Michael York On Shakespeare
Michael York, OBE is an English actor. An early career with the National Youth Theater, Oxford University Dramatic Society, and University College Players led him to the National Theater in London. After acclaimed roles in Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet (1968), Cabaret (1972) and Jesus of Nazareth (1977), he is more recently known among mainstream audiences for his role as Basil Exposition in the Austin Powers series of comedy films. Classically trained, Michael York wrote a handbook "A Shakespearean Actor Prepares."
York: You have to acknowledge that Shakespeare was one of the primary inventors of the language that we use today. He was a fountainhead of phrases and words and so on that we now take for granted. Of course the other great shaper of our language is the King James version of the bible. But it has a paltry vocabulary compared with Shakespeare's fountain of, explosive fountain of words. So he did you know, in terms of you know, just giving us the means to communicate, he's our godfather. I think he's acknowledged as one of the greatest dramatists ever. The fact that the Russians claim him you know, the French, the Germans, the whatever that he's not English or American. He is this universal playwright, speaking and voicing extraordinary truths, because he seems to have the finger on the pulse of what makes people tick. He's fascinated by the human condition and yet you know, you have to put it back, he was also you know, writing plays for actors to perform. And so the formula is very-- he's extraordinary because he is, in the same play that he can you know, for people who are you know, maybe a little more educated, have the essays of Bacon in their pockets going to watch a Shakespeare play, they will get this wonderful existential examination of you know, what is man. What's the point? Where are we going? You know, what is death? All these wonderful issues in the same play that an ignorant, uneducated citizen can pay his penny, stand in the rain and watch a play about armies and witches and poisonings and revenge and so on. He absolutely gets his money's worth. So he has this wonderful ability to encompass all these interests. I think for the actor also, he is one of the most generous of authors because he doesn’t want you to-- you don't have to do you know, what the author intended because you're never quite sure with Shakespeare what he intends. He sort of supplies great situations, extraordinary words, but he wants your collaboration. He wants your input and it's always a teamwork. You know, there's not a definitive thing that you have to do that makes it a Shakespearean performance or a Shakespearean Hamlet. That's not what he wants. And that's I think, the reason why he's endured for so long and why every country sees you know, sees him as their you know, playwright and why he'll go on being performed. Because he's yes, you know, languages change over the years and the fact that all his you know, the phrases that he used they are not pretentious and highfaluting and poetic. The imagery is all from you know, chairs and tables and glasses and whatever, the things that can people relate to. You know, he doesn’t talk in self-conscious poetic terms.
Question: Why does Shakespeare intimidate some people?
York: Because he's being made an academic subject which he would have hated. But once you get, if the class was made to perform a play, to you know, to actually inhabit the roles and make them live, once you get behind it, it's amazing. And kids get Shakespeare and he's very, very user-friendly.
Question: What have been your favorite roles?
York: I think if you're a young person growing up, adolescent and you play Hamlet and there are all sorts of things that you relate to, it's all about relationship with parents and loyalties and friends, school friends. What's it all about? You know, love and you know, relationships with women. It's lots of things you know, you related to and the other thing about Shakespeare is that the language, it's very-- as I said, it's very easy to learn in a way, because again Shakespeare is a genius and he constructs language in such a way that you know, inhabits an actor's mind very comfortably. And by the same token it's very difficult to unlearn because you know, it rattles and it sort of fertilizes the language. You find yourself speaking, you know, using Shakespearean phrases all the time.
Question: Should every actor learn Shakespeare?
York: I come from a British tradition and I think no British actor considers himself a true actor unless he has Shakespeare under his belt. Not just because it's you know, it's-- but because it's a practical thing. He is the best and you know, if you perform Shakespeare you know, you learn great things about breath control. He's-- and I think he is so often misunderstood in this country where the method tradition is very strong. You know, especially movies. It's fantastic for movies, useless for Shakespeare. Because so many actors feel that they ought to, instead of just playing the role, you know, the best acting lesson is there in Hamlet by the way. You know, this rather cheeky prince tells these professional actors who they should you know, how they should perform this play. And there's really behind Hamlet there's Shakespeare, imploring actors for this new style that he's creating. You know, "Speak the speech I pray you as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it as many or your players do, I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines. Nor do not soar the air too much with your hands thus, but use all gently. Be not too tame neither but let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action with this special observance, that you o'er step not the modesty of nature. For anything so o'er done, is from the purpose of playing, whose end both at the first and now was and is to hold as it were, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image and the very agent body of the time is form and impression." And it goes on a bit. And nothing's changed. What else do you need?
Question: What do you make of Shakespeare’s true identity?
York: No. I mean it's a question, are we better off if we know exactly who Shakespeare was? Are we to accept this Stratfordian candidate, who for my money is a little unlikely. Here's a man who could barely write his name, who's wife was illiterate, who owned no books, nothing was spoken about him in his lifetime. It seems that the William Shagspeare of Warwickshire is not the genius, the William Shake-Speare, Elizabethan giveaway for a pseudonym, who wrote these plays. And my own feeling as a candidate, the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Veres [ph?], highly plausible. But the smoking gun that will link him, there's a lot of evidence. But are we better off knowing who he is or are we just you know, well off, just having the, you know, what he wrote to go on?
Michael York on the user-friendly bard.
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- According to the former KGB agent, that is the minimum number of years it takes to re-educate one generation of students that is normally exposed to the ideology of its country.
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