Friday, July 20, 2007

On Reading the First Folio


One unusual decision that David Letendre (our director) and Brigid Battell-Letendre (our producer) have made in this production of Macbeth is to take our script directly from a facsimile of the First Folio of Shakespeare's works. For those readers who are unfamiliar with the term, "The First Folio" refers to a single volume edition of 36 of his plays prepared by the actors John Heminges and Henry Condell and published in 1623, as such, we are reading the original spellings.

Something exciting happens when one recites and rehearses Shakespeare's words as they were written by members of the King's Men. The spellings are those of the early 17th century, not those to which we are accustomed to reading in more modern editions (the better of which are incredibly valuable due to all the scholarly notes) but as David pointed out in the first rehearsal, the spellings often provide hints as to where to place emphasis. Indeed, what I have discovered is that by reading the First Folio phonetically, I do not need to think about iambic pentameter-- I hear it as I recite the lines, nor do I have to think about my accent-- the accent is there in the spellings. It may not be the accent of modern Scots-English (and perhaps not the accent of any historical Scottish king), but it is certainly not the theatrical Queen's English I heard as I watched the various Thames and BBC television productions of Shakespeare on my local PBS station (or indeed, any of the British film and television imports) as I was growing up. The long-vowels are longer than any of the mishmosh of North American English accents I speak or understand.

Consider one modern edition (edited by M.A. Shaaber):

...On Tuesday last
A falcon tow'ring in her pride of place,
Was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed.


With largely modern spellings, the actor is left with the option of speaking in his or her native accent or a stage accent. Pronunciation of certain words is ambiguous. Are the "-ed" suffixes pronounced as separate syllables or are they simply consonant sounds? Some of the options will read as poetry others as prose, some as awkward prose.

Compare that to the first folio:

...On Tuesday last,
A Faulcon towring in her pride of place,
Was by a Mowsing Owle hawkt at, and kill'd


Reading from the first folio edition, there is no ambiguity as to how many syllables are taken by "Hawkt" and "kill'd" nor with the ending consonant sounds. The spellings of "Faulcon" and "Mowsing Owle" also emphasize the vowel sounds and demand an accent that falls right on the stressed syllables of the iamb-- and the stresses emphasize that these are birds of prey-- something that "mousing owl" fails to do. Wonderful!

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