Curious about how actors of Shakespeare’s day actually thought about what they did and how they went about their work, Young Shakespeare Workshop’s artistic director, Darren Lay, set out to collect written evidence from contemporary source texts that could be useful in teaching Shakespeare today.  Unlike fencing — for which there are numerous extant works — there are no known surviving books of the Shakespearean period which specifically focus on the art of acting.  Yet some revealing texts exist.  These are excerpted as teaching references for use during summer programs and school residencies.  Excerpts with commentary are now being compiled into a concise book, ‘A Gracious and Bewitching Kind of Action’ – Advice to the Actor, Evidence of the Actor’s Art in Shakespeare’s Day.  Each example source text (lettered below) provides a touchstone to a specific lesson in the self-evident nature of the art of acting Shakespeare.

Source Texts – Darren Lay, 2002


Source Text: Thomas Heywood, An Apology for Actors 1612

….our English tongue, which hath ben the most harsh, uneven, and broken language of the world, part Dutch, partIrish, Saxon, Scotch, Welsh, and indeed a gallimaffry of many, but perfect in none, is now by this secondary meanes of playing, continually refined, every writer striving in himself to adde a new florish unto it; so that in processe, from the most rude and unpolisht tongue, it is growne to a most perfect and composed language, and many excellent workes and elaborate Poems writ in the same, that many Nations grow inamored of our tongue (before despised).


Source Text:  John Webster, New Characters (drawn to life) in Sir Thomas Overbury’s  A Wife 1615

Sit in a full theatre and you will think you see so many lines drawn from the circumference of so many ears, whiles the actor is the centre.


Source Text:  Samuel Daniel, A Defence of Ryme 1603

All verse is but a frame of wordes confinde within certaine measure; differing from the ordinairie speech, and introduced, the better to express mens conceipts, both for delight and memorie.

…those offices of motion for which it is imployed;

delighting the eare,

stirring the heart,

and satisfiying the judgement


Source Text:  Thomas Heywood, An Apology for Actors 1612

…they should be rather scholars, that though they cannot speak well, know how to speak,

or else to have that volubility that they can speak well, though they understand not what

& so both imperfections may by instructions be helped & amended:  but where a good tongue & a good conceit both fail, there can never be good actor.


Source Text:  John Webster, New Characters (drawn to life) in Sir Thomas Overbury’s  A Wife 1615

An excellent Actor

Whatsoever is commendable to the grave orator is most exquisitely perfect in him; for by a full and significant action of body he charms our attention.


Source Text:  Thomas Heywood, An Apology for Actors 1612

yet without a comely and elegant gesture, a gracious and a bewitching kind of action, a natural and a familiar motion of the head, the hand, the body, and moderate and fit countenance suitable to all the rest, I hold all the rest as nothing.

A delivery and sweet action is the gloss and beauty of any discourse that belongs to a scholar.

And this is the action behooveful in any that profess this quality,

not to use any impudent or forced motion in any part of the body, no rough or other violent gesture,

nor, on the contrary, to stand like a stiff starched man, but to qualify everything according to the nature of the person personated:  for in overacting tricks, and toiling too much in the antic habit of humours, men of the ripest desert, greatest opinions, and best reputations may break into the most violent absurdities.