Preparing for Your First Shakespeare Performance

audience watching theater play

Shakespearean plays have graced countless stages around the world, from historic theaters to school auditoriums, and even parks. So, it is important for thespians to learn how to perform Shakespeare. Whether you are using one of The Bard’s monologues or are already rehearsing for a role, let his own words guide you on how to perform Shakespeare for the first time.

“Give it an understanding” ‘Hamlet’ (1601) act 1, scene 2, line 249

When reading Shakespeare, the dated language is a major hurdle. A lot of the words may seem unfamiliar, and tons of phrases make no sense in the context of today’s English. However, it is paramount that you understand the language of Shakespeare’s time to express it accordingly.

Consult an Oxford dictionary for every unfamiliar word, and get a copy of the play that puts the original text side by side with its modern day translation. Watch a performance of the play or a movie adaptation to gather insight on the story and characters’ motivations. You can also consult online resources like No Fear Shakespeare or Wikipedia for summaries and modern day translations.

“Speak the speech… as I pronounced it to you ‘Hamlet’ (1601) act 3, scene 2, line 1

Shakespeare used punctuation to signal his actors on how to deliver each line. Lines without punctuation gather momentum and energy, so you should not pause at the end of a line unless there is a punctuation. Below is a list of how The Bard intended his punctuations to be read:

The comma (,) is a short pause for the speaker to take a breath. Used infrequently, it indicates a shift in the line of thought, but builds up emotional intensity when used repetitively. Commas splitting the lines into snappy chunks is Shakespeare’s way of telling you to invest in the dialogue, and escalate the rhythmic intensity.

A period (.) signals that the sentence or thought comes to a close. The energy of the speech comes to a complete halt with added emphasis, before proceeding to the next lines.

A colon (:) indicates that the phrase that follows has to sound like a response to the phrase preceding the colon, as in the first line of Hamlet’s soliloquy “To be, or not to be: that is the question.”

“Suit the action to the word, the word to the action” ‘Hamlet’ (1601) act 3, scene 2, line 19

audience watching

Shakespearean works are a celebration of language; that is why Chekovian glances and Pinter pauses are unnecessary. The verbs give the sense of movement, so these are the words that you should stress most in your speech and actions. Simpler movements are better. The Bard’s language is so rich, that if the audience has to watch you move in every beat and gesture on every line, your words and actions compete against each other for attention.

Shakespeare uses every tool of language and speech at his disposal, down to each letter. Consonants express thought, and vowels stand for emotion, making a line rich in consonants more cerebral. Compare Richard III’s “Now is the winter of our discontent” to the long, heavy consonants of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be.” Richard’s line as a more stoic tone, while Hamlet sounds more emotional and even distraught. The sounds are the tools that carve up the performance, so use the language to inform your execution.

Do not fret your hour upon the stage. You will never be like a dull actor now that you know how to perform Shakespeare. So, come, sit down, every mother’s son, and rehearse your parts.

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