s sympathy for his own character, and thereby to crack the role he was called upon to perform: that of an idiot. The moment had greater effect on Warren (and on the production) than hours of my side coaching, my explanation of obscure meanings within the text, our collaborative development of comic lazzi, Warren’s own digs-based actor’s work on role and, just possibly, even the sharply pointed prosthetic nose I had Warren wear so that his Daw looked a little more like the bird after which it was named.

I begin my introduction to this Special Issue with this brief moment of one particular rehearsal process for two reasons: firstly, because it demonstrates the ways in which both the diachronic building of character and the synchronic development of moments in individual scenes can be interrelated (and often arise from unexpected moments of shared insight—in the form of one individual’s response to or interpretation of a rehearsal text with another, or others); but perhaps more importantly to the present project, because secondly, I want to suggest that until we get into the rehearsal room and expose Shakespeare (or any other printed play-text) to the active and embodied processes of collaborative investigation, risk, play and the repeated creating of exploratory interpretations that constitute rehearsal practice, we have none of us “cracked the spine” of any of Shakespeare’s plays and, accordingly, that we none of us actually have the vaguest idea what any of these texts contain.

This is a bold assertion. How dare I make it and what do I mean? Clearly a director and their team of actors “know” and “understand” the play they have chosen to produce in numerous senses before they begin to work on it. They will have read it, seen it performed in various other interpretations, perhaps they will also have encountered it explained to them in pedagogical contexts (such as school or university); good directors (and actors) will also have made their own personal recourse to the highly valuable bodies of textual, editorial and interpretative scholarship that exist in profusion for any Shakespeare play. Thus, before a new production...


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pp. 383-410
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