Rehearsal Tools of the ASC – Paraphrase

“I shall remember this bold language.”
- Gardiner, Henry VIII, V.iii.84

In Stephen Booth’s landmark essay, The Best Othello I Ever Saw, Booth argued that “a purposefulness that the characters gave the actors and that the actors gave back to their characters” made the 1988 show so powerful. This purposefulness was instilled through a paraphrasing exercise which the show’s director, Murray Ross, required of all of the actors. Each cast member wrote a line-by-line, syntactically accurate paraphrase of all of his or her dialogue. The result was that each performer understood the correlation between every word s/he spoke, as well as the overall framework of his/her speech, providing the actors with a precise, particular knowledge of what was being said. The act of paraphrasing added clarity to the language, precision to the inflection, and projected an understanding of the larger context to the audience throughout the performance. This very modern technique of paraphrasing, interestingly, provokes a heightened attention to the original words, as well as promoting a focus on the characters’ concerns over the actors’. As an example of this, Booth cited Cassio’s “reputation” speeches in Othello since the production’s Cassio seemed to care more about the character’s reputation than his own.[1]

Yet the truth is, a great deal of the English that people use today has come from or been influenced by Shakespeare himself. The best illustration of this is the famous quote by author Bernard Levin:

If you cannot understand my argument, and declare "It's Greek to me", you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father to the thought, if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool's paradise - why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then - to give the devil his due - if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I were dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then - by Jove! O Lord! Tut, tut! for goodness' sake! what the dickens! but me no buts - it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare.[2]

During his lifetime, Shakespeare was already lauded by many as a master of language, and, even then, his contribution to the English tongue was widely acknowledged. Francis Meres wrote in Palladis Tamia, Wits Treasury (1598) that, just as the Classical languages of Greek and Latin were glorified by famous poets, “so the English tongue is mightily enriched, and gorgeouslie invested in rare ornaments and resplendent abiliments by,” among others, “mellifluous & hony-tongued Shakespeare.” Meres went on to state, “As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for Comedy and Tragedy among the Latines: so Shakespeare among the English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage.”[3] Shakespeare was already taking his place among the great Classical poets as a revered writer in these early stages of his career.

Today, the gap between Shakespeare’s English and our own may appear vast. For, “though it is our great good fortune to have inherited the tongue of Shakespeare, we cannot claim that this is the dialect we speak and hear.”[4] The language in the plays is not modern English, neither is it Old or Middle English; it is what is often called Early New English, the product of a vast intermingling of Roman, Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Norman French.  Shakespeare contributed to this phenomenon, drawing on some 21,000 words to craft his works. One of the greatest sources of confusion comes from shifted meanings of words from Shakespeare’s day to our own. Terms like “conceit,” “anon,” or “villain” all carry modern meanings altered from the original, so modern audiences often miss out on early modern-specific references or puns.[5] It is in avoiding misunderstandings like these where the exercise of paraphrasing Shakespeare becomes valuable. And, rather than presenting a greatly simplified, pre-made translation, actors craft these paraphrases themselves which often inspires a deeper understanding of and connection to the text. It is this practice which creates the memorable, magical performances like that of the 
Othello witnessed by Stephen Booth. 

Links to the ASC

A respect for the language of Shakespeare and other early modern playwrights is part of the fundamental basis of the American Shakespeare Center. In a Director’s Packet from Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, predecessor to the American Shakespeare Center, the number one rule is: “We do not change Shakespeare’s words. More exactly, by law – our corporate charter – we cannot change more than 25 words in a production, and any substituted word must be metrically similar to the word it replaces.” Paraphrasing does not find its way onto the stage in an ASC production, but, in preparation for the production. Each word is thus considered in a new way because “a Shakespearean phrase, like a musical theme, is subject to orchestration. Developed through a sequence of repetitions and variations, modulated into changing harmonies, and counterpointed with other themes, it can set forth a distinguishing pattern of thought.”[6] 

[1] Stephen Booth, The Best Othello I Ever Saw, Shakespeare Quarterly (Vol. 40, No. 3, Autumn 1989), 332-
[2] Bernard Levin, The Story of English, Robert McCrum, William Cran, Robert MacNeil, eds. (New York, 
NY: Viking, 1986), 145. 
[3] Francis Meres, Palladis Tamia, Wits Treasury (1598), quoted in “Appendix B: Records, Documents, & 
Allusions,” The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974), 1844.
[4] Harry Levin, “General Introduction: IV. The Linguistic Medium,” The Riverside Shakespeare, 8.
[5] Levin, 8-11.
[6] Levin, 11.