For The Love of Shakespeare: call a spade a spade

By Ira Seidenstein

March 20, 2023


For The Love of Shakespeare: call a spade a spade.

This blog/essay is to follow-on in pursuit of a practical way to assist in the immediate improvement of Shakespeare play productions performed in English.

The previous blog/essay came about by coincidence. Via youtube I came upon a 3-minutes clip of a production of Antony & Cleopatra. I watched it. Rather, I began to watch it. By 1 minute in I saw a number of problems with the production’s presentation. After viewing it once, I decided to write a blog/essay explaining what I was seeing and what I was observing. As I wrote I would pause and look at parts of the video then write again and repeat several times.

Now I am about to search for perhaps 1 or 2 more clips of any Shakespeare production for the purpose of offering my observations to accompany those clips.

Okay. Found one to work with. To search I went to youtube and wrote the letters – RSC – into the search space. About the 6th link down said Romeo and Juliet and I clicked that. This clip will do. It has several interesting problems by 00:35.

I know nothing about the central actors and nothing about the director. I can see their names under the title of this clip.

I suggest you first watch it, with the intention to enjoy one of the world’s great plays: Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.

Warning: It is not my intention to tell you what you should like or not like. Suit yourself. When I go to the theatre, my primary desire is to see a good or interesting show.  I also have a hope that I will not waste my evening out, nor waste my travel time to and from the theatre, nor waste my money on a show that is not satisfying for me, nor waste my time watching a show that may not be ‘good enough’ for me. Note: When I go to the theatre, cinema or watch a video at home I’m only concerned about my own experience as I hope to have an enjoyable viewing.

Now to the heart of the matter:

A) How do the actors invoke the great text, language, of a revered piece of dramatic literature?

B) How does the director/producer cast a magical spell to allow this drama to live in 3-dimensional space and time and sound?

C) Do the actors and directors invoke this greatness as one hopes?

When I sit to watch theatre either live or on screen; or viewing on my computer screen or live in a studio – I simply sit openly in a mood to experience whatever is about to occur. None the less, I let my body respond. The body includes or is the house of our five senses and one’s intuition whatever that may be. When I watch, I let my body be my guide. I let my body be a sounding instrument. Like a child or like a cat or dog my body will respond immediately if something is amiss or delightful.

I then let my mind tell me in words to frame whatever is amiss or for that matter whatever is of particular delight. For example the framing may say “I like that actor’s voice” or “wow that actor is wonderfully energetic” or “that actor’s voice is raspy” or “that actor turns away too fast” etc. But, I do not walk in with a checklist to test does an actor, director, or production meet with my list of criteria. Worse would be to spend my time and money comparing what I’m seeing with any checklist of expectations. I go into a theatre to see. The word ‘theatre’ from Greek implies to see or to behold.  I am beholden to the actors and the director to present the play or show in a discernible means of communication.

I use if you will, my ‘radar’ that is the combination of my body’s senses along with my mind’s eye ability to discern and my mind to frame in words what occurs for me to notice. We go to the theatre to see and to notice. To grasp what we can in the ideas or drama communicated. We go to learn about the drama of humanity.  With individual productions we may go for many reasons particular to that show, play, or production, or with regards to factors in the theatre or acting profession.

By 00:35 I am irritated. Something seems to me out of balance. I hear the actors emphasise the word or words hand and hands. I’ll go now to my copy of the play and see how many times in that short passage is hand or hands written?

Okay I have just checked, in this videos section of Act 1 scene 5’s ending: hand is said twice; hands is thrice; palm is twice mentioned. Also lips is said six times. There is also kiss and touch. There are pray, prayer, and prayers. Sin is said thrice. There are pilgrims and palmers (an archaic word for pilgrim).

But in first listening it is hand that struck me as odd or overemphasised. Then as the intro moment extends it looks like the director or choreographer or movement specialist ‘found’ ‘something’ ‘clever’ to do with a literal interpretation of the word hand.

As per my book Quantum Theatre: Slapstick to Shakespeare, specifically in the essay titled “How to Improve Most English Spoken Productions of Shakespeare” if an author has written, for example, the word hand then the actor does not have to illustrate that word by ‘pointing’ to one’s hand or waving ones hand. In fact often, not always, but usually if the playwright has written the word for the actor to say then the actor has not and should not additionally ‘illustrate’ i.e. point to the object of a particular word. As noted in my book, sometimes one must point to an object or person as those are mentioned. That however would be the exception to the rule.

In this case i.e. this video we are discussing, this production, this scene of this play, I would say that that the real meaning of hand is about what a hand DOES rather than what a hand IS.  A hand as a sacred object as it is, is also just a ‘slab of bacon’ of ‘meat and potatoes’ just flesh and bones. What is remarkable about a hand is what it can DO. Inclusive of its magical healing palm.

By overemphasising and isolating a single word such as hand the actors are doomed to miss the metphor of the word. So too will the audience. Oh they’ll make up the romantic aspect don’t you worry about that, because the director already shows potential to be obsessed with illustrating the meaning of the play in a “paint by numbers” fashion.

That is my honest bones reaction in 35 seconds without having seen anything else of this production, this  – “two hours’ traffic upon our stage ” (quote from The Prologue of Romeo and Juliet line 12 of the play). The “paint by numbers” slight may not be accurate for this production as a whole nor for this particular director, however, “paint by numbers” is what we can now term or frame the overemphasis by any actor of any particular word. That overemphasis can easily be driven by any particular director’s misunderstanding about ‘how to direct a Shakespeare play effectively’.

Now I will go back to look at the first 00:35 seconds and see if my comments are accurate in the first place and if there are other details worth commenting on at this stage.

By the way, I am not going to comment on everything I notice for example I am not going to discuss the odd circular movement by Romeo turning fancifully to ‘run into’ Juliet.

Well interestingly there is an earlier part before the mere 35 seconds slice. Now I have stopped at the first signals that I received via my body’s intuitive observation that occurs BY 00:22. Romeo says twice; this on line #96: “This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this”. My first reading of the this-es is this; that the this-es refers to Juliet and not to Romeo’s hand which the actor in this video is SHOWING us. WE the audience do not need to be SHOWN for we can SEE because we have come the THEATRE to SEE the play. Otherwise in our modern world we can HEAR the play via an audio recording which is a completely valid experience too.  So, methinks that this refers to Juliet. 

Then I look at my trusty little paperback edition published originally by Signet Classic in1963 and edited by Sylvan Barnet.  Barnet’s note for line 96 – “This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this” – is: “shrine i.e. Juliet’s hand”.  I was only reacting to something that did not make sense i.e. the actor, playing Romeo, using his own hand.

However I was already alerted via my ‘radar’ that something was amiss in that the actor raised his hand and arm in a way that made no sense. No sense in that 1 or 2 seconds of action. It was nonsense. A nonsensical action.  What I also generally have labelled as a “False Gesture”. (see my pair of books for much more information, techniques, words to the wise, etc)

In the olde school of theatre that particular “False Gesture” – in Romeo’s case, also used to be called “telegraphing” i.e. signalling to an audience too early what you WILL be doing as opposed to DOING the action in the correct timing that is more natural and more effective for the audience.

According to my radar the pre-emptive move and the holding out of his own hand is an “Ineffective” movement and a “False Gesture”. As always I am continually inspired by Scholars and their notes provided in many editions of Shakespeare’s plays. My radar told me by SEEING an arm raised nonsensically and ineffectively, and on first LISTENING while SEEING the video it seemed and SOUNDED  to me that the this was already referring to Juliet. In READING the notes Barnet is more specific; “Juliet’s hand”!!!

Additionally we see as is OFTEN the case, that Shakespeare’s selection of wording OFTEN provides us with the stage DIRECTION!!! Romeo IS to TAKE Juliet’s HAND ….. and THEN deliver the line – as 1 possibility as follows: “If I profane with my unworthiest hand (Romeo NOW – should – TAKE Juliet’s hand) This holy shrine”.

This also reflects on my earlier statement that besides the beauty and grace of the human hand what is even more remarkable is what a human hand can DO. The AMAZING thing about SHAKESPEARE’S PLAYS is his unfathomable dare one say ‘God given talent’ to choose the magical words that most precisely devuldge the secret world of the human being i.e. our inner world attempting to comprehend the absolute wonder of the outside world and our encounter of that most peculiar world from Planet Earth to the inclusive influential bodies of our Solar System including our source of photosynthesis the Planet Sun itself; to the furthest reaches of our mere Galaxy within the grander design (so to speak).

There upon unfortunately our young Romeo nods towards Juliet on ‘shrine’. Fair enough. Sort of.

But not in this case. Because he had already nodded twice within seconds and is about to nod twice more within seconds.

These actors are every bit as lovely and talented and skilled and highly trained as all the other actors who trained at the main UK theatre schools inclusive of Scotland, Ireland, Wales. But they need what I in 2023 coyishly and enjoying scampishly saying … they need ‘manhandled’ i.e. simply assisted by either the director or by some ultra Puck such as THE Cicely Berry who was an absolute no nonsense gal with a great sense of humour.  She was for decades the head voice coach at the RSC.

My first day at Stratford-upon-Avon to SEE the RSC on its home turf …. It was prearranged that I’d have a blind date with one of the actors who was a friend of a friend. The ‘date’ had, via email, instructed me to come to Stage Door after the performance and wait. Lo and behold just after the Receptionist welcomed me to have a seat. …. Thar she blows … in from the theatre’s door entered THE Cicely Berry. She asked something of the Receptionist and then SHE the THE sat down opposite little ol’ me. OMG. WTF. Then the actors gradually one by one came out and each politely BOWED to SHE and said “good night Cis” or “have a good evening Cis” etc…. OMG. I’m a bit of Teardrop the Clown writing this beautiful memory. Their play and production had been GREAT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

However…. there was one young buck of an actor whose vivacious enthusiasm got the better of him in performance. His greatness diminished his goodness. His faculties were perfect. He just needed to ‘tone it down’ which normally is not something I’ve ever said to an actor. Then, he was about the 6th or 7th out the door … and previously Cic said n’er a peep but “Thank you” or “Well done” etc ….

WHOA …. oh dear SHE stopped He of Exuberance and SHE certainly gave him a few notes and suggestions. He went away happy.  Getting corrected by the likes of Cicely Berry is a badge of honour. She was 87 years old and still a force to be reckoned with. She just did her job and any actor who needed a note or encouragement or both …. She had her territory marked by which EVERYONE including the GREAT director Greg (and he is an exceptional director) and the Knighted One i.e. Sir Antony (Of Blessed Memory) had to pass by Cicely Berry’s Approval Station.

Gate of Heaven as far as I’m concerned.

Then my ‘date’ mate came and there we met and left. THAT is a story for another day. QUITE a story. As Mr Date stated after our night “On The Town (refers to 1949 musical film about Navy sailors out on the town) with me conjuring my long ago Navy years living out “On The Town”. When Mr Date got me safely near my “digs” a wonderful Bed & Breakfast accommodation, he said “I’ve been working here at the RSC for 20 years and I have never had a night like THIS”. It was like a movie i.e. a slapstick comedy. It wasn’t my fault but I was a not so innocent bystander who didn’t mind getting into a few frays. Very Shakespearean it all was.

Now back to naming what needs named: Ineffective moments in the theatre need affected.

RSC production or not.  University production or not. Amateur production or not.

All right folks, we got up to 00:22.

If done the way I’ve suggested and as implied by the words of Da Bard, then it is a perfect set up for Juliet’s gentle yet direct way of fending off any inappropriate kisses. But she is far ‘too’ gentle in this scene i.e. as scripted. Her gentle side in part is due to having to fend her way in a household ruled by a dominant Father (Capulet) and Lady Capulet, and the Nurse.

Yet it is Juliet’s gentle stoic nature that in this scene allows Romeo to take the steps of action. To take her hand, yet she likely doesn’t move. To kiss her, twice, yet she likely doesn’t move.  She says “Saints do not move…” and she adds cleverly “…though grant for prayers sake”.

Romeo matches her wit and intelligence and warmth “Then move not…” adding, “… while my prayers effect I take. Thus from my lips, by thine my sin is purged”. In my edition the Stage Directions say “Kisses her”.

Although Juliet has a gentle, even stoic quality she is strong and stands her ground.

She is the magnet that draws Romeo in. It is he who is weak.

He cannot resist her attractiveness and her power to attract.  

Romeo och Julia at Backa Teater in Goteborg, Sweden

In the script, not necessarily in the video, in the last sections of this scene further we see Juliet’s strength to stand her ground. First when her Father (Capulet) enters briefly to close the party.  Then as all exit, Juliet stays standing and calls her Nurse over and in the script cunningly asks about the three young men but in fact she is only interested in the third one.  Further, Juliet has the inner strength to make a rhyme and also to divert the Nurse’s prying inquisitiveness.  We the audience would have already seen Juliet’s strength of will and of intellect in Scene 3 (in Act 1) where she parries against the strength of two older women: her Mother (Lady Capulet); and the Nurse.

Text excerpt from

[Exit all but Juliet and the Nurse. Juliet points to one of the departing guests]

Juliet: Come hither, nurse. What is yond gentleman?

Nurse: The son and heir of old Tiberio.

Juliet: What’s he that now is going out of door?

Nurse: Marry, that, I think, be young Petruchio.                        

Juliet: What’s he that follows there, that would not dance?

Nurse: I know not.

Juliet: Go ask his name.[The nurse goes]    

If he be marrièd, My grave is like to be my wedding bed.

Nurse: [returning] His name is Romeo, and a Montague, The only son of your great enemy.

Juliet: My only love sprung from my only hate,

Too early seen unknown, and known too late!

Prodigious birth of love it is to me

That I must love a loathèd enemy.                                

Nurse: What’s this? What’s this?

Juliet: A rhyme I learned even now Of one I danced withal. [Someone offstage calls out for Juliet]

Nurse: Anon, anon! Come, let’s away, the strangers all are gone.


POSTSCRIPT: I just remembered that in 1993 I taught a series of 2-weeks long courses, Monday through Friday 9am to 1pm. Starting always with a one hour physical warmup. One of those 2-weeks long courses was “Shakespeare”. Only a few Participants most of whom were doing each of the mini-courses. One of those was a 79 year old woman who had done amateur theatre at various points in her life. She wanted to play Juliet and was remarkable, moving, ageless, perfect. Phyllis was her name. I think she likely did ‘the balcony scene’ and one of the other actresses played Romeo to support Phyllis. The younger actress was Italo-Australian and her name was Cleof.


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Ira Seidenstein