Although none of the Bard’s brilliant monologues and soliloquies are truly clichéd—William Shakespeare wrote only truths, after all—choosing them for an audition sure is. Some have lines so recognizably iconic, they struggle to maintain meaning today. Some have been performed by the best veterans of the stage. And some are simply so obvious that if you delivered them in an audition room, casting directors would roll their eyes and assume your knowledge of classic drama is limited to a cursory search on Google. If you want to avoid overdone Shakespeare monologues in your next audition, there are countless options, so take time to find one that fits your sensibility and demonstrates your talent.
Monologues and soliloquies from “Hamlet”
Don’t: “To be or not to be”
Let’s start with the obvious: the most recognizable Shakespeare speech in existence. “Hamlet” features several monologues that provide a feast for actors—why else would every eminent leading man of the last century play the Danish prince? But because the play is so wonderful, it’s produced constantly on stages around the world and taught in practically every acting class in the U.S. and U.K. Even if you’re doing something radically different with it, “To be or not to be” is an audition no-no. Tread carefully with “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I,” (interesting but overused), “Speak the speech I pray you” (don’t speak this speech, I pray you), and “Alas, poor Yorick.” (Are you going to bring a skull into the audition room? No.) Chances are if a casting director calls for a classical monologue, they’d rather see your take on an obscure but equally rich passage.
“This monologue happens after Claudius leaves the play, brought into consciousness by watching his own crime committed on stage,” according to acting coach Erin Roth. “Claudius’ thought process and the journey he goes on in this monologue are incredible. Can he pray? Can he be forgiven for his crime?”
Monologues and soliloquies from “Twelfth Night”
Don’t: “I left no ring with her”
“Twelfth Night” is one of Shakespeare’s best plays, and Viola one of his best female characters. Her Act 2, Scene 2 turning point, in which she realizes she’s caught in an unlikely lovers’ triangle, is a great example of text articulating lightbulb moments. The problem is, countless other female actors agree. The monologue’s accessibility makes it a common choice in drama classes and, yes, auditions; it should be avoided, especially considering there are other, lesser known speeches in “Twelfth Night” that might work. Check out speeches from Olivia and Malvolio, many of which can be read comically or tragically. Besides, do you really want to compete with Dame Judi Dench’s take?
“A comic monologue that can be played big or small, the humor is in Olivia putting herself out there in a big way—she gets carried away and makes Viola feel super awkward,” says Shakespeare acting specialist Sarah Guillot. “[It] has room for comic gags.
Monologues and soliloquies from “Julius Caesar”
Don’t: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!”
What makes Marc Antony’s plea to his fellow citizens such a notable moment in “Julius Caesar” is its pivotal effect on the crowd. Chances are you’ll be addressing a couple of casting directors or admissions officers, not a rabble-rousing populace of ancient Romans. Plus, any audition monologue geared more toward advancing plot than developing character would be a mistake without proper context. Want to take your auditioners on a journey throughout your speech? Choose one that’s not so obviously a speech.
“As an actor, what can be interesting about this monologue is being aware that the crowd could turn on you at any moment,” Guillot explains. “There is also something interesting happening in this monologue in terms of power dynamics. By this point, Antony has surely recognised that his powerful rhetoric is having a great effect on the public. Is there a moment in this monologue where he realizes that he could be the next Caesar? It can be very interesting for the actor to be aware of the internal struggle.”
Monologues and soliloquies from “Richard III”
Don’t: “Now is the winter of our discontent”
Here’s the thing with the opening lines of Shakespeare’s plays: They tend to do a great job introducing characters and setting the stage for five acts of delicious drama—not introducing your skills as a storyteller who has only minutes to deliver an emotionally satisfying beginning, middle, and end. Even a character as fascinating and flawed as Richard III must spout off some exposition when he first enters. Choosing a monologue means you can skip all that; find a juicy dramatic moment in the middle of a story that is free of clunky plot descriptions and dive right into the emotional turmoil.
“In Shakespeare’s stunning portrait of a sociopathic tyrant, this monologue is a rare moment of change for Richard III,” Roth writes. “He has what he thinks is an amazing realization in this monologue: Maybe he isn’t as ugly or misshapen as he thought.”
Monologues and soliloquies from “The Merchant of Venice”
Don’t: “The quality of mercy”
Ask any casting director who hears classical monologue after classical monologue and they’ll put Portia’s plea for compassion at the top of their list of no-nos. It’s one of those gorgeously written speeches that everyone is convinced is obscure, when in fact it’s a go-to choice for female actors. The benefit (and challenge) of choosing Shakespeare for your audition piece is the plethora of genuinely obscure speeches, many of which could make casting directors sit up and pay attention. You might even find one they’ve never heard in an audition before!
“This play is complicated and its characters multilayered; Shylock is no exception,” Roth explains. “After being told repeatedly to have ‘Christian mercy’ throughout the scene, Shylock deftly points out that many of the Christians in the court are slave owners, and that if the Duke doesn’t uphold his contract, none of Venice’s laws will have any force.”
Monologues and soliloquies from “Romeo and Juliet”
Don’t: “What light through yonder window breaks?” and “Gallop apace...”
Maybe you’ve heard of “Romeo and Juliet”? You and the rest of the world. Of course, the tale of star-crossed lovers isn’t a classic for nothing; it has some of Shakespeare’s most soaring, romantic writing. But if it’s soaring and romantic you’re going for in an audition, find something everyone hasn’t heard hundreds of times.
“Romeo and Juliet” is filled with lesser known audition options. Male and female character actors can sink their teeth into the Nurse’s “On Lammas-eve at night shall she be fourteen” or Mercutio’s wild “O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you.” Watch Fisayo Akinade’s riveting performance of the Queen Mab speech in the National Theatre’s production to get an idea of its powerful possibilities.
Monologues and soliloquies from “As You Like It”
Don’t: “All the world’s a stage”
Even Jaques, the character who delivers this speech, seems conscious of its overt platitudes. Some of Shakespeare’s monologues prove too flowery or philosophical for an audition room; opt instead for a soliloquy with a dramatic and legitimate arc. Anyway, the late Alan Rickman is said to have delivered the definitive Jaques, which means it would be wise to avoid this one.
Do: “And why, I pray you?”
“The long string of insults flows well because of the engaging language,” which can help keep actors connected to the story, advises acting coach Denise Simon. Use it to express “unspoken frustrations, which is always a cathartic experience” for both performers and casting directors.
Monologues and soliloquies from “Macbeth”
Don’t: “Out, damned spot!”
“Macbeth” is staged often, making it a tricky choice in the audition room. But if you have the chops—and the guts—to take on the notorious Scottish king or queen, go for it. Just avoid Lady M’s “Out, damned spot” speech; it falls at the end of the character’s storyline, meaning an auditioning actor must jolt her audience into the culmination of a series of high-stakes events. It takes a master to walk into an audition room and crank a performance up to 11, and this speech is an 11 throughout. Pro tip: Shakespeare’s characters are infinitely more interesting when they’re in the process of going mad, not when they already are.
“Malcolm is often overlooked or misunderstood in this great play,” Roth notes. “Malcolm is the son of the murdered king and has a claim to the crown, yet he cannot be sure whether Macduff is there to take his life or deliver him to Macbeth.” Play with the juxtaposition between Malcolm's humbleness and hyperbole to really leave an impact on your audience.
Monologues and soliloquies from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
Don’t: Anything sweet or comical
Warning: Do not audition with Helena’s “How happy some o’er other some can be,” Hermia’s “You juggler! You canker-blossom!” or Puck’s final speech from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Given this play’s ubiquity, not to mention its frivolous plot contrivances and broad comedy, it’s usually best avoided altogether. Casting directors who see lots of theater have probably seen “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to the point of exhaustion, so it’s extra important to choose a lesser-performed monologue that leaves an impression.
Do: “Full of vexation come I”
“We often skid over the more difficult and darker moments in ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream,’” according to Roth. “In this monologue, Egeus has brought his daughter Hermia, Lysander, and Demetrius before Theseus, the Duke of Athens. Egeus is angry with Hermia because she won’t marry Demetrius, the man he has chosen for her; instead, she chooses Lysander. Egeus invokes an ancient Athenian law dictating that if Hermia doesn’t do as he wishes, he can kill her. Tip: Don’t judge Egeus’s devastatingly patriarchal perspective—fight for it.”