The 3 Shakespeare Faux Pas Every Newbie Makes

Photo Source: Sara Krulwich

If you’ve ever even tried to read a William Shakespeare play, you know there are landmines galore. So when it comes to acting in one? Forget it. It takes years—sometimes even a lifetime—for actors to master the Bard. So while you probably won’t perfect your pentameter when first giving it a go, there are a few massive mistakes newer actors are more likely to make—which we have enumerated here for your sidestepping. You’re welcome!

They don’t understand that every thought is a breath.
“As a general rule, in Shakespeare and in all texts, one thought equals one breath. Meaning you should follow the entire line through from beginning to full stop (period, question mark, exclamation point) without pause. This helps you, and the audience, follow your train of thought. For example, Hamlet says:

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,

Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!

“One breath should take you from “O” to “dew!” This is how one acts Shakespeare on the line. You must maintain the flow of thought and language. Just because the line breaks doesn’t mean your thought does as well.

“A comma, colon, or semicolon isn’t ever a stop. A comma isn’t always a pause. For example, in the above line there’s no need to take a break between ‘melt’ and ‘thaw.’ Conversely, in one of Hamlet’s most famous speeches, using the colon might be of use:

To be or not to be: that is the question.

“The colon here is not a full stop, but consider what a pause or beat earns you.” —JV Mercanti, actor, director, and Backstage Expert

They don’t approach the Shakespeare character as they would any other.
“To be a great actor you have to have a little extra imagination with the role, that extra touch of originality. It comes when the actor interacts with the words they have to say. There’s no such thing as a Shakespeare character, just the words on the page. Every time a Shakespeare character is performed, it’s a different character.” —Stanley Wells, Shakespeare scholar

Needless to say, iambic pentameter. 
“Shakespeare’s language takes getting used to but it is not an impossible feat. While some characters speak in prose (ordinary language), a lot of the lines in the plays are in iambic pentameter, a type of verse. In iambic pentameter, there are ten syllables per line and every second syllable is stressed. For example, here is a line from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets: ‘When I do count the clock that tells the time…’ The rhythm looks like this, with the bold text stressed: ‘When I do count the clock that tells the time...”

“But when you speak the line, don’t emphasize the rhythm. You don’t want it to sound like ba-BUM-ba-BUM-ba-BUM-ba-BUM-ba-BUM. Say the line normally, watching for commas, periods or other end-of-the sentence punctuation. That’s important. Pause when you hit one of those end marks. If there isn’t an end mark at the end of a line, don’t pause; keep going on to the next line.

“In order to keep the rhythm or make the rhyme scheme work, Shakespeare sometimes switched up normal word order. In standard English, sentences usually follow a subject-verb-object pattern: William (subject) wrote (verb) the plays (object). Inverting the sentence—the plays (object) William (subject) wrote (verb)—offers a different way to say the same thing without changing the meaning, something Shakespeare did a lot.” —Catherine LaMoreaux, artistic director of Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center and Backstage Expert

Ready to find the Shakespeare for you? Check out The Monologuer!

Casey Mink
Casey Mink is the staff writer at Backstage. When she's not writing about television, film, or theater, she is definitely somewhere watching it.
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