Picking a classical audition speech is a minefield. Whether it’s for drama schools or open auditions, your classical pieces need to be strong, able to show off your skills and contrast with contemporary monologues. They also need to be “worked on” – that means learnt, understood and performed with clarity and precision.
So it’s understandable that many actors pick the same old Shakespeare speeches, those with the most amount of notes and guidance and from plays you might already be familiar with. There’s nothing wrong with playing it safe – but away from the well-trodden paths lie a wealth of classical monologues that will surprise and capture the attention of a panel. Here are just five of them, with notes to give you a head start.
Remember: it’s important to check the requirements of an audition before you pick and learn a piece. There may be time limits or suggestions of writers and styles to avoid. It’s also common for drama schools to ask you to learn a second piece as an alternative. Although it’s best to pick a monologue you can identify with and a character that fits your casting, ensure that your speeches aren’t too similar in tone or subject matter.
Who: A lustful young man talks to the audience.
Where: In the home of Frankford – a friend who has invited Wendoll to stay.
When: Wendoll has been given the run of the house by Frankford, but he’s taken advantage of his friend’s hospitality by seducing his wife – the beautiful Anne.
What: Wendoll is torn between pursuing Anne and doing right by Frankford. He says it’s bad enough to think about sleeping with another man’s wife – but actually attempting it will send him straight to hell. He tries to “drive away” his passion, first with song, then with prayer and then by resolving to forget her. However, all he can think of is Anne. By the end, he is resigned to seducing her, and he asks for his punishment from the gods not to come too quickly.
I am a villain, if I apprehend
But such a thought! Then, to attempt the deed –
Slave, thou art damned without redemption!
I'll drive away this passion with a song.
A song! Ha! Ha! A song! As if, fond man,
Thy eyes could swim in laughter when thy soul
Lies drenched and drownéd in red tears of blood!
I'll pray, and see if God within my heart
Plant better thoughts. Why, prayers are meditations,
And when I meditate (O, God forgive me!)
It is on her divine perfections.
I will forget her; I will arm myself
Not t' entertain a thought of love to her;
And, when I come by chance into her presence,
I'll hale these balls until my eyestrings crack
From being pulled and drawn to look that way.
O God, O God! With what a violence
I'm hurried to my own destruction!
There goest thou, the most perfect’st man
That ever England bred a gentleman,
And shall I wrong his bed? Thou God of Thunder,
Stay, in thy thoughts of vengeance and of wrath,
Thy great, almighty, and all-judging hand
From speedy execution on a villain,
A villain and a traitor to his friend!
- Hale: Heywood creates an image not unlike a cartoon character’s eyes being pulled out of their sockets.
- Perfect’st: Heywood has elided the word ‘perfect-est’ because the stress lands on ‘perFECT-st’.
Direction: The stakes are sky-high: Wendoll’s soul is in danger and the comedy comes from truly committing to the tactics for forgetting Anne – and then giving up just as forcefully. Remember: the ending is not a foregone conclusion – it’s a gripping speech if the listener believes Wendoll really might change his ways and stop pursuing Anne.
Who and where: As above.
When: Wendoll has successfully seduced Anne and now Frankford is punishing his wife for the affair.
What: Wendoll considers the role of fate (“my stars”) and wonders if his parents did something evil to deserve such a badly-behaved son. He weighs his actions against those of his good-natured friend Frankford and compares his affair with Anne to the sin of murder. He considers himself like an owl (who at this time were thought to unlucky), living in the night and afraid of the day. Wendoll wants to know how Frankford has punished Anne, and at that moment spots her travelling with her belongings and a few lowly servants. He considers how he’s broken up the perfect couple and how Anne’s sadness has made her servants cry, just like the mythical Orpheus made nature tremble with his music.
Pursued with horror of a guilty soul,
And with the sharp scourge of repentance lashed,
I fly from mine own shadow. O my stars!
What have my parents in their lives deserved,
That you should lay this penance on their son?
When I but think of Master Frankford's love,
And lay it to my treason, or compare
My murthering him for his relieving me,
It strikes a terror like a lightning's flash,
To scorch my blood up. Thus I, like the owl,
Ashamed of day, live in these shadowy woods,
Afraid of every leaf or murmuring blast.
Yet longing to receive some perfect knowledge
How he hath dealt with her. [Sees Anne.] O my sad fate!
Here, and so far from home, and thus attended!
O God! I have divorced the truest turtles
That ever lived together, and, being divided,
In several places make their several moan;
She in the field laments, and he at home.
So poets write that Orpheus made the trees
And stones to dance to his melodious harp,
Meaning the rustic and the barbarous hinds,
That had no understanding part in them;
So she from these rude carters tears extracts,
Making their flinty hearts with grief to rise,
And draw down rivers from their rocky eyes.
- Murthering: old spelling of murdering
- Lay: compare
- Turtles: turtle doves
- Several: separate
- Thus attended: Anne is helped on her journey by uncouth people
- Orpheus: a god who perfected playing the lyre or harp and so could make the trees and ground dance with his song
- Barbarous hinds: illiterate country people who Wendoll suggests are like animals
- Rude carters: the people transporting (“carting”) Anne’s belongings who Wendoll suggests are “rude,” ie uneducated
Direction: This speech is an opportunity to show both sides of Wendoll. He’s obsessed with his own crimes and has fled to the woods to hide from the people he’s wronged. He’s not quite ready to blame himself, so he looks to fate and the actions of his parents for the source of the crime. But when he spots Anne he can’t help but see the consequences of his lust, and although he doesn’t have a way of fixing it, he is now more willing to accept blame. The speech serves first as a flight from responsibility and secondly a confession to the audience, with Wendoll taking ownership of his actions. Pinpoint the exact moment where Wendoll stops blaming others and use that as a turning point in the speech.
Who: Ferdinand, a young and unstable man, speaks to the servant Bosola.
Where: The room where the Duchess and her two children have been strangled to death on his orders.
When: Ferdinand is standing over the bodies of his sister and his two young nephews who he ordered to be murdered. His servant Bosola hired goons to strangle the Duchess and her children, but on seeing the dead bodies, Ferdinand wishes Bosola had not followed his orders or might have intervened to save their lives. Look here for a detailed plot.
What: Ferdinand asks why Bosola did not pity her or do something to stop the murders? He says he commanded Bosola when he was mad (‘distracted of my wits’) and this forces him to examine why the Duchess had to die. It was in part that Ferdinand stood to inherit a fortune by her death and in part that she had married in secret against his will. He turns to Bosola and says that he is like an actor who plays a bad guy, hated by the audience even though he’s just following the words of a writer. Nonetheless, Ferdinand concludes that he hates Bosola for what he’s done.
Let me see her face
Again. Why didst thou not pity her? What
An excellent honest man mightst thou have been,
If thou hadst borne her to some sanctuary.
Or, bold in a good cause, oppos’d thyself,
With thy advanced sword above thy head,
Between her innocence and my revenge.
I bade thee, when I was distracted of my wits,
Go kill my dearest friend, and thou hast done’t.
For let me but examine the cause:
What was the meanness of her match to me?
Only I must confess I had hope,
Had she continu’d widowed, to have gain’d
An infinite mass of treasure by her death.
And that was the main cause – her marriage –
That drew a stream of gall quite through my heart.
For thee, as we observe in tragedies
That a good actor many times is cursed
For playing a villain’s part, I hate thee for’t,
And, for my sake, say thou hast done much ill well.
- Borne: taken
- Bold: strong-willed, sure
- Advanced sword: a blade readied to strike
- Bade: commanded
- Gall: a supposed bodily liquid (or ‘humour’) which creates rage
- Done much ill well: done your awful task brilliantly
Direction: As this speech is to another character in the scene, remember that it’s always possible he could respond and object. Play the scene, not just the speech. Ferdinand is also in the presence of the bodies of the Duchess and her children, which can act as another focal point. Although Bosola is lower status and has just become a murderer, it’s possible to colour the speech with more than blame and anger. Ferdinand is examining Bosola – and one way to play the speech might be to look for opportunities to forgive him before the final lines.
Who: Hippolito, a melancholic young man, talks to the prostitute Bellafront.
Where: A brothel in Milan.
When: Hippolito is in mourning for his lover who he believes is dead. In an effort to cheer him up, Hippolito’s friends take him to see a prostitute, Bellafront. Hippolito declines Bellafront’s advances and says that all prostitutes are liars and that she’ll try to ensnare him in a trap. Bellafront disagrees and says she’s “an honest whore” – but Hippolito is unconvinced.
What: He attempts to convince Bellafront that being a prostitute is the worst and most lowly job in the world. First he compares her to a toad who, even though it’s full of poison, is still less diseased than Bellafront. Then he says that when she puts on clothes it’s for the pleasure of others; when she eats it’s to energise a body to commit sin, and that the reputation of being a prostitute will outlive her. Hippolito compares her to animals being forced to dance and earn money for an owner (a bawd). He then says that even the best and most famous prostitute lived and died miserably, eventually making Bellafront cry. He is shocked to have upset her and perhaps at the end is rethinking the strength of his convictions.
Methinks a toad is happier than a whore.
That, with one poison, swells; with thousands more
The other stocks her veins. Harlot? Fie, fie!
You are the miserablest creatures breathing,
The very slaves of nature. Mark me else.
You put on rich attires – others' eyes wear them;
You eat, but to supply your blood with sin.
And this strange curse e'en haunts you to your graves.
From fools you get, and spend it upon slaves.
Like bears and apes, y'are baited and show tricks
For money; but your bawd the sweetness licks.
Indeed, you are their journeywomen, and do
All base and damned works they list set you to,
So that you ne'er are rich; for do but show me,
In present memory or in ages past,
The fairest and most famous courtesan,
Whose flesh was dear'st; that raised the price of sin,
And held it up; to whose intemperate bosom,
Princes, earls, lords, the worst has been a knight,
The mean'st a gentleman, have offered up
Whole hecatombs of sighs, and rained in showers
Handfuls of gold; yet, for all this, at last
Diseases sucked her marrow, then grew so poor
That she has begged e'en at a beggar's door.
And (wherein heaven has a finger) when this idol,
From coast to coast, has leaped on foreign shores,
And had more worship than the outlandish whores;
When several nations have gone over her;
When, for each several city she has seen,
Her maidenhead has been new, and been sold dear;
Did live well there, and might have died unknown
And undefamed – back comes she to her own,
And there both miserably lives and dies,
Scorned even of those that once adored her eyes,
As if her fatal, circled life thus ran:
Her pride should end there where it first began.
What, do you weep to hear your story read?
Nay, if you spoil your cheeks, I'll read no more.
- Mark me else: asking Bellafront to pay attention
- Attires: clothing
- E’en: “even” made into one syllable
- Journeywoman: a travelling salesperson
- List: ask
- Intemperate bosom: an excessive, immoderate heart but also suggestive of breasts
- Hecatomb: an ancient place of public sacrifice, pronounced ‘HECK-a-TOOM’
- Wherein heaven has a finger: God has some role in this punishment
- Maidenhead: virginity
- Her pride should end where it first began: the courtesan cannot have pride because she gave it up the day she began prostituting herself
Direction: The first thing you’ll notice is that this speech is full of rhyming couplets. They’re there if you want them but it’s worth bearing two things in mind: hearing rhyming couplets can be tiresome and if the speaker over-stresses them then listeners can easily lose the sense of the speech. A tip for rhymed speech is to pick one word in the line, whichever word you think is the most important, and focus the line around it. Sometimes it might be the rhymed word but mostly it will be elsewhere.
There are many ways to play the speech. Hippolito could be so wrapped up in his own misery that he doesn’t care who he offends – and perhaps doesn’t even think it possible to offend a prostitute. He might actually be tempted to sleep with Bellafront, and be trying to convince himself more than her. Or he could be wanting to lash out on someone with lower status than himself. Think about using the strength of his convictions to comedic effect. It’s also possible to play the ending differently. He might be unmoved by her tears, he could come to the realisation that she’s as miserable as he is and want to offer comfort – or he could be punishing her further by suggesting that she’s not supposed to have emotions in her line of work.
RELATED: Are You a Method or Classical Actor?
Who: Gaveston is the young favourite of the newly-throned King Edward. He’s bold, witty – and disliked by almost everyone except Edward, with Marlowe suggesting the pair have a homoerotic relationship. He talks to the audience – or perhaps to the imagined King.
Where: France, in exile from England.
When: Gaveston was exiled by Edward’s father (Edward I) for running away from war to compete in a tournament. He and the prince Edward were the best of friends, and being apart has made Gaveston miserable. Now that Edward has become king of England, Gaveston is ecstatic to receive a letter saying he is allowed to return home.
What: He speaks as if Edward is in the room, saying that he would swim the channel if Edward were at the other side ready to hold him. He dreams of London and says that going there will be like a soul going to heaven. However, Gaveston doesn’t care for the city or the people – it’s only because Edward is in London that he loves the sight of it. He compares his own attitude towards other people to be like those living in the Arctic who have no need of stars when the sun shines all day. He says he won’t even pretend to like anyone but the king when he returns home.
(Reading from a letter): ‘My father is deceas’d! Come, Gaveston,
And share the kingdom with thy dearest friend.’
Ah! Words that make me surfeit with delight!
What greater bliss can hap to Gaveston
Than live and be the favourite of a king!
Sweet prince, I come; these, these thy amorous lines
Might have enforc’d me to have swum from France,
And, like Leander, gasp’d upon the sand,
So thou would’st smile, and take me in thine arms.
The sight of London to my exil’d eyes
Is as Elysium to a new-come soul.
Not that I love the city, or the men,
But that it harbours him I hold so dear –
The king, upon whose bosom let me die
And with the world be still at enmity.
What need the Arctic people love starlight,
To whom the sun shines by both day and night?
Farewell base stooping to the lordly peers!
My knee shall bow to none but to the king.
As for the multitude, that are but sparks,
Rak’d up in the embers of their poverty;
Tanti, I’ll fawn first on the wind
That glanceth at my lips, and flieth away.
- Surfeit: overflow
- Amorous lines: Edward’s letter
- Leander: a Greek hero who swam across a stretch of water nightly to see his lover
- Elysium: heaven
- Enmity: the state of being hostile to others
- Base: unworthy
- Multitude: the masses
- Tanti: Latin, “so much for them”
Direction: Marlowe places this speech at the top of the play because it tells the story of Gaveston’s exile and the death of the previous king. The challenge for an actor is to tell that story while also introducing us to Gaveston, a passionate and intelligent young man who is to some extent in love with Edward II. If you play the speech as if speaking to Edward, then there are opportunities to flatter, tease and provoke a response. If you want to play it like a soliloquy then there’s also an opportunity to titillate and excite the audience with Gaveston’s risque suggestions of homoerotic contact between himself and Edward. Remember that the king’s high status rubs off on Gaveston. His and Edward’s eventual downfall will stem from believing that they are untouchable.
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