Tag Archives: shakespeare

Shakespeare’s Pasties

An American customer pointed out something she supposed to be a typographical error in A Fifty-Minute Titus Andronicus (one of Bill Tordoff’s abridgements of Shakespeare).  This was both hilarious and troubling.  The customer said:-

I am doing this play with my class and just noticed a pretty significant typo that affects the plot.  In Scene 11, in Titus’ final speech, where he feeds the sons to Tamora in the pie, and the word pastries reads PASTIES.

She thought that this was both an error and a significant change of plot.

Now Bill Tordoff’s intention with all his abridgements is to preserve Shakespeare’s original language but to create a version short enough to be read in a single school lesson.  Thus in his reduction he cut out a couple of preceding lines, so he changed one word.  Nothing to do with pasties; he changed “And” (continuing from the previous lines) to “I’ll” to render the text:-

I’ll make two pasties of your shameful heads,

So ‘pasties’ occurs in the original Shakespeare.  The Bard uses the singular version in two other plays, The Merry Wives of Windsor and All’s Well That Ends Well.  In the latter, it comes in Parolles’ response to the threat of torture:-

I will confess what I know without constraint:
if ye pinch me like a pasty, I can say no more.

The culinary form is clear: a sort of pie made with a crimped (pinched) seam.  Shakespeare was thinking of a Cornish or Devenish pasty.

The teacher was right in as much as the derivation is the same as that of pastry (even though the pronunciation has diverted to Past-i), itself derived from the mixing of flour to form a paste.  But what was she thinking of, and why was she so alarmed?  The word she was thinking of is spelled the same as the Cornish Pasties, but is pronounced Paste-ies and refers to a modest covering of the nipples as modelled in the accompanying picture of Dita Von Teese.  In this context, I’ll make two pasties of your shameful heads, does paint a significantly different picture.

The troubling thing here is that the non-culinary meaning springs more readily to the mind of a literate teacher of drama.  I suppose that modesty pasties do find more uses on the stage than the Cornish variety, but nevertheless, I think that America may be missing out on a choice form of portable food.  Recently, the British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson (who has an admirable appreciation of Latin but a lamentable grasp of international trade) was talking about the opportunities for exporting haggis to the United States.  Perhaps he should take up the cause of the Cornish Pasty.

Does the audience mind about repeats?

I recently asked an author to revise a script before we would publish it.  The reviewer had liked the play, but felt that the same plot device had been used too many times.  In feeding this back to the author, we took the view that the audience would notice the repetition and think worse of the play for it: too much coincidence and not enough invention.

A couple of days ago, via an excellent production at the Plaza Theatre, Romsey, I reacquainted myself with Much Ado About Nothing, and discovered that Shakespeare had used a plot device five times – and it was the same one that we had complained about.  The plot of Much Ado runs like this:-

  • Willian ShakespeareClaudio fancies Leonato’s daughter, Hero, but is too shy to approach her directly.
  • Claudio’s liege lord, Don Pedro, offers to do the wooing on Claudio’s behalf.
  • This plan is overheard by a servant of Antonio, Leonato’s brother.  Antonio reports the scheme to Leonato who approves.
  • The plan is also overheard by Borachio, who reports it to his lord, the wicked Don John.  Don John is Don Pedro’s brother and wishes to make trouble in his brother’s camp.  He does this by telling Claudio that Don Pedro is wooing Hero for himself.  This plot is foiled and Hero is betrothed to Claudio.
  • Meanwhile, Don Pedro, Claudio and Leonato decide to turn the war of words between Benedick, one of Don Pedro’s knights, and Beatrice, Leonato’s niece, into a romance.  The three discuss Beatrice’s supposed love for Benedick where they know that Benedick will overhear them.  Hero and her friend Ursula discuss Benedick’s love for Beatrice where she will overhear them.  This goes well.
  • Borachio and Don John hatch another plot through which Don Pedro and Claudio come to believe that Hero is unfaithful.  After this has been successfully executed, a group of (otherwise idiotic) night watchmen overhear Borachio boasting about the plot and arrest him.  Thus eventually the scheme is undone and Claudio is reconciled with Hero.  (Beatrice and Benedick also plight their troth for as long as they can agree not to bandy words.)

(If you want a longer summary of Much Ado About Nothing, you can find Bill Tordoff’s thirty-minute abridgement of the play here.)

Did you spot it? The whole of the story hinges on things being overheard – two deliberately (to unite Beatrice and Benedick), three accidentally.  (There is arguably a sixth instance because Claudio believes he is hearing things from Don John that were not destined for his ears.)

Does this matter?  Well, yes it does if it makes the audience think that a play is dull or contrived.  Much Ado, as the title tells us, is a light piece – a romantic comedy if ever there was.  Nevertheless, it still needs a plot.  We enjoy the verbal sparring of Beatrice and Benedick, the melodramatic villainy of Don John and the silliness of the Watch, so Shakespeare gets away with it.  For modern writers, audiences will be less forgiving.

Thrift Shoppe

This is a reblog with annotations.  The reason it’s a reblog rather than just directing you to Reading Thoughts, the source, is that (for people like me who are only conversant with parts of the picture) it needs some background in order to appreciate the richness of the parody.

First you have to know about the original Thrift Shop.  This is by a rapper called Macklemore (and his collaborator Ryan Lewis).  If you are not familiar therewith, then you can find it on Ryan Lewis’s YouTube channel.  (Caution: contains rap.)

So the source is a rap about buying second-hand clothes. This was parodied very briefly by the Shakespeare Lyrics account on Twitter (@ShakespeareSong):-

I shalt pop some tags, only possess 20 shillings within my pocket.

Hank Green (of the Vlog Brothers), picked this up on his Tumblr page (edwardspoonhands.com).  He could have criticised the use of the second person “shalt” with the first person “I”, but he contented himself with:-

Not Iambic….Do Not Accept…

Which was what set Jonny off to create this longer parody:-

These tags I’ll pop, and boast in rhyming verse
that what I wear puts swagger in my gait;
though twenty shillings have I in my purse,
my self-esteem and manhood both inflate
when lofty furs I purchase for a cent.
Thy grandpa’s clothes are worthy salvage, though
they smell a trifle musty. Still, I spent
much less to dress myself from head to toe.

 To save or not to save? The question’s moot.
I’ll never give my coin to high-street crooks.
These dusty shelves will yield their hidden loot
to those, like me, more frugal in their looks.
Like ancient coins washed up on distant shores,
I’ll find my treasures in these thrifty stores.
– Macklemore, “Thrift Shoppe

Yes, but how do you spell it?

When Town Criers ring their bells, they bellow “Oyez, oyez, oyez!”  On paper it looks like “oh yes”, but it sounds like they are saying “Oh yea” or “Oh yay”.  It’s pronounced that way because it is derived from, and pronounced as, Old French, with the last syllable close to the English a sound in pay.  Thus whilst yes, yea and yay are synonyms, oyez is actually an imperative (an instruction to) “hear”, as in “hear ye, hear ye, hear ye,” or, in modern American English, “listen up”.  It dates from the 11th century Norman conquest.

Using “yea” for “yes” has Saxon roots.  It is common, but rather formal, in later (17th century) English.  We find it, of course, in the King James Bible – Psalm 23, for example:

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…

And in Shakespeare’s Sonnet number 40:

Take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all.

It’s pronounced with that same a sound. You could argue that it’s the same as yay, but to my mind yay is a sound that comes from an enthusiastic Californian high school; yea is much more formal and pretentious: a declamation from the pulpit.

This is a bee in my bonnet because we keep finding yea in play scripts.  The vast majority of the time, it is not being used with that 17th Century loftiness, but to indicate that the speaker is using a sloppy abbreviation of “yes”.  We (the reviewers and editors of Lazy Bee Scripts) take the view that yea is the wrong spelling for this usage, since that spelling is already established in the biblical context.  Yay would also be wrong, since that puts too much stress on the final letter, which is far more emphatic than the intended sloppy or reluctant affirmative sound.

There are two good alternatives.  Firstly, there’s yeah.  This shows it’s modern, unconventional English.  The down-side of this usage is that there can be too much stress on the long “air” sound, making it too definite.  The less definite version, closer to the teenage monosyllabic grunt, with the final sound more of a breath than a voiced phoneme, would be yeh.

How come this one-act play has three acts?

Radio presenter, artist, actor, musician and playwright George Douglas Lee sent me a copy George Douglas Leeof the presentation he made to The American Association of Community Theatre’s AACTFest.  George (the multi-media extravaganza) is far too much of an improviser for me to be able to précis the contents of his talk on character-driven plot and his writing process, but one point struck me: according to George, every story has three acts.  He illustrated it from the TV Series I Love Lucy.  (Recording of the show finished in 1957.  This may suggest something about George’s age or the expected age of his audience.)
–     Act 1: Lucy has an idea.
–     Act 2: Lucy implements her idea and gets into trouble.
–     Act 3: Lucy gets out of trouble.
I Love Lucy image from Wikimedia CommonsWhether or not every play is like this is arguable, but every story can be represented in this way: there is an introduction (because the audience has to be given a frame of reference), there is a development and there is a resolution.  This highlights the difference between a story and a joke: in a joke there is no development; it goes straight from set-up to punch-line.

So far, so good, but why did Shakespeare write in five acts, and can there be such a thing as a one-act play?

In the Shakespearian model, the first and last acts are the same as George’s model (exposition and denouement).  It is the development that is different, breaking into rising action, climax and falling action.  The content is the same, but is made more visible in the structure.

On the Lazy Bee Scripts web site, we have categories of “short plays”, “one-act plays” and “full-length plays”.  The one-act play is a good illustration of a looser definition of the word act.  Shakespeare and George Douglas Lee use act to mean “a phase of the action”.  Act is also used to mean a “temporal unit”, where, commonly, a play occupying a whole evening is in two acts separated by an interval.  This may or may not have anything to do with the phases of the action.  For example, there is a common device in Ray Cooney’s farces where the end of Act One comes in the middle of a scene and in Act Two, the action resumes exactly where it left off.  (I think Alan Bennett took this to the logical extreme in Habeas Corpus, where, as the curtain falls at the end of the first act, one of the characters is literally left hanging.)  By this definition, a one-act play is something that will typically fit into half of an evening’s entertainment.  That’s the sort of definition used by one-act play festivals, where, typically, there is an upper limit of 50 minutes.  However, there is also a lower limit – generally around 20 minutes.

Given that it is possible to have a complete story told in less than 20 minutes, some one-act plays are too short to be one-act plays, and, by George Douglas Lee’s definition, most of those are in three acts.

Directions Unbuttoned

When he was editing Mike Smith’s What Manner of Man, Nathan was tripped-up by an author’s note: “Stage directions are minimal, but more are implied, I hope, by the dialogue.”  To Nathan, this seemed to translate into “I couldn’t be bothered to write directions.”  Not so.  In this case, the script contained as many directions as I’d expect to find in a piece for a serious adult theatre company.  Clearly, this depends on what you are writing, how you write, and for whom you are writing.  If you’re writing a bedroom farce, then some gags rely on specific locations or movements (if someone’s already hiding behind the curtains, the next person has to be instructed to get into the wardrobe).  If you’re writing for kids, then it may make sense to say things about mood and expression that you would not need to say for adults.  (On the other hand, you can argue that even for kids, directions of manner are part of the process of developing the production between director and actors.  More of that another time.)

Back in 2011, Bob Heather and I were at the NODA South-East Regional Conference, where actor and director Paul Doust gave a presentation.  Actually, not so much a presentation as a short directing workshop, as he got some of the delegates up on the stage illustrating his points by developing a performance from a text.

PaulDoustPaul was asked what he did about directions in the script and said that he tended to ignore them.  (At least, he ignored those that weren’t essential.)  He reminded us that Shakespeare gives very few directions (they have their entrances and exits but Shakespeare never actually tells his actors to strut and fret), and that where some action was needed, it was implicit in the speech.  (Paul’s example came from Lear trying to revive the dying Cordelia: “Unbutton here.”)

This is not a plea for everyone to adopt a specific approach to stage directions; just food for thought.