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Playing Shakespeare: An Actor's Guide

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Now in its first American edition, Playing Shakespeare is the premier guide to understanding and appreciating the mastery of the world’s greatest playwright. Together with Royal Shakespeare Company actors–among them Patrick Stewart, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Ben Kingsley, and David Suchet–John Barton demonstrates how to adapt Elizabethan theater for the modern stage. The Now in its first American edition, Playing Shakespeare is the premier guide to understanding and appreciating the mastery of the world’s greatest playwright. Together with Royal Shakespeare Company actors–among them Patrick Stewart, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Ben Kingsley, and David Suchet–John Barton demonstrates how to adapt Elizabethan theater for the modern stage. The director begins by explicating Shakespeare’s verse and prose, speeches and soliloquies, and naturalistic and heightened language to discover the essence of his characters. In the second section, Barton and the actors explore nuance in Shakespearean theater, from evoking irony and ambiguity and striking the delicate balance of passion and profound intellectual thought, to finding new approaches to playing Shakespeare’s most controversial creation, Shylock, from The Merchant of Venice. A practical and essential guide, Playing Shakespeare will stand for years as the authoritative favorite among actors, scholars, teachers, and students.


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Now in its first American edition, Playing Shakespeare is the premier guide to understanding and appreciating the mastery of the world’s greatest playwright. Together with Royal Shakespeare Company actors–among them Patrick Stewart, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Ben Kingsley, and David Suchet–John Barton demonstrates how to adapt Elizabethan theater for the modern stage. The Now in its first American edition, Playing Shakespeare is the premier guide to understanding and appreciating the mastery of the world’s greatest playwright. Together with Royal Shakespeare Company actors–among them Patrick Stewart, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Ben Kingsley, and David Suchet–John Barton demonstrates how to adapt Elizabethan theater for the modern stage. The director begins by explicating Shakespeare’s verse and prose, speeches and soliloquies, and naturalistic and heightened language to discover the essence of his characters. In the second section, Barton and the actors explore nuance in Shakespearean theater, from evoking irony and ambiguity and striking the delicate balance of passion and profound intellectual thought, to finding new approaches to playing Shakespeare’s most controversial creation, Shylock, from The Merchant of Venice. A practical and essential guide, Playing Shakespeare will stand for years as the authoritative favorite among actors, scholars, teachers, and students.

30 review for Playing Shakespeare: An Actor's Guide

  1. 5 out of 5

    Juliet Fevang

    This book is problematic in the sense that it tries to almost ignore how useless countless passages can be without seeing it played by the actors; the descriptions offered do not help one bit. However, I found a way of reading this book that made it extremely useful. The Royal Shakespeare Company's workshop of which this book is based is all on YouTube. I'd watch the hour long instruction video dedicated to each chapter of the book alongside reading it and highlighting important passages, then This book is problematic in the sense that it tries to almost ignore how useless countless passages can be without seeing it played by the actors; the descriptions offered do not help one bit. However, I found a way of reading this book that made it extremely useful. The Royal Shakespeare Company's workshop of which this book is based is all on YouTube. I'd watch the hour long instruction video dedicated to each chapter of the book alongside reading it and highlighting important passages, then I'd write a summary of the chapter to use later in my acting. (Yeah, it's exactly as time consuming as it sounds.) So, that's why I'm giving "Playing Shakespeare" such a high rating as my way of reading it actually worked, it wouldn't have helped me much if I'd only counted on the book. To summarize: while there are some glaring problems with "Playing Shakespeare" (not only the ones I've discussed so far, but also a lack of more tangible exercises to develop as an actor), it's simply the best (and probably only, really) guide out there when it comes to playing Shakespeare. It left some things to be wanted, but overall I'm extremely grateful for the knowledge this book made available to me. Thank you, John Barton.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Kaitlyn Dennis

    The only thing that prevents me from giving this book five stars is that it is sometimes difficult to figure out what the actors are doing differently with their acting based on Barton's suggestions. The text outside of this is extremely clear and helpful, but it's difficult to see why it's necessary at all to copy the speeches multiple times in the text when it's impossible to see what the actor is really doing with them. It would make as much sense to print it the first time and then indicate The only thing that prevents me from giving this book five stars is that it is sometimes difficult to figure out what the actors are doing differently with their acting based on Barton's suggestions. The text outside of this is extremely clear and helpful, but it's difficult to see why it's necessary at all to copy the speeches multiple times in the text when it's impossible to see what the actor is really doing with them. It would make as much sense to print it the first time and then indicate the text is the same thereafter, and only have Barton's responses to the different techniques. Anyway, this is a small quibble; most of this is fantastic. And I know that at least one of the episodes from the tv series is up on youtube, which was very useful to see after having read the book, making it much easier to see where Barton's responses are coming from. My version of the book also came with a DVD, which had recent informal interviews with four of the actors/actresses who worked with Barton in the original series.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Liam "Da Man"

    Hands down the greatest and most insightful discourse on Shakespeare I have ever read. The book is basically a well-edited transcript of the partly scripted 1984 television series conducted by Barton with the Royal Shakespeare Company, whose ranks at the time were filled with the likes of Ian McKellan, Judi Dench, Ben Kingsly, and Patrick Stewart. Barton and Co. tackle the text from an actor's standpoint and really break the most intimidating aspects of Shakespeare down, revealing guidlines and Hands down the greatest and most insightful discourse on Shakespeare I have ever read. The book is basically a well-edited transcript of the partly scripted 1984 television series conducted by Barton with the Royal Shakespeare Company, whose ranks at the time were filled with the likes of Ian McKellan, Judi Dench, Ben Kingsly, and Patrick Stewart. Barton and Co. tackle the text from an actor's standpoint and really break the most intimidating aspects of Shakespeare down, revealing guidlines and stage directions that are hidden in the lines themselves. This book is not only a fascinating read for any person with a mild curiosity about Shakespeare, but also essential reading for anyone in the business of Theatre. *As a side note: At this time, you can find many of the original television program on YouTube. Very interesting to watch since the VHS is nearly impossible to find.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Rachel Jackson

    I learned more than I ever wanted to know about acting Shakespeare reading Playing Shakespeare. John Barton and a repertoire of experienced Shakespearean actors prove they know their stuff in this collection of lessons about acting, adapted from a BBC program that aired over the course of several weeks. Perhaps, then, this was a book more suited for actors who want to delve into Shakespeare than some average schmuck reader like me, but even still, I learned a lot. Each of the chapters discusses I learned more than I ever wanted to know about acting Shakespeare reading Playing Shakespeare. John Barton and a repertoire of experienced Shakespearean actors prove they know their stuff in this collection of lessons about acting, adapted from a BBC program that aired over the course of several weeks. Perhaps, then, this was a book more suited for actors who want to delve into Shakespeare than some average schmuck reader like me, but even still, I learned a lot. Each of the chapters discusses certain elements of Shakespeare's works in terms of how they should be acted. Barton emphasizes both objective and subjective techniques that actors should be aware of when studying Shakespeare's works to perform: inflection, emotion, backstory, meter, etc. All of it was very thorough, and parts were admittedly overwhelming to my non-actor brain. Still, these discussions did raise many points to me as a reader of Shakespeare, thinking of how actors might interpret the lines out loud that I am merely reading in my head, or sometimes aloud. I really enjoyed the chapter that involved a discussion between Barton and actor Ian McKellen in which they broached the topic of what it means to play Shakespeare in contemporary times. Both men agreed that Shakespeare is relevant in the subjects he wrote about, rather than modern directors (keeping in mind this book was published in the 1980s) forcing adaptations to Shakespearean works to seem edgy or pretentious, or whatever goal they hope to accomplish by squeezing more Shakespeare out of a seemingly dry sponge. McKellen told a touching story about politics that showed that despite a 400-year gap, Shakespeare's insights about humanity, instability and loss can still be relevant even if the situations surrounding them aren't similar in the slightest. That is why I love Shakespeare so much. I've faced many stubborn opponents of Shakespeare who haven't read him solely for the reason that they think he's boring and outdated. But they haven't heard McKellen's story. They are missing out on the connection to humanity and morality that Shakespeare characters so often address. Despite the passage of four centuries, that hasn't changed about human nature at all. We can still connect with Shakespeare's characters despite not being overtly similar to them at all. That's why reading this book was even more insightful to me. I learned so much more about how Shakespeare's words are conveyed through acting, which in turn explained how modern actors face the challenge of trying to bring the words to live in a meaningful way.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Brian Page

    PLAYING SHAKESPEARE: AN ACTOR’S GUIDE by John Barton is a marvelous little book. It’s like sitting in on a Royal Shakespeare Company rehearsal and being introduced to all the subtlety that Shakespeare embedded into his work. The first dialogue between Romeo and Juliet is in sonnet form. Who knew? The text of the book is based on a television series from 1982 in which Barton discusses the finer points of acting Shakespeare with the likes of Ben Kingsley, Judi Dench, and Patrick Stewart. These PLAYING SHAKESPEARE: AN ACTOR’S GUIDE by John Barton is a marvelous little book. It’s like sitting in on a Royal Shakespeare Company rehearsal and being introduced to all the subtlety that Shakespeare embedded into his work. The first dialogue between Romeo and Juliet is in sonnet form. Who knew? The text of the book is based on a television series from 1982 in which Barton discusses the finer points of acting Shakespeare with the likes of Ben Kingsley, Judi Dench, and Patrick Stewart. These programs are available on YouTube! Safe to say that your reading of Shakespeare will never again be the same after reading this book. I know that I will never read the “Once more unto the breach, dear friends” line again in the same way. One last bit of advice: be sure you read this in a place where you can read aloud, because you will be caught up in the spirit of the performance. After all, you’re being coached by the great John Barton

  6. 4 out of 5

    Sarah Gregory

    I found this unputdownable. Basically it is John Barton with a small group of the best Shakespearian actors exploring the play texts and finding the clues that they give the actor. I thought it gave insight into how actors create character and situation and how they deal with verse and poetry. There is a revealing chapter on how Patrick Stewart and David Suchet developed contrasting characters for Shylock.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Teagan

    Used as the textbook for my Shakespeare in Performance class. Some chapters function much better when watched in conjunction with the gloriously eighties television miniseries, which you can watch here. John Barton is so smart and lovely - we called him "Shakespeare Bob Ross" in class - and this has so much great stuff in it!

  8. 4 out of 5

    Micah

    Excellent reflections on Shakespeare, acting, and art of all kinds. Originally a series of TV broadcasts, some chapters read better than others, but on the whole, it's a well-edited book and useful for understanding and appreciating Shakespeare and the theater.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Lynn Smith

    Excellent

  10. 5 out of 5

    Matthew Gatheringwater

    Although this book is wonderful in itself, I recommend it to be used alongside recordings of the television series of the same name. The book follows very closely the interaction between the director and actors in this Shakespeare workshop (which is itself staged and acted), but it cannot reproduce the voices and movements of the actors which are so much a part of their communication. On the other hand, the text is necessary, because it is helpful to see the verse and the verse markings in order Although this book is wonderful in itself, I recommend it to be used alongside recordings of the television series of the same name. The book follows very closely the interaction between the director and actors in this Shakespeare workshop (which is itself staged and acted), but it cannot reproduce the voices and movements of the actors which are so much a part of their communication. On the other hand, the text is necessary, because it is helpful to see the verse and the verse markings in order to make sense of what the actors are doing. Also, there is so much information being conveyed, that the text provides a review and explanation of the televised workshop. Together, the book and program have really helped to read and speak Shakespearian verse with more understanding and clarity. The old videocassettes of the series are falling apart; fortunately, it has been re-issued on DVD.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Wendy

    This book is largely a transcription of the 1984 television series, Playing Shakespeare. It's really best read as a companion to the series, which has recently been released on DVD. In the book form, you get all of the analysis and instruction, but don't actually get the experience of seeing and hearing the actors playing the lines. Experiencing the actual performances makes the points that Barton makes so much more vivid. (Really, I think the DVDs are essential viewing for anyone who is This book is largely a transcription of the 1984 television series, Playing Shakespeare. It's really best read as a companion to the series, which has recently been released on DVD. In the book form, you get all of the analysis and instruction, but don't actually get the experience of seeing and hearing the actors playing the lines. Experiencing the actual performances makes the points that Barton makes so much more vivid. (Really, I think the DVDs are essential viewing for anyone who is interested in Shakespeare, or even in acting in general.) However, there are some advantages to having the material in book form - if you want to read the Shakespearean passages yourself at leisure, and think about the discussion at greater length, the book lends itself to that much more than the DVDs do.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Michael P.

    This book has been criticized for trying to do in print what can only be done when you can hear: teach how to speak Shakespeare. This seems reasonable and is even truish, but while the TV series that spawned this book is a more satisfying experience, the book delivers lots of great ideas and the conversations between actors about roles they have played is priceless in any medium. This is a terrific book.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Brittany Petruzzi

    I'd give it five stars if it came with the DVD (brilliant and findable on YouTube), but it's an excellent reference nonetheless, full of gems for the aspiring (or experienced) classical actor. Barton and his crew of actors leave no stone unturned discussing how to unpack Shakespeare and bring his characters to sympathetic life on stage.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Malinda

    Very good as a companion to the TV series of the same name; if I had to choose one (DVD vs. book), I'd recommend viewing the series over reading about it, however. The "Exploring a Character" chapter suffers the most from not being able to view David Suchet's and Patrick Stewart's interpretations of Shylock.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Sammy

    A marvelous book, but the TV series from which it is adapted is far MORE vital. While the book is obviously great (as a transcription of the series), it can't capture the results of the lessons, which is only one of the many joys of seeing that series with all those astounding actors performing these lines. Do yourself a favour and purchase the series!

  16. 5 out of 5

    Robyn

    This book is a companion/transcript of a fantastic series put on by the BBC and RSC during the 80s which unlocked the language of Shakespeare for the actor and layperson alike. It is a must read for any actor or Shakespeare enthusiast. The video series itself has (thankfully) been released on DVD.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Emily Kazmierski

    I loved reading this in tandem with the miniseries. It was great fun to watch famous actors hash out how to perform Shakespeare. I also quite enjoyed reading the book because if will make me a much better reader of Shakespeare. If you can, watch the miniseries, rather than simply reading the book.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Edward

    A very good read but it is basically a transcription of the world famous video series. Therefore, you lack being able to hear any inflections in the scene work. On the other hand it's sometimes good to have things down on paper. Maybe if you had both that would be preferred.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Isabel

    I don't think anything will beat the Playing Shakespeare series that was done for television however this almost word-for-word account almost makes up for it. John Barton and the rest of the members of the RSC have done a great job of explaining just how one can play Shakespeare.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Chelsea

    Delightful! Barton disects Shakespeare in a way that is imperrative to any classical actor. Though I do prefer to view the video sessions that the book was derived from, the book iself is nicely put together. No one does Shakespeare quite like Barton.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Rahadyan

    I was first introduced to the teachings of John Barton via the British TV series Playing Shakespeare, which was rebroadcast on PBS in the mid 1980's. It's a fascinating look at the acting process that includes commentary by David Suchet, Patrick Stewart, Judi Dench, Sinead Cusack and Ian McKellen.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Peter

    I found this book to be of tremendous help to me and my craft, I've read it 3 times and will probably read it many more times. My only quibble is that the book is only half of the experience, once you watch the DVDs you will taste a little slice of sublime majesty.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Graham Oliver

    Not sure why someone would read this - the gist of it is available as a TV program either on DVD or on YouTube. Considering how important voice and word stressing and pronunciation are to Shakespeare, why read the book when you can actually hear the examples with the video?

  24. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    Very good.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Tom Delise

    Fabulous book about Shakespeare language and craft.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Andrew

    Smart and useful - aims to help actors speak the text and make the arguments in the language understood while keeping the characters active...

  27. 5 out of 5

    Toby

    actors: if you can't get your hands on the john barton tapes get em on this. shakespeare is meant to be acted and this is how to unlock it all and make it brilliant.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Lindsay Johnson

  29. 5 out of 5

    Flav

  30. 5 out of 5

    Phoebe

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