Jonathan O'GuinComment

A Clean-Plate Chat: Reading & Acting Shakespeare

Jonathan O'GuinComment
A Clean-Plate Chat: Reading & Acting Shakespeare

Why hello there, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes, I’m your host with the most toast, Jon O’Guin. Today’s topic is a weird one, and there’s no food in it. That’s why I’m calling it a “clean-plate chat”. Today, as Shakespeare September draws to a close, I’m going to set aside my culinary pursuits and just chat about a topic that I care about: How to read Shakespeare, and how to Act Shakespeare.

And I’ll admit, this is at least in part because I backed myself into a creative corner: the last few weeks have been jam-packed. Events every weekend, brief illnesses tossed willy-nilly around the house, technical difficulties, etc. My birthday is this weekend, and it wasn’t until yesterday that I made ANY definite plans for I,  and that plan is “I bought a ticket to a show I want to see”. That’s it. That’s ALL the “plan” I’ve made.  There’s a lot going on, in short, and it pushed out all the more appropriate and thematic stuff I could have done. So forgive me a touch of weakness, and let’s talk about Shakespeare together.


So Close to London’s Streets you can call me a Cobble

As with any discussion like this, a general pronouncement of my inability to speak for all actors, writers, directors, etc: I am but one man, with only a decade or so of theatrical experience. I’ve only played Shakespeare on…I think 6 occasions, let me check. Midsummer, Much Ado, Taming, Twelfth Night, Much Ado, Romeo, Twelfth Night. 7 occasions. I have only SEEN so much of Shakespeare: If there’s a show on that list I’ve watched at least 2 productions of it. In addition, I’ve seen about 7 other full Shakespearean plays or adaptations.  If you discount the histories, I’ve seen just under half his plays, and read just over half.  

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Don’t give me that shocked look, King John. You were last produced on Broadway in NINETEEN FIFTEEN.

So I am not speaking for everyone, or with the opinion of a fully studied expert. What I DO speak with is someone who HAS listened to experts. I watch video essays about Shakespeare for fun. I have watched the PBS recording of “Playing Shakespeare” with John Barton, one of the FOUNDERS of the Royal Shakespeare Company, several times. I have texts purely devoted to unpacking and dissecting Shakespeare, such as Thinking Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s Tragedies. I own multiple copies of his Complete Works, which A, makes me look a lot worse for only reading like, 1/3 of his work, since I have it ALL right here, and B, kind of undercuts the assertions of the texts’ completeness.

Beyond Shakespeare, I am by no means a perfect actor or theatrical professional. By my count, I’ve worked on roughly 50 some-odd shows in the last 13 years. Well…actually probably 60-70 if we count tech-crew work. And my training is, well, my training: one of the great and infuriating things about acting is that so much of the process of it is internal that very few actors talk about it the same way. I was once scene partners with a man, trained at the SAME school as me (by a different professor), and we were at least 20 minutes into our table-work together before we realized that we had different definitions of what the word “tactic” meant in a scene.

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I had a much more armor-centric view.

I’ve further bastardized (or, to be generous, “personalized”) my teachings with the opinions of the various texts I’ve read or watched, and incorporated lessons from my years of Improv. Also, I have hundreds if not thousands of hours in training and text, so of course there’s simply too much to condense down into a single post like this. So this is just the best I can do for you, given who I am and what I “know”, right now.  So let’s hit the books, and then take things to the stage!


Reading Shakespeare

This is a hard topic to discuss, because of a couple issues: the first is that, as SO MANY people will not hesitate to tell you, you should not be “reading Shakespeare”. Shakespeare did not write his plays to be READ. He wrote them to be PERFORMED. The OPTIMUM way to consume Shakespeare is to hear skilled actors play it. Which is true, and kind of useless advice. Like, if I’m reading Shakespeare, I’m probably not just doing it to enjoy it. I probably have a purpose: I have to write about it, perform it, or I’m just forcing myself to get through all 7 fucking Henrys to feel like less of a fake theatre nerd, even though no one fucking puts on half of them.

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Like, who can tell which one THIS is a picture of? And there’s a LOT of hints if you look. First off, (spoilers), Falstaff doesn’t show UP in half of the Henries.

The second reason this is a hard topic to discuss is that I don’t personally have a problem reading Shakespeare’s lexicon. I blame my years as a fantasy nerd: when you can explain the differences between uruks, orcs, and orogs, and their falchions and scimitars, you learn to just accept words like “scramasax” or “coystrill” by context clues . Which isn’t super helpful to YOU, so my suggestion is that you find a text that helps you. Personally, I’ve found that the Barnes and Noble editions are pretty solid in handling words and phrases that aren’t as typical. No Fear Shakespeare is also fine, though I wish they gave more details about what exactly they’re trimming from the meanings.

The last reason it can be hard is lack of context. Shakespeare died over 400 years ago. Conversations and English worked differently. Society was different, the stories they discussed were different. I’m a student of Greek mythology, I took literal CLASSES about it, and the first time I ever heard of Arion was in Twelfth Night. And there are lines in Shakespeare that are just references to local bars, politicians, etc.  It’s dense. I get that. The only advice I can give here is, again, hopefully your text helps you, and if not, just skip it and come back to it. There’s nothing wrong, as an actor, with showing up and saying “I do not understand this line, can someone explain it to me?” That’s literally what a dramaturge is meant to help with.

Alright, books down, let’s cover some basics of acting.

Acting Out

So, when it comes to acting, I was trained in what’s called a ‘Modified Stanislavski Approach’. In theatrical terms, that means my teachers focused on the theories, mindsets, and exercises rooted in teachings from Constantin Stanislavski, considered by many to be the Father of Modern Acting.  I DO NOT have time to break it all down, but the core of it, as I understand and explain it, is “building a version of yourself that has lived life as this character, that is in the situations the story describes, and is reacting to them as they unfold.” Others call it “Being under imagined circumstances” and other terms that sound like nonsense without context.

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Oh god, trust me, Acting has enough weirdness to discuss without getting performance art involved.

 I was taught to have a heavy focus on “given circumstances”: understanding who the character is by what the play tells us, and the story of where they’ve come from, and how you fill in the gaps. For instance, the script tells you a character dreams of being a sailor, has an overprotective mother, and his father never appears or is even mentioned. You hear all that and say “okay, so my dad was DEFINITELY a sailor killed at sea.” Or your character mentions he had a hard day at work, so you imagine “What specific parts of work were hard? What kind of work do I do, and how does that affect my performance here?” Someone who had a bad day in a marketing firm probably had a different kind of bad day than someone who works in a lumberyard, for instance. The latter might play more “exhausted”, while the former is more “frustrated”

The core of what divides Stanislavski’s System and the more notorious “Method”, created by Lee Strasberg adapting components of the System, is the degree to which an actor relies on or digs into their “affective” or “emotional memory/imagination”. The System started with it, but then strayed away from it, as Stanislavski saw that using it too deeply had a great cost for some of his actors, even damaging some of them. (If that sounds weird, imagine having to imagine yourself murdering your own wife, and how you’d react to it and feel about it, and having to analyze, unpack, and repeat those feelings for 6-10 weeks, and what it might do to your REAL marriage.) Strasberg, however, leaned into it, and a bunch of other stuff that, again, we simply do not have time to go into. But this is why “method” actors are viewed as a little crazy by most other actors: they tend to demand more “authenticity”, and take things more personally, because they’re more literally trying to BE the character, and get pissed off if something messes with it. That’s why Christian Bale lost his shit on that one set decorator, in that brief scandal you’ve probably forgotten about: He had mentally convinced himself that the FATE OF THE WORLD rested on the conversation he was about to have, and then it got interrupted by someone being late on their job. Which is part of why it’s a controversial choice: the burden it places on the REST of the cast and crew.  But hey, it wins Daniel Day Lewis a lot of awards.

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I mean, it took some solid acting chops to pull off this “Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka as a Lumberjack” look.

So that’s the mindset I take into basic acting. How does it shift with Shakespeare?


Speak the Speech, I Pray You

Firstly, I would be remiss if I didn’t say “a great way to learn Shakespeare is to just consult the same experts I did.” You can watch Playing Shakespeare on Youtube, and Thinking Shakespeare is sold on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and plenty of places. I’m really just summarizing and synthesizing their points with my own experience.

Shakespearean acting, in my experience, is a matter of, to quote Hamlet, “Words, words, words”. Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter verse looks off-putting to a modern reader. His heightened language is more fanciful and complicated. And in that, the words of Shakespeare have a dichotomous existence to me: they’re both amazingly important, and also trivial. This is something I struggle to explain, but it’s best expressed through a line from Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the Athenian nobles are commentating the Mechanical’s play.

Moonshine: This lantern doth the horned moon present-

Demetrius: He should have worn the horns on his head.

Theseus: He is no crescent, and the horns are invisible in his circumference.

And editions of the text love to summarize that line literally: “He’s not playing a crescent moon, but a full moon.” Except…that’s a stupid line. It adds nothing to the conversation. Especially given that Moonshine literally JUST said that the LANTERN is the moon, not him. Demetrius’s line makes sense, because it’s an insult: a “horned head” at the time meant a cuckold, a foolish man whose wife was cheating on him. So he’s saying “this dude’s an idiot.” But Theseus’s line doesn’t make sense as a rebuttal…unless it’s also doubling down. Think about it. He’s saying “You can’t see the horns, they’re HIDDEN IN HIS ROUNDNESS.”

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The round, Full, BIG, HEAVY, MOON.

Shakespeare made a fat joke. That’s it. A simple point, made by studying and considering “why these words?”. Now, it’s possible I’m wrong in my conclusion, OR your show decides not to go that direction. That’s fine. The important thing, arguably the core of Shakespearean acting, is simply figuring out why THESE words. It doesn’t matter if your answer matches mine, or Patrick Stewart’s, or Will Kemps, or anyone else’s. Because once you know the why, you can figure out the how. How do you say them if this Is your reason?

One lesson I’ve learned, that’s stuck with me for years, is “All acting is subtext”, or, phrased a different way “The audience didn’t just come for the text, they came for everything around it.” This ties back to that very first part of reading Shakespeare: If they wanted just THE WORDS, they could read it at home. But that’s not nearly as enjoyable as hearing it, as noticing the rhymes, and counter-play, of hearing the anger or sorrow or laughter in the line. The key to acting Shakespeare is feeling, and thinking, like your character.


Which, sure, is pretty basic, but I literally told you we weren’t going to have time to get into a lot of detail or nuance. If you want those, again, there are great books and videos that can help you. Or ask me directly. I don’t got time to just sow this shit hither and yon. Especially since a chicken has been LOSING ITS SHIT for the last 10 minutes in my back yard, so I gotta go handle that. See ya Monday! (yells off-stage) What, you egg?!