The Gravity of Your Words


When I’m studying Shakespeare text, I try to start from a neutral place, as much as possible. This is a challenge, given how loaded words are. I am far from objective, and words are evocative. But I do my best to step back and look at the words on their own terms before making big decisions about them.

In his excellent book ‘Shakespeare On Toast’, Ben Crystal talks about what he calls the “false friends” – words Shakespeare used in the 1600s and which are still used today, only the meaning has changed. And the change, I’ve noticed, is often a negative one. There is a downward pressure on language, as if the words, like humans, are giving in to gravity. A downward pull to an adverse place.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘rhetoric’ as the art of using language to persuade. But today, that word is mostly used to describe empty, meaningless talk meant to confuse, obfuscate, or deceive. How did it go from being a valuable skill set to simply a fancy word for ‘lies’?

Or, take a word like ‘doom’. It pops up often in Shakespeare’s plays. Romeo asks the Friar, “what is the Prince’s doom?” Cleopatra says she will kneel “Till from his all-obeying breath I hear / The doom of Egypt.”

One’s doom was one’s fate. It could also mean a decree, judgement or decision. Yes, some of the Shakespearean examples turned out to be pretty serious, but that wasn’t necessarily built into the word itself.

In current times, we don’t separate the gloom from ‘doom’. We say the failed relationship “was doomed from the start”, or “that spells doom” when things look really dire. The word is now synonymous with disaster.

Changed meanings can be subtle yet powerful. The word ‘sad’ used to simply mean ‘serious’ or ‘solemn’. Two people “in sad conference” were just people having a serious talk. No weeping required.

The small, seemingly innocuous words are especially fascinating to me. ‘Should’ is an auxiliary or helper word for verbs, and not nearly so important as the verbs themselves. It’s doing its job in a statement like “I should like to meet her” – it’s about liking and meeting (and her, probably). In the Taming of the Shrew, when Kate says she is “as heavy as my weight should be,” Petruchio picks up on that ‘be’ and responds with “should bee? Should buzz.” It’s the “be” part that makes a pun.

But modern actors often emphasize “should”s in their texts, adding a sense of obligation or of being compelled. That might be appropriate in, “I SHOULD do my homework though I’d rather play outside,” but in many other instances, it colours the thought with a feeling of being constrained or doing something against one’s will. And that’s a downer that Shakespeare’s characters might not need.   

In a world of inflation (economic, academic, ego), we respond with linguistic deflation. When ‘amazing’ has become a synonym for ‘good’, and ‘awesome’ is really just ‘fine’, does joy have any meaning? Words are products of their time, and a robust language like English is constantly changing – that’s good. Through the centuries, meanings can start to slide around a little – that’s natural. But what does this hopeless slide say about us?

May we never lose our ability to feel the raw power of words. As James Hillman says in ‘Culture and the Animal Soul’:

“By means of speech we enact what animals do in

behaviour. With speech we warn, claim territory, challenge

and destroy. With speech we court and seduce a mate, and

by means of speech we instruct our offspring and organize

our group disciplines... Like tigers losing their stripes, like

beached whales and blind eagles are we without our

rhetoric.. “





Written in the Body


When I was completing my master’s degree, my advisor told me that her wish for me going forward was “that you spend time every day just being in your body.” She had noticed my habit of intellectualizing voice work. I believe this can be a strength for a coach: investigating the structure of languages and researching the meanings of words. I value the clear articulation of complex thoughts through the spoken word.

But the human voice is bodily process, a physical action. I do now spend time every day being in my body, and I seek new ways of developing and honouring this physical side of voice and text work.

Recently, I had an opportunity to work with Deaf artists on Shakespeare text. This extraordinary group of performers challenged my traditional approaches to text work, executing exercises in ways that were completely different from what I’d experienced before, adding new meaning and resonance to the texts. As I perceived through interpreters, the signed languages were communicating something far beyond a literal meaning. And this turned my phonocentric exercises - used by hearing actors to uncover layers of deeper meanings - into something of a game of catch-up.

My sense is that ASL expresses, through the body, not only poetic structures, grammar, and images, but even metaphor, temporal aspects, or emotional states. Of course this is particularly exciting in Shakespeare performance, which is always a process of interpretation – there is no objective ‘Hamlet’.

For me, it’s also a fitting reminder that words and ideas don’t reside solely in the brain. I have often thought of words being physical: muscular and filled with kinetic energy. But it’s also true that our bodies are linguistic. Now I find myself circling back to hear my mentor’s voice, “be in your body”. So maybe that’s my homework: investigating the structure and meaning and signs in the language of the body.







The Gap of Time

Okay look, I know there has been an onslaught of Shakespeare Anything "because 400th", but the Hogarth Shakespeare Project is actually a great thing.  A bunch of award-winning authors are writing novels based on Shakespeare plays.  Like peanut butter and chocolate, put two great things together and there's just no downside. 

Jeanette Winterson's novel is called 'The Gap of Time', based on 'The Winter's Tale'.  I have my own reasons for wanting to read this particular story at this particular time.  But I'm compelled to tell everyone I know to read it too, whether or not you ever intend to see a production of this play again. 

Winterson's modern take will crack this old fairy tale open like crazy for you.  In London's financial district: a digital camera lens into Leontes' insane and terrifying jealousy.  In Louisiana: piano bars, car repairs, and families.  The confusing and complex nature of love. 

And in the end, the possibility that what is lost can, in fact, be found.