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!
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,
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
According to my mother, there are people who think that, because they have seen the Narnia movies, they do not need to read the books. They know what happened. After all, it’s not as if the White Witch wins in the book, or a major good character dies. Mrs. Beaver does come out better by a sewing machine in the book—but that sort of thing hardly seems important enough to change that once you have watched the movie, you don’t really need to read the book.
Viewing this as very untrue, my brother and I have the opposite problem. While recently watching the movie versions of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, we have never quite suspended our criticism: I think it is part of our Vanderpol Family Pride and the way that we consider ourselves as seeing books. Throughout both movies, we have been commenting to each other, our eyes often meeting as we both react to the same egregious incident—‘That’s not the way it really happened!’ ‘What are the Death Eaters doing? They can’t fly without broomsticks!’ ‘It wasn’t like that!’ ‘The Witch’s castle isn’t that close to the Beavers’ house!’ ‘Peter wouldn’t say that!’ ‘It wasn’t Cho—that was completely unnecessary!’ ‘That definitely—did—not—happen in the book!’ ‘They skipped good stuff there!’ ‘Not polar bears!’
Grandpa Gary recently found a newspaper article which he thought might interest me, an article about an essay contest sponsored by the Nevada County Bar Association. The annual contest is open to all Nevada County high school students. This year’s topic is the separation of powers as framework for freedom, with an emphasis on party affairs. They gave some questions to consider, and on Monday (that being the due date), I set to work on some brainstorming. The prompt page gave some questions to guide essay development, and I tried writing down a short answer to each. When I came back after doing math, there seemed to be most promise in the question about whether our political muddle would be assuaged by reallocating senators based on population.
Eliminating the electoral college or reallocating senators by population would decidedly not help. If we did this, the states wouldn’t all be as represented. The large states would be in control of all the government, leaving the small states with little say. Whatever parties were dominant in them would have the power—it wouldn’t really matter what parties were dominant in small states like Rhode Island.
During the Second Punic War, there was an African king called Masinissa. This king aided the Romans, and when Scipio Africanus had subdued Carthage he allowed Masinissa to add a large part of Africa to his kingdom, Numidia. Masinissa grew old and died, and his son, Micipsa, became king. Micipsa had two sons, Hiempsal and Adherbal, and a nephew, Jugurtha. Though Jugurtha was older than the princes, he was reared with them. Growing into manhood, Sallust writes, he was endowed “with physical strength, a handsome person, but above all with a vigorous intellect.” Racing with his fellows, “although he surpassed them all in renown, he nevertheless won the love of all.” In hunting, “he distinguished himself greatly, but spoke little of his own exploits.” Seeing how much the people loved Jugurtha, the king grew to fear for his own sons. As Numidia now needed to aid Rome with wars in Spain, Micipsa decided to send Jugurtha as the leader of the Numidian force. In Spain, Jugurtha would probably “fall a victim either to a desire to display his valor or to the ruthless foe.”
“Come in,” said the Bishop.Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, pages 85 and 86
The door opened. A singular and violent group made its appearance on the threshold. Three men were holding a fourth man by the collar. The three men were gendarmes; the other was Jean Valjean.
“Ah! here you are!” he exclaimed, looking at Jean Valjean. “I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get two hundred francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?”
Jean Valjean opened his eyes wide, and stared at the venerable Bishop with an expression which no human tongue can render any account of.
Jean Valjean stole the bishop’s silver while the bishop’s guest. In the morning, he is arrested and brought back to the bishop. And before Valjean is even accused of stealing the silverware, the bishop gives the thief silver candlesticks as well.
This of the bishop’s is assuredly a very unjust act.
True, the Lord says: “But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” (Matthew 5:39-41). But isn’t this a direction for behavior in the face of adversity—not of restitution?
‘Do you ever visit a farm,’ I asked Mom, ‘and get the feeling that you know how to do nothing of any use whatsoever?’
‘I was just thinking about that,’ she said. ‘I’ve read Wendell Berry, and that counts for—exactly nothing.’
We were in the car on Lazy Valley Ranch, in between the barn where you got registered and directed and the u-pick blueberry patch. I don’t know what parts of the surroundings went together, but it was the overall effect that was important to us. The blue-and-white buildings looked practical and aged. A large open shed overflowed with rusty pieces of what, perhaps not having eyes to see with at a brief glance, I can only call junk. More-or-less dry fields held horses, cows, a donkey, and an emu. Another field had several large pieces of equipment in it and hay bales scattered through it. The vehicles looked long and well used. And we felt like unnecessary and inferior city mice.
I’m reading Hannah Coulter right now, Mom just reread it and is reading some of Wendell Berry’s essays, and we’ve both recently read an interview with Berry in the CiRCE Institute’s FORMA magazine. Part of the message we’re getting is about the value and usefulness of small farms, and—in some ways—the unnecessariness or less-wholeness of sophisticated modern ways of life. Going to Lazy Valley Ranch, this farm which looked like something out of Wendell Berry, brought our reading and considering into a new proximity. I at least felt ashamed of being in the Tahoe there among those rusty vehicles, as if it were a faux pas of some sort (though Mom pointed out that that’s rather funny, as many Americans would look distinctly down at our chunky 2005 eight-seater).
“Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire,” the gold casket says. “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves,” says the silver casket. “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he has,” says the lead casket. (II.VII, 5,7,9) The portrait of Portia, a beautiful and wealthy young noblewoman, lies in one of these caskets; if a suitor picks that casket, he weds her, but if he choose another, he must forswear marriage forever. Besides finding Portia’s husband, the caskets illustrate different ways – gilded but false, or true as a plumbed line – of looking at love.
Not all great men are good men: and as portrayed by Shakespeare in the play which bears his name, Richard III illustrates this excellently. In his first speech, laying out the setting of the play, Richard declares his intention “to prove a villain” and calls himself “subtle, false, and treacherous” (I.I, 30; 37). But this is only for the audience: when he interacts with the other characters, Richard wears a mask of plainness, gentleness, and honest loyalty—as he says, “I … seem a saint when most I play the devil.” (I.II, 337). He can lie, deceive, and murder his way into near-absolute power without blinking an eye except to shed hypocritical tears. He is skillfull and poised, walking, when he needs to, a knife’s edge such as that he dares when he bids Anne tell him to kill himself. By his own and the world’s standards, he is very successful; enough, I think, that he can be termed a great, if not a verily great, man.
After following Henry V with some of Shakespeare’s sonnets, we read King Lear in my class through Roman Roads Media. I was assigned a “reading response” to each of these—I’ve posted the one about Henry V. The guideline about length is to make our responses 400-500 words long, and I had a hard time bringing my piece about the sonnets up to that. Once I’d found my subject(s) about King Lear, though, I had the opposite problem… I had to keep pruning comments and quotes I wanted to include, and if you subtract the words counted for line citations and count words typed like “[S]erve” as one word, this comes to exactly 500 words!
Besides the Fool, whose task is providing pithy commentary, there are three types of significant characters in King Lear: the all-out good, such as Cordelia, Kent, and Edgar; the all-out evil, such as Edmund, Goneril, and Regan; and those who intend good but do not properly use authority and/or discernment – Lear, Albany, and Gloucester.
You cannot get rid of Cordelia, Kent, or Edgar, no matter how hard you try. Disown them. Dismiss them. Put bounties on their heads. They’re coming back. These characters are the Christ-figures in the play, people who come back to those whom they love, even after being rejected, as God keeps coming back to us. “[S]erve where thou dost stand condemn’d,” Kent tells himself, mentioning “thy master, whom thou lov’st.” (I.IV, 5,6)