How did they (learn their lines) in Timon of Athens

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The first page of Timon from the first folio. None of Shakespeare's actors would have seen this!

Timon is not exceptional in terms of what we know about line learning practice however I have chosen to use it as an example to explore the principles of Tudor line learning. You can find a nice parody of these practices in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when Bottom and his friends get together to rehearse their play.  Fascinating in its own right and very worthwhile trying out for yourself in the classroom/drama group/with your friends, the practicalities of line learning highlight some of the major differences between our own theatrical practice and Shakespeare’s

 

Only the person fulfilling the role of prompt had a full script all the other actors had what we refer to as ‘cue scripts’ which give them just their cue and the lines they must speak in response to that cue. Here is an extract from the first scene in Timon, followed by the cue script for the poets role…

 

Poet

Good day, sir.

Painter

I am glad you’re well.

Poet

I have not seen you long: how goes the world?

Painter

It wears, sir, as it grows.

 Poet

Ay, that’s well known:
But what particular rarity? what strange,
Which manifold record not matches? See,
Magic of bounty! all these spirits thy power
Hath conjured to attend. I know the merchant.

Painter

I know them both; th’ other’s a jeweller.

Merchant

O, ’tis a worthy lord.

Jeweller

Nay, that’s most fix’d.

Merchant

A most incomparable man, breathed, as it were,
To an untirable and continuate goodness:
He passes.
Jeweller

I have a jewel here–

Merchant

O, pray, let’s see’t: for the Lord Timon, sir?
Jeweller: If he will touch the estimate: but, for that–

Poet

[Reciting to himself] ‘When we for recompense have
praised the vile,
It stains the glory in that happy verse
Which aptly sings the good.’

Merchant

‘Tis a good form.

 

And the cue script….

 

Poet

Good day, sir.

 

                                                glad you’re well.

Poet

I have not seen you long: how goes the world?

 

                                                It wears, sir, as it grows.

 Poet

Ay, that’s well known:
But what particular rarity? what strange,
Which manifold record not matches? See,
Magic of bounty! all these spirits thy power
Hath conjured to attend. I know the merchant.

 

                                                but, for that–

Poet

[Reciting to himself] ‘When we for recompense have
praised the vile,
It stains the glory in that happy verse
Which aptly sings the good.’

Merchant

‘Tis a good form.

 

 

The above is not a faithful representation of the look of a cue script, rather it serves to illustrate the principles.  Consider some of the ways in which this practice sets apart original staging and a modern production of a Shakespeare play.

  • No member of the company knew the story before the first rehearsal (no one could buy the book first or work out the story from their cue script. So at the first rehearsal no one had any preconceived notions of their role in the story, at very best they would have known the story only vaguely as many of Shakespeare’s plays were based on existing literary sources.
  • Until they had had a decent number of rehearsals they would not know  what the other characters said about their character when they were on (or off) stage.
  • The actors would not know who was speaking to them until they heard that character speak their cue lines.
  • No actor would enter a scene fully understanding the situation in which they were speaking. Though understanding would grow as the actors rehearsed that knowledge must have grown from initial confusion.

Add to this these thoughts the fact that most plays opened after only about 2 weeks rehearsal time and that we do not know if anyone (much less Shakespeare himself) really took on a role which we would now equate with a modern director.

The more you think about the ramifications of this practice the more you begin to glimpse the ways in which Shakespeare’s actors must have thought about acting and the craft of acting in ways very different from modern actors.

 

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT

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