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Afraid of Shakespeare? Here’s Where to Start

Afraid of Shakespeare? Here’s Where to Start
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Many actors and English students have told me they are afraid of Shakespeare. They don’t understand his work and think they never will. Actors have even gone so far as to turn down roles with my theater company, saying, “I can’t do Shakespeare.” It takes a lot of convincing, but once I give them a few tips, they realize they can perform Shakespeare and even enjoy it.

If you’re Shakespeare-phobic, there are things you can do to get over your fears and open yourself up to more opportunities. With a little bit of work, you’ll soon be quoting the Bard.

First, get a sense of the story. A site like shmoop.com can offer short summaries of the plays that are easy ready and often funny. Next, if you’re really serious about this, take a look at Sparknotes’ “No Fear” versions. These will give you Shakespeare’s language side-by-side with the modern equivalent so you can really get a sense of what every single line means. (You can purchase hard copies of these as well.)

At this point, you’ve got an idea of what’s going on but you still want to know: what’s up with the language?

READ: 10 Tips for Speaking (and Performing) Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s language takes getting used to but it is not an impossible feat. While some characters speak in prose (ordinary language), a lot of the lines in the plays are in iambic pentameter, a type of verse. In iambic pentameter, there are ten syllables per line and every second syllable is stressed. For example, here is a line from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets: “When I do count the clock that tells the time...” The rhythm looks like this, with the bold text stressed: “When I do count the clock that tells the time...”

But when you speak the line, don’t emphasize the rhythm. You don’t want it to sound like ba-BUM-ba-BUM-ba-BUM-ba-BUM-ba-BUM. Say the line normally, watching for commas, periods or other end-of-the sentence punctuation. That’s important. Pause when you hit one of those end marks. If there isn’t an end mark at the end of a line, don’t pause; keep going on to the next line.

In order to keep the rhythm or make the rhyme scheme work, Shakespeare sometimes switched up normal word order. In standard English, sentences usually follow a subject-verb-object pattern: William (subject) wrote (verb) the plays (object). Inverting the sentence—the plays (object) William (subject) wrote (verb)—offers a different way to say the same thing without changing the meaning, something Shakespeare did a lot. 

For example, the following is a line from “Romeo and Juliet” that uses inverted word order:

“So early walking did I see your son.” 

All the line means is, “I saw your son walking early.” Don’t let an unfamiliar sentence structure skew your understanding or interpretation of the text. 

The last stumbling block is often vocabulary. Shakespeare used high-level vocabulary, but he also coined new words and phrases. If you’re preparing a scene or monologue and are unsure of the meaning of a word, look it up. (The No Fear version will also have the modern meanings and easier definitions of words.) 

Finally, don’t just read a scene once and give up. Mark the text with definitions and notes. Read it out loud over and over again. Pretty soon, you’ll be developing an understanding of what Shakespeare is trying to say. Then use your acting skills to figure out the character’s motivation, which will determine how to say the lines. It takes some work, but with a little bit of effort, you’ll be well on your way to performing Shakespeare. 

*This post was originally published on April 17, 2018. It has since been updated. 

Catherine LaMoreaux is the artistic director of Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center, a nonprofit community theater she co-founded with her daughter in 2014. Dragonfly is committed to diversity and nontraditional casting. Catherine has written five plays, including “Tenali Raman, an adaptation of Indian folktales, and Cyrano!, a reimagining of Cyrano de Begerac” with a female Cyrano. Her degree is in theatre from the University of Michigan. She teaches high school acting and tutors in English.

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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