Tuesday, 26 February 2013

The Seven Basic Plots and Shakespeare

How do Shakespeare's plays fit
into the 'seven basic plots'?

According to Christopher Booker, there are only seven types of story that exist in the whole of literature, theatre and film. On the face of it, Shakespeare’s plays should all slot into either one of just two of these categories, but do they?

Let’s start at the very beginning, what are the seven basic plots:

  1. Overcoming the monster
  2. Rags to riches
  3. The quest
  4. Voyage and return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth

If you’d like to find out more about those and see examples in well-known plays, novels and films, have a quick look here.

Should it be Shakespeare and The Two Basic Plots?

How does Shakespeare’s work fit into those seven basic plots? It’s fairly simple, isn’t it? After all, Shakespeare’s plays were divided into three categories: tragedy, comedy and history, so the vast majority of his works would fall into either the ‘tragic’ or ‘comic’ story arcs.

But I’m not so sure it’s as easy as that. I think that many of the plays fit into more than one of those categories, especially if you look at them from different characters' points of view.

For instance, Macbeth is undoubtedly a tragedy…if we’re looking at the play through Macbeth’s eyes. But from Macduff’s angle, it’s looking very much like an ‘overcoming the monster’ story, isn’t it?

Can Shakespeare’s Plays be Placed into The Seven Basic Plots?

Good question! And, I realise, of course, that I’m congratulating myself there. But, if you were thinking it, then bravo to you too.

I think Shakespeare’s plays are so complex and multi-layered that most of them can easily fit into two or more of the categories Booker lists.

Now, I was going to go right ahead and trawl through all thirty seven plays, but I’m not sure that would make for very entertaining reading, so I’ve chosen just seven plays with which to illustrate my point.

Is The Comedy of Errors more than a comedy?
The Comedy of Errors - Okay, ostensibly, it’s a comedy; it has all the traditional elements, such as confusion and disguise.

However, I’d say The Comedy of Errors also fits into the ‘voyage and return’ category, because the boys from Syracuse find themselves in a very strange world (or so it seems to them), not dissimilar to one of the most famous examples of a ‘voyage and return’ story: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream - Again, very strong elements of the ‘voyage and return’, and here that holds even more true - with the young lovers finding themselves in the, quite literally, magical world of the Athenian forest.

The Merchant of Venice - Most people would agree that The Merchant of Venice doesn’t even fit comfortably in its original pigeon hole: comedy. I’d argue, from Bassanio’s perspective, it could be seen as a ‘rags to riches’ story. Of course, it could also be branded a ‘rebirth’ story for Shylock, although that’s rather distasteful to our modern perceptions.

Does Katharina experience a 'rebirth' in
The Taming of The Shrew?
The Taming of The Shrew - This battle of the sexes is another plot that can seem uncomfortably classed as ‘comedy’ to us. Perhaps we could call it a ‘rebirth’ plot, though.

Whether Katharina has been truly tamed, or whether she’s being sarcastic in her final soliloquy, it can’t be denied that she’s no longer the, frankly, quite monstrous character she was at the beginning of the play.

King Lear - For Lear (if you cut out all the nasty death at the end), this is could be deemed a ‘voyage and return’ or ‘rebirth’ story; his journey into the untamed landscape sends him mad, but, ultimately, offers clarity.

Is As You Like It a 'voyage and return' story for
the boys and girls in the forest of Arden?
As You Like It - Could be said to be another example of a ‘voyage and return’ in terms of the story of Duke Senior, his followers and the young gang that ends up in the forest of Arden.

From the perspective of Oliver and the Younger Duke, of course, it may be deemed a ‘rebirth’.

Julius Caesar - Just as Macbeth could be said to be an ‘overcoming the monster’ story if seen through the eyes of Macduff and Malcolm, Julius Caesar might be called an ‘overcoming the monster’ story if we’re focusing on the play through Marc Antony’s eyes.

What does this all prove? Well…nothing much, except that perhaps some stories are far too complex to slot neatly into pigeon holes.

If you’d like to learn more about Shakespeare, check out What’s It All About, Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

How to Prepare a Shakespeare Audition Speech

Need help preparing a
Shakespeare audition speech?
If you're planning to audition for drama school, or if you want to perform in a Shakespeare play, chances are you'll have to prepare a Shakespeare audition speech. Now, on the face of it, this might seem daunting, especially if you're a drama school auditionee, who hasn't studied much of the Bard.

However, whether you love or loathe Shakespeare, there are a few simple steps that can help you prepare for an audition and ensure that you give the best performance possible.

Step One: Choose Your Weapon (Soliloquy)

You might be asked to perform a specific speech; in which case, you can skip this step.

If you have the opportunity to choose your Shakespeare speech though, the world really is your oyster.

Well, not quite your oyster, especially if you're a girl.

But there are some great soliloquies for both genders, and you may even choose to perform a speech from a character who is the opposite gender to you. For the ladies reading, if Sarah Bernhardt can do Hamlet, then why can't you?

If Sarah Bernhardt can do
Hamlet, why can't you?
And for the gentleman, all Shakespearean roles were originally played by men, so what's to stop you performing Portia's 'quality of mercy'.

Be wary, though, as you might be specifically asked to choose a speech that's in your playing age. So, if you're an eighteen-year-old girl, King Lear is certainly out.

All that said, though, it is wise not to select a speech that the auditioners have seen and heard a million times - I'm thinking along the lines of Juliet's balcony speech and Macbeth's 'tomorrow' soliloquy.

Unless you think you've got something totally original and radically unexpected to offer one of the really well-known speeches, it's better to choose one that the auditioners haven't already seen five times that day.

If you're looking for Shakespeare speeches, they can all be found here.

Step Two: Watch The Entire Play

Get a DVD copy of your Shakespeare
play and watch it
Notice, I wrote 'watch' not 'read'. By all means, read the play, too. And you might prefer to read rather than watch the play. However, I do strongly suggest watching it, especially if you're not a Shakespeare lover, because it is likely to help you make sense of the play as a whole.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to know the play from which your speech comes. Why? Well, for one thing, you might be asked a question to which you cannot give an answer.

But, in terms of your performance, you need to know what happens to your character both before and after the speech - what has lead him/her to this point? Is the speech in some way ironic, because of what's to come? These are things you simply cannot know unless you know the play.

Step Three: Get Some Inspiration

This is another step that you may choose to leave out, particularly if you're concerned that watching another actor's performance of a speech will negatively affect your own. However, in most cases, I think it can be extremely valuable to watch an expert do it. And don't just stick with one interpretation, seek out as many different versions of the speech as you can.

For example, take a look at Mel Gibson performing 'to be or not to be':

And compare that with Laurence Olivier's version of the speech:

Try to note what the actors do differently and why they've made those choices. When it comes to performing your own version of the speech, you might decide to go in an entirely different direction, or you may think that one or more of the actors is onto something.

There's nothing wrong with seeking inspiration; just ensure that when it comes to your audition, you're putting your own stamp on the speech.

Step Four: Learn the Words and Learn Them Well

Memorise your Shakespeare audition
speech, until you know it like the back
of your hand
You can't possible give the best performance you're capable of if you're struggling to remember the words.

For some people, learning Shakespearean dialogue is easier than modern speech, thanks to the rhythm, which can make it akin to learning song lyrics.

However, for many, memorising a Shakespeare speech is something of a nightmare.

If you find it difficult, there really is no quick fix. The solution is just drilling the speech over and over again, until you know it like the back of your hand.

If you know this is going to have to be your method, ensure that you've left yourself plenty of time to memorise the speech properly.

And that really is all there is to it. If you follow all of the steps above, you'll be well-prepared for your audition and able to perform your Shakespeare speech to the best of your abilities. So, break a leg!

If you'd like help getting to grips with Shakespeare and truly understanding a soliloquy or speech, be sure to check out, What's It All About, Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Richard Briers and Shakespeare

Yesterday, sadly, Richard Briers passed away at the age of 79. To millions of British television viewers, he is inextricably linked to his character Tom Good, in The Good Life.

However, Briers' career was bookended with Shakespeare: beginning as a young Hamlet in rep theatre, who's frenetic delivery was remarked upon by critics; and, in his later years, collaborating with Kenneth Branagh's Renaissance Theatre and Renaissance Films, which would bring Richard Briers to an entirely new generation of film and theatre-goers. We would see him get to grips with vastly different characters, from Malvolio to King Lear and Bardolph (among others).

Here are just a few photographs and screenshots of Richard Briers' brilliant work as some of Shakespeare's greatest characters:

Briers as Hamlet -Duthy Hall, London, 1956
Richard Briers as Malvolio in Renaissance Theatre's production of Twelfth Night, 1987
As the recently hanged Bardolph in Henry V, 1989
He went back to the stage in 1990 with Renaissance Theatre's King Lear

Richard Briers as Leonato in Renaissance Film's Much Ado About Nothing, 1993

Opposite Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet, Briers played Polonius in Renaissance Film's Hamlet, 1996
In 2002,  Briers played Prospero in The Tempest
Richard Briers (Adam) and David Oyelowo (Orlando) in Renaissance Film's As You Like It, 2006

The veteran actor succumbed to emphysema on 17th February, 2013, dying at his home in London. Taken from us too soon, Briers' talent will, thankfully, live on in his work for both television and film.

Sir Kenneth Branagh said of Briers, "He was a national treasure, a great actor and a wonderful man."

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Can Hamlet be Seen as a Villain?

Does Hamlet have a menacing streak?
Kenneth Branagh as a Hamlet (1996)

After an article I wrote on why Shakespeare’s villains are so irresistible, comments drifted into a fascinating debate over whether or not Hamlet can be perceived as a villain. And because this very subject was also mentioned on a post I wrote here, ‘The Recipe for a Great Shakespearean Villain’, I think it bears closer scrutiny.

Now, clearly, Hamlet is a tragic hero - one of the most famous the world has ever known. But is he only a tragic hero because we’re viewing the events of the play (largely) through his eyes?

In other words, if Shakespeare hadn’t made Hamlet the protagonist, would we still feel the young prince is just in his pursuit of a revenge that will end in the deaths of almost everybody in the Danish court?

Do we feel as sympathetic towards him when viewing Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, for example?

There is a Difference Between Being Villainous and Being Evil

Now, I don’t for one moment think Hamlet is an Iago-like figure or an Edmund, but brace yourself, because I'm about to make comparisons between the Danish prince and two of Shakespeare's most reviled villains. And it’s worth mentioning that the whole reason this discussion came about is because I put forth a theory that all of Shakespearean villains are sympathetic in some way.

And in that vein, I’d argue that no Shakespearean villain is evil for evil’s sake. They’re usually seeking one of two things: power or revenge.

Just as I wouldn’t brand Tamora evil (she has cause, after all, doesn’t she?), I’m not suggesting that Hamlet is an ‘evil’ villain. However, like the aforementioned queen of the Goths, he clearly falls into the latter of the two ‘villainous motives’ camps.

It Depends on Your Point of View

In Ophelia's eyes, is Hamlet more villain than victim?
And just imagine, if you will, that the entire play were told through Ophelia’s eyes.

She could be the one endlessly soliloquising about her woes: her lover, who seems to have lost his marbles, is endlessly cruel and cryptic, and eventually stabs her father to death.

Ophelia has seen him manically talking to himself, plotting - not so dissimilar to Shakespeare’s great villains.

'Ah,' you say, 'but he’s plotting against the wrongdoers.'

Yes, that’s perfectly true. Does it absolve him of guilt over the collateral damage, though? Hamlet’s actions, albeit indirectly, prompt poor Ophelia to commit suicide. Is that really so different from Iago’s actions indirectly causing Othello to murder Desdemona? Iago never anticipated that little turn of events, but he’s responsible for it nonetheless.

And, of course, like Iago, Hamlet pretends to be something he isn't in order to manipulate a reaction from the play's other characters. You could say, Hamlet's motive for doing so is more understandable, but the method is very similar.

But Hamlet’s The Victim of The Play

 Hamlet was always meant to be a conflicted
character | Richard Burton as Hamlet (1964)
Indeed he is a victim, but does that prove anything?

Let’s look at King Lear through Edmund’s eyes; as though he were the protagonist of the play. Edmund has been shunned by his father, “He hath been out nine years and away he shall again.” and has no right to title or assets, simply because he is illegitimate. Is that fair? Is he any less a victim of his circumstance than Hamlet?

So, is he wrong to attempt to rectify the injustice?

Now don't get me wrong, there is no question, Shakespeare intended Hamlet to be a hero. However, there’s also no question that Shakespeare never intended it to be a black and white issue of wrong vs. right or evil vs. good.

Just as Macbeth is a tragic hero, who can seem more villain than victim, I’d argue that Hamlet can be seen as a villain, if we’re looking at him in the right light. But what do you think?