Skip to main content

About this book

When actors perform Shakespeare, what do they do with their bodies? How do they display to the spectator what is hidden in the imagination?

This is a history of Shakespearean performance as seen through the actor's body. Tunstall draws upon social, cognitive and moral psychology to reveal how performers from Sarah Siddons to Ian McKellen have used the language of gesture to reflect the minds of their characters and shape the reactions of their audiences. This book is rich in examples, including detailed analysis of recent performances and interviews with key figures from the worlds of both acting and gesture studies. Truly interdisciplinary, this provocative and original contribution will appeal to anyone interested in Shakespeare, theatre history, psychology or body language.

Table of Contents


Gesture is a kind of speaking with the body. The body makes pictures, and these pictures seem to speak. What the pictures say, though, is not always quite what they show. For example, if I want to sew a button on a shirt, I will put my hand into a particular shape to hold the needle. If I make the same hand shape while talking to you, I will create an idea about myself that I hope will be planted in your mind. Exactly what idea, though, would depend on the way in which I perform the gesture – in other words, upon my behavioural style. It may be that I try to create the idea that I have a precise grasp of the subject under discussion; in this case, my intention may be to show you that I am a precise, i.e. conscientious, competent person. Or perhaps the gesture says that in my opinion things are OK between us, so by performing it I may be trying to show you that my intentions towards you are warm – that I am a sociable, agreeable kind of person. In this book, then, I am less interested in how gesture adds information to a persons speech – which is a common belief about gesture – and more in how gesture may be used to create an idea about the speaker in another person’s mind.
Darren Tunstall



1. What is a Gesture?

Before we can explore non-verbal acts in a Shakespeare performance, the word ‘gesture’ needs to be defined. Its derivation is the Latin gerere meaning ‘to bear, to carry, to carry on, to perform’. From the late Middle Ages up to the early nineteenth century it carried the meaning of ‘deportment’ – the carriage, or manner of bearing, of the body. From the mid-sixteenth to the early eighteenth century, it also meant ‘a posture, or attitude of the body’. In the early twentieth century it took on a new meaning as an ‘action performed as a courtesy, formality or symbol to indicate an intention or evoke a response’ (all references from The Concise Oxford English Dictionary). Thus, from the beginning of the Renaissance up to around 1800 the word described how an individual appeared to the world in a relatively fixed way; there was often a conflation of gesture with what we understand as posture. This fixity tallies with the concept, upheld in this book, that during this period life was less about the individual feeling entitled to self-enhancement – an idea which holds the potential for flexibility in one’s choice of role as well as for a kind of equality between people – than it was about identifying the individual’s place in the social order.
Darren Tunstall

2. Ideas of Gesture: Before and After Shakespeare

Having outlined an etymology of the word ‘gesture’ along with some labelling constraints, I now wish to relate gesture theory to a history of acting. Since this book deals principally with Shakespeare within a European tradition – and draws in large part upon English cultural contexts – my focus is of necessity limited to, firstly, possible influences upon his own practice and, secondly, what might be called posthumous threads of influence that can be traced from him. It is hardly original to claim that early modern culture was dominated by two seemingly competitive discourses: the classical and the Christian. Shakespeare’s own work constantly reveals tensions, collisions and negotiations between the worlds revealed in the texts and imagery of classical and Biblical traditions. It is inevitable, then, that his understanding of gesture in performance would have been contaminated by these discourses and traditions; it is necessary to tease out in some detail what they may have meant to him.
Darren Tunstall



3. Shakespeare’s Practice

The word ‘gesture(s)’ is found ten times in Shakespeare’s plays. He only used it from 1599 – after his company had moved into the Globe. If there is a common thread in his deployment of the word, it is in the notion that gesture is revelatory: it presents things, yields things, imports things, it speaks, it expresses. In both cases, it is assumed that gesture is expressive: it cries out, it invests, it presents things in terms of both a physical appearance (‘horrid ghosts’) and an abstraction (as ‘the heart’). But where in Henry V the suggestion is of a static position, with Orlando’s gesture in As You Like It the indication is of a quick movement betraying rapid emotional reactions and thought patterns.
Darren Tunstall

4. Eighteenth-century Gesture

In this chapter I will outline a number of themes that emerge from reflecting upon gesture in Shakespearean performance during the eighteenth century. I begin with the domineering figure of Thomas Betterton, whose presence threw a shadow over the theatre in England for several decades. The fact that it was rather difficult, as I suggested in the previous chapter, to flesh out an entire dictionary of a common language of deaf people did not stop other writers from asserting the universality of gesture – such as Charles Gildon, the author of The Life of Mr Thomas Betterton (1710). Borrowing at length from a translation of a French treatise by Le Faucheur, Gildon’s Betterton advises against uncivilized hand and facial gestures, such as using the left arm (more of that in a moment) and licking or biting one’s lips while performing, seen by Betterton (who in large part is simply a mouthpiece for Le Faucheur’s plagiarized prescriptions) as ‘ungenteel and unmannerly Actions’ (Gildon 1710: 72). Licking or biting the lips, here during speechmaking on stage, are self-adaptors that might be seen as a symptom of anxiety in the actor, hence ‘unmannerly’. To correct or prevent such lapses, Gildon’s Betterton suggests the use of a mirror, or, failing that, get a friend ‘who is a Master in all the Beauties of Gesture and Motion’ to help out (ibid.: 55).
Darren Tunstall

5. Gestural Landmarks from Garrick to Irving

This chapter will discuss the gestural behaviour of some influential Shakespearean actors from around 1750 to around 1900. My intention is not to establish a canon of gesture – for one thing, my evidence base is too Anglocentric for that. Rather, I mean to situate the illustrations I offer within the larger framework of my argument for a historical shift in social morality. The chapter will move through some key moments when the paradigms of gesture in Shakespearean performance (and by implication, within the wider culture) were subject to redefinition. I begin with David Garrick and move, via some other influential actors, towards Henry Irving; in the process, I hope to show that there are instructive comparisons and contrasts to be made between those two influential figures with respect to the motives for gestural style. Although I pin familiar labels to my paradigms – neoclassicism, romanticism, realism, naturalism – I want to stress that the aspects of the performances I describe should be understood as existing on a continuum of non-verbal behaviour. Thus, gesture in Shakespearean performance is not a matter of ‘either/or’ but is rather a blend of ‘more or less’.
Darren Tunstall

6. Modern and Postmodern Gestures

In 1884 William James published a paper called ‘What is an Emotion?’ The essence of James’s idea is that an emotion is no more than bodily changes in response to an external stimulus. A year later the related ideas of Carl Lange were published, leading to what became known as the James–Lange theory. From around this time onwards, personality would usually come to be seen in terms of either inheritance from one’s parents or influences from the environment. The conception of the individual as subject to uncontrollable forces reached an apogee in the theory and practice of naturalism. Underpinning naturalism is a conception of the wellsprings of behaviour that reflects a dominant social morality of self-fulfilment in an inverted way. If individual happiness through meaningful experiences is the goal of your life’s journey, inheritance and social forces may well impede your chances – the sins of the fathers are passed onto the sons, a tragic fact for which the sons cannot be held responsible. This idea of personality was expressed forcefully in the character of Oswald in Ibsen’s Ghosts (1889), whose syphilitic father has passed the disease onto him. While the cultural work of naturalism was in the main based on new writing, though, the debate about the bodily basis of emotion, as I have indicated in the example of Irving, carried over into the Shakespearean theatre world.
Darren Tunstall

7. The Use of Video in the Study of Gesture

In this book I have advanced a concept, borrowed from both Hamlet and movement science, called smoothness. And I have identified it by some of the other names it has been given in performance histories – yugen, sprezzatura, tormoz, leichtigkeit, élan. I have asserted that the concept is inherent in social cognition, because it directly influences the way in which people perceive other people’s behaviour and form intuitive judgements about them; hence, smoothness is a moral category as well as an aesthetic one. Such an assertion can hardly be disputed when one looks into the (often depressing) history of how people who struggled to ‘move well’ have been treated. But I take the optimistic view in seeing that, as the social morality of self-fulfilment continues to make inroads into Western culture, definitions of what we mean by moving well are opening up, in the interests of freedom of expression, to include bodily shapes and movement paradigms previously held to be ungraceful. That story is not for this book. Instead, I have explored smoothness as an aesthetic concept, seeing it as a basic component of an effective performance. I would argue it is probably the single most important one. There is a risk here that I am simply making a selective argument for the type of acting I happen to prefer. So I should like here to offer a method of research that could provide evidence for such a claim.
Darren Tunstall

8. Interviews and Closing Thoughts

I have sought out connections between a performance history of Shakespeare and a theory of gesture. Here, I want to look for these connections through a comparison of the work of the choreographer Siân Williams and the gesture scholar David McNeill. My aim is not to recruit my interviewees to support my ideas, but to allow their own words to suggest resonances. On 17 August 2014 I met Siân Williams in a café in Hammersmith. A dancer and choreographer since 1982, Siân was in West London to work on the movement for a concert performance given at Hammersmith Apollo by the singer Kate Bush. Numerous thoughts emerge from the interview that resonate with the general themes of this book. She talks of the basis of the actor’s power in the effortful practice of bodily disciplines like dance. She puts forward the ideas of research as something done ‘on your feet’ and of non-verbal expressiveness as the basis of theatrical storytelling. She pays homage to collaborators who approach the problem of making theatre in unusual ways; she notes the importance of an embodied knowledge of how costume shapes bodily practice, and she thinks deeply about the essential musicality of human movement both onstage and off. In the following edited transcript, ‘SW’ refers to Siân and ‘DT’ to me.
Darren Tunstall
Additional information