I was having coffee with my friend Natalie the other day. She was telling me of a recent romantic tragedy in her life. As we shared our varied experiences, she suggested I pick up bell hooks book, All About Love. I did. The preface knocked my socks off. It was I was looking in a mirror of text. The subsequent chapters are proving more challenging. The Preface begins with the quote:
It is possible to speak with our hearts directly. Most ancient cultures know this. We can actually converse with our heart as if it were a good friend. In modern life, we have become so busy with our daily affairs and thoughts that we have lost this essential art of taking time to converse with our heart. – Jack Kornfield (Hooks, All about love: New Visions. 2000)
I thought of Shakespeare’s soliloquies. I then considered Isabella’s words:
Go to your bosom,
Knock there. Ask your heart what it doth know. – M4M II ii
I saw then, Isabella is not only telling Angelo how to find mercy, she is giving a very simple instruction in soliloquy. Soliloquies in Shakespeare are so often simply conversations with the heart.
It has always seemed to me in a soliloquy there are essentially three “people” at your disposal to talk to: the audience, a higher power and yourself. Sometimes, what or whom you are talking to is named:
“Gallop apace you fiery footed steeds…” Juliet is talking to the sun
“Disguise I see though art a wickedness…” Viola is talking to her clothes
“Fie Fie, unreverend tongue to call her bad…” Proteus is talking to his tongue
“O hateful Hands…Be Calm good wind…Poor wounded name my bosom as a bed shall lodge thee…” Julia constantly switches whom or what she is talking to.
But what Jack Kornfield and Isabella both mention above is something even more specific, that one can talk to the heart. Even more than that you can receive an answer. Shakespeare knew this. He put the words in Isabella’s mouth. It is an antidote to presentational superficial Shakespeare.
In working with Michael Langham I learned this lesson working on Soliloquies from Two Gents, Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Macbeth. What I learned over and over in my studies with him and others was: an honest, authentic conversation with the self was riveting. I learned it through my own experience and through watching others practice the same conversation.
Further, when I have this kind of conversation with the heart onstage as an actor, authentically, something special happens. I feel a kind of wholeness, grounded and centered and yet open and full possibility.
When Hamlet begins “Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt…” to whom is he talking? Well, easily he good be talking to God. He calls his name out a few lines later. He could easily be talking to the audience, “Hey folks I am at the end of my rope, can you believe what is going on here?” Or he could just as easily be talking “with his heart as if it were a good friend.” Shakespeare’s characters know how to do this instinctually, that is why they speak alone on stage. After all, Hamlet ends this particular soliloquy with the line “but break my heart, for I must hold my tongue.”
Romeo talks to his heart, “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?” II ii
Olivia talks to her heart, “Not so fast, soft, soft.” 12th Night I v
It is not written in stone that you MUST speak only with your heart. As the Julia example above shows us, to whom or what you speak often varies. The subtle and not so subtle changes within the text can suggest speaking to the heart, the audience or some god; or element; or prop. The element of choice lingers large.
But Isabella and Jack Kornfield open for us another character to talk to onstage, the heart. The heart that knows. The heart that is a good friend. Brutus’ conversation with his heart is already underway when he opens his mouth to say, “It must be by his death…”
Sebastian in Twelfth Night makes a distinction within himself. He says that his heart tells him one thing and his brain another. He wishes his friend Antonio were there to act as arbiter between the two.
I’d like to think that Isabella is right, the heart knows. However, especially in tragedies, sometimes characters either don’t listen well, misinterpret, or disregard what is said to them by their hearts. Perhaps they get confused like Sebastian. What is important, is the deliberation, the conversation and climbing that ladder of thought to a conclusion, reaching a decision only when the conversation or thought brings you there.
As Jack Kornfield points out, we are unpracticed in this art in our modern world. Perhaps as actors this is a practice we needs must incorporate in our lives. To have this kind of conversation with our heart onstage authentically, must take practice. It takes time to know a good friend. Experiment. You can model the behavior for yourself. Use it in your meditative life. Or if that is not your thing, You can step inside Brutus, Romeo, Hamlet, Sebastian, Prospero, Hotspur, Hal, Juliet, Viola, Julia, Olivia, Cleopatra etc. and find the dialogue with your heart. Practice it with Shakespeare’s words and learn to follow the impulse that arises. Keep the thought fresh and in the essence of Realization. Listen to what your heart says.