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Why are you misquoting Shakespeare?

October 29, 2013
Posted at 5:29 pm

If you are reading The Props Master 1, you've probably figured out by now that Shakespeare's Hamlet plays a pretty important part. But at one point, my editor asked why I had cut certain lines from the First Player's speech when it arose. If you habitually read novels with a copy of the playscript open beside you, or if you are an aficionado, you may well find places that the play gets misquoted. Well, believe it or not, there is a reason.

First, reading Shakespeare and performing Shakespeare are two very different things. I actually performed in a college production of Hamlet back in 1970, and I was going by my script from the production. The practicality of performance is that audiences today are quite different than audiences of the 1600s. The plunked down their copper and expected a full afternoon of entertainment. In other words, Shakespeare was often far wordier than contemporary audiences could tolerate. So our director judiciously cut lines, especially in very long speeches like that of the First Player in Act II, Scene 2. So, rather than follow the script the way Shakespeare wrote it, I followed the script the way my director cut it.

There are two other parts of the script that I intentionally misquote. These are also based on performances and are more in the line of actor gaffs. In addition to playing the First Player/Player King, I played Bernardo, a guard at the beginning of the play. (For the record, was were often double and triple-cast. I played Fortinbras and a courtier as well.) The opening lines of the play are between the two guards on the ramparts, Bernardo and Francisco. Don't ask me how Shakespeare figured these two Italians should be guarding the capitol of Denmark. That's beyond me and the director put the kibosh on Phil and I playing the roles with an Italian accent. The actual opening lines are as follows:

Bernardo: Who's there?
Francisco: Nay, answer me; stand, and unfold yourself.
Bernardo: Long live the king!
Francisco: Bernardo?
Bernardo: He.

Phil, playing Francisco, got nervous on stage and in the first performance forgot his first line and skipped to mine. I quickly quoted his first line and then we were back on track. It became a running joke, though for many in the cast to call out "Who goes there?" and get the response, "Long live the king." Then each night we'd try to remember the right order of the lines and who said what.

The last intentional misquote came as the result of Steve's (King Claudius) unfortunate mix-up of opening consonants in the last scene (Act V, Scene 2). He is officiating the rigged fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes and lays out the rules and the wager. Then his line is "Come begin: And you the judges bear a wary eye." One time Steve switched the consonants and said "And you the judges ware a beary eye." It became a running joke within the cast.

All these things are pretty common in theatre. Directors cut the sacred words of the bard to better fit the audience they are entertaining, actors screw up on stage and in rehearsal, lines become running jokes among the cast--especially in long-running shows like our production of Hamlet, which was in rehearsal and performance at various times over the course of about ten months.

Of course, now I have to say that if I misquoted anything else, I screwed up, so have at me!