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All The World’s On the Page: Acting from the First Folio

Our current exhibition, First Folio! Shakespeare’s American Tour comes to a close this weekend. While we all know how important the Folio is as a collection of Shakespeare’s plays, did you also know it can be a valuable tool for actors when approaching a role? As You Like It company member Matthew Pauli shared with us how he would use the First Folio to explore Jaques’ famous “All the world’s a stage” speech.


I want to begin by saying that there are as many ways to approach a text as there are people who approach a text. Of course, there is no one right way to interpret a play or a character.  There are, however, techniques that might make the job a bit easier for an actor or a production.

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Matthew Pauli

A big part of my acting training embraces the idea that the playwright gives us the very best words to express the characters’ ideas and that all of the answers we need to interpret the plays can be found in those words.  Seeking answers outside those words can lead to other challenges if our personal ideas don’t fall in line with other elements of the play.

A corollary to that approach is that the punctuation is also critical.  The words express the ideas, but the punctuation tells us how the ideas are organized.  This is a great benefit of going to the Folio with Shakespeare.  In the Folio, we see the closest we are going to get to the punctuation the original actors might have used.  While we want to be sure that the play reaches a contemporary audience, it can be instructive to consider all tools that might give us insight into the original performances. If we consider a sentence to be a complete thought, then the thought is only completed when you reach a period or question mark or exclamation point.  Commas, colons, and semicolons indicate a shift in thought, but not a new idea.  This approach gives us insight into how to pace the performance.

 

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“All the world’s a stage” as it appears in the Folio

Sometimes, to make it easier to speak or read, modern editors will “fix” the punctuation.  But plays are not meant to be read, they are meant to be seen and heard.  Making the words easier to speak might sacrifice some of the ease in understanding the connected flow of thought.  If the actor only takes a breath at the end stop punctuation, then the connected thought remains connected.  It’s a technique that not every actor uses, but it can be useful.

 

Take, for example, Jaques’ “All the world’s a stage” speech from As You Like It. We must assume that, while we know that speech is famous, Jaques does not.  He’s making it up as he goes… and he doesn’t know that it will go well.  He has to get his ideas in quickly, or the Duke will stop him. The speech is twenty seven lines of verse, but only six sentences.  This might mean that, while the speech is profound and beautiful, it might also be delivered quickly, as though it might be shut down at any moment by a Duke who isn’t amused.

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To start, Jaques jumps in on a shared line of verse when the Duke finishes speaking.  The Duke mentions theater and scenes and Jaques, who has recently decided that he aspires to be a fool, decides to riff on this subject.  I believe that the shared line means that he does not hesitate to begin, but rather jumps right in.  Furthermore, he gets his entire thesis in one sentence, establishing that the whole world is a stage, the men and women are players who enter and exit and that one man plays seven roles in a lifetime.  The Folio gives us a colon and some commas to indicate when Jaques may be refining his idea, but he doesn’t yield until his entire thesis is out.

Having gotten this far, he can breathe and see if everyone is with him.  The script doesn’t have anyone interrupt him, so he continues.  His next sentence covers infancy and childhood.  He lumps two characters together, as this is still a new idea that he is trying out, and it might not meet approval.

Having succeeded there, he moves on to the lover. It is worth noting that all of the characters from this point are Commedia Dell’arte characters, which Shakespeare’s audience would have known (Lover/Innamorati, Soldier/Il Capitano, Justice/ Il Dottore, Pantaloon/Pantalone) and each comes with a very distinct physical presentation, which Jaques describes.  I think it is reasonable to assume that Jaques might act these characters as he describes them.

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The lover gets his own sentence.  The soldier is combined with the judge (maybe the soldier doesn’t play as well with the lords that Jaques is entertaining). Pantaloon, the old man, gets his own sentence, with many parenthetical descriptions of his appearance and voice.

As he gets into the final scene, second childishness, we look to spelling and find that Shakespeare is building on his description of Pantaloon’s voice.  Having described his voice turning to a treble whistle, Shakespeare/Jaques fills the last sentence with “s” sounds.  In the Folio typeface it is particularly apparent how many times the letter “s” appears.  This character seems to devolve into wheezing and whistling:

folio-stage-speech-3“LaSt Scene of all,
That endS thiS Strange eventful hiStory,
iS Second childishneSS, and mere oblivion,
SanS teeth, SanS eyeS, SanS taSte, SanS everything.”

Of course, an actor or production can do any number of things with this scene, but I am delighted to explore just how many suggestions we get by looking to the earliest published versions of the text.


profile_faceVisit First Folio! Shakespeare’s American Tour before it closes on January 22 and try your hand at deciphering the First Folio’s acting clues. You can see what choices our actors have made when when As You Like It begins performances on January 24. For tickets and more information, visit us online or call the Folger Box Office at 202.544.7077.

One Comment


  • Very insightful, especially to me as I have little knowledge of the techniques of a playwright’s writing and interpretation of a playwright’s intent.


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