Every actor dreams of the chance to deconstruct and explore Shakespeare. High stakes, vivid language, rhythm, and poetry all come together to create a perfect storm of lyricism in the Bard’s work. This is the kind of material that will really push a young performer to dig deep—and Shakespeare’s pretty popular in the high school scene. That said, it can often be difficult for teens to find material they can connect to and understand. Here are six Shakespeare monologues that will challenge young actors but are simple enough for them to perform.
1. “King John”: Blanch
If you want high stakes, you can’t get any higher than deciding whether to support your family or your husband in a war. The imagery in this monologue in Act 3, Scene 1 cuts to the core. Blanch begs her husband to reconsider his allegiances as he threatens to take up arms against her beloved uncle, King John. The strong conflict gives young performers the freedom to play heightened emotions—which, coupled with the complex relationship between Blanch and her husband, makes this monologue a great test for teens looking to expand their acting horizons.
Upon thy wedding-day?
Against the blood that thou hast married?
What, shall our feast be kept with slaughter’d men?
Shall braying trumpets and loud churlish drums,
Clamours of hell, be measures to our pomp?
O husband, hear me! ay, alack, how new
Is husband in my mouth! even for that name,
Which till this time my tongue did ne’er pronounce,
Upon my knee I beg, go not to arms
Against mine uncle.
The sun’s o’ercast with blood: fair day, adieu!
Which is the side that I must go withal?
I am with both: each army hath a hand;
And in their rage, I having hold of both,
They swirl asunder and dismember me.
Husband, I cannot pray that thou mayst win;
Uncle, I needs must pray that thou mayst lose;
Father, I may not wish the fortune thine;
Grandam, I will not wish thy fortunes thrive:
Whoever wins, on that side shall I lose
Assured loss before the match be play’d.
There where my fortune lives, there my life dies.
2. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”: Helena
Always a fan favorite, here the conniving Helena laments her inability to woo Hermia’s suitor Demetrius. Her desire for beauty, as if changing her appearance to match Hermia’s will make her worthy of love, is one many teens can relate to, as is her lovesick despondency. There’s also an opportunity for comedy when Helena becomes increasingly overdramatic as the scene goes on. The monologue found in Act 1, Scene 1 provides a fun exploration into a misunderstood character, and it can work with a number of different choices.
How happy some o’er other some can be!
Through Athens I am thought as fair as she.
But what of that? Demetrius thinks not so;
He will not know what all but he do know:
And as he errs, doting on Hermia’s eyes,
So I, admiring of his qualities:
Things base and vile, folding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity:
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind;
And therefore is wing’d Cupid painted blind:
Nor hath Love’s mind of any judgement taste;
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste:
And therefore is Love said to be a child,
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.
As waggish boys in game themselves forswear,
So the boy Love is perjured every where:
For ere Demetrius look’d on Hermia’s eyne,
He hail’d down oaths that he was only mine;
And when this hail some heat from Hermia felt,
So he dissolved, and showers of oaths did melt.
I will go tell him of fair Hermia’s flight:
Then to the wood will he to-morrow night
Pursue her; and for this intelligence
If I have thanks, it is a dear expense:
But herein mean I to enrich my pain,
To have his sight thither and back again.
3. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”: Lysander
Elsewhere in our “Midsummer” love rectangle, we have Lysander, begging Hermia’s father to allow her to marry him instead of Demetrius. Aside from the hilarity of calling Demetrius “spotted and inconstant” to his face, Lysander showcases unexpected bravery in this scene, essentially standing up to the adults in the room—a dream that many teens share. It’s an excellent scene for timid teens who want to expand their range. It can be found in Act 1, Scene 1.
I am, my lord, as well derived as he,
As well possess’d; my love is more than his;
My fortunes every way as fairly rank’d,
If not with vantage, as Demetrius’;
And, which is more than all these boasts can be,
I am beloved of beauteous Hermia:
Why should not I then prosecute my right?
Demetrius, I’ll avouch it to his head,
Made love to Nedar’s daughter, Helena,
And won her soul; and she, sweet lady, dotes,
Devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry,
Upon this spotted and inconstant man.
4. “Henry VI, Part 1”: Joan of Arc
Who wouldn’t want to play one of the toughest, most headstrong women in history? In Act 5, Scene 4, Joan of Arc (aka Joan la Pucelle) attempts to escape execution by reminding her tormentors of their own moral failings during the war. Her terror knowing her execution is near is juxtaposed by her need to remain composed as she argues for her life. Her simultaneous anger at the men who call her a witch gives this monologue great versatility with the tools to make creative choices. The language in it can be challenging, so it may require a dictionary nearby for the first read-through. But if you’re a strong-willed, independent actor and looking for a character to showcase that, this may be the perfect monologue for you.
First, let me tell you whom you have condemn’d:
Not me begotten of a shepherd swain,
But issued from the progeny of kings;
Virtuous and holy; chosen from above,
By inspiration of celestial grace,
To work exceeding miracles on earth.
I never had to do with wicked spirits:
But you, that are polluted with your lusts,
Stain’d with the guiltless blood of innocents,
Corrupt and tainted with a thousand vices,
Because you want the grace that others have,
You judge it straight a thing impossible
To compass wonders but by help of devils.
No, misconceived! Joan of Arc hath been
A virgin from her tender infancy,
Chaste and immaculate in very thought;
Whose maiden blood, thus rigorously effused,
Will cry for vengeance at the gates of heaven.
5. “Romeo and Juliet”: Romeo
A tale as old as time, “Romeo and Juliet” is filled with dynamic monologues for teens to explore (including Romeo’s balcony monologue, although that one is overdone). In his early confession about Rosaline in Act 1, Scene 1, Romeo expresses the same confusion about life indicative of being young and in love. His monologue tackles themes of love, fate, and grief, and uses complex metaphors to paint a dynamic picture of what it means to grow up. This makes it an easy character for teens to understand and provides a vehicle for them to improve their craft with nuanced writing.
Alas, that love, whose view is muffled still,
Should, without eyes, see pathways to his will!
Where shall we dine? O me! What fray was here?
Yet tell me not, for I have heard it all.
Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love.
Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O any thing, of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness! serious vanity!
Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire,
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.
Dost thou not laugh?
[Benvolio: No, coz, I rather weep.]
Good heart, at what?
[Benvolio: At thy good heart’s oppression.]
Why, such is love’s transgression.
Griefs of mine own lie heavy in my breast,
Which thou wilt propagate, to have it prest
With more of thine: this love that thou hast shown
Doth add more grief to too much of mine own.
Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs;
Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes;
Being vex’d a sea nourish’d with lovers’ tears:
What is it else? a madness most discreet,
A choking gall and a preserving sweet.
Farewell, my coz.
6. “The Two Gentlemen of Verona”: Launce
In Act 2, Scene 3, Launce explains all the reasons why his dog is the cruelest member of his family, being the only one to not cry when Launce left. Unfortunately, he can’t stop mixing his metaphors, confusing himself in the process. The language in this speech is definitely tricky, even tripping up Launce, but it’s a hilarious, self-aware piece that young actors can really have fun with. It’s a break from Shakespeare’s typical style of comedy, playing with language and poking fun at his usual use of metaphor. It gives teens the space to play with and become more acquainted with the Bard’s style.
Nay, ’twill be this hour ere I have done weeping;
all the kind of the Launces have this very fault. I
have received my proportion, like the prodigious
son, and am going with Sir Proteus to the Imperial’s
court. I think Crab, my dog, be the sourest-natured
dog that lives: my mother weeping, my father
wailing, my sister crying, our maid howling, our cat
wringing her hands, and all our house in a great
perplexity, yet did not this cruel-hearted cur shed
one tear: he is a stone, a very pebble stone, and
has no more pity in him than a dog: a Jew would have
wept to have seen our parting; why, my grandam,
having no eyes, look you, wept herself blind at my
parting. Nay, I’ll show you the manner of it. This
shoe is my father: no, this left shoe is my father:
no, no, this left shoe is my mother: nay, that
cannot be so neither: yes, it is so, it is so, it
hath the worser sole. This shoe, with the hole in
it, is my mother, and this my father; a vengeance
on’t! there ’tis: now, sit, this staff is my
sister, for, look you, she is as white as a lily and
as small as a wand: this hat is Nan, our maid: I
am the dog: no, the dog is himself, and I am the
dog—Oh! the dog is me, and I am myself; ay, so,
Now come I to my father; Father, your blessing:
now should not the shoe speak a word for weeping:
now should I kiss my father; well, he weeps on. Now
come I to my mother: O, that she could speak now
like a wood woman! Well, I kiss her; why, there
’tis; here’s my mother’s breath up and down. Now
come I to my sister; mark the moan she makes. Now
the dog all this while sheds not a tear nor speaks a
word; but see how I lay the dust with my tears.
Shakespeare is valuable for any adolescent performer to study. His plays have persisted centuries after they were written largely because of their universal themes and characters—and they provide opportunities for actors to better understand their craft and themselves.