In the beginning was the word

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Acting By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: Acting
Last updated: 16/03/2016
Tags: acting with text, character work, text, using texts, words and acting

In the beginning was the word

Words are the core of any dramatic character. What they say is the very quintessence of their make up, they exist as words on a page before anyone stands up and becomes a mouth to say them. This is not discounting the additional factor of the body of the actor on stage, nor the impact of not speaking can have on a scene - Isabella in Measure for Measure is a perfect example of this. However, the words that make up your character tell us a lot about them, how they view the world, what they think and the like. Breaking a script down by its word types can be a useful doorway into a part that is proving to be tricky to nail-down.

What I mean by breaking a script down is very simple. Take the text you are looking at and go through it writing down every word that your character uses and noting whether it is a verb, noun, or adjective, whether it is a reference to themselves (either their own name or a personal pronoun such as ‘I’ or ‘my’) or a reference to others (again by name or by pronouns such as ‘you’, ‘they’ ‘he’ etc.). Once you have these lists you can see several things very quickly: are they noun, adjective or verb heavy? If they use a lot of nouns there might be a prioritisation of things, substance over thought; more adjectives and they are concerned with image and how things are; with more verbs they are action heavy, about deed more than thought. By looking at their pronoun use you can see whom they prioritise, themselves or others? An example of this is Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice. He claims to be in love with Portia but he spends more of his words on personal pronouns like “I” and “me” than on his ‘love’ Portia. Possibly quite a self-centred fellow.

Once you have the words they use you can see clearer what worlds those words come from. Do they use lots of words for food, for example? Lots of body words? Metaphors for the sea? To use Bassanio again as a quick example, he talks of eyes and seeing and what things “seem” to be like (The repetition of the word “I” can also be seen as a pun on “eye” and “I”). This is a man who is interested in the appearance of things, what they look like over what they are. In a play about the worth of things, judging things by their cover over who they are, possibly Bassanio is a man of surface rather than substance.

Different people will draw different conclusions but seeing the parts that make up the whole can help give a clearer vision into what makes your character tick. This is not as a substitute to any other text work, or approach, you may have but as a supplement that might open some mental doors for you.

Example:

To show a quick example of this in practice, here’s the beginning of one of Henry’s speech at Harfleur from Henry V:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean.

Breaking this down we can see that this section has twenty-seven nouns, fifteen verbs, fourteen adjectives and four main pronoun uses; clearly ‘thing’ heavy. What does this tell us about Henry at this point? I would say that it shows him trying to create a solid picture in his soldiers’ minds. You may disagree. There is heavy verb use as well. It is a speech of action, of doing, of changing.

Have a look below at the words when they’re put together. What world are they from? What do all their sounds sound like when spoken together? Is it harsh, strong, gentle? Finally, here are two more thoughts. Firstly, his first two adjectives are “dear” and “English”, think about why he has chosen to open with those. Finally, his pronoun use is a good illustration of Henry trying to unite his men as one group. He speaks either in generalities or in the first person plural, “our”. He never uses “me” or “I”. He is not a leader but a comrade in arms. Contrast this with the egoist Caius Martius of Coriolanus who says “O, me alone! make you a sword of me?” All these word choices can show you how the characters brains are working and make you think why they have chosen that set or words to be represented by and not another.

Nouns

breach,

friends,

the wall

dead.
peace

nothing

a man
stillness

humility:
blast

war

ears,
action

tiger;
sinews,

blood,
nature

rage;
the eye

aspect;
portage

head
cannon;

brow

rock
base,
ocean

 

Verbs

close

blows

imitate

Stiffen

summon

Disguise

lend

Let

pry

let

o'erwhelm

O'erhang

jutty

Swill'd

 

Adjectives

dear

English

becomes

modest

fair

hard-favour'd

rage;
terrible

brass

fearfully

galled

rock
wild

wasteful

14

 

Pronouns

our

our

it
his

4


Owen Findlay A-level English Tutor (East London)

About The Author

A friendly, patient and professional actor based in London with interests from Shakespeare to Spider-man. Learning can be nerve racking at times but, if approached well and logically, it can be easily tackled and, sometimes, be enjoyable too.




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