Picking a classical audition speech is a minefield. Whether it’s for drama schools or open auditions, your classical pieces need to be strong, able to show off your skills and contrast with contemporary monologues. They also need to be “worked on” – that means learnt, understood and performed with clarity and precision.
So it’s understandable that many actors pick the same old Shakespeare speeches, those with the most amount of notes and guidance and from plays you might already be familiar with. There’s nothing wrong with playing it safe – but away from the well-trodden paths lie a wealth of classical monologues that will surprise and capture the attention of a panel. Here are just five of them, with notes to give you a head start.
Remember: it’s important to check the requirements of an audition before you pick and learn a piece. There may be time limits or suggestions of writers and styles to avoid. It’s also common for drama schools to ask you to learn a second piece as an alternative. Although it’s best to pick a monologue you can identify with and a character that fits your casting, ensure that your speeches aren’t too similar in tone or subject matter.
Who: Moll Cutpurse, the cross-dressing “roaring girl” of the title, confronts Laxton, an arrogant young man.
Where: At Gray’s Inn, London
When: Moll has just challenged Laxton to a duel, which he has tried to laugh off, saying he won’t fight with a woman. In the 17th century, “roaring” meant a boisterous, hyper-masculine way of behaving, which pretty much sums up Moll. She does what she wants, instead of what people expect of her.
What: Moll tells Laxton that she’s going to teach him manners. She starts by suggesting that if a woman looks at Laxton he assumes she’ll sleep with him. If a woman offers a toast (“Drink first to thee”), she says, then Laxton will tell his friends that she likes him more than her own pet monkey. She wonders how many women have had their reputation ruined by his locker room talk and have been called whores when they were just being affectionate. She suggests women would be better off sleeping with men in secret than not sleeping with them at all yet still be bragged about. She goes on to question why Laxton thinks she’s a whore before declaring that Laxton represents all men with his poor attitude. She compares him to a worm on a golden hook – a measly offering dressed up to look wealthy – looking to pick on women who are down on their luck or prostituting themselves. She wonders if the reason Laxton thinks she is a whore is because she’s seen enjoying life. Moll says she’d never prostitute herself to a man because she’s able to prostitute men to her.
To teach thy base thoughts manners: th’art one of those
That thinks each woman thy fond, flexible whore
If she but cast a liberal eye upon thee;
Turn back her head, she’s thine, or amongst company,
By chance drink first to thee. Then she’s quite gone;
There’s no means to help her, nay, for a need,
Wilt swear unto thy credulous fellow lechers
That th’art more in favour with a lady
At first sight than her monkey all her lifetime.
How many of our sex by such as thou
Have their good thoughts paid with a blasted name
That never deserved loosely, or did trip
In path of whoredom beyond cup and lip?
But for the stain of conscience and of soul,
Better had women fall into the hands
Of an act silent than a bragging nothing.
There’s no mercy in’t. What durst move you, sir,
To think me whorish, a name which I’d tear out
From the high German’s throat if it lay ledger there
To dispatch privy slanders against me?
In thee I defy all men, their worst hates
And their best flatteries, all their golden witchcrafts
With which they entangle the poor spirits of fools,
Distressed needlewomen, and trade-fall’n wives.
Fish that must needs bite or themselves be bitten,
Such hungry things as these may soon be took
With a worm fast’ned on a golden hook:
Those are the lecher’s food, his prey; he watches
For quarrelling wedlocks, and poor shifting sisters:
’Tis the best fish he takes. But why, good fisherman,
Am I thought meat for you, that never yet
Had angling rod cast towards me? ’Cause, you’ll say,
I’m given to sport, I’m often merry, jest.
Had mirth no kindred in the world but lust?
Oh, shame take all her friends then! But howe’er
Thou and the baser world censure my life,
I’ll send ’em word by thee, and write so much
Upon thy breast, ’cause thou shalt bear’t in mind:
Tell them ’twere base to yield where I have conquer’d.
I scorn to prostitute myself to a man,
I that can prostitute a man to me:
And so I greet thee.
Notes + Translations:
- Monkey: supposed to be lusty, a pet
- Blasted: ruined
- Cup and lip: sharing a drink and kissing
- Act: a sexual act
- Lay ledger: reside
- Privy: private, personal
- Trade: fall’n – out of work
- Wedlocks: wives
- Shifting sisters: prostitutes
- Cause thou shalt: to cause you to
Suggested Direction: This address to Laxton features plenty of opportunities for comedy, not least in how many times Moll asks questions that she doesn’t allow him to answer. There’s plenty of mocking in there, too, with the connotations of the word “worm” being the most obvious. Moll is fiery but she’s also intelligent and witty, so remember to put as much colour and variety into this as possible. Ultimately, she’s educating him, which means establishing a relationship of dominance over Laxton.
Who: Bel-Imperia is a young, intelligent and strong-willed noblewoman in the Spanish court. She talks to Hieronimo, a knight and the father of the murdered Horatio.
Where: In the palace
When: Bel-Imperia sees both of the men she’s loved killed, first Andrea in battle and then the murdered Horatio. She’s got a nasty brother called Lorenzo and a father who has unwittingly organised her marriage to Balthazar, the man who killed both her lovers. What makes Bel-Imperia so interesting is that she’s no victim. At this point in the story she’s about to organise the performance of a play for court entertainment (much like Hamlet) in which real daggers replace fake ones. She’ll stab the monstrous Balthazar and then kill herself in front of the Spanish court.
What: Bel starts by chastising Hieronimo for grieving for his son but not taking action to revenge his death. She calls him an “unkind father” and thinks he should have excuses for the lack of pride that lets him come out in public but leave his dead son unavenged. He should be leading the charge for revenge, she says, and if he doesn’t he’ll be known (be “a history”) as a father that was ungrateful to have had a son. Bel reminds him that although she is a stranger to him, she loved his son and wants to see his murderers punished. She swears that she’ll take revenge even if Hieronimo doesn’t.
Is this the love thou bear’st Horatio?
Is this the kindness that thou counterfeits?
Are these the fruits of thine incessant tears?
Hieronimo, are these thy passions,
Thy protestations and thy deep laments,
That thou wert wont to weary men withal?
O unkind father! O deceitful world!
With what excuses canst thou show thyself –
With what dishonor and the hate of men –
From this dishonor and the hate of men,
Thus to neglect the loss and life of him
Whom both my letters and thine own belief
Assures thee to be causeless slaughteréd?
Hieronimo, for shame, Hieronimo,
Be not a history to aftertimes
Of such ingratitude unto thy son.
Unhappy mothers of such children then!
But monstrous fathers to forget so soon
The death of those whom they with care and cost
Have tendered so, thus careless should be lost.
Myself a stranger in respect of thee,
So loved his life as still I wish their deaths.
Nor shall his death be unrevenged by me,
Although I bear it out for fashion’s sake,
For here I swear, in sight of heaven and earth,
Shouldst thou neglect the love thou shouldst retain,
And give it over and devise no more,
Myself should send their hateful souls to hell
That wrought his downfall with extremest death.
Notes + Translations:
- Counterfeits: fake, in this case faked emotions
- That thou wert wont to weary men withal: referring to his sadness, which she suggests are boring everyone.
- Tendered: raised
- Extremest: most violent
Suggested Direction: This speech begins the scene but it’s important to think of what might have been said between the pair beforehand. Has Hieronimo told Bel that he doesn’t want to pursue the murderers? Or is he scared of them? Or her? Make a decision and use this to inform how you speak to him. Are you trying to punish, bolster or chastise him? You want his help in seeking revenge, so perhaps try encouraging him gently or using reverse psychology.
Who: Dido is a strong and independent queen who begins the story adamant she’ll never marry but, having been poisoned by Cupid, has now fallen deeply in love with Aeneas. She speaks to her attendants.
Where: In the palace of Carthage, a North African city.
When: Aeneas, a Trojan whose destiny is to found Italy, has been shipwrecked in Carthage. To protect him, the gods instruct Cupid to poison Dido and she falls madly in love with Aeneas who then falls in love with her. At this point, Aeneas is caught between his destiny in Italy and his love for Dido. Even though Dido has offered to make him her king, he decides he must leave. Dido is about to steal his sails, oars and rigging so he cannot set sail.
What: Aeneas has just left and Dido says to her attendants that he speaks like the conqueror he is destined to be. She blesses the storm and sands that shipwrecked him in Carthage and says they are now the city’s gods. Dido remembers that Aeneas may still leave for Italy and wishes she had magic to capture the winds in a ball or that she she could hold the sea in her arms and shipwreck Aeneas again and again on her breasts. She resolves to practically stop him rather than just wish, commanding one servant to hide Aeneas’ son. She then takes another precaution, stealing his oars, sails and rigging. She realises this will anger him and is frightened because she knows an unhappy Aeneas is the only thing that can conquer her. She believes that if she could only keep him in Carthage she would live forever, such is the power of their love.
Speaks not Aeneas like a conqueror?
O blessed tempests that did drive him in!
O happy sand that made him run aground!
Henceforth you shall be our Carthage gods.
Ay, but it may be, he will leave my love,
And seek a foreign land call’d Italy:
O that I had a charm to keep the winds
Within the closure of a golden ball;
Or that the Tyrrhene sea were in mine arms,
That he might suffer shipwreck on my breast,
As oft as he attempts to hoist up sail!
I must prevent him; wishing will not serve.
Go bid my nurse take young Ascanius,
And bear him in the country to her house;
Aeneas will not go without his son;
Yet, lest he should, for I am full of fear,
What if I sink his ships? O, he will frown!
Better he frown than I should die of grief.
I cannot see him frown; it may not be:
Armies of foes resolv’d to win this town,
Or impious traitors vow’d to have my life,
Affright me not; only Aeneas’ frown
Is that which terrifies poor Dido’s heart:
Not bloody spears, appearing in the air,
Presage the downfall of my empery,
Nor blazing comets threaten Dido’s death;
It is Aeneas’ frown that ends my days
If he forsake me not, I never die;
For in his looks I see eternity,
And he’ll make me immortal with a kiss.
Notes + Translations:
- Aeneas: pronounced Ay-NE-us
- Tyrrhene: pronounced TIRE-reen
- Ascanius: pronounced AS-cane-E-us
- Presage: predict, be a sign of
- Empery: empire, also absolute authority
Suggested Direction: If you want to get to the heart of the character you need to understand how radically Dido has changed through Acts 1–4. From a powerful ruler who refused to marry she’s now become a lovesick teenager. But in the course of this speech she snaps out of it (“I must prevent him, wishing will not serve”) and uses her authority to stage a final attempt at keeping Aeneas in Carthage. The first third of the speech is a person so in love they’ve become powerless, the second third is a queen who uses her power to try and manage her love. The final third is somewhere between those two extremes as Dido realises Aeneas has effectively conquered her. After listing the terrifying images of war, Dido realises that it’s Aeneas’ frown that is only weapon that could kill her. Conversely, his smile would keep her alive forever. Play with those realisations and with giving completely different flavours to each third of the speech.
Who: Isabella is young and naïve. But not so naïve as to miss that her arranged husband is an idiot. She speaks this to the audience in an aside.
Where: Italy, outside of Florence.
When: Isabella is about to be encouraged to commit incest in this dark and wonderfully strange play about sexual desire and control. But at this point she’s been introduced to the Ward, her husband-to-be who has spouted nonsense. Her father notes that marrying an idiot is the best thing a young lady can do.
What: There’s nothing worse than marrying an idiot, Isabella says, especially if you want to stay virtuous by not cheating on your husband. She wonders how she can remain honourable if she worships a false god (her husband), as man is meant to have been made in God’s image (and the Ward is ugly). She imagines the sadness of all women who have been compelled to marry and thinks that even when a woman picks a husband they are still picking someone to control them. Isabella compares marriage to a prisoner bribing the guard to be nice to them but not to let them leave the prison. She thinks that even though men are sometimes kind, being a woman is truly miserable and that women buy their owners. She then convinces herself that honesty and love might make it bearable to be married and, apart from being an angel, the best thing for a woman to be is a wife. She thinks that God has managed to make bad things, like poison, useful and somehow keeps humanity’s worst urges at bay. Isabella says hopefully that marriage, even though it’s unnatural, must work out in the end. Then she despairs that this won’t be the case in her marriage.
Marry a fool!
Can there be greater misery to a woman,
That means to keep her days true to her husband
And know no other man, so virtue wills it!
Why, how can I obey and honour him
But I must needs commit idolatry?
A fool is but the image of a man,
And that but ill made as well. Oh the heart-breakings
Of miserable maids, where love’s enforc’d!
The best condition is but bad enough:
When women have their choices, commonly
They do but buy their thraldoms, and bring great portions
To men to keep ’em in subjection;
As if a fearful prisoner should bribe
The keeper to be good to him, yet lies in still,
And glad of a good usage, a good look
Sometimes, by’r lady, no misery surmounts a woman’s.
Men buy their slaves, but women buy their masters.
Yet honesty and love makes all this happy
And, next to angels’, the most blest estate.
That providence, that has made ev’ry poison
Good for some use, and sets four warring elements
At peace in man, can make a harmony
In things that are most strange to human reason.
O but this marriage!
Notes + Translations:
- Thraldoms: captivity
- Portions: dowries
Suggested Direction: This is an aside from early in the play. It gives Isabella the opportunity to talk frankly with the audience and to comment on some of the action. But taken out of context, it’s important to convey that Isabella is being forced to be married and that the husband-to-be is a fool. Play with how far Isabella can go into a hopeless and pleading state before she tries to pull things back to a more resolute and hopeful alternative with “Yet honesty and love..."
"O but this marriage” could in fact be part of that hopefulness, but Middleton probably intended it as a punchline.
RELATED: Are You a Method or Classical Actor?
Who: Alice, early 20s, is talking to Mosby, the man she is having an affair with.
Where: In Arden’s house.
When: Alice and Mosby have been having a passionate affair, even though she is the wife of a respected gentleman while he is "lowly." They believe the only way to continue seeing each other is to have Alice’s husband Arden murdered. But at this point Alice has changed her mind.
What: Alice begins by saying that the pair should stop the affair, else they’ll be trouble. She asks Mosby to forget what’s happened and says she’s now embarrassed of her actions. She wants to go back to how things were before but knows that she can never become an honest wife because Mosby has stolen (“rifled”) that from her and given her family a bad name. She says that Mosby’s common-sounding name is written on her forehead and compares their affair to being bewitched. She thinks that Mosby was only after her money and recounts that she was too in love to believe it before. She commands Mosby not to interrupt, but when he won’t even look at her, Alice realises just how in love with Mosby she still is. She remarks that whatever he says becomes true for her and that she’ll punish herself for offending him, even burning her bible to show she worships no one but him. She threatens to tear every page out of the bible and put his love letters in the cover, promising to study them instead of holy verses. Mosby still doesn’t look at or speak to her, so she asks him if he’s lost the power of speech, sight and hearing. Alice begs him to consider how she has only been nasty to him once and that water that has been disturbed settles again soon enough. She tries to flatter him by saying that he’s not a common man and is worthy of her love on his own merit.
I pray thee, Mosby, let our springtime wither;
Our harvest else will yield but loathsome weeds.
Forget, I pray thee, what hath passed betwixt us,
For now I blush and tremble at the thoughts.
Ay, to my former happy life again;
From title of an odious strumpet’s name
To honest Arden’s wife – not Arden’s honest wife.
Ha, Mosby, ’tis thou hast rifled me of that,
And made me sland’rous to all my kin.
Even in my forehead is thy name engraven,
A mean artificer, that low-born name.
I was bewitched; woe worth the hapless hour
And all the causes that enchanted me!
Ay, now I see, and too soon find it true,
Which often hath been told me by my friends,
That Mosby loves me not but for my wealth,
Which too incredulous I ne’er believed.
Nay, hear me speak, Mosby, a word or two;
I’ll bite my tongue if it speak bitterly.
Look on me Mosby, or I’ll kill myself:
Nothing shall hide me from thy stormy look.
If thou cry war, there is no peace for me;
I will do penance for offending thee,
And burn this prayer book, where I here use
The holy word that had converted me.
See, Mosby, I will tear away the leaves,
Shall thy sweet phrases and they letters dwell;
And thereupon will I chiefly meditate,
And hold no other sect but such devotion.
Wilt thou not look? Is all thy love o’erwhelmed?
Wilt thou not hear? What malice stops thine ears?
Why speaks thou not? What silence ties thy tongue?
Thou hast been sighted as the eagle is,
And heard as quickly as the fearful hare,
And spoke as smoothly as an orator,
When I have bid thee hear, or see, or speak,
And art thou sensible in none of these?
Weigh all thy good turns with this little fault,
And I deserve not Mosby’s muddy looks.
A fount once trouble is not thickened still:
Be clear again, I'll ne’er more trouble thee.
Sweet Mosby is as gentle as a king,
And I too blind to judge him otherwise.
Flowers do sometimes spring in fallow lands,
Weeds in gardens, roses grow on thorns;
So whatso’er my Mosby's father was,
Himself is valued gentle by his worth.
- Rifled: stolen
- Artificer: craftsman, a low or ‘common’ profession
- Sect: religious group
- Sighted: seen
- Fount once troubled: water disturbed
- Fallow: uncultivated
Suggested Direction: Although this speech comes from a dialogue with Mosby, the meaning is still the same. Try and make Alice’s actions clear: to start with her intention to end things with Mosby and then to curse him for having “enchanted” her and finally to repair the relationship once she realises she cannot stop loving him. Consider using a short pause before “Nay, hear me speak” to show Alice assessing the situation and changing her mind. And remember that within all the sections there’s room for lots of colour, especially when Alice uses different tactics to get Mosby to respond. Although Alice is wiley and knows that flattery will work well on the proud Mosby, remember not to “play the lie.” This is a scene where she must fight to keep him on side, not reveal her tricks.
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