I was going to call this “understanding the text,” but Patsy Rodenberg’s term, “The Givens,” is much more all-inclusive, so I’ve kept it here. Now that you’ve gotten the text into your body somewhat, and noticed what it does, it’s time to think about it a little. Please don’t put on your analysis hat before doing step 1. Really.
I prep my scripts on the computer, in Microsoft Word. I will refer to the actions I take in that program, but you could develop your own system involving highlighters or colored pencils, if you like. That said, please remain as active as possible during this work. If you’re looking up a reference, walk around with the book. If you’re working on your computer, put it on a high counter and stand up. You’re working Shakespeare’s text, you need to be active!
- Meanings. If you don’t know what a word means look it up. If you don’t know what a phrase means, look at multiple editors’ notes until you find something useful. If you cannot picture the image your character is painting, Google it. In Word, I use footnotes liberally, in case I can’t remember tomorrow what I found today.
- Verse structure / scansion. The iambic pentameter (and variations) are the wave on which you’re riding. Find the irregularities. Mark them in your script. Play with them, find out what they feel like and what they mean to you. In Word, I highlight stressed syllables with yellow and feminine endings with grey. I also put vertical bars (like this: | ) between the metrical feet. I mark any irregularities to the standing iambic rhythm or to a five-foot line length (feminine endings aside) with a double underline. If I have brainstorms or thoughts, I use footnotes.
- Grammar. This one is not on Patsy’s original list, but I feel the need to add it in the face of modern language patterns, at least in America. Find your nouns and verbs. Speak only the nouns (out loud, supported on breath). Speak only the verbs (again aloud, with support). In Word, I highlight and make blue all verbs (at least the active ones … I’m a little spotty on marking every “’tis” or “to be”). All the nouns become italic. DO NOT highlight adjectives or adverbs in any way. We have a tendency to over-emphasize adjectives and adverbs in modern speech, but the text will make a lot more sense to your audience if you just use them as they were intended: to modify your nouns and verbs. Note that Patsy does cover parts of speech in her final step on imaginative exploration, but from a text marking-up perspective, I think this goes here.
- Shifts in idea: note where the thoughts change (or grow or sidetrack). Note all shifts, small and large. Note, also, the long arc of an idea … a whole speech may be one idea, with examples and embellishments, but still, one idea.
- Connection of ideas: In logical speeches, the ideas will tend to build on one another. In more emotional speeches they may seem to jump in from nowhere. But even then, how do they connect? Posthumus is denegrating Iachimo with the line “that caused a lesser villain than myself, A sacrilegious thief to do’t” and then immediately shifts to praise of Imogen with “the temple of virtue was she” … but you see how “sacreligious” leads into “temple” quite neatly, how bouncing off the low end of the spectrum immediately sends his mind to the top of that same spectrum.
- Backstory. What has happened before this? (Yes, even if you’re just doing an audition monologue, you do need to read the whole play!) You must know how Posthumus gets from “I will remain the loyalest husband that did e’er plight troth” to “O above measure false” to “Vengeance” to “every good servant does not all commands” to “my ransom’s death” before you can get to “spit, throw stones, cast mire upon me, set the dogs o’th’ street to bay me: every villain be called Posthumus Leonatus …”
- The story function of this text. How does this bit move things along? You must know that Posthumus’ “spit, throw stones” speech is the fulcrum of the plot, the point at which despair tips over into reconciliation. It’s even more important that the director know this, but you as the actor need to know this too (and argue vehemently with the director if they don’t see it. I give you permission).
- Rhetoric. This is broad and many-splendored subject. For instance, a three-item parallel repetition can be referred to by its rhetorical device name: tricolon. There’s even an ascending tricolon (the three elements in the list lengthen) and a descending tricolon (the elements shorten). There are rhetorical devices of amplification, there are rhetorical devices that are specifically designed to build emotion. I’m going to do a separate post about rhetoric (later, after I study up, and we try some stuff out in workshop). But for now, I leave you with a few things to contemplate as “givens:”