A Shakespearean Actor Prepares

In "A Shakespearean Actor Prepares," director Adrian Brine and thesp Michael York contend that biographical detail about the Bard would pale in comparison to the greatness of his work.

William Shakespeare created more than 850 characters and is said to have had an unrivaled vocabulary of 30,000 words, but the man himself has remained a mystery. Scholars have never learned the exact date of his birth, located any private correspondence or even rough drafts of his plays. In “A Shakespearean Actor Prepares,” director Adrian Brine and thesp Michael York contend that biographical detail about the Bard would pale in comparison to the greatness of his work. The authors make a persuasive, enlightening case, recasting him as increasingly accessible and fascinating as they analyze in detail “Hamlet,” “Macbeth,” “Romeo and Juliet,” among other works.

They initially point out Shakespeare’s spectacular commercial sense. Far from a forbidding highbrow, he was the Elizabethan equivalent of Spielberg or De Mille — a playwright who gave audiences their money’s worth by spinning complex yarns about ghosts, witches and sorcerers. Love, ambition, jealousy, guilt and other basic emotions were his stock in trade, and he satisfied contemporary appetites for bloodshed. He did all this, according to playwright Ben Jonson, without ever crossing out a line once he had written it.

Aspiring writers can feel less depressed about rejection when they read that Shakespeare was regarded by 18th century critics as crude, vulgar and tasteless. “Romeo and Juliet” was originally produced with a happy ending, and a staging of “King Lear” spared the tragic nobleman at the end. Even George Bernard Shaw expressed contempt for the political content of Shakespeare’s plays.

In meticulous, graceful prose, Brine and York illustrate what makes Shakespeare such an enduring and vital source for actors who want to hone their craft and for writers polishing their storytelling skills. He stressed repetition, so audiences could fully grasp the dramatic meanings conveyed, and opened every scene with powerful action. Movement was a crucial component of his sentences: rough winds shake the buds of May, mercy droppeth the rain, a feather yields to the wind, small swimming boys fall into the stream. And he was generous with adjectives: “merry” meetings, “nimble” caperings, “lascivious” pleasing.

While Brine and York acknowledge that Shakespeare’s language was too flowery to be credible when spoken by the adolescents of “Romeo and Juliet,” and that his plays are often historically inaccurate, these shortcomings are irrelevant in their view. The everlasting and recognizable distinction of all his works is the raw emotional truth, the kind of truth that illuminates lives and helps us to better understand the contradictions of human nature.

York refers to the title of the book (a rewording of Stanislavski’s 1936 text “An Actor Prepares”) as an homage to the legendary acting teacher. Stanislavski conceived a system called emotional memory, which encouraged actors to build imaginary pasts for the roles they played. But the word “homage” may be somewhat misleading. Brine feels that a misjudged respect for “truthfulness,” achieved through the limits of an actor’s own personal experiences, closes him off from a deeper comprehension of Shakespeare’s vast vision. Stanislavski ultimately recognized this and developed another school, which he called the method of physical action.

The book’s simplicity adds to its value; the authors have no desire to flaunt their knowledge. They want readers to share the awe and delight they feel about the Bard, and through expert analysis and carefully selected examples, they make you eager to re-read those plays with which you are familiar and explore those with which you are not.

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