I love Shakespeare: I love reading Shakespeare, I love hearing Shakespeare, I love watching Shakespeare, I love costuming Shakespeare, and I love performing Shakespeare. And I know I’m not alone in this—Shakespeare’s work is eminently delightful to tongue and ear, and a great deal of fun to try to bring to life. Before you can perform, however, you need to memorize. And memorizing Shakespeare can seem very daunting!
If you do it right, though, memorizing Shakespeare can be interesting and enjoyable. I’ve memorized several hundred lines of Shakespeare, and in this series of posts I’ll share some pointers on how to memorize both conversations and monologues.
This week’s post is about how to understand Shakespeare and get ready to memorize it. Part 2 will be about memorizing the lines, from dialogue to monologue.
Read and understand
You can’t do a good job performing what you don’t understand. Part of your job as an actor is to interpret the play, to come before your audience with the words and show their meaning. Shakespeare is quite often confusing. However, when the lines are well delivered, the actor can help the audience to understand what they mean. Besides, though it’s possible to memorize by rote without knowing what you’re talking about, you’ll have a much better—and more entertaining—time if you understand what your lines mean!
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On Thursday morning, there was a great deal of smoke in the air—so much smoke that when the sun rose, we could look at it. Not just when the sun’s edge was a golden gem on the horizon, glittering through the trees: when it was half an hour up, we could still look at it, like a dull red light in the grey sky. It was small, strangely and almost frighteningly small, when it was revealed to be only the apparent size of the moon.
But it reminded me of the physiological impossibility Plato describes in the Allegory of the Cave. In this allegory, Plato tells of a people trapped inside a cave, able to see only shadows on the cave’s wall. One of these prisoners is freed, and forced to turn so that he can see the fire and puppets which were making the shadows. At first, though, he is dazzled by the fire, and does not believe that the puppets are half so real as the shadows he has known all his life. Yet despite his resistance, he is brought up out of the cave and into the daylight. Gradually, he is able to see the things of the upper world; shadows first, later things in moonlight, and at last the sunlit world. Then, says Plato,
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Last of all, he would be able to look at the Sun and contemplate its nature, not as it appears when reflected in water or any alien medium, but as it is itself in its own domain.Plato, The Republic, Book VII, trans. Francis MacDonald Cornford