Speaking the words, seeing the pictures

I’m not talking about illustrated editions of Shakespeare’s works. Will uses a lot of very descriptive words to help both the actor and the audience imagine a visual picture from the words being spoken. Metaphors and similes galore help us understand exactly what’s going on in the character’s minds, and what they are seeing. When Horatio says “The morn, in russet mantle clad, / Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill,” (once we know what all the words mean) we can see the morning sun rising through a red and yellow sea of clouds, illuminating the large rolling hill in the distance. It captures the imagination – a great tool to use when you can’t afford the best sets and costumes.

The prologue of Henry V is all about this. He wishes for “A kingdom for a stage, princes to act / And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!” but that would be impossible. “…can this cockpit hold / The vasty fields of France? or may we cram / Within this wooden O the very casques /That did affright the air at Agincourt?” As he apologizes, he then mentions that the company will “On your imaginary forces work” and entreats us to imagine the horses, the giant armies, the riches of the Kings.

Shakespeare doesn’t make it too hard for us to imagine this. Just as with Horatio’s line, images fill Henry V – and all the rest of the Bard’s poetry and prose. In a very visual age of TV and movies we are a little spoiled – we often expect the images to be ready made for us. But with a little practice of using your imagination again (remember your imagination? You used it a lot when you were younger. It never really leaves you.) you’ll be seeing Shakespeare’s words in no time.

When reading a play for enjoyment, school, or for an upcoming production it is essential to pay attention to the images provided. If ever you’re reading silently… stop. Speak. First, it’s much easier to uncover the meaning when you speak the words. Second, if you are ever planning to speak these words onstage don’t get in the habit of hearing how the words sound in your head. Everything sounds better in your head. Don’t try to copy that performance. Even if you’re just reading for school and don’t plan on speaking the text aloud for any other reason – do yourself a favor and speak out loud to yourself. Now while reading to yourself, look over the very visual passages and really put pictures to these words. See the morning sun, what image does “in russet mantle” bring? See that “high eastward hill”. Now speak the words slowly while keeping that very specific image in mind. Notice that the words hold greater power now. They will to your audience as well. The better you get at this, the more captivating your performances will be.

Suddenly all those extra passages in Shakespeare that you thought were boring and meaningless and could be cut start to make sense, right? The images contained within the text are a HUGE help to getting inside the mind of Shakespeare’s characters. The images each character speaks are very personal and are never spoken without cause. Use them. When Macbeth says “O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!” you know just how vexed he is.