To keep audiences coming back, playing companies had to regularly offer new plays, and even favorites were not performed often. A popular play may be performed a dozen or so times over the course of a two year period. In January of 1595/96, for example, the Admiral's Men (as recorded in Henslowe's Diary performed every day of the week except Sunday, and presented 14 plays, six of which were only given a single performance (63).
Early modern actors did not have the time for the sort of thorough rehearsal process that modern theatres have become accustomed to. To help actors meet the demands of performing so many different plays within such a short time, early modern playing companies type-cast their roles (63).
Types of characters in the time could be more broadly defined than today. They were well established (King, braggart, fool, sennex), and could be either the hero or the villain of the play (or somewhere in between). The character was written to suite the personality of the player who would perform the role so as to help them create a more believable character (64).
Shakespeare occasionally uses the character's type, rather than the name, in speech prefixes and stage directions: this indicates he was thinking first of the types of roles that would appear in the show, and perhaps, by extension, of the acting ability of the company (64-65).
King Claudius in Hamlet and Prince Eskales in Romeo and Juliet only have names offered in speech prefixes; their names are never mentioned in the text of the play. Modern editors usually give them the proper names they are assigned in speech prefixes, but modern and early modern audiences alike would not necessarily have known their names. Shakespeare is again writing for types, and this individuation of character undercuts the possibility of one king or prince looking very much like another (66). MEDITATE ON THIS: what if they have names in speech prefixes because the audience already knew who they were. If Shakespeare was lifting material from another, known source, his use of their names in speech prefixes may indicate that he has a certain, specific character in mind, or that he recognizes his audience, or even the actor playing the role may.
Just as Shakespeare recycled rhetorical figures that he liked, so his character types keep re-appearing in plays. This is because these characters were all to be played by the same company member, and accounts for the change in the way Shakespeare wrote his clowns while Will Kempe was the company's featured clown, and why the clown roles changed to fools when Robert Armin took Kempe's place (67).
The women's roles, written for boys, changed most frequently. This might account for discrepancies within play texts, such as when Celia is described as the taller of the two, but Rosalind also describes herself as "more than common tall." One of the actors might have undergone a growth spurt necessitating the play to be re-written (70). Of course, it is also possible that several different boys played the role, and the emendations that come down to us are the result of an inconsistent copy being submitted to the printer.
Viola proposes to offer herself as a singer to Orsino, and yet never sings a song through the course of the play. In one instance in which she is asked to do so, she demurs, and tells Orsino that Feste, Olivia's fool, is the one who sang the song, creating the necessity of explaining why Feste is absent from his lady's house. This may be the result of the boy-who-played-Viola's voice breaking, or of his being replaced with another boy actor who could not sing so well (70-71).
Early modern audiences would commonly leave the performance when the leading actor "died" on stage, which resulted in playwrights grouping the deaths of major characters together in the last act. This feature is one of the hallmarks of revenge tragedy, and the practice is a clear example of how playwrights wrote with their audiences in mind (73).
The Fool in Lear sings a verse from "The Rain it Raineth," which of course appears in Twelfth Night. Armin perhaps sang this song across many different plays, which provided the audience with a familiar (and presumably popular song), but also created a cross-play context that lessened the tragedy of tragedies, as the audience is reminded that a dead character will be resurrected in another play (74).
Polonius making reference to playing Caesar, and being killed by Brutus, in Julius Caesar is also a cross-referential item, suggesting that the actor who played Polonius also performed Caesar, and the actor playing Hamlet also played Brutus. Savvy audiences would have congratulated themselves for getting this reference, and would be rewarded with the knowledge that, just as Brutus killed Caesar, so will Hamlet kill Polonius (75). This knowledge of who played what roles is also useful for our understanding of what Shakespeare meant these roles to be. What does it mean that Caesar is the doddering old man type (76)?
Actors tended to learn not just their lines, but their entire roles on their own from their sides, which contained only their lines and their cues. They might be ignorant of the story as a whole, to the point of not even being completely sure whom they were sharing the stage with at any given time (79).
"Instructors" were available to help actors learn their rolls, so that actors were not completely on their own. For junior members of the company, superior actors might serve as instructors, and for more experienced members, it may have been the playwright, or perhaps no one at all. It is noteworthy that only what the individual actor would say and do was established in these instruction sessions, not what other actors would say and do (79).
The "passions," or extreme emotional states, that a character experienced could serve as guideposts for an actor, instructing him how to play the role. An actor' skill was, in part at least, assessed based on his ability to quickly change passions (81-82). Perhaps an early modern play can be read in terms of its passions in a way that a modern play can be read in terms of its beats? Hmm...
Costume and gesture were important aspects of portraying the passions properly. Hamlet is able to deceive Polonius and Ophelia by wearing the garb and adopting the gestures of one who has been driven mad with love (83). This almost begs the question, would the audience be deceived as well? I think we may take too much for granted in terms of our understanding of these plays.
Titus, likewise, after he has cut off his hand expresses his inability to express himself. His gestures are as significant to communicating as his speech (83). Of course, Lavinia, deprived of both tongue and hands, is now all but incapable of communicating anything, and thus Titus' understanding of her would be all the more miraculous to the early modern audiences watching the show.
The instruction that was offered to actors was not to help them discern a motivation or develop a character in the way that we think of it now, but rather to help them discern which passions their role experienced, and how the actor might best portray those passions. They also involved determining the best suited gesture and pronunciation for the lines the actor would speak (84).
The process of instruction was less directorial and more imitative. A superior actor or the playwright would recite the lines for the actor to perform the role, and the latter would try to copy of them. This role, when learned, was supposed to be fixed, and actors were not free to change their performance (84-85).
"Originality was far from being the goal of any production of the time: each on strove to imitate the first ('real') production of the play" (85). There are certain echoes of this in the literary world at the time, however, I don't know how Stern can reconcile this with her previous statements on textual fluidity. A fluid text implies a fluid performance.
A group rehearsal with the full company may have been possible before performance to help smooth over some of the rougher parts of the show and work out the technicalities of fights and dances, but if such a rehearsal was not possible, the play could go on without it (87-88).
Prompters served a vital role in managing actors who had lost track of their lines, managing the blocking, and to some degree, conducting the performance of a play in much the same way that a modern conductor manages an orchestra (88).
It was not uncommon for sharer actors, especially stars, to change their text. The exclamation that follows Hamlet's "The rest is silence" are thought to be Burbage amending the play because he desired the character to die in a more glamorous way (89).
Then, as now, there is a way that the play was supposed to be done, and then the way that it actually was done. The acting process is one of discovery, and could be in a time even when an actor's task was limited to "simply" determining the best way to speak their lines and gesture while so doing. These discoveries, or perhaps quirks, could work their way into performance, but it is more likely that a playwright would attempt to write his characters into their roles. Shakespeare, being in the unique playwright position of being an actor-sharer, knew the fellows for whom he was writing more intimately than most playwrights would at the time, and perhaps this is where the "genius" of his plays comes from. He was writing for the best actors in the business, and could therefore write plays exploiting their talents.
That said, the plays should not be viewed exclusively as solitary works. The nature of a company's repertory and the nature of acting at the time allowed plays in the rep to inform one another. Modern Artistic directors work very hard to do what The Chamberlains/King's Men, as well as their competition, did quite naturally. It may therefore be useful to examine the repertory context, where information is available, in locating the best way to perform a play.