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Welcome to Episode #126 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

Inside Tiffany Stern’s publication titled Shakespeare in Parts which she co-authored with Simon Palfrey, there is a picture of a piece of paper captioned “The part of Orlando from Robert Greene’s Orlando Furioso” from the 1590s. The image represents the historical reality that for Shakespeare, plays were always distributed in parts–meaning a single actor would have had a copy of what his character was supposed to say, but when he was on stage to perform those lines, he would be hearing the words of his fellow characters often for the first time, generating, as you might expect, some pretty dramatic responses from the players themselves. This image of the lines for Robert Greene’s Orlando is additionally fascinating because not only is it hand written in ink on paper (instead of printed with type pressed letters the way we find plays inside the First Folio, for example) but aside from some lines across the page periodically to indicate a separation between spoken lines, there isn’t anything else on the page at all. It surprises me, quite honestly, because visually, this 16th century script looks totally different from modern play scripts. So why is the script written in a single part instead of having everyone’s lines all together? Is this the way players acted in the theater–everyone in their own part instead of bringing it all together as a group? Here to help us answer these questions and explore the research from her book, Shakespeare in Parts, about the history of scripts, performance, and the assumptions we make about what really happened when Shakespeare’s actors performed 16th century plays, is our guest Tiffany Stern. 

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Tiffany Stern is a professor at The Shakespeare Institute, at the University of Birmingham. She is an author, speaker, and historian. Her work combines literary criticism, theatre and book history and editing from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Fascinated by the theatrical contexts that brought about plays by Shakespeare and others, several of her books and articles focus on the theatrical documents put together by authors and theatrical personnel in the process of writing and learning a play. Her projects include a book on early modern theatre and popular entertainment, Playing Fair, exploring the cultural exchanges between playhouses and fairgrounds, a book on Shakespeare Beyond Performance, looking at the theatrical documents produced in the light of a play’s performance – ballads, chapbooks, commonplace books, ‘noted’ texts – and an edition of Shakespeare’s Tempest. Find Shakespeare in Parts on Amazon here.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Tiffany Stern about :

  • Parts give the impression that acting was largely improvisational in the 16th century. However, from the example of Robert Greene’s Orlando, Tiffany points out that the parts for actors in the 16th century did provide some stage direction. She writes, “while certain specific actions may be dealt with in a part’s stage-directions, many more general movements are either so ‘stock’ as not to deserve mention, or are simply left to the actor to determine” Tiffany, is the absence of clear stage direction on the page an indication that all action on stage was entirely improvisational by the actor, or is there an expectation present in the 16th century that actors were going to use some of these “stock movements” making it unnecessary to write down the action unless the desire was for an actor to deviate from the format? 

  • Are these unwritten stage directions one reason why it mattered to designate his plays as histories, tragedies, or comedies? In addition to indicating whether or not everyone dies at the end, were these categories also useful to the actors themselves for determining which set of stock movements they needed to use in performance?
  • Tiffany’s book shares the image of Robert Greene’s Orlando and it is a handwritten sheet of paper, and as modern theater goers, we may instinctively envision a script as a stack of single sheet papers, but as Tiffany’s book outlines–this was not how scripts in Shakespeare’s theater were distributed. Tiffany writes, “The remaining strips of ‘Orlando’, now separate, were clearly originally stuck together in a roll of about 18 feet in length, as worm-hole evidence shows.” Tiffany, 18 feet seems like a lot of paper to keep track of during rehearsals. Were Shakespeare’s actors using scrolls to practice their parts? 

… and more!

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‘To fill with worm-holes stately monuments, To feed oblivion with decay of things, To blot old books and alter their contents,
Shakespeare

Rape of Lucrece

I was not able to find a photograph of the wormhole evidence on Robert Greene's Orlando, but this image demonstrates what it looks like in person. | A book showing damage from insect infestation (“bookworms”), on display at the Yale Medical School library | This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International3.0 Unported2.5 Generic2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license. | Author: Ragesoss | Source

Bookworm damage reveals scroll instead of single sheets

In Shakespeare in PartsTiffany shares the image of Robert Greene’s Orlando and it is a handwritten sheet of paper, and as modern theater goers, we may instinctively envision a script as a stack of single sheet papers, but as Tiffany’s book outlines–this was not how scripts in Shakespeare’s theater were distributed. Tiffany writes, “The remaining strips of ‘Orlando’, now separate, were clearly originally stuck together in a roll of about 18 feet in length, as worm-hole evidence shows.” 18 feet seems like a lot of paper to keep track of during rehearsals, and Tiffany explains that actors were able to keep track more easily than you might think. Tiffany explains, 

A scroll was practically able to be held single handled. Advantage. But you couldn’t flip back and forth like you could on booklets (Booklets existed). They had to learn their parts in sequence. 

Interestingly, one way they know the paper was originally in a roll as opposed to the booklet style of single sheets of paper you might expect, is from the damage that's been done from tiny creatures eating away at the paper. It's called wormhole evidence.

Tiffany explains,

“These are bookworms, actual creature that eats early modern paper (made of linen) little linen muncher worms, possibly related to moth larvae, and eat a clear hole through wherever they eat. Often found in old books. For these scrolls specifically, to reconstruct them to make the worm hole and follow the path of it, you have to scroll it up for the hole to line up.

In the 18th century, reseachers took it apart and flattened it out so that the format we have today is single sheets of paper. Thank goodness for the worms, who tell us a story by their eating!

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I can say little more than I have studied, and that question's out of my part.
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Ben Crystal, Shakespeare on Toast, shows you from his own library collection of books, a facsimile of what a cue script would have looked like (the same thing that Tiffany Stern calls a “part” here in this episode). | “A 10 minute guide. What is the First Folio? How does it compare to modern editions of the plays? What did a cue-script look like? And how did Shakespeare's actors rehearse and learn their lines? Explore Shakespeare with Ben Crystal, and find out!” | Source

Cue scripts vs Parts

Tiffany writes about “The earliest parts with cues seem to be ‘The Ashmole Fragment’, an English part from the fifteenth century in the Bodleian Library.” The publication goes on to explain how cues are indicated in the surviving texts from the time period. Tiffany makes a distinction between “parts” and “cue scripts” which she explains as

“These texts give you the lines of the actor and a cue of the last two or three words before each of your speech (so you can listen to find when you need to start talking). That’s what a “part” means. For Shakespeare’s lifetime, they were called parts–specifically because they were part of the play. These terms parts and roll that we use them today is from my uncle, Patrick Tucker, [who] invented the method of redoing the ancient method, called those scripts cue scripts, bc they work by cues.”

Tiffany explained during the interview that she can tell when someone has read her work first vs having read her uncle's work first, because she specifically calls it “parts’ because that’s a Shakespearean term, whereas her uncle uses the term “cue scripts.” Typically, a researcher will call it the term they came across first.

The term “parts” explains various points in the plays. As an example, Viola says, “that question out of my part.” Tiffany explains that Viola uses this term specifically because

“She’s talking about a part text….'Blister on his sweet tongue…out of his part–‘–[again, this reference to be] out of your part” is unable to remember your part of the play/text.”

So the characters in Shakespeare's plays, through the dialogue Shakespeare chose to give them, are telling us about their real life experience as actors in early modern theater.

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[Re-enter LAFEU]

Stage Directions

Alls Well That Ends Well (II.3)

Plot of the Seven Deadly Sins c 1597-1598 | Unknown author – Original is at Dulwich College | Public Domain| This is an image of the “plate” or “plot” of the play. This was a piece of paper where the order of actions were listed for a production. It was hung backstage, probably in the Tiring House, and had a hole through the center (That's the dark grey rectangle you will see here), so that it could be hung up for the players to reference. Using this plot along with their cue scripts, they would stay on plan for the production. There are only about 6 of these known to exist in the world today. Source

Shakespeare may have used Stock Movements on Stage

Parts give the impression that acting was largely improvisational in the 16th century. However, from the example of Robert Greene’s Orlando, Tiffany points out that the parts for actors in the 16th century did provide some stage direction. She writes, “while certain specific actions may be dealt with in a part’s stage-directions, many more general movements are either so ‘stock’ as not to deserve mention, or are simply left to the actor to determine” Tiffany explains the absense of stage direction on the page as one indication that the actors may have already known what to do physically through the use of what Tiffany calls, “stock movements.” She shares, 

There were some specific stage directions on actor’s parts (The paper they used). There aren’t many remaining so we kind of have to guess, but Orlando, we do see instructions about “taking an enchanted potion” etc. There are some instructions, but there are some stage directions we expect from theater that are noticeably absent like entrance/exit. 

Stock movements and block movements must have been stock in some way. Texts will say “Enter separately” how do you know which doors to use? How do you know which side to leave on? That is never stated on the paper, so there must have been an industry standard they were following (example “always enter from the door you exited, etc) Stock Gestures. Tragic Feet, ways of tragically walking. There are kinds of walking/movement assigned to things like tragedy. Stage direction is an 18th century term. That presents a problem. The assumption then is that all instructions on the paper are instructions for actors. If we remove that term, we find that sometimes playbooks contain instructions (a letter in the Spanish Tragedy to use red ink) that’s not telling an actor to do anything, that’s to a scribe, and telling that person to write it in red ink, which is bc in the play it’s meant to be blood–so it’s a special effect not to do with the actor.

These unwritten stage directions may be one reason why it mattered to designate Shakespeare's plays as histories, tragedies, or comedies, as a way to identify not only whether or not everyone dies in the end, but also as a category useful to the actors for determining which set of stock movements to use in performance. Tiffany explains these categories as, 

There were certain genre specific staging issues. Tragic walking and tragic speeches (tone/key) and some tragic curtains (black curtains to indicate genre). Yes and No. Sometimes you would act in a genre specific way, but someplays like Richard III (quarto as a tragedy, folio as a history) so there was some change and overlap between genres. If you decided genre was important, you might use genre specific acting.


Similar episode you might enjoy:

blister on his sweet tongue, with my heart,
That put Armado's page out of his part!

Ferdinand

Love's Labour's Lost (V.2)

A performance in progress at the Swan theatre in London in 1596. Attributed to Aernout van Buchel (1565–1641) after a drawing by Johannes de Witt c 1596. Public Domain.Utrecht, University Library, Adversaria / Arnoldus Buchelius. UBU Hs. 842 (Hs 7 E 3). (more info) Source

Pronunciation may have indicated entrances/exits

If you study Shakespeare’s most famous meter, iambic pentameter, you can have  a great deal of fun examining places in Shakespeare’s plays where the characters literally finish each other’s sentences–rhyming sentences, that is, where one character will pick up another’s iambic pentameter. Technically, it is impressive on stage to watch characters act off of one another like we see in Much Ado About Nothing, or even in Macbeth–where there is a precision to the timing of spoken words between characters–right down to the very syllable. These two realities, one of comedic timing, and the other of relatively sparse information textually about when to speak lead me to wonder how actors in the 16th century were able to accomplish such precision. Tiffany explains that the process was built in to the way people spoke on stage, saying, 

Actuallyit was very easy. In those days, verse was really heftily pronounced–like verse. Today we try to be naturalistic and muddle over verse to make it sound like normal speech. That didn’t happen in Shakespeare’s theater. It was exaggerated. The sound would be obvious that you  are receiving a half line to complete it. You would utterly hear the verse, radically different from prose. Also, actors helped one another and would emphasize that verbally with your sound. Like a ballet or acrobatics, very much close to dance and performers are o=involved the in the technique of delivery. The actor themselves were doing something the audience couldn't do because you weren’t trained. 

 To learn more about how Shakespeare sounded, be sure to check out Ep 100 of That Shakespeare Life where the expert in original pronunciation, David Crystal, talks about the way characters would have spoken from the stage, including some demonstrations. Listen to that episode here.

Tiffany writes in Shakespeare in Parts, “We are accustomed to thinking of actors being ‘made’ for parts; in the early modern theatre it was more common for parts to be made for actors” Immediately I think of Will Kempe and the clown figure in Shakespeare’s plays, or even of Richard Burbage and King Lear. If these characters were written specifically for these actors, many of whom–as Tiffany's publication points out–Shakespeare himself had been friends and colleagues with for 30 years, where was the overlap between the person and the character portrayed on stage? A true professional and as many university students are taught religiously, to thik there is too much biography to be found in the theater, would be to fall victim to intentional fallacy. Tiffany shares that when it comes to discovering biographical information inside the character's lines, 

Probably not. Biographically no. Strengths of those characters, as skills in performance yes. You can see Shakespeare repeatedly write versions of the same character across various palys and specific actors who can play that part very well, but not necessarily because the person himself was that kind of person. 

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Books & Resources Tiffany Stern Recommends

Resources you may also enjoy: 

Tiffany Stern, ‘Performing Genre: Tragic Staging, Tragic Walking and Tragic Speaking’, Proceedings of the Société Française Shakespeare (SFS), 38 (2020)

Download this Stratford Upon Avon Watercolor Print

Completed in pen, pencil, and watercolor by Cassidy Cash, this Stratford Upon Avon print features 8 real life properties located in Stratford Upon Avon, England, from the life of William Shakespeare in one beautiful print. Celebrate your love of Shakespeare by downloading your free copy when you sign up for our email newsletter. The newsletter goes out on Mondays with episode notifications, and as a subscriber you get artwork like this one every month, completely free.

Subscribe now and grab your copy!

This illustration is part of our exclusive members library available when you subscribe to That Shakespeare Life. Subscription helps support the podcast and gives you access to the entire library PLUS you get our exclusive Experience Shakespeare digital history activity kits delivered once a month. Learn more and sign up here.


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