Thursday, December 30, 2010

Notes on "Casting Shakespeare's Plays" - Chapter 1

Shakespeare's plays require a relatively constant number of principal actors: ten for male roles and ten for female roles. For a male role, this means a character that speaks at least 25 lines, and for a female at least 10 (1).

King's use of the term "principal" is based on Ben Jonson's identification of the principal plays of Shakespeare as a "principal comoedian" with the Chamberlain's Men when they performed Every Man in his Humour in 1598, and as a principal Tragoedian with the King's Men when they performed Sejanus in 1603, as well as from the front matter of the First Folio, which lists "the Principall Actors in all these Playes" (1).

"Not all actors in principal roles are sharers, nor do all the available sharers appear in each of the plays that the company performs" (4). Fascinating.

c.f. G. E. Bentley, The Profession of Player in Shakespeare's Time. Princeton 1984.

Doubling was a common practice within the Lord Chamberlain's/King's Men, and earlier scholarship on the casting procedures of their repertory tends to ignore this fact (4).

Roughly twenty plays printed between the 1530s and 1570s are 'offered for acting,' and are printed with cast lists that show the number of actors they require. Ulpian Fulwell's 1568 Like Will to Like is a moral interlude that describes how five actors 'may easily play' sixteen roles. John Pickering's 1567 Horestes contains a cast list demonstrating how six actors can play twenty seven characters. See also the 1570 Clyomon and Clamydes, which acknowledges that supernumerary roles, and even the excellence of costume, may be limited (4 - 5).

c.f. The Doubling of Parts in Shakespeare's Plays by Arthur Colby Sprague (london 1966). Sprague observes that 55 performances of Hamlet between 20 April 1730 and 30 April 1914 where Polonius doubles as the First Gravedigger (5).

Authors of the period prepared a plot of the play they wished to write describing how many actors would be necessary for given scenes, which they would submit to the company for approval (6).

"Some actors moved from one company to another just as acting companies moved from one playhouse to another" (7).

It seems a common practice that an author was advanced a sum of money on the acceptance of the plot, and was sometimes (based on Henslowe's records) given further advances based on stages of development. It is likely that only after such an initial payment was made would the author begin the work of writing the dialogue according to the approved plot. Before final payment for the script was made to the author, it seems the usual case for a company to insist on being given a fair copy of the play (7 - 9).

The text of the extant part of Orlando Furioso is written in secretary hand, and contains certain gaps where it seems as if the scribe was unable to decipher the writing for the player to insert later from the prompt book (10).
I don't know if I agree with King's contention that this was a playhouse scribe, for if it was, why would they presume the actor would be better able to read the book if they could not? Unless either the book or the copy the scribe was working from was not-quite fair copy. King cites the case of Machiavel and the Devil on page 9, where a scribe began making parts from rough copy before the play was finished.

John Higgens, in his 1585 Nomenclator defines the book-keeper as "he that telleth the players their part when they are out and have forgotten, the prompter or book-holder" (qtd on 10).
This calls into question Gurr's assertion that the use of the word "prompt book" is anachronistic, and also my own that the New Bibliographers were speaking of the duties of the prompter without necessarily having a clear understanding of what those duties were. If an allowed book had to be legible enough to use to be able to feed lines to actors, than a foul papers setting seems to not be appropriate to the task.

The promptbook for Fletcher and Massinger's Sir John van Olden Barnavelt (1619) does not list the names of actors for the largest principal roles, but does give them for lesser principal roles that double. In each of these cases, the actor is off stage for a complete scene to allow for the costume change (11).

"Most of the other actors' names added to the texts of the prompt books -- and the early texts of Shakespeare -- are those of hired men who played minor parts" (11).

Principal actors sometimes doubled with minor parts, but it was rare for a hireling to perform a principal role (11).

While a modern prompt book is a complete and detailed record of all technical requirements and cues for a production, the seventeenth century counterpart did not provide nearly as complete a technical record. The book-keeper would instead prepare a scene-by-scene plot breakdown, add names of actors to characters, and would then hang this document in the tiring house; when notes appear in prompt-books about technical requirements or actors names, it is probably because the book-keeper was taking notes at rehearsals for later inclusion in the plot (13).
I'm not sure I can accept the exclusivity of King's assertion. We use scene breakdowns and prop and costume lists all the time backstage in the modern theatre during performance, and while those are created from notes in the Stage Manager's book, the book itself is used as a guide during performance. If Higgens is correct in his contemporary description of how a prompter and book-holder used a book, there would have been someone reading along with the performance.
"An actor can learn a minor part of twenty-five lines or less with about an hour of study and rehearsal" (13).

According to Henslowe's Diary, the time elapsed between payment to the author (or authors) for The Conquest of the West Indies was about one month, which may be the time alloted to rehearsal. In another instance, for Madmen's Morris, the same period was about two weeks (14).
This does not mean that parts could not have been made from rough copy in advance in either case. It is a vague approximation, but that said, I know from my own experience that either time frame can be long enough to rehearse a complete play. 
In The plott of ffrederick & Basilea "ten leading actors of the company are identified in ten principal roles without doubling; four boys play four principal female roles without doubling. Two hired men play ten minor parts, and five playhouse attendants and gatherers play Lords, Guards, Confederates, and Soldiers" (15).

Based on the evidence King examines, it seems common practice for boys' parts to not be doubled, and for playhouse employees to play supernumerary characters (14 - 15).

"Shakespeare's earliest tragedy [Titus Andronicus] (1594) and a late romance [The Tempest] (1611) have the same basic plan for casting... this plan for casting Shakespeare's plays is derived from common theatrical practice at London playhouses of this period" (19).


Using playhouse documents from the period, it is possible to discern patterns and trends of patterns in the ways in which the plays of the period were cast. This will not only help us understand how the plays were performed, it can help us understand how the plays may have been cut or adapted, and what that might imply for company sizes at various times.


King, T. J. The Casting of Shakespeare's Plays: London actors and their roles, 1590 - 1642. Cambridge: Cambridge UP: 1992. Print.

No comments:

Post a Comment