The 5 Best Shakespeare Sonnets for Auditions

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Photo Source: Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash

In a previous article, I wrote how Shakespeare’s sonnets provide an evocative alternative to more traditional choices for classical monologues in professional auditions. In this piece, I’d like to discuss five of these poems that might work especially well for actors.  

Granted, the “best” sonnets to audition with are those that work for you. As with any monologue, you’ll need to try several out loud in order to find ones that fit your voice. A teacher can help you decide, but you should also stay attuned to which sets of verse ring right to your own ears. Get a hold of a copy of Shakespeare’s collected sonnets and find those that speak your truth. The Bard wrote 154 of them, so at least some should resonate!

Also, please note that although many of the sonnets deal with love, gender was fluid in Elizabethan theater. Biological men played all roles onstage and characters often donned additional gender-bending disguises. Today, you can perform any sonnet from the vantage of any gender expression. The sonnets typically involve a speaker and someone to whom the speaker talks to, or about, though the nature of the relationship can be open to interpretation, and therefore acting choices. At times, love means romantic love, but not always, which again creates opportunities for exploration. 

Caveats aside, the following five sonnets merit your attention as a performer.

1. Sonnet 18: “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day”
In general, you should avoid cliché. After Hamlet’s, “To be or not to be,” Sonnet 18’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” may be the most recognizable opening line in Shakespeare’s repertory, if not western literature. However, the poem is gorgeous and will leave your adjudicators thinking, “Oh yeah, the sonnets. Why don’t actors bring them to auditions more often?” Throughout theater history, and across culture, “theater” and “poetry” have often served as interchangeable categories. This one in particular allows you to show off your vocal performance.

Using the weather as a controlling metaphor, Sonnet 18 compares the speaker’s beloved to a summer’s day, who is “more fair and more temperate” than the sun. At times, the summer’s heat burns, yet the lover’s radiance acts as a salve. Unlike summer, this beauty endures beyond the veil, so that Death may not boast that the unnamed partner “wand’rest in his shade.” As researchers of “Original Pronunciation” point out, in Shakespeare’s time, “breathe,” “see,” and “thee” in the final couplet probably rhymed with “day” in the opening line, bringing the poem full circle (like the sun). However, in contemporary speech, the closing language still rings: “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / So long lives this [the beloved’s ‘eternal summer’], and this gives life to thee.”

The sonnet is lovely and you might read it as such. Pay special attention to the images that the lines create. However, what might happen if you gave it a different subtext? What if your character were angry? Embittered? Regretful? Jealous? Upset? Try the sonnet “as written,” and then change things up to see what happens.

2. Sonnet 23: “As an Unperfect Actor On the Stage”
From Hamlet’s advice to the players to the mechanicals in “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” to Jacques’ contention that “All the world’s a stage” in “As You Like It,” Shakespeare’s work teems with self-referential observations about theater. In Sonnet 23, a tongue-tied lover suffers something akin to stage fright when trying to express inner feelings to an object of affection. The speaker says, “So I, for fear of trust, forget to say / The perfect ceremony of love’s rite.” Perhaps Shakespeare provides an insight to his own anxieties when he writes, “O let my books be then the eloquence.” Unable to remember the lines (every actor’s nightmare), the speaker hopes that the beloved will, “learn to read what silent love hath writ: / To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.” Whereas Juliet tells Romeo, “you kiss by the book,” in this sonnet the speaker hesitates pursuing love “off book.” Instead, the speaker nurses unspoken emotion, like an actor frozen in the wings with a script in hand. 

Feel free to call attention to the fact that you are in this monologue using acting as a simile. How might you refer to the audition format itself as part of your performance? In terms of analysis, consider what you love? What do you, as an actor, want?

3. Sonnet 29: “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
Shakespeare possessed a preternatural ability to interweave sound and sense. He uses elevated language to express expansive ideas, and an auditioning actor needs to show casting directors the ability to command speech. Sonnet 29 puts on a masterclass in poetry that a performer can leverage into a one-minute recital. 

The opening line, “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” sings with a stateliness that could have come from a curtain speech in one of Shakespeare’s full-length plays. The sonnet contains onomatopoeia (“beweep” sounds like crying). The lines illustrate “kenning”—an ancient English poetic technique of putting two words together to make new images (“deaf heaven,” “bootless cries,” “sullen earth”). The lines take glee in alliteration (“hymns at heaven’s gate.”) The sonnet includes built-in stage business that could be fun to play (“Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope.”) As for theme, the speaker laments his “outcast state.” He’s psychically destitute, jealous of those who enjoy a better existence. Yet, when thinking of his object of love, the speaker’s mood lifts, “Like to the lark at break of day.” Memories of this person transform the speaker’s spirit and the speaker would not trade places with those of kings. 

When developing this monologue, plunge into sense memory. Try to connect the word images with moments from your own experiences. When practicing the lines, enjoy the tastes/sounds/feelings/sights/smells that the words evoke, making them as visceral as possible.    

4. Sonnet 116: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Many of Shakespeare’s most famous monologues open with emblematic opening lines that serve as points of departure for argument. For example, Portia claims that “the quality of mercy is not strain’d,” in “The Merchant of Venice,” disguised as a lawyer. Shakespeare often explores philosophical disquisitions as soliloquies. Richard III begins, “Now is the winter of our discontent,” when reflecting on his emotions about ruling England. 

Likewise, Sonnet 116 starts, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / admit impediments.” The speaker argues that love resists change (“it is an ever-fixed mark / That looks on tempests and is never shaken”). It’s a fixed point towards by ships may navigate (“It is the star to every wandering bark”). Moreover, it remains the same until the destruction of everything around it (“Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, / But bears it out even to the edge of doom”). The speaker is sure of these claims, couching contentions with the belief that if they are wrong, then no one has ever been in love.

As an acting challenge, consider two tactics. First, determine the context. Imagine delivering the sonnet as a closing argument in a court hearing. Try it as a professor giving a lecture in which you want to change the way people think about an event in history. Imagine accusing a lover of infidelity. Second, as the speaker, conduct rigorous scene strategy. What do you want? What stands in your way? How does the sonnet’s argument help you overcome obstacles in order to reach your objective? All the while, keep the stakes high.

5. Sonnet 138: “When my love swears that she is made of truth
Sonnet 138 is another chestnut, but an endearing example of self-deprecating dry wit. Moreover, unlike the similar Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,”) 138 avoids possible overtones of misogyny. 

Here, the speaker has been in a relationship for a long time, and the couple leaves certain realities unspoken. That is to say, “When my love swears that she is made of truth / I do believe her, though I know she lies.” She treats the speaker like a “schoolboy,” despite the fact, “she knows my days are past the best.” In particular, she maintains the illusion of the speaker’s virility, long since passed. Her dissembling is so convincing, the speaker questions who is to say what constitutes old age? A kindness, the lover knows how to flatter her partner, as in, “O, love’s habit is in seeming trust, / And age in love loves not to have years told.” The final couplet offers the sexual double-entendre, “Therefore, I lie with her and she with me, / And in our faults by lies we flatter’d be.” A pairing at peace with its members’ limitations, the poem marks a bittersweet glimpse into lifelong marriages, an increasingly rare form of partnership.

In performance, you can approach the acting challenge several ways. Perhaps you are a standup comic, doing a Rodney Dangerfield-like routine about how little you deserve your significant other. Alternatively, maybe you’re giving martial advice to a newly betrothed young person. In any scenario, the piece provides the challenge of playing an older character. Think about how to convey age in a convincing way, rather than with stereotyped physical cues. How would you speak of successful love towards the end of your lifespan? What do you think works to keep partnerships intact? 

The above five examples provide an introduction to the world of Shakespearean sonnets. Feel free to explore these works as acting challenges, since in Shakespeare’s time, and indeed for most of theater history, the distinction between “poetry” and “performance” was less prevalent than today.

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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.

Author Headshot
Jeff Kaplan
Jeff Kaplan is an assistant professor in Dance & Theatre at Manhattanville College in the New York City metropolitan area. He holds an MFA in Dance from Texas Woman’s University and a PhD in Theatre and Performance Studies from the University of Maryland. He teaches Theatre History, Dramatic Literature, and Acting, as well as Dance History, Dance Composition, and seminars. He is a solo performer, and research interests include the history of solo performance.
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