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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: July ::
Joy Leslie Gibson's "Squeaking Cleopatras"
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.1717  Sunday, 8 July 2001

From:           Thomas Larque <
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Date:           Saturday, 7 Jul 2001 08:46:08 +0100
Subject:        Joy Leslie Gibson's "Squeaking Cleopatras"

I have just purchased and read through a copy of Joy Leslie Gibson's
"Squeaking Cleopatras : The Elizabethan Boy Player" (published 2000).  I
have to say that I was rather disappointed.  Although Gibson gives a
very interesting account of the Boy companies that operated in
Shakespeare's time, her evidence for the use of adolescent "boy" actors
to play the female parts in adult companies seems rather incomplete and
unsatisfactory.  I realise that SHAKSPEReans have discussed the likely
age of the actors of "female" parts in the Renaissance theatre on many
occasions, but would be interested to hear how SHAKSPEReans react
specifically to Gibson's arguments.

The single most important piece of evidence that Gibson seems to supply
for "boy" actors playing Shakespeare's female characters is the
suggestion that Shakespeare wrote these parts in a very different way in
order to take into account the "boys" smaller lung capacity - allowing
for more frequent and regular breaths in parts written for "boys" than
in parts written for adult "men".  The examples that Gibson gives seem
to me (unconsciously, I'm sure) to have been interpreted in a
suspiciously partisan manner.  Gibson seems to follow different "rules"
as to when a breath would be taken, depending on whether the part is a
female character (in which case Gibson hopes to see more breaths) or a
male one (in which case she expects fewer).

For example here are extracts from one female speech and one male one
from "Twelfth Night", with all punctuation removed by Gibson and likely
breaths (represented by asterisks) indicated by her.

Viola
* A blank my lord * she never told her love
But let concealment like a worm i'th' blood
Feed on her damask cheek * she pined in thought *
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like patience on a monument
Smiling at grief * was not this love indeed
We men may say more swear more but indeed
Our shows are more than will * for still we prove
Much in our vows but little in our love

Antonio
* Orsino noble sir
Be pleased that I shake off these names you give me
Antonio never yet was thief or pirate
Though I confess on base and ground enough
Orsino's enemy * a witchcraft drew me hither
That most ingrateful boy there by your side
>From the rude sea's enraged and foamy mouth
I did redeem a wreck past hope he was
His life I gave him and did thereto add
My love without retention * for his sake
Did I expose myself pure for his love
Into the danger of this adverse town
Drew to defend him when he was beset
Where being apprehended his false cunning
Not meaning to partake with me in danger
* Taught him to face me out of his acquaintance
And grew a twenty years' removed thing
While one would wink denied me my own purse
Which I had recommended to his use
Not half an hour before.

I was only ever a semi-professional actor (I did some professional
Theatre-in-Education work, but was not trained or qualified), but it
seems to me that Gibson's punctuation of Antonio's speech passes over
rather obvious breaks in the sense and flow of the words that would
almost certainly be used by most actors as breathing spaces.  Gibson's
argument is that the "boy" actors were never required to continue
speaking without breath for more than two and a half verse lines.  It is
rather easy to break Antonio's speech down to fit this pattern, without
having to put in breaths that are unjustified by the flow of the
speech.  For example:

Antonio
* Orsino noble sir
Be pleased that I shake off these names you give me
* Antonio never yet was thief or pirate
Though I confess on base and ground enough
Orsino's enemy * a witchcraft drew me hither
* That most ingrateful boy there by your side
From the rude sea's enraged and foamy mouth
I did redeem * a wreck past hope he was
* His life I gave him and did thereto add
My love without retention * for his sake
Did I expose myself pure for his love
Into the danger of this adverse town
* Drew to defend him when he was beset
* Where being apprehended his false cunning
Not meaning to partake with me in danger
* Taught him to face me out of his acquaintance
And grew a twenty years' removed thing
While one would wink * denied me my own purse
Which I had recommended to his use
Not half an hour before.

Punctuated in this way, Antonio's speech seems to offer just as many
opportunities for breathing as Viola's.  The same can be said for almost
every example of adult male speech that Gibson provides.  Her
punctuation of these speeches seems designed, however unconsciously, to
prove what she had already decided to be the case.

Since the two examples that I have given are equally biased - Gibson's
by a desire to prove that adult male speeches have few breaths, mine by
an intention to show that Gibson is wrong - it seems worthwhile to refer
to unbiased renditions of the same speech by real actors.  Consequently
I have tried to note the breathing spaces used in this speech during
three film versions of "Twelfth Night" - the BBC television production,
Branagh's Renaissance Theatre production and Trevor Nunn's Renaissance
Films version.  Gibson accepts that "Different actors breathe at
different places, of course", but these genuine examples of actors
performing the parts are obviously of some relevance compared to Gibson
and my own academic and perhaps impractical attempts to guess where
breaths would be taken.

Nicholas Farrell as Antonio (Trevor Nunn / Renaissance Films) - [This is
a rather heavily abridged version of the speech but is included for
completeness].

* Orsino * noble sir
* Antonio never yet was thief or pirate
* Though I confess * on base and ground enough
Orsino's enemy * a witchcraft drew me hither
That * most * ingrateful boy there by your side
* His life I gave him for his sake
* Faced the danger of this adverse town

Tim Barker as Antonio (Kenneth Branagh / Renaissance Theatre)

* Orsino * noble sir
* Be pleased that I shake off these names you give me
* Antonio never yet was thief or pirate
* Though I confess on base and ground enough
Orsino's enemy * a witchcraft drew me hither
* That most ingrateful boy there by your side
* From the rude sea enraged and foamy mouthed
Did I redeem * a wrack past hope he was
His life I gave him * and did thereto add
My love without retention or restraint
*  All his in dedication * for his sake
Did I expose myself * pure for his love
Into the danger of this adverse town
* Drew to defend him when he was beset
* Where being apprehended his false cunning
Not meaning to partake with me in danger
* Taught him to face me out of his acquaintance
* And grew a twenty years' removed thing
Whiles one would wink * denied me mine own purse
* Which I recommended to his use
Not half an hour before.

Maurice Ro

 

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