10 Helpful Tips for Performing Shakespeare (for Beginners)
Written by Ashleigh Gardner
May 20, 2016
Performing a Shakespearean piece for class or for an audition? We’ve compiled a list of 10 tips for beginners to get you started with The Bard.
1. Read the whole play.
You should always read the entire play to understand the context of the monologue or scene you’re performing. If you’re doing the play for your high school or college, then you have to read the whole thing. It’s essential to know why you’re saying the things you’re saying and how your character understands, interacts, and thinks of other characters and situations. Additionally, sometimes Shakespeare’s plots can be confusing, so the more you know about the play, the more you’ll be able to understand (and perhaps teach others) about your show.
2. Familiarize yourself with iambic pentameter.
Sounds scary? Like everything you learn for the first time, it can be. BUT! Once you understand the system, it’s pain-free. Iambic pentameter is a line of verse with five metrical feet, each consisting of one short (or unstressed) syllable followed by one long (or stressed) syllable. Count the syllables in each line. Usually, every line will be ten syllables, but sometimes there will be more or fewer, and this suggests how the line could be delivered. If there are fewer than 10 syllables, you might say the line slower with more intention; if there are more than 10 syllables, you might say the line more quickly and with more urgency. This is just a starting point with iambic pentameter, but try it out and see how it feels. Sometimes Shakespeare’s lines will be written in prose. In that case, don’t worry about iambic pentameter!
3. Learn about Shakespeare’s punctuation.
Just like we use texting shorthand to communicate with each other, Shakespeare used punctuation to give his actors hints about how they should read a line. Below is a list of the differences between how we use punctuation today and how Shakespeare probably intended his punctuation to be used.
- Period – full stop with extra emphasis; the sentence and thought comes to a complete halt
- Comma – indicates a shift in thought, but also a place to take a breath
- Colon – an indication of a new thought arising; the character is taking a new direction with their intention
- Semicolon – an indication that the next line will be an explanation of the thought that precedes the semicolon
4. Don’t stop at the end of a line unless there is a period!
I’m not kidding. Directors who have been trained in Shakespeare will yell at you (lovingly) if you stop at the end of a line when there is no period. Even though it looks like the sentence stops, keep reading into the next line below it. For example, see the line from Hamlet below.
“Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a
breeder of sinners?”
…should be read like this:
“Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?”
5. Don’t know a word? Look it up!
In addition to being some of the greatest literature in the English language, Shakespeare’s plays contain an extremely broad variety of vocabulary. Shakespeare oftentimes uses archaic language in his verse — “archaic” meaning “very old or old-fashioned.” It’s okay if you don’t immediately know what a word means. That’s what dictionaries and the internet are for. You’ll be better read just by performing his work!
6. Learn to paraphrase.
Sometimes Shakespeare looks daunting, but once you understand his texts, you’ll be better equipped to deliver the lines. Paraphrasing is an exercise where you take Shakespeare’s flowery language and reword it, line by line, into how you would express that particular statement today. For example, take “Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” and paraphrase it into, “Why would you want to give birth to more people who contribute to crime and hatred?” Also, often mistakenly referred to as “translating” Shakespeare, paraphrasing doesn’t force you to overcome a foreign language barrier. Shakespearean verse (and prose) is in a class of English called Early Modern English. Even though the style of writing is different, Shakespeare writes in your language — Modern English! (Not the band.)
7. Get your hands on a copy of the First Folio.
Whether you find this text in a free digital form or you check it out from that mysterious place called…the library…this text will give you a look inside how Shakespeare originally wrote his plays — for the ear. To encourage his actors to emphasize certain words or say them in a particular way, Shakespeare spelled words differently in different contexts depending on how he wanted them pronounced. For example, in Act III of the First Folio in Julius Caesar, Mark Antony says, “let slip the Dogges of Warre.” In this case, Shakespeare wanted extra emphasis placed on the words that would usually be spelled “dogs of war.” Try saying the two lines out loud. “Let slip the dogs of war” to “Let slip the Dogges of Warre.” Hear the difference?
8. Warm up your voice.
You’re going to be doing a lot of talking when you perform Shakespeare. Verbose 98% of the time, Shakespeare’s characters do a lot of talking because that’s the style that Shakespeare liked to use. (You’ll not find a lot of Mamet-esque dialogue in a play by The Bard.) Do vocal warm-ups that use the full range of your voice from high-pitched (in the head) to low-pitched (in the chest and stomach). In addition, along with warming up your voice so that you can bring out the vocal musicality of the language, make sure you use your breath support so that you project. Project, project, project! Audiences who aren’t familiar with Shakespeare need to hear every single word you’re saying, so make sure those sounds reach their ears.
9. Do those diction exercises!
Essential for every show, not just Shakespeare, diction exercises help your mouth prepare to hit those hard consonants at the end of words: k’s, g’s, t’s, and d’s. When you perform Shakespeare, if you don’t hit your consonants, your words will sound like a jumbled, mooshy mess and no one will understand you. Let them hear those beautiful words! Crisp those t’s! Hit those k’s! Your words will flow from your mouth in a river of magical, iridescent, sparkling awesomeness and your audience will be enraptured by your skill and expertise with enunciation.
10. Have fun!
Shakespeare isn’t supposed to be boring. His work covers a broad range of human emotions and experiences that we feel and live every day: love, hate, revenge, jealousy, friendship, joy, betrayal, mischievousness, longing, elation, hope. In every line, find at least one sentence you can find the fun in saying, whether you’re the villain or the hero. When you find the parts of Shakespeare you like, you’ll appreciate his work more and you’ll understand your character better.
Below is Hamlet’s monologue from Act III, Scene 2 of Hamlet. If you want, you can practice and apply some of the tips above.
Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to
you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it,
as many of your players do, I had as lief the
town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air
too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently;
for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say,
the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget
a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it
offends me to the soul to hear a robustious
periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to
very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who
for the most part are capable of nothing but
inexplicable dumbshows and noise: I would have such
a fellow whipped for o’erdoing Termagant; it
out-herods Herod: pray you, avoid it.
Ashleigh Gardner received her AA in Theatre/Drama/Dramatic Arts from Valencia College and her Bachelors Degree in English Literature and Masters Degree in Literary, Cultural, and Textual Studies from the University of Central Florida. She is a playwright and a Shakespearean trained actor.
Thumbnail and banner image: Edwin Landseer, Scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Titania and Bottom, 1851, National Gallery of Victoria.