Shakespeare at the Globe, 1599-1609

By Bernard Beckerman | Go to book overview
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Chapter Four

SINCE 1939 the debate over the style of acting in the Elizabethan theater has been argued on the grounds defined by Alfred Harbage. One of two styles could have existed, he wrote. Acting was either formal or natural.

Natural acting strives to create an illusion of reality by consistency on the part of the actor who remains in character and tends to imitate the behavior of an actual human being placed in his imagined circumstances. He portrays where the formal actor symbolizes. He impersonates where the formal actor represents. He engages in real conversation where the formal actor recites. His acting is subjective and "imaginative" where that of the formal actor is objective and traditional. Whether he sinks his personality in his part or shapes the part to his personality, in either case he remains the natural actor.1

Professor Harbage then, and a succession of writers subsequently,2 have endeavored to prove that formal acting prevailed on the Elizabethan stage.

When we have sifted the various arguments presented over the years by this school of thought, we discover these common points. Oratory and acting utilized similar techniques of voice and gesture so that "whoever knows today exactly what was taught to the Renaissance orator cannot be far from knowing at the same time what was done by the actor on the Elizabethan stage."3 Contemporary allusions which compare the orator to the actor establish this correspondence without a doubt. This system depended upon conventional gesture, "as in a sorrow


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