Tuesday, December 1, 2015

On Rapping Shakespeare: A Response to Mark Rylance

I recently read an interview with the talented Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance, who is fast becoming a big TV and movie star due to his brilliant portrayals of Thomas Cromwell in the BBC miniseries Wolf Hall and the Russian spy Rudolf Abel in Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies. In the pages of The Guardian, Rylance complained that most Shakespearean actors impart an inappropriately slow, portentous, and reverent delivery to Shakespeare's lines, which should instead be spoken as rapidly as rap. Rylance also compared Shakespeare's speeches to Rolling Stones lyrics, asserting, "To take a song like Honky Tonk Woman and study it for its literature" does "a disservice to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who would like it to be revered as a great rock'n'roll song." He added that we should likewise "revere [Shakespeare] in the way he would want to be revered -- as a playwright."*

Now, an actor as good as Rylance deserves to be listened to. He knows his craft. But if you sense something fishy about his argument, it's because it's fishy. My
sense is that Rylance abhors the slow, self-important, rolled-R delivery of certain Shakespearean actors whose chief thought as they perform seems to be, "I am doing Shakespeare! I am doing Shakespeare!" Rylance, like Hamlet, would like to remind such actors that the lines go over best when actors "speak the speech , , , trippingly on the tongue" and do not "mouth it."  To fight the mouthers, he's being deliberately provocative, and overstating his case to the point where it becomes illogical.

Let's start with the false equivalence Rylance posits between Jagger and Richards wanting "Honky Tonk Woman" to be "revered as a great rock 'n' roll song" and Shakespeare's wanting to be revered "as a playwright." Here, before we even address the false "rock 'n 'roll[er]" and "playwright" equivalence, we must grant that we are obligated to "revere" works of art in exactly the way their creators wanted them to be revered. But why should we? As I wrote in an earlier post, artists aren't even fully in control of their own creations. They don't know the sum of the meanings they make available to listeners, watchers, and readers, much less the ways their art will affect the lives of future audiences. Art is capable of applications of which authors never dream. Shakespeare has moved and delighted readers for four hundred years, and his language has been adapted to a variety of media, many of which didn't even exist when Shakespeare lived (opera, ballet, film). Would he like all if it? Who cares?

But even if we did agree to accept Shakespeare as our silent judge, and that Shakespeare's lines should be said just as he wanted them said, and even if we thought we knew what way that was (also debatable), still, why should we assume he wanted his lines delivered in Mick Jaggeresque or Eminem-like style? Why should we assume that during Shakespeare's time "playwright" meant something like "rock 'n' roll singer" instead of "poet" (which is what Renaissance playwrights called themselves)? We know Shakespeare and his fellows sold half of his scripts to be printed and read as quartos in his own lifetime. We also know his fellow actors printed all his plays in folio within ten years of his death and urged buyers to "read him again and again." (Okay, "agayne and agayne.") These were not English professors, or Sir Laurence Olivier. These were the very players who spoke Shakespeare's lines the way Rylance wants modern actors to speak them. If those players had no problem with folks mentally wrestling with Shakespeare's sentences, why should we?

And many of Shakespeare's sentences do require some mental wrestling. To show this, let's take Rylance at his word and do a Rolling Stones - Shakespeare comparison. Here are the opening lines of "Honky Tonk Woman":

I met a gin-soaked barroom queen in Memphis
I tried to take her upstairs for a ride
I had to heave her right across my shoulder
'Cause I just don't seem to drink you off my mind
It's the honky tonk women
Gimme, gimme, gimme the honky tonk blues.

I'm a big Rolling Stones fan, but because of Jagger's distorted-vowel singing style, I never knew what the first line of this song was until I looked it up five minutes ago. To me it was "I met 'er in some something sting in Memphis." It never bothered me not to know the right words, which I now see are better than I'd anticipated. I don't know if that fact weighs with or against Rylance's claim, which is that Shakespeare's words are meant to go by the listener as quickly as that song lyric, and to provoke about the same amount of thought.

If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly. If th'assassination
Could trammel up the consequence and catch
With his surcease success -- that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all! -- here
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We'd jump the life to come.

Okay. This passage is wonderful as quick-spoken poetry, no question. But it's marked by something conspicuously absent from the verse and chorus of "Honky Tonk Woman," namely, significant intellectual content. I'm not going to parse the lines, because Mark Rylance doesn't want me to. But I wouldn't blame some audience member for revisiting this passage in her mind, and perhaps going back to read it in her Signet edition of Macbeth, to uncover for herself the levels of moral meaning carefully worked into the verse.

In fact, that meaning should determine the speaker's pace. At this point in his speech, Macbeth's in a hurry. A few lines later, he'll be trying to put the brakes on himself. Then his wife walks on, and, speaking of her, we should consider what the dialogue would become if both this meditative soliloquy and the subsequent angry exchange between her and Macbeth were both performed at the same rappish pace. What would disappear? Character, plot -- crucial things that make a play a play.

I think all Shakespearean actors worth their salt spend hours wrestling with the multi-faceted meanings of their lines so they can deliver them in ways that cohere with the play and make sense to the audience. As for how they, or some of them, do this, Ian McKellen provides a brilliant description of the process in the RSC series on working with Shakespearean verse, recorded for BBC TV some twenty-five years ago and now available on DVD.

Okay, let's take our experiment further. Of the two passages below, one is the work of Jay-Z and one is the work of Shakespeare. Try to figure out which is which.

1. Feel it comin' in the air (Yeah)
    And the screams from everywhere (Yeah)
    I'm addicted to the thrill (I'm ready)
   It's a dangerous love affair (What's up, c'mon)
  Can't be scared when it goes down
  Got a problem, tell me now (What's up)
  Only thing that's on my mind (What's up)
  Is who's gonna run this town tonight (What's up)
  Is who's gonna run this town tonight (What's up)
  We gonna run this town

2. The skipping king, he ambled up and down
     With shallow jesters and rash bavin wits,
    Soon kindled and soon burnt; carded his state,
    Mingled his royalty with cap'ring fools,
    Had his great name profaned with their scorns,
    And gave his countenance, against his name,
    To laugh at gibing boys and stand the push
    Of every beardless vain comparative;
    Grew a companion to the common streets,
    Enfeoffed himself to popularity,
    That, being daily swallowed by men's eyes,
    They surfeited with honey . . . .

Did you guess? Here is the answer. Passage 1 is from Jay-Z.** Passage 2 is from Shakespeare!

I wouldn't argue that Passage 2 should be delivered more slowly than Passage 1 just because its meanings are more complex. Indeed, the quite evident rhythm and surging emotion of both passages call for a like brisk delivery. (Am I actually talking like this?) Still, I defy an actor to achieve a successful brisk rendering of these lines from Henry IV, part 1, without submitting himself to the intellectual challenge of exploring their layered significance beforehand. And I also know that it's pleasurable and rewarding for readers to discover how many of the images at play in the passage fit into a play-length network of images, all suggestive of the role-play that is intrinsic to "kinging it" in Shakespeare. I don't think Shakespeare would feel dissed by those who mined his scripts for the meanings he so carefully embedded within them. But I wouldn't care if he did, since we don't do it for him, but for ourselves.

In fact, even though Shakespeare-lovers speak metaphorically of Shakespeare's verbal "music," they are aware, as was Shakespeare, that his verses aren't song lyrics. If Shakespeare had wanted to write popular songs, he would have written popular songs. Instead, he includes pop songs in his scripts (and, in fact, he did write some of them). It's easy to distinguish between the pop songs -- which were sung on stage, to the accompaniment of musicians  -- from the dialogue. Here's one of the songs.

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea, and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.
Then sigh not so, but let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into hey nonny nonny. 
Then sigh not so, etc.
Gimme, gimme, gimme the honky tonk blues.

I may have gotten something mixed up there. But I hope you can see that it would be more fair to compare this actual Elizabethan song lyric to a contemporary song lyric than it is to compare Shakespeare's spoken dialogue to a contemporary song lyric.

And if you can't, what the hell is wrong with you?.

I'm just kidding. Anyway, here's the thing. I've seen and heard Mark Rylance perform Shakespeare. He did not sing or chant his lines, and it was clear that he understood every word he was saying. So I conclude, again, that in the Guardian article he was overstating his case to make a point to the actors. That point is something like: Don't be in love with the sound of your own voice saying Shakespeare's words. Love the words themselves. Love them enough to know them like Eminem and Jay-Z know their raps. Subdue your nature to them, like the dyer's hand's subdued to what it works in. Then the audience will understand your speech, too, when it flows trippingly from your tongue.

*Here's the full text of the Guardian article. http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2015/nov/21/mark-rylance-william-shakespeare-modern-delivery-too-slow
**I would have quoted Eminem as well, but this is a family blog. 


  1. I concur fully with your conclusion. I, also, have seen Rylance perform many time (at the Globe and elsewhere on stage and film). It is reasonable to say that his hallmark style is slow and deliberate. His readings are closer to conversational than any other leading classical actor I can think of. Verse speeches are barely distinguishable from prose; he frequently enjambs lines and sacrifices metrical stress for the sake of comprehension. This is probably a good thing in general; but not always.

  2. Good points. In the Guardian article he does accuse himself as well of not speaking Shakespeare rappily enough. But I don't think he really believes this.