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Seventeenth Century "Natural" Acting
Julia Matthews

As we read through the standard accounts of seventeenth-century acting, observers display the same desire to believe in the fictions of the actors as their twentieth-century counterparts. Webster said of "An Excellent Actor" that "what we see him personate, we think truly done before us" ("An Excellent Actor," 1615, in Overbury's The Wife) An anonymous elegy on the death of the famous actor Richard Burbage (d.1619) recalls,

Oft have I seen him leap into a grave
Suiting the person (which he seemed to have)
Of a sad lover, with so true an eye
That then I would have sworn he meant to die:
So lively, the spectators, and the rest
Of his sad crew, while he but seemed to bleed,
Amazed thought that he had died indeed.

Like spectators today, the Jacobean spectators had strong ideas about what constituted "good acting." Thomas Heywood notes that good looks, combined with type casting, are important: "actors should be men pick'd out personable, according to the parts they present" (An Apology for Actors 1612). In the fictional acting lesson in The Return from Parnassus, Part II (c. 1601-03), the Burbage character remarks to his student, "I like your face, and the proportion of your body for Richard the Third ... let me see you act a little of it." Shakespeare's Peter Quince and Holofernes go in for similar methods of casting in their amateur theatricals.

Rhetoric and vocal virtuosity were also admired. Hamlet advises that the players speak "trippingly on the tongue" (Hamlet, III.2, c. 1603), and Heywood adds that the actor should observe the structure of his texts, "and with judgment to observe his commas, colons, and full points; his parentheses, his breathing spaces, and distinctions" (ibid.). Noting that actors are not necessarily scholars, Heywood wryly comments that they "should have that volubility that they can speak well, though they understand not what."

Facial expression was considered a part of rhetorical skill. Heywood advises the actor

to keep a decorum in his countenance, neither to grown when he should smile, nor to make unseemly and disguised faces in the delivery of his words; not to stare with his eyes, draw awry his mouth, confound his voice in the hollow of his throat, nor tear his words hastily betwixt his teeth. (ibid.)

Hamlet observes a more successful example of this facial eloquence in the Player, who

Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That, from her working, all his visage wann'd,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit . . . (II.2)

"Action" was the third basic component of acting. Heywood asserts that it is the supreme quality of acting:

without a comely and elegant gesture, a gracious and bewitching kind of action, a natural and familiar motion of the head, the hand, the body, and a moderate and fit countenance suitable to all the rest, I hold all the rest as nothing. (ibid.)

The anonymous author of the preface to The Cyprian Conqueror gives us a better idea of what these movement might have entailed:

in a sorrowful part the head must hang down, in a proud the head must be lofty; in an amorous, closed eyes, hanging down looks and crossed arms, in a hasty, fuming and scratching the head, etc. . . . ("The Eloquent Actor," preface to The Cyprian Conqueror, or The Faithless Relict, c.1633).

How, then, were beginning actors schooled in these crafts? The boy companies of course had their masters, who instructed them in speech and dance as well as music. Anthony Munday scolded the "shameless enactors" for their training programs, writing,

When I see by them young boys, inclining of themselves into wickedness, trained up in filthy speeches, unnatural and unseemly gestures, to be brought up by these schoolmasters in bawdry and in idleness, I cannot choose but with tears and grief of heart lament . . . (A Second and Third Blast of Retrait from Plaies and Theaters, 1580)

Heywood described this training in filthy speeches with more enthusiasm in 1612, noting that the Universities ("the fountain and well springs of all good arts, learning, and documents") made good educational use of theatrical experiences:

This is held necessary for the emboldening of their junior scholars to arm them with audacity again they come to be employed in any public exercise . . . [Rhetoric] not only emboldens a scholar to speak, but instructs him to speak well . . . (ibid.)

The apprentices in the men's companies seem to have learned more from examples that from a curriculum. In The Return from Parnassus, Part II, both Burbage and Will Kemp are shown teaching by imitation:

BURBAGE: I think your voice would serve for Hieronimo; observe how I act it, and then imitate me.

Here we run up against the bugbear of historically informed performance. So many of the treatises (in music and dance as well as in acting) depend on the student's imitation of an admired master, and a gradual perfection of "good taste" as his society constructed that elusive quality. We cannot recreate those apprenticeships, those saturations in a period aesthetic. However, by constructing exercises along the lines of a Renaissance aesthetic, we may expose some of the differences between what the Shakespearean audience saw, and what the North American audience sees today.

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