Shakespeare's Advice to the Players: Act 3. I Oxford Open Learning
Shakespeare's Plays

Shakespeare’s Advice to the Players: Act 3.

In the last part of the series, we looked at:

• Shakespeare’s iambic verse structure
• Regular and irregular lines
• How breaking the verse structure can give actors and students character clues

In part three we look at how Shakespeare uses verse structure to communicate stage directions to his actors.

Shared lines – To pause or not to pause, that is the question.

Usually a line of verse is spoken by one character. What then, if lines are split between multiple characters?

We call it a ‘shared line’ and Hamlet begins with such an exchange:

Bernardo: Who’s there?
Francisco:                       Nay, answer me: stand, and unfold
Bernardo:               Long live the King!
Francisco:                                                Bernardo?
Bernardo:                                                                   He.

Remember that a line of regular iambic verse is ten beats.

Notice how the verse is positioned on the page? If we set it out, honouring the verse structure, it looks like this:

Who’s there? Nay answer me: stand, and unfold (10 beats)
Yourself. Long live the king! Bernardo? He.(10 beats)

The lines are split between both characters but they still need to sound like one complete line. This means the actors need to honour the iambic verse. To do this, they must speak quickly, straight on the heels of the actor before. It gives a sense of urgency and anxiety, indicating that something is making these characters on edge.

If we look at the context of the scene, we can see why Shakespeare is using the verse in this way to create tension:

• they are soldiers on guard duty
• a ghost has been appearing on the battlements.
• They are afraid – will the ghost come back?
• Is it friend / foe or ghost that is speaking to them?

There is, however, another way of interpreting shared lines, which gives us an alternate way of playing the scene.

What if, instead of sharing the line, we fill the missing beats with a pause?

Bernardo: Who’s there?

‘Who’s there’ takes up two beats (or one iambic foot). Therefore, there are still 8 beats in the line to use up which can be filled with an 8 beat pause.

The whole exchange would look like this:

Bernardo: Who’s there? (8 beat pause)

Francisco: (2 beat pause) Nay, answer me: stand and unfold
Yourself. (8 beat pause)

Bernardo: (2 beat pause) Long love the king! (4 beat pause)

Francisco: (7 beat pause) Bernardo? (1 beat pause)

Bernardo: (9 beat pause). He.

Playing the scene this way gives us a total pause of six beats between Bernardo asking ‘who’s there?’ And Francisco’s reply. Why might the characters’ pause like this? An actor can’t just stand on stage, counting to six in their head, before speaking again. In life we pause for a reason. On stage we need to find the acting reason and embody that.

The context of the scene shows that it is dark, the guards are on duty and they’ve been haunted by a ghost. With this knowledge, the pauses could signify:

• they physically can’t see each other and are trying to find out where the other person is
• Identifying (in the darkness) whether they are friend, foe or even ghost
• They are on edge and so perhaps being more cautious

We can of course never know for certain how Shakespeare intended characters and scenes to be played. However, by using the tools (explored in this series) we can see the options and certainly make an educated choice. For the modern day student, struggling to understand the language, they can almost ‘reverse engineer’ the scene, working out emotions, pacing and mental state. This can then be used to illuminate the meaning of individual words.

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Fay has taught extensively within arts education for 15 years. She specialises in English and drama, with an emphasis on Shakespeare. Having trained as an actor at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, she worked for many years as a theatre actor, spending a lot of time performing Shakespeare’s plays. Alongside this she established a career as a freelance theatre practitioner working with primary, secondary and SEN schools on a varied program of drama projects. She has worked within the GCSE Drama and English curriculum as well as A level English and Theatre Studies. She has also developed programs of work utilising drama as a way of enlivening other curriculum subjects. Fay has spent several years working closely with Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, where she devised and delivered work to engage students with Shakespeare’s language in an active way. She is also a freelance content writer.

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