Whether you’re auditioning, have landed your first role, or just want to brush up, these tips will help you confidently approach and perform the Bard’s work.
1. Get a decent edition.
The text matters. Editors have a habit of fiddling with Shakespeare’s words and lines, and let’s not even get started on punctuation. Trusted editions include Arden, Oxford, and Cambridge but if you’re working on a play, use whatever text is provided by the production.
2. Know it.
If you don’t understand what the character is saying, what hope does the audience have? Or your fellow actors? Translate your lines into modern English, using none of the original words except personal pronouns (I, my, his, hers, etc). Time-consuming but worth it.
3. Be wary of false friends.
Shakespeare was writing in a different time and in a different English. Though there are similarities to how we speak now, there are important differences. Sonnet 130 is a great example:
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
The word “reek” here doesn’t mean the same thing it does today (smell strongly or unpleasantly, a stink). At the time of writing, “reek” was closer to “emanate’ or “give off vapor.” So when in “Love’s Labour’s Lost” the King says...
I heard your guilty rhymes, observed your fashion,
Saw sighs reek from you, noted well your passion.
… it neither has the meaning or associations of the word we use. Words and phrases like these are called false friends. An actor thinks they know what it means but really, something completely different is going on. “Bootless” is another such word. Rather than meaning “without boots,” it means “unsuccessful.” These are, by definition, hard to spot. But patience and a resource like Shakespeare’s Words helps.
4. Learn in verse.
A line of verse, also called iambic pentameter, looks like this:
In sooth, I know not why I am so sad
Learn your lines one by one. Learning it by sentence, punctuation, or thought can lead you to all sorts of problems.
5. Find the beat.
Learning line by line allows you to find and memorize the beat or rhythm of the line. Put simply, this refers to the stressed and unstressed syllables in the line. In a standard line of verse, it sounds like this:
de DUM de DUM de DUM de DUM de DUM
In sooth, I know not why I am so sad
If only all Shakespeare were that simple. The beat often differs but once you’ve found it, there’s a whole range of expression, meaning, and delivery open to you. The brilliant and accessible “Playing Shakespeare” series by John Barton is the perfect introduction, as is “Speaking The Speech” by Giles Block.
6. Get the hang of prose.
You’ll notice Shakespeare’s characters also speak in prose. It looks different on the page as there are no line endings or set rhythms. A lot of guides will tell you that prose is for lower class characters or that it sounds like normal speech, both of which are plain wrong. While prose suits joke-filled dialogue, all sorts of characters speak it, including King Henry in “Henry V” and Titus in “Titus Andronicus.” The epic role of Falstaff is completely in prose.
The key to speaking prose is to break it into thought units. Here’s one broken up for you:
Art not thou the Lady Olivia's fool?
No indeed sir,
the Lady Olivia has no folly,
She will keep no fool, sir, till she be married,
And fools are as like husbands as pilchards are to herrings, the husband's the bigger,
I am indeed not her fool, but her corrupter of words.
7. Know who you’re talking to.
Shakespeare didn’t do stage directions. If they’re in your edition, it’s likely they’ve been added in by editors for clarity. This makes it tough for actors to find answers to basic questions like, “Who am I talking to?” and “Who else can hear me?” For some lines it’s clear, for others you might want to follow precedent (what previous actors or productions have decided is going on) but the best way to find out is to explore.
If it isn’t obvious, find out who else is in the scene and try speaking it to each of them. Which way makes most sense for the character or the story and which is the most interesting? Does it acknowledge the audience? Or a single person in the pit? One thing is for sure, it’s never to an imagined point in the middle distance.
8. Don’t lose your accent.
Thanks to two experts, we have an idea of what the first performances of Shakespeare might have sounded like. But unless you’re part of an original pronunciation production, don’t throw away your natural accent. Actors often feel that performing Shakespeare demands RP or an imagined standard English, but that’s not the case. British regional accents not only feature in his plays but can bring to life the rhythm of the words and add much-needed variation to productions. Americans, we’ll stop ruining Tennessee Williams when you stop doing bad English accents for Shakespeare.
9. Trust the words.
Trust the words, don’t explain or mime them. Audiences will understand most words but even if they don’t, the play generally gives them more than one opportunity to find out what’s going on.
10. Tell the story.
It’s a simplification to say that Shakespeare doesn’t do subtext and that everything you need to know is in your lines. However, it’s not a bad place to start, especially for audition monologues. Hamlet is telling a story in his “To be or not to be” soliloquy, that of a man tossing up arguments for and against living. Whatever you’re playing, find and tell the story. Trust that it’s at the core of everything Shakespeare has written.
*This post was originally published on Feb. 12, 2018. It has since been updated.
Laurence Cook is a director and dramaturg who worked under Giles Block at Shakespeare’s Globe and Tim Carroll at The Factory, and has given workshops for speaking Shakespeare to actors and directors.
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