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How to Conquer Shakespeare

How to Conquer Shakespeare
Photo Source: Jesse Balgley

The Bard! The Sweet Swan of Avon! The Poet! With the centuries of praise heaped upon William Shakespeare’s memory, it’s no wonder many people are intimidated by his works. This is not to say Shakespeare’s texts aren’t intimidating in their own right: they present many fascinating, sometimes daunting, challenges. Yet sometimes in the flurry of highbrow praise, it can be easy to lose sight of a simple fact: Generation after generation of actors and directors have found something beautiful and relevant to their own time and place in Shakespeare’s work. His plays are just as ready to be brought to life today as they were four centuries ago.

But an actor who has never performed the Bard’s work is like a runner entering a marathon having never run a mile. It takes time and practice to master the tools necessary to read, understand, and perform Shakespeare. But by studying Shakespeare, you can develop a range of skills that broaden your range and deepen your practice in a way that opens up all other types of acting. In other words, once you can run a marathon, running a mile is no sweat.

First things first: Who is Shakespeare?

We lose sight of one key fact when we think of Shakespeare the Legend rather than Shakespeare the Person: He wrote his 38 plays, 154 sonnets, and two longer poems in just under 25 years. In that brief time, he profoundly shaped the English language for centuries to come.

Perhaps we focus so much on Shakespeare the Legend because so little is known about Shakespeare the Person, apart from the official, surviving records. William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon on April 23, 1564 to a relatively prosperous couple who very likely paid for his education (although there is no evidence he attended a university). At age 18, he married Anne Hathaway, who was pregnant at the time they were wed. They had two children together, and at age 28, he moved to London and began acting and writing for the theater.

Despite how little we know of his private life, we know that he came to London at the right time. The Renaissance was talking hold of England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a great patron of the theater. Exciting ideas about the nature of humanity and the world flowed freely, and the public theater was a place where all classes and kinds of people gathered to be entertained, provoked to thought, and exposed to a growing and vital language.

We often think of Shakespeare as writing in “old English,” but in reality, Shakespeare was one of the first modern writers. In his plays, he pushed away from theater tradition that was either formal and bombastic or sing-songy in style. He worked within this fashion, but he deeply reimagined it. With his keen sense for the contradictions of human nature, he became, in a sense, the inventor of the deep characterization and natural speech we associate with modern acting methods today.

Shakespeare wrote three main types of plays: comedies, histories, and tragedies. His comedies were often light-hearted affairs that ended with a marriage: “Twelfth Night” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” are two he’s best known for. The histories, like “Richard III” and “Henry V” retold famous escapades of the English crown, using the War of the Roses and other events to reflect on current political conditions. Shakespeare is perhaps best known for his tragedies—“Romeo and Juliet,” “Hamlet,” “Macbeth,” and “Othello,” to name a few—in which heroic protagonists are eventually undone by their flaws.

When would I perform Shakespeare?

As an audition monologue, Shakespeare’s set pieces offer a great opportunity to demonstrate your range as an actor. In acting class, there are many opportunities to take a deep dive into Shakespeare’s texts and learn how to bring the language to life. In almost any city with a theater scene, you’ll find opportunities to perform Shakespeare onstage. Plus, there are a whole host of Shakespeare’s plays turned into films every year. Just look at the star-studded series of Shakespeare’s histories, “The Hollow Crown,” now in its second season.

Why is Shakespeare so important to the performing arts?

Again, if you can run a marathon, you can run a mile. If you can find a way to embody Shakespeare’s text in a fully realized character, you can confidently bring pretty much any other text to life. Acclaimed playwright Ken Ludwig put it a bit more eloquently:

“Shakespeare is at the core of every serious actor’s training and experience, and the sooner you start the process, the better. Of all the hundreds and hundreds of actors I’ve auditioned for my plays over the years, by far the best and most successful have known their Shakespeare very, very well.”

This is not only because you will have mastered the art of bringing a difficult text to life, but because Shakespeare has quite literally influenced every playwright who has come after him. Finding a way to convey full emotion through precise articulation of Shakespeare’s language opens you up to new ways of playing scenes from all eras of theater.

Beyond the importance from a craft perspective, Shakespearean skills are a powerful career tool. Because the source material is so well known, many of the best writers and directors are drawn to staging and casting Shakespeare in innovate ways. Think “Sleep No More,” Phyllida Lloyd’s gender-flipped casting of “The Tempest,” even adaptations like “10 Things I Hate About You.”

And if after all that you’re still feeling like Shakespeare is all irrelevant frilly collars and knights in armor, consider this: HBO just announced four “Game of Thrones” spinoffs. Just saying.

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What’s the best way to learn how to interpret and perform Shakespeare?

As with most things Shakespeare, you should try to find a balance between study and practice. Of course, you should read his plays and read them deeply in editions with footnotes to help you understand the more archaic words.

But along with your reading, don’t forget that these words were meant to be spoken aloud, to be embodied and performed. We are lucky to live in a time when we can watch so many different performances of Shakespeare by legendary actors. YouTubing a single scene is a master class in all the different effects great actors can get from the same lines.

One great way to deepen your reading of Shakespeare is to take Shakespeare-specific courses in college.

There is a reason people write thousands of books and articles about these plays every year and have done so for decades: The deeper you look into the text, the more there is to find. Having an experienced guide to the text can be crucial to a deep dive into these plays.

But it’s also important to distinguish an actor’s approach to a play from that of a literary scholar. As you begin to look for ways to bring Shakespeare’s characters to life, finding a Shakespeare acting class can make the difference between playing a vivid character versus playing a generalized, old-fashioned stereotype.

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How can I develop my character?

Shakespeare’s text was written at a particular time, for particular players, in a particular acting tradition. It was a tradition that caused Shakespeare to work some advice to his actors into “Hamlet”:

“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, by use all gently.”

The advice holds up to this day for actors who have a preconception that Shakespeare has to sound a certain way: grandiose, formal, pretty much intolerably stuffy. It’s especially unbearable to us today because we’re accustomed to an acting style that deliberately attempts to make everything seem as “natural” and “realistic” as possible. This is the result of decades spent under the influence of Stanislavsky’s method of psychoanalysis of TV and movies.

You might approach a Shakespeare character with questions drawn from this tradition of realism.

You might ask about the character’s background:

  • Who was my character before the play began?
  • What kind of world does he or she live in?
  • What clues in the text can I find about my past?
  • What was said in the moment before the play or the scene began? Was anything said at all?

You might ask questions about your motivation in the present:

  • What do I want?
  • What is standing in the way of what I want?
  • Who am I speaking to?
  • What do they think of me?
  • How long have I known them?

Now comes the hard part. You understand the scene, you understand your character and your emotion and motivation in the scene. But the words are getting in your way. If you “let the text take care of itself,” the result will be a generalized performance, a caricature of the overall emotion of the scene.

As an actor, you have to figure out why your character needs to use those specific words in that specific moment. If you can do that, the words will come to life as you act them; you will bring the audience along with you through Shakespeare’s often-complex thoughts and sentences. If you fall into a trance of generalizing the performance, the beauty and power of the words will be lost, and the audience will eventually tune out.

So how do you fuse your modern character development with Shakespeare’s language? “Hamlet’s” advice to the players suggests that the key is, once again, balance:

“[I]n the very torrent, tempest, and (as I may say) whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness…. Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature.”

How can I physically prepare to perform Shakespeare?

You’ll be doing a lot of talking, so vocal warmups and overall vocal health are crucial, especially so you can bring vocal musicality to the language.

Audiences, no matter how familiar they are with Shakespeare, need to be enticed, maybe sometimes forced, to listen and pay attention to the words of a dense text like Shakespeare’s. In fact, sometimes audiences who are already familiar with the play are even more tempted to follow the general arc of the story and not tune into the words. The actor needs to make the words come through clearly and vibrantly. In theater, that means you’ll need to project.

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Do I have to perform with a British accent?

Unless an accent is specified in the production, use your natural voice and accent. The accents in Shakespeare’s time would have been very different from what we think of as a British accent today anyway. In fact, they would have sounded closer to a rougher American accent than to the gentile accent we now associate with highbrow acting. More to the point, the goal of any Shakespeare performance should be to bring the text to life; taking on an accent that you haven’t totally made your own puts you at risk of sounding vaguely Shakespearean and not like a unique, engaging character.

What are some key terms/poetic devices I should be aware of?

  • Verse: Shakespeare uses many poetic forms, both rhymed and unrhymed, to achieve different effects at different times in his plays. You can easily spot them because the lines do not extend to the margins of the page. When Shakespeare writes in verse, he’s telling you to pay extra attention to the rhythm and music of the language.
  • Prose: You can tell that a section of a play is written in prose by the fact that it runs to the margin of the page. Just because it’s prose, however, doesn't mean the tone and music of the words isn't important.
  • Assonance: Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds. In “King John,” Shakespeare works seven instances of the same vowel sound into one line that almost becomes a tongue-twister:

What lusty trumpet thus doth summon us?

  • Consonance: The repetition of consonants. Hear the whispery S’s and Ch’s in the prologue to “Henry V”:

That the fixed sentinels almost receive
The secret whispers of each other's watch

  • Alliteration: A form of consonance in which the repeating consonants all occur at the start of words. Here’s Shakespeare in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” poking fun at playwrights who maybe take this device a little too far:

Whereat, with blade, with bloody blameful blade,
He bravely broach'd his boiling bloody breast

  • Onomatopoeia: This funny-sounding word describes a term that sounds like the thing it means. This includes clear imitative words: bow-wow, bark, ding-dong, buzz, clang. But onomatopoeia can also include words that suggest the imitation more subtly. Consider that line above from “Henry V” in which we physically hear the “whisper” sounds described.

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What is iambic pentameter? What is blank verse?

The first step to mastering iambic pentameter is to take the phrase “iambic pentameter” and throw it in the garbage. Then take the garbage out to the dumpster. Then set the dumpster on fire.

“Iambic pentameter” is such a frustrating term because it makes you feel like you’re dealing with something archaic, intellectual, and complicated. In reality, you’re dealing with a rhythm that is simple, common in everyday speech, and as primal as your own pulse.

An iambic pentameter line has 10 syllables, grouped into five two-syllable beats (iambs) in which the second syllable is stressed: da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM. Can you hear the heartbeat in the line?

When lines of iambic pentameter aren’t rhymed, it’s called blank verse. This is Shakespeare’s most common verse form. The question is why? If iambic pentameter is the verse form that most closely mimics natural speech and if Shakespeare sometimes wrote in prose, why bother with it at all?

The short answer is that the rhythm is a tool to help you find the best delivery of your lines. It’s a stage direction in shorthand. The long answer requires us to spend some time paying attention to the rhythm of Shakespeare’s verse and noticing when that rhythm changes. We call this “scanning” the lines.

Let’s start by getting a sense for how the rhythm works in a standard line of blank verse. Read this famous line from “Twelfth Night” aloud and try to feel the da DUM heartbeat in the syllables:

If music be the food of love, play on,

Sometimes it can help to tap your hand over your heart on each stressed syllable to help you get the heartbeat of the line:

If MUsic BE the FOOD of LOVE, play ON,
Give ME exCESS of IT; that SURfeitING,
The APPeTITE may SICKen AND so DIE.

Once you’ve got that rhythm deep in your body, you’re in tune with the basic mode in which Shakespeare is writing. So the next thing to notice is when the rhythm changes and to ask why. Here are some changes to look for:

Lines that have more than five stresses: Try to force this line from “Henry V” into regular iambic pentameter:

Once MORE inTO the BREACH, dear FRIENDS, once MORE

That doesn’t feel right at all. In fact, it probably feels best to stress almost every one of the syllables:

ONCE MORE into the BREACH, DEAR FRIENDS, ONCE MORE

When you see extra stresses in a line, especially when you see the first syllable stressed, it is often a hint that intense emotion is overwhelming the speaker, as in the battle scene from which the line above is taken.

Lines that stop short. Sometimes a line stops well short of the 10-syllable pattern we’re expecting. This can tell you one of two things, depending on what happens in the next line:

If the next speaker uses up the remaining syllables in the line, that is a quick cue the second actor has to pick up to keep the dialog moving, as in this exchange from “King John”:

KING JOHN:
Thou art his keeper.

HUBERT:
And I’ll keep him so
That he shall not offend your majesty.

If, however, the next speaker starts his or her own brand-new line, the short line indicates the pause. Shakespeare is telling us that something unsaid is being given space. When Hotspur is killed in “Henry IV, Part I,” Shakespeare has him die mid-line, leaving space for his life to pass before Prince Henry speaks again:

 HOTSPUR:
… O, I could prophesy,
But that the earthy and cold hand of death
Lies on my tongue: no, Percy, thou art dust
And food for--

(Dies)

PRINCE HENRY:
For worms, brave Percy: fare thee well, great heart!

Monosyllables: Lines made up entirely or nearly entirely of one-syllable words should usually be given space to breathe. If you rush through them mindlessly on the heartbeat rhythm, you often miss a moment of intense poetic resonance. Try saying this line from “Othello” quickly, then try giving the words space to resonate: Put out the light, and then put out the light.

What’s Shakespeare’s deal with punctuation?

We’ve already seen it in just the handful of quotes above: o’erstep, as ‘twere, broach’d. When Shakespeare cuts out letters from words or blurs them together, this is called elision. It can seem finicky or old fashioned to us but if you scan the line, you’ll often find that you gain more clarity by not disturbing the rhythm of the line than you do by saying “overstep” instead of “o’erstep” or “as it were” instead of “as ‘twere”.

Beyond those instances of elision, Shakespeare uses punctuation to give us more clues to how a line should be delivered:

  • Period: As a general rule, you can deliver a single thought of Shakespeare’s through to the end of its sentence in one breath. When the sentence ends, it’s usually time to pause, breathe, and let the next thought come up naturally.
  • Comma: Though a comma can indicate a pause or a place to breathe, it doesn’t necessarily do so. It indicates a shift in thought, and how quickly you take that shift depends on the context of your character.
  • Colon: Think of a colon as a gateway into a new thought. Whatever came before was meant to usher us into a new direction with intention. As with the comma, this doesn’t necessarily demand a pause, but it’s worth asking what feeling a pause might create in that gateway from thought to thought.
  • Semicolon: A semicolon is an indication that the next clause will be an explanation of or an expansion on the thought that preceded the semicolon. When you see a semicolon, make sure you understand how the two clauses on either side of it relate to one another.

Are there any tricks for understanding Shakespeare’s language and style?

Studying Shakespeare on the level of the line and the sentence is how you build the foundation of your character, but there are other levels of comprehension to build on after that. Here are some things you can do to make sure you’re fully engaged in the context of your play:

  • Read an annotated copy of the play: There are many editions of Shakespeare’s works that have footnotes to help you translate words that aren’t common anymore, understand complex puns and figures of speech, and generally follow the story more carefully. They also come with useful introductions that put the play in context, so read those bits, too.
  • Translate frequently used terms: Once you’ve gotten used to checking the footnotes as you read, you’ll start to notice words that come up frequently. If you can remember that anon means soon, or that wherefore means why (not where), you’ll be on your way to making Shakespeare’s language your own.
  • Tweet a speech: If you’re having trouble following a long passage, try rewriting the entire thing in 140 characters. Once you’ve gotten the gist of the speech down to tweet length and in your own words, ask yourself: Why does this character need to say more? What is Shakespeare doing with the words that I cut out as “unnecessary”? You have to find a reason that those words are deeply necessary to the character in that moment.

How do I deal with different locations and time periods for each play?

These days, it’s as common to see Shakespeare set in a deconstructed or modernized setting as it is to see it in more “traditional” stagings. Even if you’re part of a production with a really exciting reimagining of the time and setting of the play, never forget entirely about the time and place Shakespeare originally set the show. There will inevitably be details in the text that make sense in the original setting but need to be translated over to the new one. As the saying goes, you have to know the rules before you can learn how best to break them.

What’s the difference between performing Shakespeare onstage and for film?

The people who go to a play are called an audience. The people who see a film or TV show are called viewers. That difference between audio and visual, between hearing and sight, goes a long way toward summing up the difference between performing Shakespeare onstage and for film.

In a film, the gestures can be much more minute. You can expect viewers to visually read a character’s face and eyes very closely. And actors can deliver lines with nuance and perfect clarity, even at a whisper. This opens up a range of dramatic frequencies and intensities that can’t be achieved in most theaters.

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But renowned Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells sees something crucial missing from the experience of acting on film: “You don’t get the interaction between audience and performers, which to me is the vital thing about seeing Shakespeare in the theater—there’s an electric current that passes.”

Depending on the size of the theater in which you’re performing, you’ll have to adjust the level at which you project and the size of your gestures in order to make sure you’re reaching everyone in the house. But you will have people there to reach. You will feel from them whether your performance is moving them, whether you are truly sharing that experience of the play. In the soliloquies, for example, you have the option of directly addressing the audience, sharing the character’s dilemma with them. The text must be shared. In film, actors have to find ways to do without that electric current, to find new ways to engage the viewers yet to come.

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Where can I find Shakespeare monologues?

Our database of monologues, the Monologuer, hosts a whopping 295 of the Bard’s monologues, soliloquies, and speeches, so look no further! What makes the Monologuer really powerful is its search features: After you’ve filtered to Shakespeare using the author filter, you can find the perfect monologue by filtering for age range, gender, play title, genre, and theme. From there, the play and scene synopses will put you well on your way to owning those immortal lines in your next audition.

Is there anything in Shakespeare’s canon I should stay away from?

Yes, frankly, there is: The Most Overused Shakespeare Audition Monologues

Some of these monologues, like Richard III’s “Now is the winter of our discontent” and Lady Macbeth’s “Out, damned spot,” don’t work well in auditions because they come too early or too late in their character’s story arc. You want to show your ability to follow the shifts in your character’s emotion and intention. Others pieces are forever associated with the famous performances of legendary actors. Others are just plain overused.

 

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