William Shakespeare was an English poet, playwright, and actor, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language. Although he died in 1616, today, in 2016, 400 years later, we are still studying and performing his plays as actors. But why?
At The Academy of Film, Theatre and Television, Acting teachers Alistair Toogood, Jill Brown and Stephen Helper discussed their reasons for the importance of studying Shakespeare in today’s acting community.
To put it simply “Shakespeare is the best test of an actor. If you can pull off Shakespeare you can pull off anything.” – Stephen Helper
Both the Acting for Stage and Screen course and the Musical Theatre courses are made to push and challenge the actors, and what is more challenging than making 400 year old text come to life?
Due to the complex nature of Shakespearean text, it is an invaluable learning tool to help develop an actors skills including; voice, movement, acting, and the ability to translate text. Due to the density of the language, many words of which Shakespeare made up himself, it also improves an actors understanding of breath control, dexterity of the mouth and the ability to annunciate. The need to be able to philosophically evaluate what you are performing is vitally important in any text, so to be able to analyse and portray the complexity of Shakespeare’s work, helps students when evaluating more contemporary pieces.
Furthermore, one line in film represents twenty lines in Shakespeare, due to the poetry, meaning that the actor has to work a lot harder than on contemporary work. They have to articulate the piece properly and use vast amounts of energy to communicate huge amounts of texts, thus building stamina and a strength that only Shakespearean text can provide.
Shakespeare has universal themes which transverse across time and culture, speaking to a range of individuals; just one reason it is still so popular today. Many stories have been replicated in modern text alluding to Shakespearean themes, infiltrating 20th century theatre and film. Heath Ledgers ‘10 things I hate about you’ was based on Shakespeare’s ‘Taming of the Shrew’, ‘West Side Story’ based on ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘She’s the Man’ closely following the story of Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ to name a few.
AFTT Acting student Laura Morris agrees, arguing how "it is incredibly important to study and keep studying Shakespeare. I believe he is the foundation for the craft of acting. Even just being able to understand and read the language gives you an unbelievable insight to how much work goes in to any one piece. Studying Shakespeare makes you appreciate other art forms as well such as music and movement and gives you a higher understanding of interactions and relations of our human nature. I feel as though any actor owes Shakespeare a lot as they wouldn't be where they are today without a little help from him."
With such strong themes emanating throughout Shakespeare’s stories, it takes a strong actor to be able to portray the emotions, making the audience care and relate to a 400 year old text. That is why studying Shakespeare teaches and develops all the skill sets you could possibly ask for as an actor including the ability to sing, dance, stage fight and have an understanding of the history and religion behind the piece.
With some of the best known actors in our time being Shakespearean trained actors, including Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Anthony Hopkins, benedict Cumberbatch and Judy Dench, it is a wonder people still question the need for Shakespeare studies in any acting classes.
John Barton’s ‘Playing Shakespeare’ articulates it perfectly. Could you do that? If you can, you can do anything.
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