The Ten Commandments for Dramaturging Shakespeare

mariahrichardiiiBy Mariah Schultz, Associate Editor
Graphic by Daniella Ashley Mazzio

When it comes to working with playwrights, Shakespeare is definitely a fickle fellow. Commanding the language, deciphering relationships, and pilfering through tons of research can be demanding for even a dramaturg extraordinaire. And Shakespeare isn’t even alive, making the brunt of your work grueling at best having to infer meaning without a living playwright to assist you.

My first experience dramaturging a Shakespeare play began last spring for Richard III. While it has been a long journey, it has also been one of the most rewarding dramaturgical experiences I have ever encountered. As is such, I felt it would be useful to provide some helpful tips a dramaturg must keep in mind when undergoing such a process for those who may also fear the attempt of dramaturging Shakespeare.

Here are my ten commandments to help better ensure and foster a dramaturgical approach with Shakespeare. Though I feel these exclusively apply to fellow dramaturgs, I hope that they are also able to be a benefit to anyone working on a Shakespearean play, whether production based, for an assignment in class, or just for fun!

1) In the beginning, tis important to bethink of Shakespeare playeth as new playeth.  

Shakespearean plays are done countlessly and due to popularity with various versions or adaptations, it can be hard to think of them as their own entity. Which is why if you can think of it as a new play, you can really give it a chance to absorb its meaning. It also prevents you from judging the text and from any bias you may have coming into it.

I had previously read Richard III in class and loved it, particularly due to the strong female characters. But when I sat down to read it again after I knew I would be working on it, I put all of those thoughts aside in order to recreate another first read. I didn’t keep in mind the previous notes I had taken or looked for what had made me love it. I started anew, asking questions, and taking notes of what is said about the world and Richard, him being the protagonist of the story. And while I still had an affinity for the female characters, my bias was able to be turned into something I picked up on the play starting freshwhich was the exploration of gender dynamics.

2) Thee must understandeth and respect the text.  

It may seem like a given, but you can’t really go anywhere until you begin to understand the text.

In our process with Richard III,  we thankfully were blessed with an amazing vocal and text coach. Though he were a great asset, you must still do your own homework to decipher meaning. If an actor or the director is unable to understand the meaning of a phrase or passage, you need to be prepared to understand its meaning to help move things along.

Even if Shakespeare isn’t typically your jam, you still have to see merit in his mastery of language. You have to be able to pick up on his cleverness of wit, his use of metaphors, and repeated imagery. The sooner you can key into these clues to help alleviate confusion and see his strong rhetoric, you can help your team and yourself be more at ease.

3) Thee must devote many an hour to what may seemeth like the most debased details in the playscript.

With so much to tackle, it will seem natural to want to glide over details or scenes that seem just there to be there. These areas are of even more importance because they are fuzzy or questionable. Glancing over them can distract from the intentions of what the characters are trying to accomplish.

In Richard, we had a scene where the title character enters a room and reveals to a group of people, including his brother, King Edward, that their other brother Clarence has been murdered. With King Edward still seething from the news, a man (Stanley) then comes in with a request. He demands the life of his servant, who has killed someone, be spared. For the longest time we couldn’t figure out why this was an important fact in the scene, or why it was brought up just before King Edward goes into a monologue of how he regrets not saving the life of his brother Clarence.

It wasn’t until we realized that Stanley’s plea for his servant was viewed as a disgrace to the king in that the servant is a commoner. Clarence is a royal, and of higher status, yet no one would fight to spare his life. Stanley’s plea allows King Edward to guilt all his servants and family of his brother’s death and to shame Stanley in that his request is like a slap in the face in light of this news. It’s a lot of unpacking for such a brief moment in a scene, but the time is necessary in order to put together all of its intricacies or to be able to apply meaning to the scene yourself.

4) Thee wilt has’t to admit that thither art things that maketh no sense.

Shakespeare may be a genius, but that doesn’t mean his works are perfect. There are plenty of plot holes, random characters, or lines that literally don’t track if you follow the rest of the play.

Richard III was no exception to this rule. We had a character named Vaughan who wasn’t related to any of the characters in the play only having two or three lines in the entirety of the show. Yet he was featured in an execution scene that is one of the most notable deaths in the play.  

In another scene, Richard calls out Hastings for supposedly conspiring with Queen Elizabeth behind his back by coming in and saying his arm has been bewitched by a woman named Lady Shore. Lady Shore, who was Hastings’ mistress as well as the King’s, was mentioned in the previous Henry VI plays but doesn’t make an appearance at all here. It would have made sense during Shakespearean times as they would have seen all of the Henry VI plays before Richard III, but in a modern context, modern day audiences scratch their heads about who was this Lady Shore.

5) Cutteth if ‘t be true thee must.  

Going along with things that make no sense in the context of the play, there’s also the option to eliminate details or characters that don’t accelerate the plot. Since Shakespeare is dead, you get free reign over the text. There’s no need to worry about him coming down from the theatre gods if you don’t keep his text word for word. So instead of pulling your hair out over something not making sense or having a purpose, suggest a cut. Look back at the entirety of the play and see if it even needs to be included in the first place. It may be the best option if there doesn’t seem like a concrete reason to keep it in your production.

In Richard III, there was a scene thrown in the first act of the play talking about the unruliness of the state of England. It was a short scene that slowed down the pace of Act I and didn’t add anything to the story. It actually slowed down the intensity of following Richard’s quest so our director cut it with my approval. Instead of trying to apply meaning that wasn’t going to flow in the focus of the production, we trimmed the fat to provide a leaner, more precise story.

6) Findeth creative ways to bringeth in background material on characters.

Just because you’re doing a Shakespeare play doesn’t mean you will have a ton of historical information for all of the characters. Taking into account how historical records leave us with biased accounts of actual events, it can be hard to bring in concrete and helpful research to the differing perspectives telling the same story.

I quickly made this realization when trying to bring in images and supporting research on historical characters in the play. It was easy to find images for characters like Richard or Queen Elizabeth as they had a more prominent role in history than say Catesby and Ratcliffe, who were Richard’s followers. To navigate around this, I started looking for more modern and artistic representations of the characters to supplement my research. For Catesby, I was able to find a cartoon of Richard’s famous “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” line in text message form to Catesby. For Ratcliffe, I was able to find his coat of arms in lieu of an actual historical portrait. These forms were still able to be brought in as evidence of who these characters were and their status in the play.

7) Don’t become too wrapped up in examining relationship dynamics unless thee wanteth to loseth thy mind.

It’s definitely important for a dramaturg to help the actors define who they are and how everyone connects to each other in the play. But it’s also important to not get too caught up in the minor details. They won’t be as interesting to an actor even if they might be to you.

For Richard, everyone was related to each other, and I mean everyone. While some actors wanted to specifically know how their wife’s son’s wife makes them related to the queen, it’s better to give a general overview and let the more specific familial relations come about from the actors’ own inference. I provided a relationship tree that was hung in the rehearsal room during the process that outlined the basic familial relationships. Any specifics could be drawn from looking at it but weren’t necessary for me to point out unless an actor was really that curious.

8) Thee will feel like thou are not doing enough work.

Given the intensity and amount of work that this kind of play requires, it’s going to feel like you are not applying enough dramaturgical support. The actual reality is it’s impossible to cover every detail in the process. It’s hard to admit, but there’s just not enough time. To be able to have time to go into every nuance of Shakespeare would take a production timeline of years.

I often would feel that despite my heavy workload, I still felt like I wasn’t doing enough. Even when I would knock two or three things off my checklist, five more questions or research tasks would take up its place. I had to prioritize what was most important versus what was idealistic to accomplish in this process.There are still things I would have loved to have included in the process, but I can take refuge in knowing I was able to accomplish the tasks that I did.

9) Thee must narrow down thy ideas of the playeth when writing a program note.

Though this is true with any play, it can be hard to choose when you have so many themes going on. It can feel like a disservice to the work to not mention all of its present themes or concepts, but it ultimately will overwhelm your audience. You have to evaluate all that the play includes, and then determine what you feel is the most helpful as well as an engaging way into the play.

For Richard III, I let this pressure get the best of me. I wanted to show my knowledge of the play by not leaving anything out, but through writing all of that, I was able to discover what I really wanted to make sure the audience picked up on while watching. For me, this was the “curses” that took place in the play that also provided a way to better understanding the narrative in tracking the changes in power.

10) Has’t excit’ment with t!

Just because it requires a lot more scrutinizing and analysis doesn’t mean it can’t be fun! There are ways to still research and present information in an exciting and engaging way that is still enjoyable.

With the actors, I was able to find countless Richard III memes that were both entertaining and informative for the play. It was almost deceiving but in a good way in that the cast was still engaging with the play even if they didn’t realize it. I was also able to find a video that explained the crux of a major conflict in the play, The Wars of the Roses, through Game of Thrones characters. Even if the cast didn’t follow the show, it still provided a different and illustrative way to digest the intricacies of this conflict.

Though it may be a lot to handle, having the opportunity to dramaturg Shakespeare can end up being one of the most worthwhile experiences of your life. Plus, the Bard will be forever grateful for your service.

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