“Shakespeareitis” – or, something’s rotten in the state of English language productions of Shakespeare’s plays

By Ira Seidenstein

March 14, 2023


“Shakespeareitis” – or, something’s rotten in the state of English language productions of Shakespeare’s plays.

You will SEE what I mean by “Shakespeareitis”;

AFTER you view the 3-minutes video extract; and,

THEN read and SEE what I point out.

AFTER you have WATCHED the video below;

then when you READ what I point out as you read you will exclaim;

“Oh, yes, of course, but that is so obvious”.

In the first viewing, like many involved with Shakespeare, you too may not have noticed; most, many, or possibly any of the points BEFORE I pointed them out?

If you did notice any of those same points (or others) do you know WHY such weaknesses occur?

If you know why, then do you know what the root cause is, and/or the solution may be?

Once you start to see with fresh eyes, if you have good sense, you will be able to see such obvious weakneses in many English spoken Shakespeare productions.

There are exceptions, but, may I point out – that the great productions are often simply mechanically logical as to how the ‘Swiss clock’ nature of a Shakespeare play is meant to operate.  It is not rocket science.

It is simple in that there are mechanical aspects to producing/directing any of Shakespeare’s plays.

I am certainly not saying that directing, producing, or acting in a Shakespeare production is simple!!! What is simple is that many in the theatre “can not see the forest for the trees”.

Via google for “can not see the forest for the trees”: “An expression used of someone who is too involved in the details of a problem to look at the situation as a whole: “The congressman became so involved in the wording of his bill that he couldn’t see the forest for the trees; he did not realize that the bill could never pass.”

Yet perhaps most Shakespeare directors and teachers, and, Shakespearian actors are unaware of some simple errors which ruin the rhythm of a Shakespeare play’s mechanical structures.

Structures with an ‘s’ at the end:

a) There is an overall structure in each play, even if some plays need to be rewoven by generations of a family of scholars; and,

b) There is also a structure within every single scene of every single play.

My first two books: Clown Secret; and, Quantum Theatre: Slapstick to Shakespeare, have plenty to say about Shakespeare productions done in English. The pair of books include lots of very clear, practical techniques.

In Clown Secret I explain the primal difference between most English spoken productions vs most professional productions done in many other national tongues in various countries.  I have seen a number of productions done by the Royal Shakespeare Company and The London Globe, which, almost always have superbly trained and gifted actors, yet, so many of their productions that I have seen are utterly mediocre in communicating the drama. Even though the RSC & London Globe always are beautifully designed productions. And their (RSC and Globe) research as to how the plays may use space is usually excellent to observe in performance. The musical elements are always exceptional. However, the problem is how the text is dealt with in terms of staging and there are problems with what the actors are encouraged to do in their behaviour on stage. I address those issues after you view the video below.

Thus we can see the faults are of particular Directors, some even of great repute, who have misunderstood what the public requires and deserves.

Primarily I fault the interpretations of the texts and that fault stems from generations of presumptions by teachers, directors, and actors of Shakespeare. The fault is the application of any interpretation. That fault is connected to the misunderstanding of how the relationships of the characters (and actors) via the language best operate on stage. The staging issues are connected to the body language of the actors and to their placement in space and timing that are directed.

Again note, these problems stem from a history of presumed knowledge about the plays, and the presumed ways of acting in, and of stageing them. As per my books, it is stated that “most actors in Shakespeare productions in English act like Shakespearean actors acting Shakespearean in a Shakespeare play”.

As Shakespeare warned us all via his mouthpiece Mr. Macbeth:), albeit in a different context: “Like a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage”. Of course, one of Shakespeare’s most obvious set of statements about the state-of-the-art of acting is in Hamlet’s speech to the Players in Act 3 scene 2.

Several years ago to counteract various artistic illnesses; ‘-itis-es’; i.e. generic illnesses of many practitioners, teachers, and directors in four genres that I love: Clown; Commedia; Physical Theatre; and Shakespeare. Four genres I love, yet, I certainly don’t love most of the productions in those genres. Thus I began to experiment with teaching workshops that I labelled: “Authentic Clown”; “Authentic Commedia”; and “Authentic Shakespeare”. Naturally, and obviously I am toying and ploy-ing with the use of the word ‘authentic’.

There is also an “Improvitis”. To explain that one succinctly: simply, the illness has to do with the obsession, to adhere to rules based improvisations rather than authentic improvisation. The rules in the teaching and even the conducting of improvisational performances have their place and value.

However like the other ‘itis-es’ mentioned above it IS THE RULES that ruin the genres. The rules are to keep those in the authoritarian positions ruling above the authenticity of the individual actor’s body. Social-Theorist Pierre Bourdieu has created an illminated scaffold to explain the power plays in any field of human endeavour. I referenced him in my PhD Thesis and in my pair of books. His social fields scaffold includes his concepts of: doxa, heterodoxy, orthodoxy, illusio, misrecogntion, cultural capital, social capital, symbolic violence and importantly habitus!! They all come together in the body, the habitus, and whether or not indidivuals in any field or communities within those fields of human endeavour are allowed to create heterodoxy – that is – change and improvement.

In the fields I love as mentioned above there is great resistance to new information including understanding that ideas preached dogmatically may possibly be nothing more than social and cultural control mechanisms.

Clown Secret and Quantum Theatre: Slapstick to Shakespeare as a pair illustrate a formidable woven tapestry of useful ideas relevant to theatre, creativity, acting, performance for stage or screen; including in the works of Shakespeare.

Chapter 2 of Clown Secret provides a layered yet simple set of solutions to problems of fundamentalism within the performing arts, of particular interest are the fields I love as mentioned above. The applications though can occur in any creative field or genre or project.

The magic pill includes what I term “Universal Principles” which are revealed in the exercises of the complete methodical introduction template: “The Four Articulations for Performance”. That complete template comprises the whole of Chapter 2 of Clown Secret. Clown Secret has one chapter on Shakespeare “Shakespeare’s Bits”. However, the paired book Quantum Theatre: Slapstick to Shakespeare has 6 essays regarding the plays, performance, and production of Shakespeare’s plays.

NOW I invite you to have your first viewing of a brief, 3-minutes extract from the great play Antony  & Cleopatra by William Shakespeare. I hope you enjoy it.

I certainly don’t want to spoil your enjoyment. But, be forewarned I am going to point out a few moments which I think break the rhythm of the language and thus the rhythm of the scene. If the rhythm of a scene is not suitable then that scene negatively affects the rhythm of the Act as a whole and the Play as a complete experience.

Section A) I have paused at 00:34. If Cleo claps, why and to whom EXACTLY? She then makes a distracting thumping of her fists together. That is distracting because it is done in an ineffective way. So it is not that the action per se is distracting. It is the timing, the ambiguousness of its ‘direction’ i.e. to whom? Yet, even if as it seems only to herself it is still ineffective except to be ‘illustrative’ in her gesticulations. Soon enough we will see either the actress (who seems very fine ) has a habit of being ‘illustrative’; or, that is a ‘character choice’ which doesn’t make it any less ineffective; or, it is something the director ‘liked’.

Sometimes directors keep bits they like even if those bits are ineffective. Ineffective in the particular production! For I am not dogmatic as to ‘what a Shakespeare play means or is intended to mean’. The plays of Shakespeare are so ‘human’ that their complexity of characters and viewpoints allows for individual viewers to relate with their own specificity of personal or social or political issues.

Does Cleo direct the servant/aide Alexas to exit the long way around???? Perhaps an ineffective movement choice either by actor, actors, choreographer, movement designer, or director. Again, maybe someone ‘came up’ with the movement choice of exiting the long way around and the director ‘liked’ it? Which as stated above does not mean the director made a good i.e. effective choice. Rather whoever chose and decided, chose a distracting and ineffective movement for the exit. The actor playing a ‘boss’ role needs to speak up and say “I need that character to be THERE when I point to them’.

The timing between the first 2 lines of this scene (Act 1 scene 3): “Where is he”? (who? where is Cleo looking for “he”?); Charmian replies “I did not see him since”. We MUST SEE… Cleo LOOKING for ‘He’. We must SEE … either Cleo directing her question DIRECTLY to Charmian …. OR …. we must SEE Charmian jumping IN towards Cleo to reply, to be SEEN ‘saving the day’ or to be SEEN wanting to save her own ‘ass’ or to JUMP in ahead of her nemesis Iras.

The word ‘theatre’ is “from Ancient Greek θέατρον (théatron, “a place for viewing”), from θεάομαι (theáomai, “to see”, “to watch”, “to observe”)” + “The Greek word for theater (theatron) comes from the verb theasthai, meaning “behold. You are likely to behold a play or a film inside a theater.” (quotes sourced simply via google)

The notes about the relationships between Iras, Charmian, Cleo HINT about my own research, reading, and production of this play in 2013. That is written about in Clown Secret chapter “Shakespeare’s Bits”. The pair of books are inexpensive via kindle and in 2 minutes you can be reading “Shakepseare’s Bits”.

Charmian and Iras are a ‘pair’. We would (should) have also JUST seen an AMAZING and FUNNY Scene 2 inclulsive of that pair(Charmian and Iras) plus fellow servant Alexas who is carrying the tray in this Scene 3 video. Back to our Scene 3, there is SO MUCH Vaudeville potential in the next lines that should be directed towards Alexas. In our video though, there is no charm nor chemistry nor interesting comedy between Alexas and Cleo.

The text in that section ….. wreaks of ‘words to the wise’ to PLAY…. to CLOWN. IF the commas are placed intentionally by the playwright …. this IS comedy. Verging on implied stage directions which are implied but not dogmaticly. THERE ….. IS ….. C-O-M-E-D-Y in this play (a play is for playing even in a tragedy or history play)…. there is comedy in Act 1 scene 1, scene 2, scene 3…. One MUST honour that the playwright has placed the com-mas and the com-edy not only for our creative pleasure but for the audience’s delight.

As a side note, of notable importance or value, as explained in my pair of books, even IF the playwright titled his plays Such-and-Such …. a comedy, or a history, or a tragedy ….. many of the plays, if not all, seem OBVIOUSLY to be “tragi-comedy”.

Amongst the rumours and amidst the possible fact or facets of Shakespeare’s education …. some experts say that he would or could have been educated by Jesuits. Jesuits were highly educated!! They also reverred Education. They also understood that Theatre should be one of the key components to a sound education. They also understand that proper theatre or the best theatre is “tragi-comedy”.

Samuel Beckett’s fortay is tragi-comedy. The Cartesian way of dividing; topics, subjects of study, and genres of performing arts; is understandable but can and may have led to demonic results for an unsuspecting ruling class of educators?

Shakespeare clowns with the standard division of genres of plays when he has the pedantic Polonius desribe all of the possible types of plays which the coming Players are capable of presenting. Polonius tells that information in an absurd and comical way to Hamlet. That occurs within the play Hamlet Act 2, scene 2; following directly after Hamlet’s line to Polonius: “Then came each actor on his ass”. After which Polonius describes the different styles that the Players could present.

The play Hamlet is actually titled “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark”. It certainly is a tragedy yet the scene I’m referring to is definitely comedy. So, regarding the play Hamlet, which is it? Tragedy or Comedy? It is as the Jesuits suggest, a tragi-comedy even if the claimed title possibly or even likely by the playwright says “Tragedy”.

The play Hamlet is certainly also by the playwright’s design, comedy.

Hamlet the play is a tragi-comedy, or if you will, a tragedy with a lot of comedy in it.

The play we are considering via the 3 minutes video titled in theory by the playwright, is: “The Tragedy of Antony & Cleopatra”. Yet it is also a History play. And as per my research and production of 2013, and dare I say proof provided in Clown Secret, Antony & Cleopatra has a LOT of comedy!!! Thus it is likely the Jesuits would consider it like all good plays, a “tragi-comedy”.

In 34 seconds…. the Scene 3 in this video is off to a very bad start. No doubt…. most productions of that play do similar or worse. I am not suggesting to ‘clown’ to fart about with the playwright’s intention but I am pointing out that Shakespeare was a master of theatrical story telling. IN FACT THIS PARTICULAR PLAY OWES MUCH TO SHAKESPEARE’S SENSE OF META-THEATRE!!!!!! That means SHOWING the audience that we are PLAYING. Just like politicans! Politicans too DO love the meta-theatre of each of their own entrances to the places they SHOW UP and try to ACT convincingly that they are in charge … like Cleopatra!!! We are 6 lines into this scene. PAUSE to view the first 34 seconds.

Section B) 00:34 We see Cleo use her right arm ineffectively with 2, too sudden gestures. The first snapping of the fingers is not ‘owned’ and thus is ineffective and therefore a 2nd gesture is felt by the actor to be ‘required’. Yet that 2nd gesture is what I call “A False Gesture” i.e. it doesn’t count to the actor nor to the audience and thus the gesture is ineffective. “The Four Articulations for Performance”, chapter 2, Clown Secret helps actors to purge themselves of “False Gestureing”. Whereas creative exercises within The Four Articulations template positively teach an actor how to organically create gestures which mean what they say when they say it. Two such exercises are: “The Buster Keaton Exercise”; and, “The Marcel Marceau Exercise” for example.

Section C) 00:35 to 1:02 The script says “Madame, methinks…” Methinks this is a GOLDEN opportunity for Charmian to show how charming she is and to soothe Cleo. To treat Cleo as a child. Not so much condescendingly rather more cunningly to calm Cleo and to soothe Cleo’s ego and to score more ‘brownie points’ OVER Iras. Or in silent cahoots with Iras. Like siblings they are close but sometimes too close. WE need to SEE, here in this section of Scene 3, a very complex relationship between Cleo and Charmian (with Iras). That Charmian can ‘speak to power’ and that Cleo DOES get ‘manhandled’ and DOES need a WOMAN to confide and chide with.

Ironically, in THIS production Charmian’s coming few lines ARE DIVIDED BETWEEN SHE AND IRAS!!! According to the RSC’s own 2009 Macmillian publication those lines are Charmian’s. There may be another discovery or preferred version of the play that has those few lines shared? Or it may simply be a creative choice by the director? However, what may be missing is any sign of searching into: HOW does Iras react in silence during Charmian’s exhibition of moral courage to more than stand up to ‘the boss’ and to clearly give good counsel.

There is another GREAT ploy in Vaudeville i.e. how to do comedy as a trio. Cleo, Charm, Iras. In this same short exchange both actresses, playing Charm and Iras, THROW AWAY their ineffective gestures or by throwing them away the gestures beome ineffective. IF as per the book Quantum Theatre: Slapstick to Shakespeare, IF the actors had HELD the gesture to completion i.e. held the gestures for 1 second longer i.e. HELD the gesture then the audience automatically follows the play, action, script, story better. HINT HINT HINT WORD TO THE WISE IF YOU MAKE A GESTURE …. HOLD IT FOR 1 OR 2 SECONDS. See my pair of books for many more useful tricks of the trade, and many encouraging words to the wise.

Section D) 1:03 “But, here comes Antony”. Well Charm, in this video, doesn’t actually say “But” although it is in the script (RSC 2009 Macmillan). She rushes her line. A “but” well placed by a playwright can be immensely effective. This indicates a directorial choice or avoidance or misunderstanding of how slight an interference in the script (possibly removing a ‘but’) decays the integrity of such a playwright.

Rather than LOOKING upstage Charm could glance upstage and THEN deliver her whole line TO CLEO: “But, here comes Antony” 100% intimately looking into Cleo’s eyes. Whereupon there is no need for Cleo to also LOOK upstage when she has a BRILLIANT COMIC OPPORTUNITY to DISPLAY FOR US HER DOTING PUBLIC that she and she alone is the Queen of Life’s Stage. Cleo’s “I am sick and sullen” – to Whom is she speaking? Well in a moment we see her ‘illness’ go into Stage 2 “Help me away, dear Charmian …” .

I did once see a MAGNIFICENT Cleo in this play. That was Frances Barber. In a quite average production at The London Globe. I loved seeing the staging that is the utilization of the magical Globe’s playing spaces. This brings up another topic discussed in my books: all too often directors focus ON the protagonist or titled character. In Shakespeare, virtually every character placed on stage should have at least a cameo featured moment in any scene in which they appear. This has to be micro-managed in terms of spacing and timing. The audience’s EYE should bounce along wherever the text directs us. However, amongst the tricks of the trade in my books, it is mentioned that when working in a Shakespeare play it is a HUGE (hint hint hint word to the wise) advantage to move SLIGHTLY immediately preceding each time one speaks on stage. Often that only requires the actor to engage their body before speaking. The No Theatre actors of Japan are taught to tense their sphincter muscles and for those who have gonads to engage, internally lift ones ‘jobbadooers’ to effect one’s presence on stage while acting.

Silent characters placed by the playwright (Shakespeare) in a scene have a function(s) to illuminate the drama.

Easier said than done.

But as noted in the chapter “Shakespeare’s Bits” one of my many experiments of research was to see how a scene often cut in Antony & Cleopatra might actually work perfectly well if handled in a mechanically correct way.

Yet, in between Cleo’s 2 lines “I am…” and “Help me…” Antony SHOULD pipe up boldly and he must as it IS his ENTRANCE LINE in this Scene 3. Antony is prone to dramatic META-THEATRE too. He can cope with Cleo and he is no pushover. He can out act her as much as she can out act him.

In the STRUCTURE of the play, we would have already seen in Act 1, scene 1 how the two of them, Antony & Cleopatra, work hard to stand up to each other.

That IS the nature of their erotic relationship.

As Antony tells us in that in Scene 1: “Fie, wrangling queen, Whom everything becomes, to chide, to laugh, to weep, whose every passion fully strives …. Last night you did desire it. ” They prepare to exit to do ‘it’:), but in walks a Messenger and Antony adds and pointedly instructs the Messenger: “Do not speak to us” then Antony & Cleopatra exit. Two of Antony’s Aides (Philo & Demetrius) conclude the Scene 1 with the intrigue with which they (Philo & Demetrius) began it.

Section E) However, this Antony I’m only first seeing with you in this video of Scene 3. When Antony has entered and stands before Cleo at 1:17 he makes a common actor’s FALSE MOVEMENT as for no reason he steps backward with his right foot yet the character’s intention to enter this scene is to go forward to tell Cleo something. A moment LATER she says “Pray you stand further from me”. Then instead of replying to HER as he has the next line ….. he turns (in our video) to Iras (or Charmian?) as she exits and he says “What’s the matter?”. So these few seconds in the DIRECTION are confused. Cleo COULD direct “Pray you stand further from me” just as well to Antony?

In between those lines, his inaccurate/ineffective portrayal by aided or un-aided by the director …. however he’s directed it, the result is inaccurate/ineffective. In the midst of those 2 lines: ‘stand further’ and ‘what’s the matter’ at 1:18 the actor has Antony smack ineffectively the letter he came bearing.

This actor, who is not at all a bad actor, also has a common actor’s stage craft habit of whipping his head as a theatrical device. Ineffectively.

Head whipping is just one of those things that actors do when they don’t really know what to do although no actor thinks they ever do such things, most do so.

When Cleo says “I know by that same eye….”. Might it be that she is responding to Antony SUPOSEDLY LOOKING at HER when he said the preceding line “What’s the matter?”. So that line of his should not have been delivered to the exiting actor’s back of her neck (Iras or Charmian).

‘Antony’ and ‘Cleo’s vehicles are good actors, but they are not adequately directed. These actors have their own habits or tendencies which are exaccerbated by the questionable direction. No doubt the director who is enormously intelligent has good qualities …. but he too has habits and tendencies which may be in part as with many directors DUE TO his intelligence? The craftsmanship is lacking in this scene!!!!!!! Possibly in other scenes too???

Section F) At 1:37 Antony makes a FALSE GESTURE to “the gods”. Each of the moments when any actor playing Antony has a VERY brief line is a GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY to HEIGHTEN THE THEATRICALITY VIA META-THEATRICS rather than showing Antony’s possible ‘effete ineffectiveness’. The stronger Antony appears …. the stronger Cleo will appear. The tension to deliver Antony’s message in this Scene 3 perhaps would best be a SUSTAINED tension that ADDS to Cleo’s nerviness to ‘hold court’?? This actress portraying Cleo with a sing-songy creative interpretation would also very likely benefit from a singular sustained speech of avoidance that Antony is to keep trying to cut into?

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Ira Seidenstein