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The Bard on Interpretation

We all know of William Shakespeare as a pretty good play wright and poet but, judging from some of the subplots that show up in his plays, he had pretty distinct opinions about how to present his works as well. Perhaps the best known is Hamlet’s instructions to the players he has contracted with. In it he offers advice that is still applicable to anyone who speaks to an audience.

There are certain universal precepts set forth that those of us who perform (and we are all performers, in some sense) would do well to consider and follow. Alter all, who wants the ghost of Shakespeare visiting us on some strange evening right before we go into battle…er… work, deriding our ability to effectively communicate our message, whatever it may be. Here, then, is my interpretation of Hamlet’s speech to his players (Act III, scene 2) and how it might relate to our job as interpreters.

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc’d it to you, trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as life the town-crier spoke my lines.

It does no good to know information, yet be unaware of how to effectively communicate it. A common problem is that we don’t take the time to listen to how we sound. Oftentimes we don’t realize habits that we’ve acquired over the years that limit our audience’s ability to comprehend what we are saying. Accents, speaking too quickly, lazy tongues, volume, and repetition are just a few barriers to our attempts to get folks to understand and appreciate what we are saying. We haven’t enough room here to give a complete lesson on vocal skills but here is some friendly advice:

Listen to yourself. Be aware of your limitations (and strengths) and consider what you can do to improve or maintain them. Certain things, like an accent or speaking too quickly, are extremely difficult to overcome, but if you are aware of them, you are more apt to check yourself if you sense you are losing your audience.

Think about articulation and running words together. Do ya fine yurself leavin’ ledders out a words? Try this: speak the alphabet and notice where in your mouth your tongue goes to produce the appropriate sound. Generally speaking, the farther our tongue has to go to produce a sound, or the more gyrations it has to go through, the less apt we are to expend the effort. The results are blurred or missing sounds that force the visitor to concentrate on what the word is in the first place and less time focusing on what it means. “D”s and “t”s are often dropped; “handsaw,” “lantern,” and “interesting” become “hansaw,” “lanern,” and “inneresting.” Oops, did it again. Make sure letters and syllables each receive their due.

You don’t have to sound like a diction exercise but make your mouth work. Make sure your tongue hits the front of your hard palate (just behind your teeth) when those “d”s and “t”s come up; make sure your mouth forms well-rounded “o”s and “u”s. You may feel like you’re occasionally tripping over your tongue but, in the long run, your visitors’ ears (and brains) will appreciate the effort.

Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently, for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. 0, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise. I would have such a fellow whipt for o ‘er doing Termagant, it out-Herods Herod. Pray you, avoid it.

Now don’t get me wrong here; I’ll deny implying that our visitors should be considered “groundlings, who for the most part are capable or nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise.” The point here is to cool it on your use of gestures and movement and to vary your vocal pattern.

Movement and gestures are only effective if they are purposeful; they should add emphasis to your words, not detract from them. When, as infants, we learn to communicate, we start with non-verbal communication. The spoken word is an artificial invention, developed to expedite communication, but it is harder to learn and respond to than the body language we learned first. So don’t make it hard on words. Use gestures sparingly and only when you want to emphasize a particularly important aspect of your interpretation. (Sorry, but not every word is a pearl.)

Movement for the sake of movement (wandering) is as bad as standing rooted to a spot. Wandering implies that your message is without purpose or direction as well; standing still suggests a rigidness that intimidates. Both are tiring to the eyes and distract from the verbal message. When you move, make it purposeful. If you want to talk about an object, move to it (if feasible). If a visitor asks a question or makes a comment, lean or move toward them. Both actions imply a respect either for the object or person.

Vary your vocal pattern. Be aware of your pitch and don’t let it get too high. The higher the pitch, the more distracting the sound and the less the visitor concentrates on the message. Let your volume and pitch mirror the emotions the words are expressing. If, for example, you are interpreting a story that involves something seditious, lower your voice and slow it down; nothing spoils the mood of a good conspiracy more than a high chipper voice happily declaiming the moral limitations of the central character. Also, be aware of how you end your sentences. Do you tend to let words trail off at the end of a sentence? Do you end declamatory sentences the same way you end questions, trailing up in pitch? Well, don’t! Both imply that you don’t have confidence in what you are talking about and your credibility as a knowledgeable educator will go right into the dumper. Well, maybe that’s a little strong, but it will have a negative effect on how people respond to you.

Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing… Now this overdone, or come tardy off, though it makes the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; the censure of which one must in your allowance o’er weigh a whole theatre of others. O, there be players that I have seen play…[that] have so strutted and bellow ‘d that I have thought some of Nature’s journeymen had made men, and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably…

Be yourself. Don’t try to imitate someone else. Be aware of your strengths and weaknesses. Play to your strengths, but don’t simply accept your weaknesses; work on improving or minimizing them. Don’t reject a particular interpretive technique simply because “it’s not you.” Give new techniques and concepts a chance and see how you can fit them into your own style.

Above all, project confidence. Interpretation begins with perceptions (both ways). Give your visitors the perception that you know your stuff and that you respect them. Stand straight, look them in the eye, smile, acknowledge their comments with positive reinforcement, appear at ease, and avoid lording your perceived superior understandings over them. Do this and it will improve their ability to appreciate the importance of your message.

“Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” The right blend of individual style and information results in an interpretation that is focused on the material yet appears personalized to the listener.

And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them, for there be of them that will themselves laugh to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the mean time some necessary question of the play be then to be consider’d. That’s villainous, and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it.

We all want to be loved. I can’t imagine a single soul reading this who doesn’t want her audience to like her, right? It is all too easy to put the messenger before the message and, in so doing, we either consciously or unconsciously cheapen the points we hope to get across. We tell a joke, the visitor laughs, and, before too long, the interpretation becomes a string of one-liners and superficial anecdotes and the visitor leaves thinking, “Hey, that docent sure was fun! Uh, did anyone catch what she was talking about? Oh, well, let’s go get some lunch.” You are remembered but you failed to responsibly represent your institution. Never forget, the message comes first!

Lastly, nothing annoyed the Bard more than having actors rewrite their lines. The message here for us is to studiously avoid making things up or making jokes at the expense of history. Is your information grounded in scholarship or is it based on what gets a rise out of visitors? Be true to your information and rely more on “we don’t know” and “current research indicates” than “I heard it said that …” or “I don’t know if this is true or not, but …” or “Well, they told us not to tell this story any more, but I think it’s just darling.” To horribly bastardize another of Shakespeare’s clever quips: “To thine institution’s mission statement be true.”

Go make yourself ready!

Need I say more than that!?

Mark Howell is Program Manager Of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s historic community events, in Williamsburg, Virginia. Among his responsibilities is Teaching presentation skills to the interpretive staff. Mr. Howell wishes to thank Bill Weldon, manager of the Foundation’s first-person interpretation efforts, for inspiring the tack for this article.

Howell, Mark. “The Bard on Interpretation,” The Docent Educator 6.2 (Winter 1996-97): 6-8.

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