Richard III is a play centrally concerned with acting. If you have seen the play recently you may remember this short scene in which Richard (Gloucester) asks his villainous right hand man Buckingham if he is ready to act his part
Come, cousin, canst thou quake, and change thy colour,
Murder thy breath in the middle of a word,
And then begin again, and stop again,
As if thou wert distraught and mad with terror?
Tut, I can counterfeit the deep tragedian;
Speak and look back, and pry on every side,
Tremble and start at wagging of a straw,
Both men give us a rich description of acting styles which we still recognise today in perhaps different forms, though we might think them a bit ‘hammy’ or old fashioned. Gloucester’s description of a way of speaking with a kind of arrested emphasis to counterfeit fear or emotion is one which will ring true to anyone today trying to impersonate a pretentious but not very good actor. Buckingham’s description of an exaggerated movement and looking round is one familiar to every modern pantomime villain ever to grace the stage or screen!
But did they really act like this in Shakespeare’s day? Its very hard to say but our best evidence as to preferred acting styles comes from Hamlet when he advises the players how to act
Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to
you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it,
as many of your players do, I had as lief the
town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air
too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently;
for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say,
the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget
a temperance that may give it smoothness.
Hamlet it seems prefers a more natural style in acting he even suggests he would like to have actors ‘whipped’ for ‘over doing it’. From reading this speech it would seem as though the fashion was towards a more naturalised style of actors with more stylised acting falling from favour. However if we went back to see the first ever performance of Richard III or Hamlet we might still find the acting oddly stylised compared to our own modern tastes.