HAVE YOU EVER watched a Shakespearean production and felt as though the actors were speaking a foreign language? After seeing the production, did you leave more confused than you were walking into the theatre? Did hearing the dialogue remind you of the way Charlie Brown hears his teacher: “Whamp whaaa. Whamp whamp whamp whamp whaaaaaa?”

If your experience was not positive, perhaps you thought, “Why all this fuss about a writer no one understands?” Then, you learn you must prepare a classical piece for an upcoming college audition.

Would you like to unlock the secret to performing Shakespeare’s work? Have no fear. Shakespeare, himself, is here for you, now and always. You just have to pay attention to the clues the Bard left in his First Folio, the original published collection of his plays.

Image of the title page from Shakespeare's First Folio.

Image of the title page from Shakespeare’s First Folio. Photo courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

The First Folio Technique is a way to work with the texts of Bill Shakespeare. Yes, I call him Bill, as he is our theatre colleague, not some untouchable British literature icon. The repertory system during the Bard’s day was incredibly demanding. His actors were performing a different play every afternoon with very little rehearsal, using only cue scripts or “sides” — not the entire script. Therefore, Bill created a system that efficiently provided actors with all the information they needed about their characters. He placed essential clues for the actors directly in the text.

Since that time, many editors have altered Shakespeare’s text in subsequent editions, deleting important acting clues to modernize language and punctuation conventions. But when you go back to the First Folio edition of 1623, where Shakespeare’s clues remain intact, you can “crack the code” and demystify the language challenges. Through this performance-based technique, you will learn how to interpret text and build a strong foundation for inspiring performances. You will unlock the secret to performing Bill’s works in a way immediately accessible to all.

This article offers a taste of that approach. Hopefully, this will pique your curiosity to explore the complete First Folio Technique and its treasure trove of performance hints.

Let’s use a text nugget from A Midsummer Night’s Dream — Helena’s speech from Act 3, Scene 2 — to showcase some of the clues Bill left for his actors:

O spite! O hell! I see you are all bent
To set against me, for your merriment:
If you were civil, and knew curtesy,
You would not do me thus much injury.
Can you not hate me, as I know you do,
But you must join in souls to mock me too?
If you are men, as men you are in show,
You would not use a gentle Lady so;
To vow, and swear, and superpraise my parts,
When I am sure you hate me with your hearts.
You both are Rivals, and love Hermia;
And now both Rivals to mock Helena.
A trim exploit, a manly enterprise,
To conjure tears up in a poor maid’s eyes,
With your derision; none of noble sort,
Would so offend a Virgin, and extort
A poor soul’s patience, all to make you sport.

Molly Hofstaedter as Helena and Jaemon Crosby as Demetrius in the North Penn High School production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Molly Hofstaedter as Helena and Jaemon Crosby as Demetrius in the North Penn High School production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo by Susan Doremus.

First Folio Technique Clue 1: Early Modern Definitions

Know what you are saying at all times. The actor’s art is one of great specificity. When you approach your work in a general way, it leads to poor acting. Characters need the Bard’s specific language to effect change in another character onstage. Barry Edelstein, in his book Thinking Shakespeare, gives us a meaningful question to consider: “Why must I use these words now?”

As words are vitally important, we should never assume we know what they mean. We need to become strong text detectives discovering what the words meant to Elizabethans — which is why Bill chose or even created these specific words — rather than assuming the modern meaning of a word is correct. There are several sources you can use.

  • Shakespeare A to Z by Charles Boyce
  • Shakespeare Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary, Vols. I and II by Alexander Schmidt
  • Shakespeare’s Words by David and Ben Crystal
  • Shakespeare’s Bawdy by Eric Partridge

Be mindful of any word for which you don’t know the meaning, suspiciously repeated words, words with spellings that deviate from their modern versions, and any words that spark your curiosity. Let’s put this idea into practice, looking again at two lines from Helena’s speech:

You both are Rivals, and love Hermia;
And now both Rivals to mock Helena.

Notice that Helena uses the word “Rivals” twice. Let’s not assume we know what “Rivals” means, and let’s not assume she is using the word twice with the same meaning. When you look up “Rivals” in the Shakespeare Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary, you discover two meanings for the word: competitors and companions. Now we can see her true meaning and why she must use these words now. She is saying both Demetrius and Lysander are competitors for Hermia’s love, and now they are joining as companions in making fun of her.

First Folio Technique Clue 2: The Ecphonesis O

“O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” What is that weird syllable at the beginning of Juliet’s line? It is called the Ecphonesis O, and this concept comes from Classical Greek theatre. It is a sound or cry of passion.

When you see the word “Oh” in Shakespeare’s text, he wants you to pronounce it as you normally would. However, when you see an “O” in your text, Bill is asking for a sound, not a word.

Let’s use a modern example to clarify. Suppose you have been given too much homework from your teacher. You want someone to feel sorry for you. If Shakespeare were to write you a line for this situation, it might look like this: “O why do teachers give us so much work?”

Would you say this line in this manner: “Oooooooooh, why do teachers give us so much work?” Of course not. As humans, we don’t speak that way. Well, neither do Shakespeare’s characters. They are also living, breathing human beings who need specific language to get what they want. If we use the Ecphonesis O in the way it is intended, you might say the line this way: “Ugh (a sound), why do teachers give us so much work?”

This sounds more natural and consistent with what the character is trying to accomplish. As Bill didn’t have time to “direct” his actors, giving them the Ecphonesis O immediately connected them to the situation and gave them the correct emotional content of the moment. Just this clue alone will immediately change how you look at the text of Shakespeare from this point forward. Looking back at Helena’s speech, both O’s reflect her deep frustration with Lysander and Demetrius. Perhaps hers is a sound of anger.

Try it! Mark your text, circling all the Ecphonesis O’s you find.

Ecphonesis O examples circled in Helena's speech from A Midsummer Night's Dream.

First Folio Technique Clue 3: “Big But” Words

Bill likes “Big But”s (I cannot lie) to indicate when a character shifts the direction of their argument or changes their thought. Actors are like a GPS for audiences, helping them navigate through heightened text. Therefore, give transitional words — but, yet, therefore, however, if, or, so, thus, etc. — greater emphasis. Stressing these words helps the audience hear logical relationships between ideas, images, and stages of a character’s argument.

When scoring the text to explore the impact of transitions, box these “Big But” words.

First Folio Technique Clue 4: Lists

Bill helps build intensity within the text through his use of lists. Characters choose this way of speaking when the idea they express is so important that one word alone does not convey the enormity of the moment. Perhaps the character is trying to change the mind of another character and the first word didn’t work. They need the next, and the next, and the next to achieve what they want. Speaking a list is like climbing a ladder, so the actor needs to use some type of vocal build. Usually the most important word in the list is the last one, when you are at the peak of your vocal build. When you speak the text this way, you immediately feel the importance of the moment.

Score your text by numbering the items in each list.

Helena's speech from A Midsummer Night's Dream scored to mark a list build.

These are just a few of the clues Bill gave his actors to help them immediately discover the essence of their role. Unearth and activate these clues, and you will find Shakespeare is whispering in your ear what you need to know to make his language work. Thank you, Bill!

The concepts in this article are excerpted from Bring on the Bard: Active Drama Approaches for Shakespeare’s Diverse Student Readers by Kevin Long and Mary T. Christel.

  • Like What You Just Read? Share It!

  • Other Related Articles You May Enjoy

    Beat It

    Beat It

    Understanding beats in script analysis

    Sep 27, 2019

    Summer Shakespeare

    Summer Shakespeare

    Alum transitions from high school to professional theatre

    Aug 09, 2019

    Quiz: Name That Shakespeare!

    Quiz: Name That Shakespeare!

    How many of the Bard’s plays can you name from just one line?

    Apr 22, 2019