A Complete Guide To Performing Shakespeare

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Photo Source: Jesse Balgley

Most of us first encountered Shakespeare in our high school English classes. We took turns reading aloud from Antony’s eulogy for Julius Caesar, hoping we didn’t get stuck performing sections with words like “Lupercal” and “grievous.” These first experiences with the Bard can make his work seem archaic and difficult. But with the right mindset and tools, you’ll see why generations of actors and directors continue to explore Shakespeare’s work. 

But how does an actor navigate all those anons and wherefores? How do you expand from merely reading Shakespeare to performing his classic monologues? Do you need a specific accent or a love of poetry? Here’s everything you need to know to perform Shakespeare, from “Hamlet” to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”


Why is Shakespeare important?

Shakespeare is important because his writing changed the English language. His plays also influenced every playwright who came after him. Some researchers even believe that he wrote parts of the King James Bible. Shakespeare continues to be famous for several good reasons.  

He shaped the way we speak. Shakespeare is credited with coining anywhere from 1700 to 3000 words in the English language. If you’ve ever described something as gloomy, majestic, or eventful, you’ve used his words. Phrases like “catch a cold” or “vanish into thin air” also come from Shakespeare. His soaring rhetoric inspired U.S. Presidents from George Washington to John F. Kennedy and influenced many of their memorable speeches. 

His plays are the foundation of English-language acting. Shakespeare was prolific. He is credited with publishing 39 plays in his lifetime. His friend  Ben Jonson published only 18 complete plays and Christopher Marlow only six. The skills required to perform Shakespeare’s plays are also the foundation of classical acting training.  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.”

His work is still performed. According to the World Shakespeare Bibliography, an average of 410 Shakespeare plays are performed every year. That’s just on stage; William Shakespeare has 1,566 credits as a writer on IMDB. Dozens of those projects are currently in the pre-production phase.  Because the source material is so well known, innovative writers and directors also remix Shakespeare in daring ways. Think “Sleep No More,” Phyllida Lloyd’s gender-flipped casting of “The Tempest,” or film adaptations like “10 Things I Hate About You.”

Why should actors study Shakespeare?

“Becoming familiar and acquainted with Shakespeare’s work is good for any human being. It’s good for the soul.”

Since Shakespeare’s work is widely produced and continues to inspire new film and television adaptations, all actors benefit from studying it. According to the Shakespeare Society’s artistic director Michael Sexton, actors should also study Shakespeare because it expands their humanity. “Becoming familiar and acquainted with Shakespeare’s work is good for any human being. It’s good for the soul,” he says. “[And] if one gets the opportunity to perform Shakespeare at a high level, it’s a privilege and an enormous joy. It’s one of the things that only we in the theater can do.”  

The work required to bring Shakespeare to life also builds an actor’s imagination. These skills are as valuable on a sound stage as in a theater, notes Shakespeare scholar Scott Kaiser. “Being on an empty stage and having to imagine an entire world around you [uses] exactly the same muscles as standing in front of the green screen and imagining everything that’s going to be provided for you digitally in post-production.”


What Shakespeare plays should I know?

As an actor, you should be familiar with the most frequently performed Shakespeare plays. According to a 2016 Guardian study, the top five most frequently performed are: 

For an overview of these five plays—plus six others that are also essential to Shakespeare’s oeuvre—check out our beginner’s guide to the Bard.

How do I start interpreting Shakespeare?

Interpreting Shakespeare requires studying the text, of course. But don’t forget: these words are meant to be spoken, embodied, and performed. So actors need to find a balance between studying Shakespeare and performing it. Here are a few strategies to get you started: 

Read footnoted editions and glossaries. Shakespeare’s speeches are full of images. The text will usually tell you exactly what the character is seeing and feeling. But if you don’t understand Shakespeare’s words, then reading the text alone won’t help much. Editions with footnotes call your attention to important events, definitions, and linguistic flourishes. Specialized Shakespeare dictionaries like The Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary and The Eloquent Shakespeare also help you understand each word’s correct pronunciation. 

Watch videos of great performances. We are lucky to live when we can watch so many different performances of Shakespeare by legendary actors. YouTubing a single scene provides a master class, showing you all the different approaches great actors take to the same lines.  

Take a Shakespeare class. It’s important to distinguish an actor’s approach to a play from that of a literary scholar. As you 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. Many colleges and theater companies offer Shakespearean acting classes. You can also find independent online or in-person courses taught by Shakespeare experts.  

Why does Shakespeare use both prose and verse?

Shakespeare alternated between writing in verse and prose because of the writing conventions of his era. In Shakespeare’s time, poetry was considered the highest form of expression. When Shakespeare began writing his plays, tragedies and high-status characters were written in verse, while comedies and travel stories were written in prose. It's what everyone did. 

Shakespeare tends to follow these rules in his early plays, but he experiments with varying his writing style in his later work. In some plays, he uses prose for low-status characters and verse for high-class characters. In others, a shift from verse to prose might indicate a change in the character’s relationship. “The Taming of the Shrew” provides a great example of this. When Petruchio is courting Katherina (the Shrew), they carefully speak to one another in blank verse. After they marry, however, they chat comfortably in prose. 

So what is the difference between verse and prose? On the page, it is easy to spot. Lines of verse are aligned on the left margin with a jagged right edge, like a poem. All verse lines begin with a capital letter. Prose lines run from one margin to the other, formatted like a paragraph in a book.  

Sometimes Shakespeare uses rhyming verse, but usually, he relies on blank verse. Blank verse is written in a poetic rhythm (called meter), but the lines do not rhyme. Whether your character speaks in rhyming verse, blank verse, or prose tells you your character’s status in the play and how comfortable they are in a specific scene. 

How do I read iambic pentameter aloud?

An iambic pentameter line has ten 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. Although the very term “iambic pentameter” feels archaic and complicated, in reality, it’s a simple rhythm that’s common in everyday speech. If you’ve ever said, “Why don’t you go outside and get a cab?” or “I need to go upstairs and take a nap,” then you’ve already spoken in iambic pentameter. 

It can help to think of iambic pentameter as a sort of heartbeat, where the rhythm is a tool that helps you find the best line delivery. Let’s start by getting a sense of how the rhythm works in a standard line of blank verse, or non-rhyming lines of iambic pentameter (Shakespeare’s most common verse form). 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;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.

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 MU-sic BE the FOOD of LOVE, play ON;
Give ME ex-CESS of IT; that SUR-feit-ING,
The APP-e-TITE may SICK-en AND so DIE.

How do I scan Shakespeare’s verse?

Once you’ve mastered the basic rhythm of iambic pentameter, it’s time to talk about exceptions. Noticing when that rhythm changes (and why) is another way to interpret Shakespeare’s verse—also known as “scanning” the lines. 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. It probably feels best to stress almost every one of the syllables:


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

Thou art his keeper.

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

If, however, the next speaker starts their own brand-new line, the short line indicates a 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:

… 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--

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

Monosyllables. Lines made up entirely—or nearly entirely—of one-syllable words should be given space to breathe. If you rush through them mindlessly, 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. 

How should Shakespeare’s punctuation affect my delivery?

Shakespeare’s punctuation should also guide the way you deliver his lines. He uses punctuation to show the end of a thought or where the actor should take a breath. These forms of punctuation provide specific cues for how to deliver a particular line:

  • Elision: When Shakespeare cuts out letters from words or blurs them together, this is called elision. We see it in words like o’erstep, as ‘twere, and broach’d. It can seem fussy or old-fashioned now, but if you scan the line, you’ll often find that you gain more clarity by not disturbing the line’s rhythm than you do by adding extra syllables.
  • 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 your character’s context.
  • 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.

What other poetic devices does Shakespeare use?

We’ve already talked about Shakespeare’s most important poetic device, iambic pentameter. But Shakespeare relied on other linguistic flourishes to add rhythm to his words, including assonance, alliteration, and onomatopoeia. These linguistic forms and patterns affect the way the words feel when you speak them out loud—and can help you memorize long speeches. Here are a few examples of Shakespeare’s most common poetic devices: 

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.

How should I approach character development in a Shakespeare play?

Shakespeare was an actor himself, and he gives the best advice about developing characters in his plays. In “Hamlet” he writes:

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.

Most Shakespeare scholars would tell you the same: Rely on the words. That doesn’t mean that every performance of a Shakespeare play will be exactly the same. Relying on Shakespeare’s words to develop your character still allows a lot of room for interpretation. For example, both Patrick Stewart and Davis Suchet played Shylock from “The Merchant of Venice.” Both productions were directed by the powerhouse Shakespearean director John Barton, yet both actors created completely different performances based on what they saw in the text. 

Because Shakespeare’s characters are from another time, answering some basic questions can help you orient yourself in the text and the character’s world. 

  • 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?

Once you understand who your character is and how they connect to the action of the play, consider questions about their present motivations:

  • What does the character want?
  • What is standing in their way?
  • Who is the character speaking to?
  • What do they think of your character?
  • How long has your character known them?

At this point, you understand your character and your motivation in the scene. Now, your job is to figure out why your character must use these specific words at this particular moment to express themselves. Understanding Shakespeare’s words and why you are saying them is the key to bringing the audience with you through the playwright’s often-complex thoughts and sentences.

What are some tips for performing Shakespeare?

There aren’t any shortcuts to getting one of Shakespeare’s plays on its feet. But these tips will help you ensure you’re fully engaged in whatever role you are performing:

For easier memorization, practice out loud. If you’re struggling to remember one of Shakespeare’s lengthy soliloquies, try talking it out. “Whether or not you’ve studied iambic pentameter, verse lines, or sequential thought, all of the structure that’s in the language and text is there for you and will work on you if you speak it with a free voice,” Shakespeare coach Erin Roth says. “Shakespeare is a master of language and form. If you can speak his text, the structure and rhythm is there to support you and it makes memorizing easier.”

Translate frequently used terms. As you read more Shakespeare, you’ll notice certain words that regularly pop up. 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.

Speak to a specific person. Shakespeare didn’t write stage directions. Sometimes, it is challenging for actors to determine who they are talking to or what characters can hear them. If it isn’t obvious, consider all the characters in the scene and try speaking directly to each of them. Which way makes most sense for your character? Which makes most sense for the plot? Which is the most interesting?

Translate Shakespeare into a tweet. If you’re having trouble following a long passage, try rewriting the entire thing in 140 characters. Once you’ve distilled the gist of the speech to tweet length in your own words, ask yourself: Why does this character need to say more? What is Shakespeare doing with the words that you cut out as unnecessary? You have to find a reason that those words are essential to the character in that moment.

Embrace the classic speeches. If Shakespeare intimidates you, start with a classic character like Hamlet, Lady Macbeth, Puck, or Juliet. The more popular the part, the more likely you are to benefit from others’ analysis of it. Watch how other actors have tackled the language and try your own variations.

Should Shakespeare be performed in a British accent?

Performing Shakespeare does not require a British accent. For proof, look at Denzel Washington’s performance as Don Pedro in Kenneth Branagh’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” If you are performing in a Shakespeare play, the director typically decides what accent the actors use. For consistency, many productions rely on Received Pronunciation, or RP. This accent is considered the standard British Dialect (the English cousin to the Standard American Dialect). 

Thanks to father and son Shakespeare scholars David and Ben Crystal, we know that the English accent in Shakespeare’s day was as different from RP as it is from American dialects. So if you are preparing a monologue without a director’s guidance, use whatever accent helps you generate your best performance.  Considering that Shakespeare’s plays are set in locations from Egypt to Denmark, a wide range of accents could apply to the character you’re playing.


How do I choose the right Shakespeare monologue?

If you have never performed Shakespeare, tackling your first monologue can feel like 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 it is worth it. But by studying Shakespeare, you can develop skills that broaden your range, expand your imagination and give you a new approach to acting.  

The first step to performing a Shakespearean monologue is choosing one that is a good fit for you. Shakespeare coach Erin Roth advises actors to find a monologue that matches their type, doesn’t require internal cuts to fit time constraints, and resonates on a visceral level. These lists are a good place to start:

Our database of monologues, the Monologuer, also contains almost 300 of the Bard’s monologues, soliloquies, and speeches. Filter these even further by age range, gender, play title, genre, and theme. (Another option to consider is auditioning with one of Shakespeare’s sonnets.)

How do I perform a Shakespeare monologue?

After you’ve settled on a monologue, take time to prepare your performance. D’arcy Smith, associate professor of voice and speech at the University of Cincinnati, advises the following steps

  1. Know what you’re saying. We’ve mentioned this before, but a Shakespeare-specific glossary or well-annotated text should be your first tool. 
  2. Play the important words. Important words are usually verbs and nouns. Look for them and drive toward them. 
  3. Play the primary thought. When you determine your character’s main train of thought, speak it more prominently than surrounding phrases. 
  4. Play the antithesis. If a line contains a comparison (like “to be or NOT to be”) or opposites (like dark and light, truth and lie), lean into it. 
  5. Find the builds. When lists or repeated words appear, vary your volume and pitch.

Once you’ve examined your monologue on the page, getting it on its feet requires a bit more work. Since performing Shakespeare relies so much on articulating his language, your monologue preparation strategy should also include vocal exercises to increase your stamina and vocal flexibility. Depending on the venue you’re performing in, you may need to adjust your volume to be heard. Much of a Shakespeare performance relies on language rather than action, so you’ll also need to convey your character’s thoughts and emotions in your voice.

Check out Backstage’s theater audition listings!

Disclosure: This post is brought to you by the Backstage team and/or a Backstage Expert. If you purchase items through these links, we get a small share of the revenue from the sale from our commerce partner. 

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