After knowing some background, this next installment on blocking will focus on how, particularly in Shakespeare, there are clues to blocking in the dialogue and situations characters find themselves in. Some of what I discuss is drawn from an excellent study on this very subject, Action is Eloquence: Shakespeare’s Language of Gesture, by David Bevington. It is a clear and fascinating study on character, movements, spatial relationships, and ritual ideas ingrained in the Elizabethans. Certainly worth the read!

Mark Rylance, responding to a fellow director of Shakespeare, once said, “I must come and hear one of your plays.” Not see. Tone informs attitude, and attitude informs action. Tone, Rylance knew, is what informs the entire production. I would even go as far to say that if one were blindfolded, one should be able to “see” the action of the show simply by hearing the language. So, examining Shakespeare’s dialogue is about hearing possibilities, and imagining how those possibilities communicate story and character to the audience.

Let’s start with a favorite of mine, Macbeth Act I, Scene VII, just after Macbeth’s opening monologue where he contemplates assassination and recognizes his ambition has its shortcomings – he has no “spur to prick the sides” of his intent – but Lady Macbeth begins to prod:

Macbeth: We will go no further in this business:
He hath honour’d me of late; and I have bought
Golden opinions of all sorts of people,
Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,
Not cast aside so soon.

Lady Macbeth: Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dressed yourself? hath it slept since?
And wakes it now, to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely? From this time
Such I account thy love. Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valour
As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem,
Letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would,’
Like the poor cat i’ the adage?

The Macbeths still have guests in the castle, and they find a private moment to discuss ambition and regicide in a wonderful, hushed domestic scene. Much of the language should be said quietly, maybe some through a stage whisper, but this language would feel inappropriate if shouted or said loudly. That is not to say that there aren’t outbursts where the characters catch themselves, and change tone and volume to fit their situation, but the dominant mood should be secrecy with the characters close together.

Although Macbeth’s mind is already primed for murder, he insists on “going no further” and gives a few reasons for not proceeding. What must be conveyed here is that his insistence is false, or at least capable of being swayed. His tone should be insistent, but with distinct pauses at the punctuation to break up the flow of the sentence. If we scan the lines (to look for where the stresses fall in this pentameter), we gain more clues to tone. In the following line I’ll highlight the words that are stressed: “He hath honour’d me of late; and I have bought Golden opinions of all sorts of people.” Macbeth’s language isn’t confident, controlled iambic pentameter, but more of a loose string of words of someone searching for a way to convince himself. If we look at the words that receive more stress (honour’d, me, late, I, bought, gold, etc.) and those that are not stressed, we see the disparity: Macbeth truly is concerned about himself and his worth in the eyes of others, not with Duncan. Even if Macbeth’s tone is determined and insistent, his syntax betrays him.

Lady Macbeth, among other things, is an excellent listener, and she listens very closely to her husband. She hears Macbeth’s language better than he does, and is able to locate this disparity and exploit it. When Macbeth finishes his speech with “Not cast aside so soon,” Lady Macbeth is canny enough to finish the line of verse. At this moment we see a subtle shift in power registered in language. From this point forward, Lady Macbeth will have the upper hand, and she will use a variety of tones to make Macbeth squirm.

She begins with a barrage of rhetorical questions that all are said in snide accusation, also likely in a stage whisper:

Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dressed yourself? hath it slept since?
And wakes it now, to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely?

Once can easily hear all those “s” sounds in stage whisper, and when she has more punchy words like “hope drunk,” and “green and pale” we can almost hear her voice slipping into normal register, only to return with renewed, whispered, anger on “At what it did so freely?” Lady Macbeth’s verse, at this moment, is much more controlled and is nearly perfect pentameter. The force of her thought chugs forward, gaining momentum with each sentence, but her tone softens a bit on the sentence that begins with, “Art thou afeard.” Instead of outright anger, she tries a new tactic: irony. This false sincerity is an exaggeration, which carries through the rest of the speech, and is another way to cajole and demean Macbeth. This new tactic shows how quickly she adapts, and how she may not be getting the reaction she wants out of Macbeth.

Though, when she accuses him of being a coward, she gets all the reaction she needs. Macbeth must do something on that line. Give her a look. Spin around. Shake his head. Something. How could he not? His honor and manhood are being attacked. This gives Lady Macbeth all the information she needs to manipulate her husband, which she does to stunning effect later in the scene. In this case, we see an example of how tone in one character’s speech actually affects the blocking of another character. This is done all throughout Shakespeare, oftentimes to great effect (like in Othello or Hamlet), but is easily overlooked when simply reading.

By careful manipulation of volume and tone, we understand how dynamic and palpable each character is, and understanding how they say their lines, gives us an array of options for gesture and movement. For Macbeth’s tones of false confidence and insistence, several hand gestures that would indicate “no” are plausible, and movements a few steps away from Lady Macbeth also seem fitting. Also, during Lady’s speech, Macbeth could be stationary, absorbing his wife’s words. Lady Macbeth has more range at this moment. Her varying tones of sarcasm, anger, insinuation, and accusation offer a world of gestures from finger pointing to throwing hands out in impatience. Her movements, though, would to be close to Macbeth, maybe turning him to look him in the eye, maybe talking in his ears from behind.

But those choices should be worked out with the actress and director, and that is where much of the creativity and liveliness of Shakespeare begins.


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