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Monday, September 14, 2009

Shakespeare Transmogrified (Introduction)

Part one in a series of articles devoted to unmasking Shakespeare's Hand in his works.

(transmogrify-tranz mog' re fie'- v. to change in appearance or form, esp. strangely or grotesquely; transform.)

What a wonderful word. It's even juicier as a noun: transmogrification. Reminds me of an old horror flick--Lon Chaney Jr.and his Transmogrification into...The Werewolf!

I learned what the word meant because of a fellow who, like Shakespeare, was a wonderful genius at painting descriptive pictures and outlining the quirkiness of his Characters--with Words. (was that a subconscious attempt at a pun? ...or the quirkiness of his words with characters...get it?--characters--letters?...sorry)

This Author, as did the Bard two hundred plus years before him, capitalized the first letter of some of the words he wanted to stand out on the page. Most Editors, who know better, have since 'emended' the results of this practice for him; likewise, for Shakespeare. They always use the word "Emended" when speaking of any duty associated with supervising the compilation and publication of works by Shakespeare--even when describing wholesale and unnecessary alterations. It's less offensive, softer, and less direct than the apparent black sheep of this particular Synonym Family..."Corrected". That would more than imply, directly, that someone was wrong about something.---Wouldn't---It?
And although there is some legitimate discussion around the fact that it was a common practice of the time to capitalize some words we wouldn't find the need to give Proper Noun status in our (also "emended") grammar books, and unanswered questions about what exactly happened to copies of the Plays when in the care of sometimes sleepy, or possibly overzealous, typesetters in the printing shop, there is more than enough evidence in the Doing to indicate, to some of us, that there is value in the investigation... Vocally and Aurally.

Far from being 'incorrect', our "mystery author", Charles Dickens--at one time in his life an aspiring actor himself--also knew about the importance of getting and holding the attention of his readers. Until his dying day (and that's not too far short of being literal) he would read his work Out Loud to huge audiences, playing ALL of the Characters he'd created--male, female, or child. (Maybe he capitalized the words as reminders to himself as to what to do with this or that word at his speaking engagements--nahhh) He knew that if you wanted a reader to audibly capture the sounds you heard in your head as the writer; if you wanted them to also appreciate the rhythms you felt in the words as you wrote them, something had to be done, On the Page, to Point Them Out. (see how I sneakily...snuck...that right in there? --Subb-tal, huh?).

Although you can still see this practice in action in original printings of his Sonnets, presumably (and I use the preceding word with some caution) meant to be 'read', when it came to his Plays, Will had the Listener in mind.

When referring to a visit to the Theatre, Elizabethans spoke in terms a listener might use: "Yesterday I went to hear the Tragedie of Macbeth." or "Will you go with me tomorrow to hear Henry V?" They loved their language, the way it sounded, the shape of a phrase. It was, literally, "Music to their ears". And Shakespeare was their Mozart/Beethoven/Mahler, Stokowski/Ormandy/Shaw, Rachmaninoff/Horowitz/Pavarotti--Composer/Conductor/Player--all rolled into one. Examples of the nearest approximation of Shakespeare's actual notation on the page cannot be found in a popular publishing house edition. The closest we can come to discovering possible indications of his hand, on the printed page, can be evidenced only in the First Folio of 1623 and some of the "good" Quarto publications.

Because of so many ongoing structural and internal "emendations", of every kind, applied to his compositions over the centuries passed since they were first printed for publication, the copy of Romeo and Juliet most of us will have been directed to buy in our local bookstore has been...transmogrified--and not only in terms of capitalization. Verse structure (the overall page layout and format, (measures), and thus, phrasing, expression, line completions, pauses (rests)--the instrumentation and implementation of dynamics in a scene can be affected); punctuation (dynamic markings altered; ritardando, staccato, legato, largo, prestissimo, adagio, along with stops and rests); spellings (possibilities of applying color, sound, voicing, expression, and dynamics); ALL of which affect Rhythm, Tempo, and Interpretation--Logistically, Practically, Emotionally, and Intellectually. All of these major components (and others, to be outlined in this series) affect not only the ability of the performer to successfully interpret and present the work; they also alter the end result of what audience members or readers not only see, but also hear, respectively, either in their ears or in their heads (and sometimes both). Notwithstanding gross and obvious errors in printing or transcribing--and they do exist--would we presume the greater right to move any of the other little dots and rests around on the page, in some cases altering the melody, rhythm, and tempo of, shall we say, The Resurrection (Symphony 2) by Gustav Mahler, or Missa Solemnis, by Ludwig van Beethoven?

Yes, Shakespeare's plays are great Literature. What is quite amazing to me, is that the literary aspect of his work is only a by-product of Shakespeare's genius; of his then-immediate intentions, which were to produce the best damned version of whatever, ever Heard. And because his Words were meant to be Spoken Out Loud, by an Actor--the Instrument of the Stage--it behooves us to sit up and take notice as to how Shakespeare the Conductor, aka Director, might have been just a little interested in how his Players Voiced his Notes and played his tunes. With very little time to rehearse his part, what better way to instruct the Player of an Instrument, than to write those instructions on the page in front of him-- into the work itself? JM
(to be continued)


  1. I love describing Shakespeare's verse as music. It's so clear for most people, and it really holds true. I hear and read Peter Hall, John Barton, and other RSCers talk about the verse as Jazz; There's a clear beat that is set up, then the musician begins to artfully deviate from the set pattern.

    The clues in the text are a joy to discover. I hope be a master of the text before I'm too old. I strive to be a better-dressed John Barton.

    Shakespeare's text has the who/what/when/where, but the actor find the how and why. Discovering the "why" is the first step to a brilliant performance.

    Might I assume that you are familiar with Richard Flatter's "Shakespeare's Producing Hand"?

  2. Gedaly wrote: "There's a clear pattern set up, then the musician begins to artfully deviate from the set pattern."

    Exactly. Which is why it's vital to understand how the pattern is set up and how it works to underly, support, and inspire the process of deviation (creation). It's always "there" to rely on, both structurally and rhythmically. Peter Hall had to let Dustin Hoffman flounder around with the "icing on the cake" for a while in rehearsal for Merchant, until Hoffman realized he had to be first taught where the cake itself resided. Then, and only then could the icing be applied as the beautiful dressing it can be. Otherwise, the "cart-before-the-horse" rule will always apply.

    Re: Prof. Flatter: Indeed; I quoted from, and used exemplary ideas, from Flatter's work of the same name on your blog, as the commenter/persona "Willshill". This was in my long harangue against Kent Richmond's modern "translations" of the Plays--(http://www.bardblog.com/the-world-sans-shakespeare/) and mentioned on this blog in the article "Translating" Shakespeare.

    I intend to pursue the issue further in this series. As you can see, the subject has attracted Flloyd Kennedy from Australia. She is, and has been, doing some very important work, regarding both the importance of the pattern itself (words/verse) and the creative process it can inspire.

    "Words, words, words". Shakespeare never repeats himself without a reason, whether that reason be couched or otherwise.

    Thanks for stopping by Gedaly--your input is always looked for and appreciated. See you here and on The Bard Blog. JM

  3. Ah yes, I had forgotten those references on The World Sans Shakespeare. It has been a while since I read those comments! I recently started reading "Acting from Shakespeare's First Folio" by Don Weingust, who writes an extensive chapter on Flatter's ideas, so it's all fresh in my mind again.

    Flloyd and I met a couple months ago and talked quite a bit about voice and text work. And yes, the work she does is wonderful. I learned plenty from her.

    It's discussions like these that make me wish you, I, or certain others had more influence over people's education of Shakespeare -- both in and out of the theatre world. I can only hope that my efforts on the Bard Blog are more than "preaching to the choir."

  4. The reader's eye and the listener's ear, in some respects, nearly one and the same in this line of work, are keen when the focus is on writing and saying it to Be Heard. There's still much to be heard from each other--and ourselves--even when only "preaching to the choir". After all, we're also members of that choir. Concurrence and corroboration can eventually lead to a crowded chorus; then to a chorus of crowds. :)