Observe her.Stand Close. Supporting Characters in Shakespeare.


Whilst working on the sleepwalking scene from Macbeth in class last week, I was reminded how the smaller characters crucially create the atmosphere for the running characters and the way in which they behave, creates the whole world of the play. We remember of course there was no set or lighting in Shakespeare’s theatre until they moved indoors later and the language, costumes and minor characters fulfilled this function of helping create atmosphere. But these supporting characters do so much more than this.

How are these characters normally treated?  Audiences, and even the actors and directors themselves frequently treat these small parts as just that – small. But the relationship between the Gentlewoman carrying this dreadful secret alone and the Doctor she calls in to see the Queen sleepwalking so he can share the burden of the knowledge of the Queen’s terrible crime, lead us to her tortuous guilt as sure as they are leading us to a cell in the underworld.

There is so much scope for these supporting characters, PROVIDED the basic goals of creating the atmosphere are fully achieved. There is a danger of overbalancing a whole scene with an actor over obsessed with character, like a kettle drum in a quiet movement of a symphony. What do I mean by this? Let’s look at the scene in Macbeth where Macbeth takes Macduff and young Lennox to the king’s door. The young lord waits outside the King’s chamber with Macbeth, who knows that any second his act of murder will be discovered. Lennox says, as they wait outside the King’s chamber:

“The night has been unruly: Where we lay
Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say
Lamentings heard i’the’air; strange screams of death,
And, prophesying with accents terrible
Of dire combustion, and confus’d events,
New-hatched to the woeful time, the obscure bird
Clamour’d the livelong night: some say the earth
Was feverous and did shake.”

The only thing we actually know about Lennox from a character point of view is that he is young. I watched one particularly bad version of this scene where the actor played the character as if he was young and awkward in the presence of the great Macbeth, and in order to deal with this he was trying hard to find something to say. Whilst this is a perfectly acceptable character choice for the situation, it does not sit well with the language nor with the tension of the scene, as I watched the antics of a schoolboy lord, instead of the musical thrust of the scene which is leading to the explosion of catastrophe. When we examine the imagery of the storm Lennox describes ,we see it is recreating for us the bubbling turmoil in Macbeth’s head rather as occurs in King Lear, like a disturbing soundtrack . Lennox needs to give power to the speech , serve the language and not apologise for it with some awkward characterisation. When the actor serves the imagery and general atmosphere then the great tightening coil of that scene is observed. However this is not as restrictive for the actor as it sounds because within those perameters there is still a lot more scope than we first imagine for the supporting roles.

Let’s go back to the sleep walking scene and the class  .We worked at first with atmosphere , asking the actors to imagine the scene. With closed eyes, they saw Darkness, prison, fear, secrecy. Danger. Guilt, hell, a vast cellar… a few key words. We then worked with a couple of these images and qualities. Breathing them in. The scene instantly came to life. Suddenly the Woman and the Doctor became immersed in this thick dark desperate conspiracy , their voices whispered, irritated and uncomfortable as they waited to see if the Queen would appear.

When we added Psychological Gesture to our exploration, the actor playing the Gentlewoman realised how much she needed to share the knowledge she had, that she did not care so much for the Queen, but she simply needed to give someone else the responsibility to do something. The Gentlewoman was not a fool, she was someone who knew she was in danger, not only the physical danger of carrying this evidence of the queen’s perfidy, but also the spiritual danger of being complicitous to murder. It was as if her mistress was pulling her down with her. The Doctor, wanting to reject and push away the responsibility, was also mad with curiosity, in the way people who watch reality tv shows are, hungry and curious. Pauses were filled with dread and awful uncertainty as the Woman searched for support from the healing professional.

None of this was discussed at first. It came all from language, and the feelings and sensations from the gestures. This for me is the magic of Chekhov Technique, that so much can be discovered without discussion.

At the end of the scene the full complexity and satisfaction of these discoveries played themselves out. The Gentlewoman was overwhelmed with relief at being able to share. The doctor realising the position he was now in, tried to cover his fear with instructions of care towards the sleepwalking woman still trying to push away his involvement

There is then an extraordinary speech in verse by the doctor, when he addresses the wider impications of what they have heard, in which he cries ‘God, God Forgive us all .’  which unites the whole of humanity in this terrible pain. He concludes the scene feeling pity and confusion, having brought us the audience to a wider consideration of suffering , whilst she with her ‘Thank you good doctor’  grasps his hands in gratitude. This exploration of these two supporting characters with their beautifully created arcs created in embryo in two hours was incredibly moving. We never see that woman again [the doctor appears again] but this exploration showed how her character was beautifully formed with a beginning middle and end, and how both characters served the play. A feeling of form and wholeness.




1 thought on “Observe her.Stand Close. Supporting Characters in Shakespeare.

  1. Tony Hegarty

    Hmmm wonderful….better than Enda Walsh then was it? I read once that O’Casey said he learned scenic structure from Shakespeare; your observations show how that could be so…..oh that others might do so too. Every time I try to write about something now (as Thom Gunn says “to understand my life through poetry”) I find I am also confronted by an earlier writer who has taught me something about a similar experience, these are my “provisions” as I explain in “Elegy for the Unprovisioned”, and the job in hand is to use them and see how for me it might be different: for example how a boy fishing with a home made hook and line up in the mountains is reminiscent, but yet different from, say Yeats’s “The Song of Wandering Aengus”. It seems to me that to “pro-vision” oneself, as you say, you have to …stand close and observe her ! Lets have more visions please.


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