Consider the Servant
The Joy of Playing Shakespeare's Unnamed Servants.
When it comes to the works of William Shakespeare, there is prestige with roles like Hamlet, Juliet, or Richard III that is rarely associated with the unnamed servants, pages, and messengers; these characters are often overlooked, and, sadly, not as celebrated. Yet, far too often a play falls flat, because the ensemble is not actively present. Actors and directors alike must remember that these minor characters have vital roles in the rendering of the story, often given responsibilities by the playwright that change the course of the entire play.
Playing servants is incredibly underrated. They offer rich and unique choices for actors. Consider the servant from The Winter’s Tale; at one point, the character enters a courtroom wherein the jealous king has accused his queen of adultery and treason, threatened her with death, and called Apollo’s oracle a liar for saying she is innocent, and the poor servant must tell this mad king that the prince, his son, was so afraid for his mother that he has died (The Winter's Tale). This is the climactic news of the first half of the play, and it is not delivered by a lord or a high-ranking lady, but a servant.
Even with just the cue script (see Appendix A), an actor has pivotal information. First of all she knows her purpose; she is a servant. According to Maggie Secara, “A servant and master strive to do each other credit” (Secara 31). It is unbecoming to the dignity of a lady to carry her own shopping, for instance, and it is unbecoming of her servant’s dignity to let her. It is a credit to a gentleman’s dignity to dress himself and his servants well, and the servants do their master credit by looking and behaving well. “The best servant is a little bit psychic. He is there when you need him but never hovers. He finds some virtuous occupation when you disappear. He is neither lewd nor vain, but maintains a respectable countenance… He is modest but never craven, humble but never base, candid but not insolent” (Secara 31).
Servants, in their turn, expect certain behavior from their betters. “The good master is proud but never despotic. He is patient, governing his household with fatherly care… He maintains his superior station, as God has given it him, by honorable behavior, not by argument or blows” (Secara 31-32). Furthermore, to be a good servant or master was to please God. The Apostle Paul said, “Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a master in Heaven” (King James Version Colossians 4.1). St. Peter said of servants, “Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward. For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? But when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God” (King James Version 1 Peter 2.18-20). So the good servant behaves honorably, takes pride in her duties, gives deference to those she serves, and does her duty by them, whether they be right or wrong, as her reward will be in Heaven. The actor playing the servant will be most successful by knowing who she is, actively listening with the desire to be affected, having an opinion, and using her choices to direct focus to the action.
Deference is a crucial tool for the servant, and can be simply demonstrated with a small curtsy when interacting with those of higher rank. This choice makes clear the status and relationships of the characters, the rules of the universe in the story, and the dimensions of the play as a living world. Modern audiences, especially in the United States, may think of service and class in terms of Capitalism, so to offer this system without demeaning the servants is fascinating.
She knows there is concern over truth and raising another’s child. Since someone is in prison, the truths or falsehoods in question are likely weighty enough to be subject to the law. An oracle is even called upon. As to the child, until she hears the rest of the play, the actor may consider whether rearing another’s child refers to an act of charity, being therefore honorable, or possibly a question of legitimacy, which would have the tinge of dishonor. The only child mentioned in the cue script is the prince, who is ill. Perhaps the servant is caring for the boy, which would indicate trust from the royal family. Unfortunately, the servant also has the responsibility of giving the news that the prince, heir to the throne, has died. From the use of the words “your son,” she is giving this bad news directly to the king.
Now, the modern day structure of theatre has the luxury of more rehearsal time than Shakespeare had (Tucker 26-36), and paper and ink are easier to come by, so actors now have the benefit of the full script, and several weeks to prepare. Still, cue scripts allow for discoveries on stage that are incredibly lifelike. After all, people go about their day with certain information, but do not always know what others will say or do. The actor can marry the two systems by focusing on the scenes she is in.
Based on Bonnie J. Monte’s cut for her production (The Winter's Tale), the servant witnesses a great deal when on stage. At the top of the play, she sees the love between her master and mistress, King Leontes and Queen Hermione of Sicilia, and their son, Prince Mamilius. She knows too that Queen Hermione is pregnant. King Leontes’ childhood friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia, has been visiting for some time. The friendship between the two kings is known worldwide. The blood of the covenant is indeed thicker than the water of the womb with these kings. If this is not well established from the beginning, nothing else will hold weight. As the servant navigates the space, her deference and blocking should be done with the intention of supporting the above, not simply going from place to place.
The same goes for the next time the servant is on stage, accompanying Hermione, Mamilius, and the attendant ladies. The delightful scene is interrupted when Leontes rushes into the room, commands the prince be taken from her majesty, and in front of everyone, accuses her of adultery with Polixenes. The arrival of Leontes, based on the first scene the servant witnesses, is a positive thing, but his behavior quickly changes this. The servant, curtsying upon the king’s arrival, must get the boy out of there, out of obedience to his majesty, but also to protect the prince.
Next the servant accompanies the character Paulina to the prison to see Hermione. This is the audience’s introduction to Paulina. She tells the servant to fetch the jailor and to “give him knowledge who [she is].” How the servant reacts to this statement will establish for the audience exactly who Paulina is. Aside from Paulina's connections at court, she is a force to be reckoned with. A choice for the actor here is to be timid where Paulina is strong. This is a frightening place and situation, after all. This way, by contrast, Paulina will look even more powerful. In Ms. Monte’s production, Paulina’s line, “Withdraw yourself,” to the servant was a comforting, nurturing moment wherein the audience saw Paulina’s courage and strength, and also her gentleness.
When next the servant is present, she finally speaks, and it is to Leontes. This scene is very interesting. The servant loves her queen and knows Hermione loves Leontes. So does Polixenes. Neither would ever commit such a cruel breach of trust. Also, if anything sordid happens in a great house, the servants know, and William Shakespeare would have likely written a scene for it. There is no such scene, therefore, the actor can reasonably conclude that her character knows Hermione is innocent. So, when the king suggests otherwise, she must stand there and actively say nothing. Now, being a good servant, she likely feels incredible loyalty to the family, so a supportive choice here is to be just as worried about Leontes as Hermione. This is a special opportunity for the servant to show the audience that the current situation is not normal.
The staging for this production had the servant present for the trial. This scene, pardon the pun, is an absolute bear. It is important here for the servant to have clear opinions, and to actively listen to what is happening, reacting as appropriate without pulling focus. The king has become so unhinged that he has accused his virtuous wife of the unthinkable. She has been imprisoned, she is weak, and needs care, having recently given birth prematurely to her baby, and the servant may do nothing for her lady. Moreover, an attack on the queen’s dignity is an attack on the dignity of the servant, and the king has exacted that attack. No matter how much the servant believes in her lady’s innocence, and since the actor knows she must exit to reenter with the news of the prince's death anyway, perhaps rather than witness anymore, the servant leaves to do the one thing she has left, care for the young prince. This exit is not the main action, so again, whatever impulse the actor chooses must not pull focus. However, if the servant exits with no intention of any kind, it will seem out of place after such a heightened scene. Balance is key.
Then the servant enters again with the horrid news. She speaks in verse, a cue to her fellow scene partners of emotional intensity (Crystal 110-111), and her final line of poetry is shared with the king (see Appendix A):
Servant: … Of the queen’s [fate], is gone.
Leontes: How! Gone?
Servant: Is dead.
The shared line of poetry makes this terrifying moment inescapably intimate. The king and the servant share the heartbeat of the rhythm and the heartbreak of the news. In one rehearsal of Ms. Monte's production, the king lifted his hand to strike the servant, who was on her knees, frozen in fright. Of course, the actor playing the king did not hit her. Rather, he held for a moment, and then gently placed his hand on her shoulder. The servant began to breathe again, and they mourned together. The two actors felt so confident about the choice and it was kept.
The rest of the cues happen in the latter end of the play. Sixteen years have passed and King Leontes has lived a penitent life for what he did to those he loved. Things are peacefully uncertain until the king’s lost daughter, Perdita, returns with her intended, the son of Polixenes. In Ms. Monte’s production, the actor playing the servant made choices that demonstrated forgiveness of her king. Modern audiences, who might be much slower to forgive the king’s behaviors, need to see that his redemption really has been earned. It makes for a poor redemption story if the characters being redeemed do not deserve it. As the saying goes, more can be learned of a person’s character by how they interact with their inferiors than with their betters, so the servant’s good opinion of the king is key.
In celebration of the princess’ return and the reuniting of the two kings, Paulina gives the gift of a statue in the likeness of the late queen. When the statue is revealed, the king is clearly moved by it, and Paulina offers to make it come to life. There are many choices available here; if it be agreed that the servant has forgiven her master, then she could desire the queen return to him as much as anyone. She could be protective of Leontes, and perhaps she does not appreciate Paulina tormenting him with false hope. Perhaps she even finds it insulting to her lady’s memory. Even still, there could be something about the statue, or something in the air, that makes the servant think, what if… The actor can find beats for all these choices and more. Ultimately the objective is to add her energy to the build up of the “statue” coming to life.
The moment which arguably ties the servant’s entire journey through the play together is the moment Leontes asks forgiveness of Hermione and Polixenes. For a servant who takes great pride in her place and the family she serves, to see her beloved king stand in full humility is like seeing the sun rise again after a nightmare. She is so proud of her king in this moment for he has come full circle to regain his credit, and consequently, the credit of his house. Is everything resolved between all the characters? Perhaps not. There are other conversations that would need to happen after the ending of the play, but those are not part of this particular story. For the servant though, the world is righted at last, and there is promise for the future. She may exit the stage with a fully resolved journey and her head held high.
It takes a different kind of strength to support from behind than to take the stage, and such a strength is required of the unnamed servant roles. Without them, the main characters live in a two-dimensional world. Servants keep the societal machine running. They are working, functional, useful roles, and a show is always better when actors and directors give them detailed attention. The bottom line is, without them, the king would not be a king, nor the queen, a queen. Oh, they may wear the crown, but unless the other characters make them a king and a queen, they are merely players. Perhaps the audience will not remember specifically what the servant did, but they will remember that the play was vibrant and full, even that it breathed, and that is worth celebrating.
Crystal, Ben. Shakespeare on Toast: Getting a Taste for the Bard. Icon Books, 2016, London.
King James Version. BibleGateway, www.biblegateway.com. Accessed 28 August 2019.
Secara, Maggie Pierce. A Compendium of Common Knowledge, 1558-1603: Elizabethan Commonplaces for Writers, Actors & Re-Enactors. Popinjay Press, Los Angeles, 2008.
The Winter’s Tale. By William Shakespeare, directed by Bonnie J. Monte, 13 Nov. - 30 Dec. 2018, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, Madison, NJ. Rehearsal & Performance.
Tucker, Patrick. Secrets of Acting Shakespeare: the Original Approach. Second ed., Routledge, 2017, New York.
Cue Script for Servant:
(per Bonnie J. Monte’s cut and staging of The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare)
... my gentle spectators.
... old hearts fresh.
... come, sir, away.
... away with him...
... truth were known.
... who I am.
... then in prison?
... her. Withdraw yourself.
... again. Who’s there?
... does the boy?
He took good rest tonight;
‘Tis hoped his sickness is discharged.
... how he fairs.
... rear another’s issue.
... please your highness...
... upon my bidding.
... name, his oracle.
... is mere falsehood.
... is the business?
O sir, I shall be hated to report it!
The prince your son, with mere conceit and fear
Of the queen’s [fate], is gone.
... How! Gone?
... remedies for life.
... through my rust.
[keening wails from off stage]
... access? Let’s along.
... Now, had I...
... the queen’s picture.
... of our queen.
... she lived peerless
... we were dissever’d.