How to Memorize Shakespeare: Part 2

This post is part of a series on memorizing Shakespeare.  Last week, we talked about getting ready to memorize—how to understand what Shakespeare means and how to pronounce it.  Next week, we’ll discuss practicing Shakespeare and getting ready to perform.

At this point, you should have read your part over aloud a few times, and you should have a fair idea of what it means.  Now it’s time to memorize!

Memorizing conversation

The main thing here is speaking aloud and repetition, plus repetition and repetition.

Let’s imagine that you want to memorize Hamlet’s part in Hamlet I.ii.  Your first few lines will come in this chunk of dialogue:

KING.
But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son—

HAMLET.
[Aside.] A little more than kin, and less than kind.

KING.
How is it that the clouds still hang on you?

HAMLET.
Not so, my lord, I am too much i’ the sun.

QUEEN.
Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust.
Thou know’st ’tis common, all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.

HAMLET.
Ay, madam, it is common.

Going over this scene before memorizing, you’ll have observed several things here.  Among them, Hamlet’s mother and stepfather/uncle are asking him to stop wearing black clothes in mourning for his father; Gertude’s vailed is pronounced vailéd; and Hamlet says that he is too much ih (meaning in) the sun.

Since you aren’t the initial speaker in the scene, you’ll need to remember what your first prompt is.  This is easy here: King Claudius finishes some business, turns toward you, and says, “But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son—”  When your speeches are interspersed with one- or two-liners by others, you’ll probably find it easiest to remember their speeches verbatim.  You don’t have to worry as much about word-for-word accuracy as in your own speeches, though.

So you’ll read that, and then you’ll read your speech, which is aside—a term meaning that you’re speaking just to one or two of the other characters, or, as in this case, to the audience or yourself.  “A little more than kin, and less than kind,” you’ll say.  Read it a few times.  Then turn away from your script and repeat the line.  Look back, and see if you got it right.  Either way, look away again and repeat it again.  (If necessary, you can break it up—start by remembering “A little more than kin.”  Once you’ve got that, add “and less than kind.”)  Just say the line a few times.  Then say Claudius’s line, which is your prompt, and your own line after it.

Next, Claudius asks you a question: “How is it that the clouds still hang on you?”  Learn this, too, because conversations make more sense (and are easier to remember) with both parts in them.  Your next line is “Not so, my lord, I am too much i’ the sun.”  Memorize it like you did your last line: say it aloud, look away, say it again, look back, say it a few times more.

Now, go over all of what you’ve worked on so far.  Say “ ‘But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son—’ ‘A little more than kin, and less than kind.’ ‘How is it that the clouds still hang on you?’ ‘Not so, my lord, I am too much i’ the sun.’ ”  Congratulations!  You’ve just memorized and recited four lines of Shakespearean dialogue.  Keep going through the scene, and don’t forget to recite your earlier lines every so often.  It would be a pity if you forgot the beginning of the scene by the time you reached the end of it!

Yes, you will be saying the same things a lot of times.  But remember that boredom is a decision!  Just try to get it right, and know that you don’t have to get everything completely perfect immediately.

When you reach a longer speech by someone else, I recommend summarizing it in a few words of modern English.  So when Gertrude says

Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust.
Thou know’st ’tis common, all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.

You can say “Stop wearing black.  It’s common for everybody to die,” and continue to your next line—“Ay, madam, it is common.”  (Remember from Part 1: this is Aye, madam, not A, madam.)

However, you yourself will most likely have speeches interspersed with your dialogue, which leads to the next section:

Memorizing speeches

Maybe you have a few four- or six-line speeches; maybe you’ve landed a thirty-line monologue.  Either way, you’ll want to memorize each speech on its own, then set it into the dialogue around it.  (This same method works for memorizing any poetry, from John Donne to Luci Shaw.)

To be fair, this isn’t really a different method—the way to memorize longer speeches, like anything else, is speaking aloud, repeating, repeating, and repeating.  However, it does look a little different in practise, so I’m giving it its own step.

After Hamlet’s “Ay, madam, it is common,” Gertrude says “If it be, / Why seems it so particular with thee?”  Hamlet’s response is his first longer speech of the play:

Seems, madam! Nay, it is; I know not seems.
Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forc’d breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected haviour of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shows of grief,
That can denote me truly. These indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play;
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

Read this over aloud.  Get comfortable with the words.  Then read the first line alone out loud a few times.  “Seems, madam!  Nay, it is; I know not seems.”  Just like you’ve been doing with the one-liners, close your eyes or turn away, and say it again.  Look back to check if you’ve gotten it right.  Say it again either way.

Then add the next line: “Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,” and get it well fixed in your head.  Then say both together—“Seems, madam!  Nay, it is; I know not seems. / Tis not my inky cload alone, good mother,” and try them together a few times.  Add the next line in the same way.

You don’t need to recite the whole thing after getting every line.  As you memorize, you’ll find that a speech falls into chunks, and you can practice a few lines at a time as you add more.  But don’t forget to practise the whole thing!

Check to your text every so often and make sure that what you’ve memorized is actually accurate.  I’ve memorized well over a thousand lines of poetry across the last ten years, and I still find that I’ve gotten things stuck into my head wrong.

I wish you good luck memorizing: and I’ll be back next week with some tips on what to do between memorization and performance!

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