As you may know (it’s a point of pride), Brave Spirits Theatre productions begin with text work: we all pick apart our parts, including paraphrasing, which is rewriting all our lines in our own words.I was busy with Soranzo’s lines in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, and I realized I was avoiding one scene: the one where Soranzo curses and threatens Annabella. Heavy stuff. I paraphrased all the other scenes first, before girding my loins to tackle this one.

“Come, strumpet, famous whore; were every drop
Of blood that runs in thy adulterous veins
A life, this sword (dost see it?) would at one stroke
Confound them all. Harlot, rare, notable harlot …”                            (Act IV, scene iii)

That’s just how it begins. I like the sound of the words. Like a heavy metal songwriter, I prefer the lines to be packed with intense, overloaded words. (I suspect our director Charlene feels the same way.) They’re so fun to say: Blood. Damnation. Fire. Burn. Revenge. Strumpet. Harlot. Whore.

Whoa. How do I really say that, not sounding like a Conan villain? My own words.

BST production of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore; photo by Claire Kimball
Ian Blackwell Rogers as Soranzo in rehearsal for BST’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore

As an actor, I love saying this shit. As a man, as a human, I don’t like to think I ever would. Nobody says “strumpet” any more. Or “harlot.” But we still say “whore,” whether or not we agree what it means. We say “slut.” I’m not entirely sure what that means, either. But working with this volley of invective, I see that the meaning to Soranzo is less important than the effect. These are .45 magnum words. 12-gauge words.

Early modern insults can be hilariously, gloriously inventive, and we’ve got some of those in these two plays. But Soranzo, as he’s trying to hurt the woman who’s hurt him, is working with kind of an impoverished vocabulary. He wheels, over and over, from “strumpet” to “harlot” to the titular word, “whore.”

Soranzo’s cursing doesn’t make him strong in this scene. Annabella doesn’t break. Weak and flailing is how he feels, his soul “circular in sorrow for revenge.” I used to have a recurring genre of nightmare, where I raged and cursed impotently at someone who deserved it. That tells me, even though I can’t admit that I would speak this way to a woman, I do get the helpless rage. If you’ve hurt me, I want to hurt you.

I had a conversation with a friend, an actor and high school teacher, about teaching Othello. We agreed that sexual jealousy is real, baffling, embarrassing, and more powerful than it should be. I don’t think that’s unique to men, is it? I think those passions are chemically built in: the hurt, shame, and fury if the one you desire prefers someone else to you. That they might be–or they certainly are–laughing at you. Women feel that. Men feel that. But in the early modern era, men had license and approval to act on that rage. Men were obligated to act.

I’m fortunate to have been taught that threats and abuse are wrong (and illegal). But I don’t like being made a fool of; no one does. Like heavy metal, Jacobean tragedy goes to eleven. If Soranzo’s pride is hurt, he’ll “hew thy flesh to shreds.”

Verse and violence! Are you ready to rock?

– Ian Blackwell Rogers, BST Artistic Associate

*title from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Act I, scene ii)