Jeremy Ehrlich, Folger Shakespeare Library. Paul Menzer, University of North Texas, Denton, Texas. Their lesson is based on research conducted by Tiffany Stern, Oxford University, Oxford, England.
This lesson may be used with any play. The examples are drawn from The Merchant of Venice 3.3.5-20 and Twelfth Night 2.5.22-82, and a manuscript fragment of Robert Greene's Orlando Furioso.
What's On for Today and Why
In Shakespeare's theater, actors did not have access to a complete script of a play; instead, they learned their lines from manuscript parts that contained their lines and only a very brief cue. By staging moments from Shakespeare with cue sheets and not scripts, students will gain an understanding of the way Shakespeare's company rehearsed and the way Shakespeare wrote. They will use that understanding to broaden their view of the performance possibilities in early modern drama.
This lesson can be completed in one class period.
What You Need
Folger editions of The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts
Merchant of Venice Excerpt
Primary Source Transcript
Primary Source: Manuscript Part
Twelfth Night Excerpt
What To Do
1. Show students the primary source manuscript fragment and its printed transcript, available below as documents or images. Explain that this is an excerpt of one of the few surviving fragments of an actor's part from Shakespeare's time period. It is from Robert Greene's play Orlando Furioso, from the early 1590's, and shows the part of Orlando, the title character. Notice how the actor is given his lines, but only a word or two of his cue—in the example, the cues are "dwell" and "shall ensue," with no record of who says the line or when in the play it might come.
2. Discuss with students the differences in performing (and memorizing) a play when actors do not have an entire script available. How do they think rehearsals would be different? How might the writing process be different? Do they think those changes would affect the way plays would be staged?
3. Use the attached scripts to show students some of the issues actors would have faced in trying to rehearse a play from these manuscript parts. Start with the excerpt from The Merchant of Venice—ask one student to play Shylock, and another to read Solanio's reply after hearing his cue. They will notice immediately that the cue is repeated many times before the "actual," final cue is given.
4. Discuss with students the implication of this discovery. Introduce the idea of "implied stage directions"—actions that are implied by the text of the play but not stated as such in an author's stage directions. Do students think that this passage could carry the implied stage direction for Solanio to repeatedly attempt to interrupt Shylock, with Shylock trying to shout down Solanio? Ask the students to perform the scene in that way. Do students find it an effective and reasonable performance possibility?
5. Now switch to the Twelfth Night excerpt. Hand out the four "parts" to four students and ask them to perform the scene with no preparation.
6. Now, explain to students that most editions of Twelfth Night insert the word "aside" next to all the lines of Sir Toby, Fabian, and Sir Andrew, to indicate that the characters are hiding from Malvolio while they speak. Imagine another first rehearsal where the actor playing Sir Toby decides to speak directly to Malvolio. Have the students perform this several different ways—with Malvolio responding or unaware of Toby, with Fabian and Andrew speaking directly to Malvolio or speaking aside. Which are reasonable performance possiblities? Which are not reasonable without severe text cuts?
7. Ask students if there are comic performance possibilities that editors ignore by inserting the stage direction "aside" in their editions. Do they agree or disagree with the editors' decision?
8. Conclude with a larger discussion of the role of parts versus scripts in theater. Would students want to try to stage an entire play by reading from parts instead of a script? Why or why not? Does this exercise change the way they feel Shakespeare would have written his plays? Why or why not?
How Did It Go?
Did students understand the differences involved in rehearsing a play 400 years ago? Were they able to find new performance options by trying to rehearse scenes from parts? If so, the lesson was a success.
If you used this lesson, we would like to hear how it went and about any adaptations you made to suit the needs of YOUR students.