Playing the Punctuation


    Shakespeare consciously made choices in determining whether his text should be in verse (poetry) or prose (regular paragraph form).  He was one of the first playwrights to embrace the prose form.  He usually makes prose the language form of the commoners or the lower class in his plays, but many of the characters in As You Like It are the royal class and they speak mostly in prose.  Prose sounds more naturalistic, more common than verse, primarily because it doesn't stick to the strict form of blank verse.  There is also a decided lack of heightened language in the prose sections.

    But like in the verse there are clues on how to play the prose lines embedded in the structure of the prose text.  This is commonly called playing the punctuation.  These same techniques can be used as an additional tool to interpret the verse as well.

    The first thing to do when playing the punctuation is that you need to redefine punctuation to mean breath.  When faced with a forty line soliloquy in verse form or a twenty line monolgoue in prose form, an actor will forget that he needs to breathe.  Often.  If you look at any piece of puctuation as a signal to breathe, and the specific type of punctuation as a signal of how much to breathe, then you are beginning to make headway into playing the punctuation.

    There are essentially four types of punctuations, and they indicate how much breath you should take.  In descending order from longest to shortest, they are:
    1. Period (also question mark or exclamation point) means full-stop and take a full breath.
    2. Colon means full-stop and take a full breath.
    3. Semi-colon means half-stop and take a quick breath.
    4. Comma means half-stop and take a quick breath.
    I slid in the word "stop" for a specific reason, which I will get to in a moment.  These prescribed breathing breaks will automatically slow down the actor and give him or her time to figure out what's next in the speech.  A monologue which may have seemed incomprehensible and interminable to the audience suddenly becomes easier to understand and faster.

    There are two other types of punctuation Shakespeare uses in his writing:  the dash (--) and the ellipses (...).  They are both essentially telling the actor to stop and indicate that he should take a breath maybe even two, but they are to be played in very different ways.  The dash is used to indicate a cutting stop, one that suddenly forces a realization or shock.  It's a frenetic and quick moment.  The ellipses is a more contemplative where the actor ponders deliberately about the next set of words/actions.

    Stopping/breathing is important.  Every time a character/actor stops/breathes in the middle of a scene, there should be a small change in direction or momentum of the speech.  Sometimes these stops are a change in the thought pattern to a new idea.  More often, these full stops or half stops either:   (1) propel a thought further adding more detail and further texture, or (2) force a related contradiction to the previous thought.  For example in Act IV, Scene 3, Rosalind in disguise reads a letter from Phoebe, brought by Silvius.  In the letter, Phoebe claims her love for the boy Rosalind is disguised as, and her general disdain for Silvius, who loves her dearly.  Celia pities the young shepdherd. Rosalind says to Celia:

    Do you pity him? No, he deserves no pity. –Wilt thou love such a woman? What, to make thee an instrument and play false strains upon thee? Not to be endured! Well, go your way to her, for I see love hath made thee a tame snake, and say this to her: that if she love me, I charge her to love thee; if she will not, I will never have her unless thou entreat for her. If you be a true lover, hence, and not a word; for here comes more company.

    When playing the punctuation the speech becomes:
    Do you pity him? (full breath/change direction) No, (short breath/propel further) he deserves no pity. (short breath/quick change to address Silvius)–Wilt thou love such a woman? (full breath/propel further) What, (short breath/propel further) to make thee an instrument and play false strains upon thee? (full breath/change direction) Not to be endured! (full breath/change direction) Well, (short breath/propel further) go your way to her, (short breath/change direction) for I see love hath made thee a tame snake, (short breath/change direction) and say this to her: (full breath/change direction) that if she love me, (short breath/propel further) I charge her to love thee; (short breath/change direction) if she will not, (short breath/change direction) I will never have her unless thou entreat for her. (full breath/change direction) If you be a true lover, (short breath/change direction) hence, (short breath/propel further) and not a word; (short breath/change direction) for here comes more company.
    The speech instantly becomes easier to understand and makes much more sense.  That said it does sound a bit forced and artificial.  The art comes in with the indivdual choices the actor makes in preparing the final delivery of when to play the punctuation and when to ignore it.

    These same rules apply to verse dialogue as well, but verse has one other hurdle that prose doesn't have:  the caesura or overrun.  Each line of verse is only ten beats long, and at the end of each line there is either a punctuation mark or not.  If there is a punctuation mark the line is said to be end-stopped.  You would play the punctuation as you would at any other time in a speech.  If there is no punctuation the lines has a caesura or an overrun to the next line.  Dealing with the caesura is the biggest hurdle an actor has when dealing with verse.

    Actors hate English classes where classmates have to read poems aloud and put an audible stop at the end of each line as their eyes go back to the start of the next line.  Actors roll their eyes and get frustrated that the commoners don't know how to read things aloud.

    Actually the commoners got it right.  Not only is it natural to include a pause of some sort, it actually tells the audience that they are listening to verse.  If Shakespeare had wanted one line to run into the other he would have written the speech in prose form.

    Take this example of caesura.  In Act II, Scene 7 (lines 150-154) Jaques is delivering the famous 7 Ages of Man speech:
                                ...At first the infant,
    Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
    Then the whining school boy with his satchel
    And shining morning face, creeping like snail
    Unwillingly to school....
    If Jaques doesn't play the caesuras after line 152 & 153 ("his satchel" and "like snail") the verse rolls right along.  If he does take a moment to pause, then the "And shining morning face" and the "Unwilling to school" propels his thoughts further and ups the ante of the scene.  Perhaps he is playing the role of the schoolboy, and the brief pause gives him a chance to do some physical schtick.  It's also more interesting to hear, and "sounds like verse".

    Playing the punctuation is at the discretion of the actor and the director, but it certainly can help in interpreting what can at times look to be a ponderous text.
Last Modified on October 5, 2017