Portia is pleading. She's begging for a simple sign of confidence and candor. Her lord Brutus is tortured with an unspoken burden, and Portia knows some trauma is eating away at his inner peace.
"Dear my lord, make me acquainted with your cause of grief," Portia pleads in the second act of "Julius Caesar," William Shakespeare's tragedy that chronicles one of history's most infamous assassinations. "You have some sick offense within your mind, which by the right and virtue of my place I ought to know of."
In Shakespeare's play, that "sick offense" is a plot to assassinate Julius Caesar, the self-proclaimed supreme ruler of the Roman Republic. Brutus, along with his fellow conspirators, is about to move forward with the act, and as his wife, Portia can sense the weight of the looming murder.
The gravity of the scene wasn't lost on Jaye Cooney, who performed Portia's monologue during the Thirty-Third Annual English-Speaking Union National Shakespeare Competition held in New York City in May. Cooney, who graduated from Smoky Hill High School last month, traveled to New York after winning the ESU's Colorado competition held in Boulder in February.
Cooney, an active poet and athlete, said she chose the monologue for its lyricism, but also for its underlying message. The earnestness of Portia's words stood out when Cooney first chose the monologue to perform during the National Thesbian Conference in December of 2015.
"I really appreciated the poetic undertones in the monologue," Cooney said, adding that experience as a slam poet – a writer who tests out verses in a competitive setting – makes the Bard's words even more immediate and meaningful. "As a slam poet, whenever I perform a sonnet or a monologue from Shakespeare, I just feel really comfortable. I can find the iambic pentameter, the rhythm. I can enjoy it."
"Shakespeare grounds you ... You have to have a level of understanding to get through a performance. It's making other people appreciate what Shakespeare wrote, but also appreciate what you're trying to do as an actor."
-- Jaye Cooney, Smoky Hill High School alum and nationally recognized actor
Cooney's comfort and confidence came through. Her passionate delivery of Portia's words won her an all-expenses-paid trip to New York, where Cooney competed against fellow student actors from across the country. Cooney placed as a semi-finalist in the competition, and the experience left an impression that's sure to guide academic and professional prospects.
More profoundly, performing Portia's monologue has helped Cooney find a degree of calm and confidence.
"Shakespeare grounds you," Cooney said. "You have to have a level of understanding to get through a performance. It's making other people appreciate what Shakespeare wrote, but also appreciate what you're trying to do as an actor. As a person, I'm all over the place all the time – I talk quickly and I have a hard time enunciating clearly at times.
"But with Shakespeare, it's almost like an obligation to do it justice and to get it across as accurately as you possibly can," Cooney added.
Cooney's strong showing in New York served as a preface to the next chapter of life. Cooney is heading to Colorado State University, and academic paths in acting, writing and psychology are all possibilities. In addition to athletics, these interests give Cooney plenty of options for future.
Any future direction will be impacted by the words of an English poet who lived and worked centuries ago, a playwright who summoned the pain, grief and woes of a woman from the ancient Roman world.
"This has played a huge part in getting me out of my shell," Cooney said, specifically crediting the theater program at Smoky Hill and the input of theater director Timothy Brown. "Going to New York passed my expectations. There were so many talented people there."