How actors use Shakespeare’s First Folio
William Shakespeare’s First Folio is one of the most important books in the world. It’s not just that it preserved 36 of his plays for future generations. It’s that its publication elevated theater from a form thought of as impermanent to an art that endures.
That should not be taken for granted, says Shakespearean scholar Eric Rasmussen, of the University of Nevada, Reno.
“The precise moment in history when the actors pull together his plays was ripe for the birth of dramatic literature, clearly it got a toehold and took off,” Rasmussen says. “This represents the distinct dividing line between ephemeral literature and significant dramatic literature.”
The First Folio was printed in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death in 1616, by his actors and friends. There are 235 in the world. The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., owns 82 copies and has sent 19 of them to tour all 50 states.
One has made its way to Boise and will be on display from Saturday, Aug. 20, to Wednesday, Sept. 21 at the Boise State University Arts and Humanities Institute in the Yanke Family Research Center, 220 ParkCenter Blvd.
This tour marks the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, and coincides with the Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s 40th anniversary. During the exhibition, you’ll also find a retrospective on the festival’s history.
“Death-aversary, we call it,” Rasmussen quips, who has spoken in states across the country and cities across the globe about the Folio. The book has generated interest in everything from the plays themselves to the history of typesetting, and has drawn crowds in the ten of thousands. (Read Boise Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Tony Doerr’s essay on the First Folio visit here.)
About half of the Bard’s plays were printed during his lifetime in small one-play editions called quartos, named so because it was printed on a paper folded into quarters, yielding eight pages. Those texts were either smuggled out of the theater by actors, or transcribed by someone in the audience, or written from memory. So the words, punctuation and scene arrangements can vary between editions.
Billionaire philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen recently bought a First Folio for $6.1 million as a gift for his sister Jody.
The Folio is considered the original source, and many actors turn to it for insights on how to interpret Shakespeare’s characters and words, says Idaho Shakespeare Festival company’s Lynn Robert Berg and Laura Welsh Berg.
“This is the closest we have to what was originally performed, we think,” Lynn says. “As a source material, it has the original punctuation that helps with figuring out the thoughts and ideas that are being expressed.”
They are big fans of the Folio. They use a replication in their homes and Shakespeare Pro’s Folio app.
The text in the Folio uses different punctuation than we’re used to today. For example, Shakespeare rarely use semicolons; he only used periods, commas and colons.
For Shakespeare, a comma meant one beat, a colon meant “and this follows on,” a period meant three beats, Rasmussen says. Many editors today add semicolons because modern readers expect them, and many editions are edited for reading not speaking. However, changing a period to a comma can change the reading of it.
Shakespeare didn’t write down his plays in full as playwrights do today, partly to protect his copyright, partly because paper was expensive.
Spear carrier number three didn’t need a full script.
Actor Laura Welsh Berg
The actors received their parts — dialogue, cue lines and minor stage directions — on a roll of parchment. That’s how an actor’s part became known as a role.
“You could tell how big your part was by how big the roll was,” Lynn says.
Certain words are capitalized, which some actors read as a clue to emphasize that word or look for a deeper meaning.
Rasmussen says that Renaissance printers generally capitalized words for various reasons, from how they wanted it to look, to if they simply didn’t have enough lowercase letters to fill the press, so he’s not too sure about that one.
But that’s fine. There are different approaches for everyone’s tastes. The beauty of Shakespeare is that the plays live in a way different from any other theatrical form, in that they are completely open to interpretation.
“Anytime you see a Shakespeare play, no matter what, you’re seeing an adaptation,” Laura says. “The director has decided what story they want to tell, and it’s edited, because no one wants to sit through the original five-hour ‘Hamlet’.”
And actors and director directors look at all the versions of the texts — the quartos, the Folio, the Arden Shakespeare, and anything they can get their hands on — to decide from production to production what to say and how to say it.
For example, Lynn and Laura both played Richard in different productions of “King Richard III.” Lynn’s was for ISF in 2013; Laura’s was for her graduate production at DePaul University in Chicago, where the couple lives.
Both worked with their directors on the famous opening, “The winter of our discontent” speech, and made very different choices.
“Our speeches were completely different,” Laura says. “Working on Shakespeare is like detective work. We love digging through the layers.”
‘Words, words, words ...’ The actor’s work
Many contemporary actors work in variations of “The Method,” an approach that puts the emphasis on emotional context for character. A classically-trained actor often approaches character development with a technique that focuses more on text. That makes the most sense in Shakespearean plays when you understand how Shakespeare wrote, Lynn Robert Berg said.
The actor’s task, Berg says, is to divine between all of the different versions of a play to fine a meaning that resonates with his or her take on the character.
Berg goes to his copy of the First Folio often when he begins to tackle text, he says. He also uses his “Shakespeare Lexicon,” two volumes that offer definitions of nearly every word and how it’s used in each play.
“You get to find out what a jerkin is (a kind of jacket) and there are like, three pages for the word thou,” Berg says.
You can’t say words you don’t understand, he explains.
“You don’t want to be inauthentic when you’re talking. We’re having this conversation, and I’m not going to use a word if I don’t know what it means. Human beings don’t communicate like that.”
Berg then uses a technique called scansion where actors count the syllables in a line of Shakespearean verse.
Remember from grade school? Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter.
An iamb is two syllables, one stressed and one unstressed, that together make up a foot. Pentameter means there are five of those in a line, Berg said.
“So, 10 syllables, “ Berg explained.
“To be, or not to be, that is the Question:”
Iambic pentameter is the sound of the human heart — Dee-dum, dee-dum, dee-dum, dee-dum, dee-dum.
Actor Lynn Robert Berg
But of course that’s not always the case. Sometimes the lines contain 11 syllables.
“When the verse starts to get irregular, that’s a clue that there’s something going on with that character, “ Berg said. “It says something about the character’s state of being. So the rhythm of the speech tells you how you should be playing it.”
When the syllable count is irregular, say 11 or more syllables, you have to reconcile and try to make it 10 by squeezing words into one syllable, like suff-er-ing to suf’ring. If you can’t, then that will affect how you speak the next line of verse and so on.
If you have many larger words it might mean you speak it faster — an indication of hurry — or if they are one syllable words, say “To be, or not to be” you speak them slowly with more emphasis.
“Once you figure out the rhythms, I believe that if you really play those rhythms and play the words and the intention, then acting comes out of that. In a way, you don’t really have to do any more,” he said.
First Folio Events
Events are free and at the Yanke Family Research Center, 220 ParkCenter Blvd., unless otherwise noted. Learn more at here.
▪ Saturday, Aug. 20, 1-5 p.m.: First Folio Grand Opening Carnival and Ribbon Cutting, with Folger Shakespeare Library Librarian Daniel DeSimone, plus outdoor festival with performances, demonstrations and activities.
▪ Tuesday, Aug. 23, 7 p.m.: Idaho Shakespeare Festival founding Artistic Director Doug Copsey and founding company members discuss will share their story of the festival’s roots.
▪ Wednesday, Aug. 24, 7 p.m.: Idaho Scholar Talks: “Ha Ha Hamlet: Parodies, Pop-Culture and the Prince of Denmark” by Boise State University associate professor Matt Hansen.
▪ Thursday, Aug. 25, 9-11 p.m.: Film screening of “10 Things I Hate About You,” the 1999 adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” outdoors at the BSU Student Union Building Intramural Field (on campus). Bring a lawn chair.
▪ Friday, Aug. 26, 7 p.m.: Idaho Scholar Talks: “Mind Your F’s and Q’s!: Exploring Early Editions of Romeo and Juliet” by Idaho State University English professor Jessica Winston.
▪ Saturday, Aug. 27, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.: Boise Public Library Comic Con at the main branch will feature a display of Shakespeare-related graphic novels.
▪ Monday, Aug. 29, 7 p.m.: Film screening of 1996 “Romeo + Juliet,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, with an introduction by BSU Theatre Chair and ISF company member Richard Klautsch at The Flicks, 646 Fulton St., Boise ($7 at the box office).
▪ Thursday, Sept. 1, 7 p.m.: First Folio keynote speech by University of Nevada professor and author Eric Rasmussen. about his part in the discovery of the Saint-Omer First Folio, an event that went viral.
▪ Thursday, Sept. 1, 6:30-8 p.m.: First Thursday at the Boise Public Library’s main branch will features some First Folio events.
▪ Friday, Sept. 2, 10:30 a.m., and Saturday, Sept. 3, 2 p.m.: “To Bee or Not To Bee” puppet show at Boise Public Library’s main branch.
▪ Tuesday, Sept. 6, 13, and 20, 10 a.m.-noon: “Shakespeare’s World” by BSU history professor Lisa McClain for Osher Institute of Lifelong Learning. Register at ExtendedStudies.BoiseState.edu/osher.
▪ Friday, Sept. 9, 7 p.m.: Idaho Scholar Talks: “The Economy of Nature: Human and Non-Human Forces in Shakespeare’s King Lear and Timon of Athens,” by Lewis-Clark State College assistant professor Peter Remien.
▪ Monday, Sept. 12, 7 p.m.: Idaho Scholar Talks: “All the World’s A Stage Direction: Shakespeare’s First Folio for Actors” by BSU theater professor Gordon Reinhart.
▪ Wednesday, Sept. 14, 6- 8:30 p.m.: Film screening: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” 1935, staring James Cagney, Dick Powell and Olivia de Havilland. Boise Public Library, main branch.
▪ Friday, Sept. 16, 7 p.m.: Idaho Scholar Talks: “Shakespeare’s Typeface: Fonts from the First Folio to the 21st Century,” Idaho State University professor Curtis Whittaker.
▪ Saturday, Sept. 17, 1-5 p.m.: First Folio Family Day with performances, activities, including Matt Hansen’s “Shake It Up After School,” a performance by sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.
▪ Wednesday, Sept. 21, 7 p.m.: “Our Revels Now Are Ended” wrap-up of the Folio events that includes a panel discussion about how the folio came to Boise and a performance of Idaho Dance Theatre’s “Friends and Lovers,” performed to spoken Shakespearean text and poetry.