Queen始sMen Editions

About this text

  • Title: Shakespeare and the Queen's Men (SQM) Repertory Productions
  • Author: Peter Cockett
  • Textual editors: Andrew Griffin, Helen Ostovich
  • Coordinating editor: Michael Best

  • Copyright Peter Cockett. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Peter Cockett
    Editors (Text): Andrew Griffin, Helen Ostovich
    Peer Reviewed

    Shakespeare and the Queen's Men (SQM) Repertory Productions

    Playing Types

    Our company of actors was initially inclined to individuate their characters – a natural consequence of the normative influence of their training, which was largely within the tradition of psychological realism, the principles of which depend on treating each character as a specific representation of a unique human being. In our accelerated rehearsal process, they found there was little time for the investigation of characters始 backgrounds and that treating their characters as versions of types was far more efficient and efficacious. That this choice might be key to the early modern actors' approach to performance is an argument advanced by Tiffany Stern (70-72). Bottom's question "What is Pyramus? A lover, or a tyrant?" (TLN 290) is a much more efficient way to begin rehearsing an early modern part than asking: what is my character始s relationship with his mother? Inspired by Stern, and McMillin and MacLean始s arguments about the Queen始s Men, I encouraged the actors to look for types and moral patterns in the texts rather than for psychological complexity. As the company moved through the plays in the order we rehearsed them, King Leir then Famous Victories then Friar Bacon, they gradually realized that there was insufficient time to spend on complex, psychological character study, and that the process was better served by playing the characters as types, which re-appeared from play to play, without worrying initially about subtly distinguishing between them. Psychological realism, the dominant form of actor training today that has arisen alongside the growing power of individualism in our culture, demands that actors treat characters as fully rounded individuals, and mine their personal histories to unearth motivations for their actions. The goal is to individuate each character. The process is time-consuming and in many instances early modern plays lack evidence of characters' personal histories. The type system proved far more efficient in rehearsal. The SQM actors became comfortable beginning rehearsal by playing the same character they had played in the previous play and allowing the difference in context and the specific lines to generate a sense of individuation as they proceeded.

    The type system does not negate the fact that Elizabethan performance was admired for its verisimilitude - types were after all based on the observation of real-life. Elizabethan actors would no doubt have fleshed out their performances with knowledge of human behavior they had accumulated in their everyday lives, and contemporary audiences would have read their performances with reference to their own life experiences. However, the way they processed and expressed those experiences would have been conditioned by ideologies different from the contemporary individualism out of which the field of psychology was born. If we accept Stephen Greenblatt's proposition that the perception of one's own individuality was a new phenomenon at this time, then the use of stage types is consistent with the way people commonly understood themselves and others. The system also has the advantage of dramaturgical economy. The familiar Elizabethan stage types offered actors and audience alike a story-telling shorthand. By writing type characters, playwrights could avoid exposition and get right into the action. The SQM actors learned how to take advantage of this system in the accelerated SQM rehearsal process.

    My experience of the SQM rehearsal process to an extent validates Stern's theory but even given the compressed time-frame of the rehearsals, the SQM actors did not give up entirely on their desire to distinguish among their different roles. Julian DeZotti, for example, played three young maidens: Cordella, Princess Kate, and Margaret of Fressingfield. In his hands each character had distinguishing traits, but in the later stages as he performed the roles back to back in quick succession, a fascinating cross-pollination emerged among the characters. His work on Margaret towards the end of the process, for example, informed his last performances of Cordella. The same was true of Hopkins' leading men, Nashman's clowns, and any of the series of roles played by the other actors. Although learning to play a type was a practical necessity, once mastered, it did not prevent a level of individuation as the performers became more accustomed to the roles and more alert to key similarities and differences between them. Knowing the type at the outset created efficiency because it allowed the actors to jump immediately into a role and play, but once playing, there remained new and specific discoveries to be made about each character should the actor be inclined to do so. In my annotations, I track the way the modern actors grappled with this new approach to performance. I indicate where I felt the actors were limited by their own twenty-first century approach to performance and where their perseverance broadened my understanding of the complexity still possible within a type casting system.