The Tempest, a new acting version, and Robert Armin, the First Ariel (2008)

There are two Shakespeares, one for the study, another for the stage. 

For serious study, we use a copy of the First Folio, the first edition of Shakespeare’s collected plays, published in 1623, seven years after his death. We also use copies of the quarto editions—17 of Shakespeare’s plays were published individually during his lifetime. Some quartos went through many editions. The Folio and quartos allow us to get as close as possible to Shakespeare’s original manuscripts.

Unfortunately, publishing conditions in Shakespeare’s day, particularly regarding play scripts, have left a great deal to be desired. Texts from the period present us with a variety of problems, replete with all kinds of errors. The main task of all subsequent editors has been to correct these errors as far as possible, as well as explain in footnotes the meaning of much that is obscure. Therefore, any contemporary edition of the plays is built upon those that have gone before.

It is axiomatic in the theatre that, in spite of all the scholarship that has been lavished on the plays, Shakespeare cannot be performed word for word, even from the best contemporary edition. For one, the actors cannot recite the footnotes clarifying the obscure. Generally speaking, if an obscure word, phrase, or speech cannot be made intelligible with a gesture, by the use of a prop, or by pure acting, the material must be cut—if one cares about the audience.

Also, tastes have changed since Shakespeare’s day. The Elizabethan audience loved to listen to declamation and lengthy speeches. Richard III is a very long play, too long for its content by today’s standards. It is filled with lengthy speeches of lamentation and malediction, much of which is mind-numbingly repetitive. I once estimated that if I were to direct Richard III I would cut at least 900 of its 3700+ lines. And the audience would thank me for it.

Sometimes a modern word can be substituted for an archaic one. For example, in The Tempest, Stephano uses the word “bombard.” Guaranteed, no one in the average audience will know the meaning of the word. A bombard was a very large leather vessel used for filling cups in a tavern. At the same time the word “bottle” was in common use. The bottle, also made of leather, was much smaller than a bombard, made for personal use. As far as the meaning of Stephano’s line is concerned, there is little difference between bombard and bottle. For the sake of the audience, and rather than cutting the line, I have no problem substituting “bottle” for “bombard”.

At the very opening of the play, the Master and Boatswain use the words “yarely” and “yare.” The audience would have a better understanding of what these men are saying to their charges if they knew the word meant “courage.” Currently, the audience gets nothing out of “yare.”

While it is certain that Shakespeare revised old plays, he also revised his own work, as successive editions of the quartos and Folio make clear. Shakespeare makes many references to contemporary events. But a reference to an event or joke in a play written and performed in 1594, might be irrelevant in a revival of the play in 1599. So he cut it. By the same token, a 1599 play might be revived in 1603 with new references added. It is well known that Shakespeare made revisions to plays for performances before Queen Elizabeth.

It is also well known, or should be, that Shakespeare’s revisions caused oddities in plot and character. In Julius Caesar, for example, Casca appears to be the combination of two characters, since in part of the play he seems to be a young man, in another an old man. Sometimes roles have obviously been curtailed. In The Tempest, Trinculo, who is listed in the dramatis personae as a jester, does little to justify that identification, except to be called “patch” and “pied ninny,” standard epithets for fools and jesters. Alonso’s son, who is referred to in the text as having been on board the ship, never appears. He was likely cut out of the play. I have cut the reference to him.

Francisco and Adrian are listed as “lords,” but they are nondescript, given little dialogue, and we never find out who they are and how they relate to the other characters. Their roles also appear to have been curtailed. Francisco speaks twice, once in a long speech, which properly belongs to Gonzalo, and I have reassigned it to him. The other is a line consisting of three words, which more likely belongs to Antonio. Farewell, Francisco.

Most of Adrian’s dialogue revolves around a lengthy series of obscure jokes and quibbling which requires the audience to know the story of Dido and Aeneas. Again, the average audience will draw a blank with these locutions. I have cut most of that material and goodbye Adrian.

The main problem with The Tempest is a structural one. Around the time of its first production in 1611, there was a vogue for masques in plays. A masque was a musical number containing song, dance, and elaborate costumes. Very often gods were represented. The masque in The Tempest is quite properly a celebration of the betrothal of Ferdinand and Miranda. It is followed by one of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches, “Our revels now are ended”.

The play moves along very nicely and intelligibly (with cuts and some word substitutions), from the beginning into Act IV where the masque appears. From what follows, it is clear that the masque is a violent digression that interrupts and delays the action of the play. It was obviously inserted into the play after it was completed, either by Shakespeare or, as some have thought, another playwright.

Moreover, this interpolation required some rather poor patchwork in picking up the pieces of the main action. In one instance, because of the interruption, Prospero is made to say that he has forgotten about Caliban’s conspiracy which is absurd. The patchwork also forces Ariel into far more coming and going than is necessary. I have moved text around in Acts IV and V, as well as made cuts.

Most significantly, in order to restore the flow of action, I have moved the masque to a point near the end of the play. I think this works well for three reasons. I have just discussed the first. Second, the change is in the classical tradition. Greek comedies ended with a gamus and komos—a marriage and a wedding feast with song and dance. Third, with most of the cast now on stage, the focus is more strongly placed on the betrothed lovers. And it is followed by a great speech, in this case near the end of the play, a desirable position which places more emphasis on it.

I am too much a scholar and respectful of Shakespeare, indeed any playwright, to make wholesale changes, including rewriting, for egocentric reasons. To that category, history consigns Dryden’s horrendous version of The Tempest, which only damages that esteemed writer’s reputation.

The reason for my revisions should be clear. They are aimed at making the play more accessible to today’s audience for whom I also have great respect. In well over forty years of theatre, I have learned that the audience wants to understand everything, and I feel that it is my job as director to help them. I did not set out with the intention of creating a new acting version of The Tempest, only to make it clear. To reiterate: There are two Shakespeares, one for the study, another for the contemporary stage.

A word about casting. Prospero is often depicted as an old man with long white hair and longer beard. The only suggestion in the text that Prospero might be old is his reference to “my old brain”. But life expectancy in Shakespeare’s time was much shorter than it is today. Only a small percentage of the population lived past fifty. Shakespeare himself died at fifty-two. You were “old” if you lived to forty.

Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, is fifteen. It is ridiculous that a wizened old codger should have such a young daughter. There was no Viagra in Tudor England. Better to cast a younger man with some sex appeal. After all, the audience has to bear with him for two hours traffic. Tyrone Guthrie, without doubt the most influential director of the 20th century, stated in Guthrie on Acting his belief that Prospero should be cast with a man that is much younger than usual. I certainly agree with him.

Robert Armin: The First Ariel

Everyone knows that Robert Armin was Will Kemp’s successor as clown in Shakespeare’s company. The transition occurred around 1599. Everyone also knows that the personnel change caused Shakespeare to alter his conception of the clown role. Whereas Kemp’s parts were tailored to his physical, low comedy antics, Armin’s roles reflected the refined courtly fool exemplified by Feste. Armin’s roles also tell us that he was an accomplished singer.

Less well known, if known at all, is the fact that, like Kemp, Armin was a jig-maker. The jig followed regular performances in the public theatres. After Kemp’s departure the Chamberlain’s men needed a jig-maker as well as a clown to continue the popular tradition.

The first “star” of the jig was Richard Tarlton. A contemporary drawing of Tarlton, familiar to many Shakespeareans, depicts him playing a pipe and tabor (a drum). After Tarlton’s death in the fall of 1588, Kemp claimed priority of place as the premier jig-maker pf the day. Whether Kemp was tutored by Tarlton, certainly a possibility, we do not know. But Kemp’s act was a little different than Tarlton’s. While both excelled at extemporaneous humor and dancing, Kemp did not play the pipe and tabor.

On his trip to Europe prior to joining Shakespeare’s company, Kemp had an assistant, Daniel Jones, who was apparently his accompanist. Not having to deal with musical instruments would give Kemp much more freedom in his dancing. After leaving the Chamberlain’s men, Kemp embarked on his famous jig to Norwich. On this journey he was accompanied by Thomas Sly, who is depicted in the woodcut illustration in Nine Days’ Wonder, Kemp’s pamphlet chronicling the event, playing the pipe and tabor.

It is believed that Armin, a skilled singer as well as comedian, was indeed tutored by Tarlton. Born around 1570, Armin would have been about forty-five at his death in 1615. We are entitled to believe that he was still performing with the King’s men at the time, though we do not have any record of his performances after 1610. The Tempest was first performed in 1611.

Stage directions and one of Stephano’s lines leave no doubt that the creator of the role of Ariel played the pipe and tabor, like Tarlton, and was therefore a jig-maker.

ACT I, Sc. ii
[Enter Ferdinand & Ariel invisible, playing and singing.]

ACT II, Sc. i
[Re-enter Ariel, invisible, with music and song.]

ACT II, Sc. i
[Enter Ariel playing solemn music.]

ACT III, Sc. ii
[Ariel plays the tune on a tabor and pipe.]

ACT III, Sc. ii
Stephano. Lead monster/We’ll follow: I would I could see this taborer/He lays it on.

ACT V, Sc. I
[Ariel sings, and helps to attire him.]

Who but Robert Armin, a singer who could also play the pipe and tabor, created the role of Ariel?