6 Steps to Memorizing Shakespeare

Written by Ashleigh Gardner

February 2, 2017

Everyone has had issues memorizing Shakespeare at one time or another, so we’re here to help you through the process of branding the Bard’s words into your brain! (How’s that for alliteration?) Below is a 6-step process you can follow any time you find yourself seeking a solution to the ultimate challenge — memorizing Shakespearean verse.

1. Understand and appreciate what you’re memorizing!

Most of the time, Shakespeare seems difficult because the language he uses isn’t the language you use today. That fact alone can hinder your memorization. First, make sure you understand the lines. Do this by paraphrasing the words Shakespeare wrote. Figure out how you would say “Get thee to a nunnery!” Me? I’d say, “Get lost! Hole yourself up in a convent!” Second, appreciate the words you’re saying. What is your character feeling that would make them say the words they’re speaking?

2. Do your scansion exercises.

“Scansion” is a word you’ll hear all the time when you’re performing Shakespeare. It’s a process of scanning a line of verse to understand its rhythm. Shakespeare’s verse follows the rhythm of iambic pentameter. An “iamb” is a two-syllable “foot” (group of syllables). “Pentameter” means “five feet”. Therefore, most of Shakespeare’s lines are written with five iambs, or ten syllables (5 x 2 = 10). This helps you understand which words to stress above others. However, lines that are in prose are not scanned…because they aren’t written in verse! (For a great example of scanned Shakespeare, go here to see how it works.)

3. Understand Shakespeare’s punctuation.

Like figuring out hidden codes? Shakespeare left clues for the actor in his punctuation! The short guide below will help you through periods, commas, colons, and semicolons.

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. Write down the first letter of every word.

A tool that often helps actors, even in shows that aren’t Shakespearean, is writing down the first letter of every word of every line you have. For example, “To be, or not to be; that is the question” would be T B, O N T B; T I T Q. (I suggest including punctuation to help with keeping your pauses consistent.)

5. Memorize lines in chunks instead of running through the script.

Trying to run through an entire script in full can be exhausting. Instead, memorize your lines scene by scene. And if the scene is enormous, cut your memorization blocks down to three lines at a time.

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, an actor, and PerformerStuff.com’s Editor.