H2016: Juxtaposing Speeches

Marcellus and Barnardo Costume Sketch

Tonight we’ll be blocking the latter part of “Scene 1,” which is our nomenclature for Hamlet’s 1.2. It’s the section after Claudius and the court have exited, and Hamlet soliloquizes (more briefly, in our script), then receives news of the Ghost via Horatio and Marcellus. It’s an exposition-heavy scene, although it’s made a bit more bearable with the excision of 1.1; now, instead of having two secondary characters describe things the audience has already seen, we have two secondary characters describing things the audience has probably only read about.

To make the scene crackle, I’ll be mostly counting on getting a sense of dread out of my actors — even in describing the encounter, Horatio and Marcellus will find themselves reliving it, and they’ll transmit their sense of dread to Hamlet. But I’m also going to experiment with juxtaposing two short speeches. Having two characters speak at once can be deadly, but when it works it can have an eerie, almost visceral effect. Up till this point, the audience has (hopefully) been keeping their head above Shakespearean waters, but suddenly they are surrounded by churning rapids. If it goes on too long, they’ll tune out for sure…but just the right amount of time, and they can come back up gasping.

Here are the speeches I have in mind. The first is Horatio’s from 1.1, although I have moved it and reassigned it to Marcellus:

A mote it is to trouble the mind’s eye.
In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets:
As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,
Disasters in the sun; and the moist star
Upon whose influence Neptune’s empire stands
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse.

The second speech is also from 1.1, and originally belonged to Marcellus (describing the Ghost to Horatio). Again, I’ve reassigned it, so now Horatio explains the Ghost’s departure to Hamlet, segueing inexplicably into a tangent about how sacred and spirit-free Christmas usually is:

It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

There are all kinds of thematic points to be struck in both speeches, but neither of them has much necessary plot information, so I’m not concerned with whether the audience will follow either of them (they won’t). Instead, I want to treat them as a sort of contra-puntal musical piece, where different words and motifs can sort of ping against one another:

…mote … trouble …
… Rome,
… the mightiest Julius fell…
The graves … the sheeted dead…
Did squeak and gibber … streets:
… stars … trains of fire … blood,
Disasters …
…sick … doomsday … eclipse.

… faded … crowing…
… ever … season comes
… our Saviour’s birth …
The bird of dawning singeth all night long…
… no spirit dares stir …
… nights … wholesome…
No … witch hath power …
… hallow’d … gracious.

Obviously, there’s no way to know if it will work until I try it; and even then, it will take the actors some time to get the hang of speaking and of listening to each other. But I’m still in the early, enthusiastic, experimental phase of the process (as opposed to the harried, “just get ‘er done” that comes later), so let’s play!

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One thought on “H2016: Juxtaposing Speeches

  1. dawne says:

    I remember a scene from the movie “Amadeus” when Mozart is talking about Opera. He says , “Sire, only opera can do this. In a play if more than one person speaks at the same time, it’s just noise, no one can understand a word. But with opera, with music… with music you can have twenty individuals all talking at the same time, and it’s not noise, it’s a perfect harmony!”
    I’d love to see you prove him wrong.

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