5 Keys to Preparing Your Shakespeare Monologue

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Every actor should have at least two classical monologues in their back pocket and given that Shakespeare is the most-produced playwright in the country, it’s a no-brainer that at least one of these monologues be from his work.

After you’ve done the essentials—read the play, clarified who you are talking to and what you want from them, what the circumstances are—you’ll want to focus your energy on how to make your audition come alive and really show off your text skills. To help you get started, here are five things to keep in mind as you prepare you Shakespeare monologue.

Know what you are saying.
This seems obvious, but make sure you take the time to really understand what your character is saying. The Arden Shakespeare series is great for notes on complex passages. David Crystal’s “Shakespeare’s Words” is essential for looking up words you don’t understand as well as those you only think you understand. Gary Logan’s “The Eloquent Shakespeare” is very handy for learning how to pronounce uncommon words. Finally, paraphrase Shakespeare’s words into your own so you can connect deeper to your character’s thoughts and situation.

Play the important words.
Some actors fall into the trap of making all the words equally important. This can break up the text and make your performance sound stilted. To prevent this and find the most important words, try speaking the line as though you were a cave person or Tarzan (“I Tarzan, you Jane.”). Chances are you’ll naturally drop certain words and emphasize others. Then speak the line like an actor keeping those important, emphasized words in mind.

For example, in “Romeo and Juliet,” Shakespeare writes, “Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds.” Tarzan might say, “Gallop, steads!” You’ll notice the important words tend to be nouns and verbs. Play these as the important words and you’ll gain clarity of thought and intention.

READ: The Beginner’s Guide to Shakespeare

Play the primary thought.
Shakespeare’s speeches can have complex parenthetical thoughts. Separating the most important thoughts in a tricky passage can make your performance clear and help define what the character wants.

For example, in the statement, “I went to the store to buy some bread, butter, and cheese,” the important part is “I went to the store.” The “bread, butter, and cheese” section is parenthetical to going to the store; it supports the story but isn’t the primary part. Generally, we go down in pitch on parenthetical or support thoughts and have a slightly higher pitch for primary thoughts.

For example, in this line from “King Lear”—“You sulphurous and thought-executing fires, Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts, Singe my white head!”—we can cut extract the primary thought to, “You sulphurous and thought-executing fires, singe my white head!”

Clarifying the primary phrases will allow the audience to follow your story. Be careful, though: sometimes the primary thought comes at the end of the sentence.

Play the antithesis.
Shakespeare’s speeches are full of antithesis; he loves to use oppositional images like heaven versus hell. Playing these will give you more emotional swing and clarify your point of view as a character. Find these in your monologue and clarify your character’s point of view on each word. Then vocally color and connect with the words/image to make them sound different. Generally, we tend to go up in pitch for good things, and down in pitch for things we think are bad.

In “Measure for Measure,” Angelo states, “Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true.” Note the opposition of “false” and “true.” Playing these oppositional words will give more vocal and emotional variety to your text.

Find the builds.
Shakespeare puts builds or ladders into his speeches that you can use to create excitement and variety. To spot them, look for lists of three in monologues. When you perform, start with a lower pitch on the first item, higher on the second item, and extend the vowel and use a comfortable higher pitch on the final item.

Consider this line from “Henry V”: “Cry ‘God for Harry! England! and Saint George!” It’s easy to imagine your voice taking a step up a staircase with each new item you pronounce. This will keep you from getting caught in one pitch and shouting through your speech.

Of course, there are more rhetorical devices to delve into with your monologue. You can look at the repetition of sounds of words, the meter of the text, the final word of each verse line, etc. The joy of working on Shakespeare for the actor is that there is always more to learn and explore!

Get all of your monologue questions answered by peers and experts on the Backstage Community forums!

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and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

D’Arcy Smith
D’Arcy Smith is an associate professor of voice and speech at the University of Cincinnati, CCM. As a voice, text and dialect coach he has worked on over 80 professional productions.
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