Acting Shakespeare

SINCE 1939 the debate over the style of acting in the Elizabethan theater has been argued on the grounds defined by Alfred Harbage. One of two styles could have existed, he wrote. Acting was either formal or natural.

Natural acting strives to create an illusion of reality by consistency on the part of the actor who remains in character and tends to imitate the behavior of an actual human being placed in his imagined circumstances. He portrays where the formal actor symbolizes. He impersonates where the formal actor represents. He engages in real conversation where the formal actor recites. His acting is subjective and "imaginative" where that of the formal actor is objective and traditional. Whether he sinks his personality in his part or shapes the part to his personality, in either case he remains the natural actor.'

Professor Harbage then, and a succession of writers subsequently,' have endeavored to prove that formal acting prevailed on the Elizabethan stage.

When we have sifted the various arguments presented over the years by this school of thought, we discover these common points. Oratory and acting utilized similar techniques of voice and gesture so that "whoever knows today exactly what was taught to the Renaissance orator cannot be far from knowing at the same time what was done by the actor on the Elizabethan stage."' Contemporary allusions which compare the orator to the actor establish this correspondence without a doubt. This system depended upon conventional gesture, "as in a sorrow-full pane, ye head must hange down; in a proud, ye head must bee lofty." 4 By learning these conventional gestures, the actors could readily symbolize all emotional states. Such symbolization was necessary since the speed of Elizabethan playing left little room for interpolated action. The result was that the actor did not so much interpret his part as recite it. His personality did p not intrude, for his attention was devoted to rendering the literary qualities of the script. Although the emotions expressed in the play were usually violent, the actor projected them "by declaiming his lines with the action fit for every word and sentence."  In this way he properly stressed the significant figures of speech. He played to the audience, not to his fellow actors. The final effect, several writers have concluded, was more like that of opera or ballet than modern drama.

Rejecting this theory of formal acting, a smaller but equally fervent group of scholars is sure that Elizabethan acting was "natural." Denying that oratory sad acting were similar, they maintain that style was dynamic, that an older formalism gave way to a newer naturalism. Since Renaissance art sought to imitate life, the actors in harmony with this aim thought that they imitated life. To grasp how their style emerged from such a view, it is necessary first to comprehend what was the Elizabethan conception of reality. Admittedly, natural acting rhea was different from natural acting today in some respects, yet the intention was very much the same. "What can be said is that Elizabethan acting was thought at the time to be lifelike . . . [which would suggest a range of acting capable of greater extremes of passion, of much action, which would now seem forced or grotesque, but realistic within a framework of 'reality' that coincides to a large extent with ours."

Some attempt has been made to reconcile these contradictory views. Generally tire reconciliation has taken the line that Elizabethan acting was mixed, partly formal, partly natural. Some have thought of the mixture as a blend: a unified style midway between tire rigidity of formalism and the fluidity of naturalism. It has also been thought of as an oscillation: certain scenes played in a formal manner, such as longer verse passages delivered in a rhetorical style; other scenes, such as brief exchanges of dialogue, acted in an informal manner. The scholars who have proposed this reconciliation, despite the fact that they arrive at slightly different conclusions from those of the proponents of formal or natural acting, accept the fundamental premise that Elizabethan acting can be discussed only in terms of formal or natural styles.